Where is God When Bad Things Happen? – Part 3

By: Dr. John Ankerberg with Dr. Erwin Lutzer; ©2011
You have to ask yourself, in the world that we see, the tsunami, the Katrina hurricane and all of the devastation and the people that died as well as the people that were forced to leave their homes, if God is in charge—and the Bible says that He is—is He responsible?)

Dr. John Ankerberg: We are talking with Dr. Erwin Lutzer, pastor of Moody Memorial Church in Chicago. And we are talking about his new book, Where was God? Answers to Tough Questions About God and Natural Disasters. It is a key question. You have to ask yourself, in the world that we see, the tsunami taking over 200,000 lives, the Katrina hurricane and all of the devastation and the people that died as well as the people that were forced to leave their homes, if God is in charge—and the Bible says that He is—is He responsible? We are talking about those kinds of questions.

And, Erwin, I want to come and give you a direct question in this program. After Hurricane Katrina, mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans made this statement. He said, “Surely God is mad at America. He sent us hurricane after hurricane and it has destroyed and put stress on this country.” Was the mayor right or was he wrong?

Dr. Erwin Lutzer: Well, John, that is an excellent question, but it needs to be unpacked and analyzed a little bit. I would hate to say just yes or no; but let’s talk about that. Let’s ask the question of whether or not the natural disasters are judgments. You know, it is interesting. In the 13th chapter of Luke, Jesus said this regarding a tower which was south of Jerusalem near the Siloam Well. He said, “Those eighteen men upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and they died, were they greater sinners than other sinners in Jerusalem? I tell you no. But unless you shall repent you will likewise perish.”

Now, let’s thinks about it. What Jesus is saying, and this is certainly true in the New Testament, is that natural disasters should not be interpreted in such a way as to say that the wicked get the natural disasters but the righteous don’t. That would be a wrong analysis. For example, I am sure that when Katrina happened there were true believers there who loved Jesus Christ with all of their hearts who died. Nowadays when natural disasters come, whether it is the tsunami, whether it is Katrina, tornadoes, the righteous die with the wicked. They die together.

So now let’s ask the question, are they really then judgments of God? Because, after all, there are some people who say if they are, just the wicked should be targeted. The answer to that question is, yes, they are judgments of God, even though righteous die with the wicked. The fact that we die as believers is a judgment of God regarding sin, because the soul that sins, it shall die.

So what we need to do is to say, yes, absolutely, natural disasters are judgments. Do they separate the righteous from the wicked? Does this mean that New Orleans is a city with more sin than Los Angeles, or I should say perhaps Las Vegas? The answer is no. We can’t make those kinds of judgments.

Now let’s get to the mayor’s question: Is God mad at America? The Bible says in Romans 1 that “The wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness, the unrighteousness of men.” It goes on to talk about sexual sins and all kinds of other sins, the wrath of God is revealed. In one sense, yes, there is such a thing as a national judgment. Perhaps we could say in a qualified way God was judging all of America.

In fact, America right now is under judgment because of other reasons. It says in the book of Deuteronomy, God said to Israel, “When you turn from me, your families are going to be split up; children are going to be weeping for their mothers.” Think about how that is happening today in America with the break up of the family. We’ve accepted immorality and along with it divorce and abuse and all of the other things that come with it. So already, yes, there is a sense in which we are nationally under the judgment of God.

But let’s keep in mind also that there are many believers in America and in other countries of the world who love God, who are serving God, with whom God is well pleased. So we need to make that distinction. But at the same time, yes, those believers who are representing God well and living righteously, they may also die in a natural disaster. So that is the way in which we need to parse that particular question.

Ankerberg: Yes, it is an interesting thing, because I am sure that you have ridden on a plane, and sometimes Christians have told me, if I am on a plane with them therefore that plane isn’t going down. But the fact is, other Christian leaders have been on planes with a lot of Christian people and the plane has gone down. And so this thing that Jesus is talking about, one of the lessons that we can learn is that we shouldn’t judge and say, “Because those people died they are bigger sinners than these people.” No, just like the sun and the rain come on both the godly and the ungodly, it happens in terms of disasters.

Lutzer: And let’s pick up some other lessons. In fact, maybe we could do that. We could talk about some of the lessons of the natural disasters. Notice this: “Unless you repent, you shall likewise perish.” What is Jesus saying? He is saying that natural disasters, or a disaster such as a tower falling, and even the Twin Towers in New York falling, as far as that is concerned, when we see these tremendous tragedies that are happening in the world, they remind us that unless we repent they are a preview of a future coming judgment.

And that is why natural disasters will accompany the return of the Lord; signs in the heaven, in the moon. In the book of Revelation we have huge hailstones pounding this earth. Natural disasters will be seen to be God’s judgment. And unless we repent, we shall perish, not in exactly the same way, but we also will die and be judged violently.

So when you look at what happened at New Orleans, what people should have been saying is, “Dealing with God is very serious business because this is a preview of a coming judgment. And unless we repent, we are all going to end in disaster.”

Ankerberg: Let’s take another angle at this. In our world right now we have terrorist attacks, we have hurricanes, we have tornadoes, we have floods, we have natural disasters that are taking place that maybe some of the folks that are listening right now are involved in, or have had people, relatives, that are involved in them, or who are just watching them on television. Let’s talk some more about the lessons that we can learn from scripture. Because scripture is God’s revelation to us that is giving us glimpses of His hidden purposes. And besides the fact that the natural disasters can happen randomly, and it is not because people are good or bad, it is because we are all under God’s judgment and God is bringing these things into being and allowing them to happen. Another thing is that there is an equaling effect that comes out of natural disaster. Talk about that.

Lutzer: Well, it is the clarification of values. You know, I quote someone in my book that said that when Katrina happened nobody was running down the street saying, “I lost my golf clubs; I lost my golf clubs or my plasma TV.” What were they talking about? “I lost my mother, my father, a child.” Suddenly you begin to see things so differently. The things we value in life become so unimportant in relationship to life itself. Suddenly you find people praying. People who haven’t prayed for a long time begin to realize that eternity is coming. And so natural disasters have a way in which suddenly what is important is taken away from us and our values are clarified. And for the Christian what it really shows is that there is no treasure as great as knowing Jesus. Everything can be taken away, but at the end of the day we have Jesus.

Ankerberg: Yes, I like what you said: “Tragedy also divides time and eternity, this world from the next.” People get a new glimpse about what is really important about eternity.

Lutzer: And then the words of Jesus come to mind: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?” Natural disasters can take everything from us. What they cannot do is take from us Jesus, with whom we will be forever if we have come to trust Him.

Ankerberg: Alright, what we are talking about is, if God is all loving, all powerful, then why do we see hurricanes and natural disasters? If He really is in charge, and the Bible says that He is in charge, then is God to blame? Is He responsible? And in order to answer that question and to help us get a grip on the overall program of God, we have got to talk about, is this the best of all possible worlds? No, but this is the best of all possible worlds to get us to the best possible world. And what happened is that God didn’t want automatons in His universe. He wanted to give us a free choice. And we used that choice, and it brought consequences. And God is allowing those consequences. So we have this free choice, and part of it is now we have a sin problem, Erwin. And there are consequences to this and it is reflected in both nature as well as in man, the good and the bad. Talk about that.

Lutzer: Well, yes, that is interesting. It is based on the 8th chapter of Romans where it says that when man sinned, nature fell. When man is going to be redeemed and exalted, nature is going to catch up with man and enter into the redemption of God’s children. But, meanwhile, what this teaches is that there is a relationship between the fallenness of nature and sin. So when you look at Katrina, you should say, “This is what sin looks like.” When you look at the devastation of a tsunami, you should say, “This is what sin looks like.”

And natural disasters expose the human heart. At Katrina, I am told that as people began to come to the city after the waters receded, that the streets were filled with pornography, which really reveals what people had in their homes. But it also reveals the human heart. On the one hand you find people who were shooting at others. And I am not talking about the looters that were trying to find food for their families. I am talking about people shooting at the helicopters. I am talking about the kind of things that happened in the Superdome where you saw human nature exposed. Just like when the levees break, you have all this devastation, when the restraints of society are gone the human heart is evil and it is wicked and it comes to the surface. On the other hand, you see that we are also “good” people. I put the word good in quotes. You had rescuers who were thanked and honored for being able to risk their own lives to save others. But that is the nature of devastation, John. It reveals the sinfulness, the heart of man, and whatever is inside ultimately shows on the outside.

Ankerberg: Let’s piggyback on that. I think a great insight that you brought out in the book is that God, who is in charge of disasters and allows them to come about and is ultimately responsible, says, “Yes, they are going to happen; but when they do happen I also command you as Christians to get involved and to work to rectify the situation.” It is part of the situation of free choice, the consequences that come. And God working with the overall situation. But talk about this thing: that Christians are to get involved.

Lutzer: Yes, we are. You know Luther had a good word on that. When the plague came to Wittenberg the question that Christians asked was this, “Is it okay if we flee the plague?” He wrote an article on that topic. And Luther said in effect, if I remember correctly, “Well, if you think you have to go, then go. But if you stay around and help and if you die in the process, you die doing God’s will.” You die, you see, fighting sin. And ultimately we are in God’s hands, not the hands of disease. Or we could say, not in the hands of natural disasters.

I think it is wonderful that at Katrina, when that happened, even the secular press had to admit that it is the churches that stepped in to do what FEMA could never do. In fact, there are still people working along the Gulf Coast there trying to help people rebuild their homes and so forth, who are doing it at personal sacrifice because they are helping others. Because on the one hand you have this devastation which is brought on by God, but on the other hand we are commanded in scripture to fight nature and to do what we can to make this world a better place.

Ankerberg: Another lesson that you talk about that we learn from natural disasters is that life is uncertain.

Lutzer: Very uncertain.

Ankerberg: We don’t have it fixed, we don’t have it pegged. We can’t say we are going to be around tomorrow. Talk to that point, James 1.

Lutzer: Yes, your life is here today and it is gone tomorrow. You know, I am reminded, I use the story in the book about some people who left California because they were afraid of earthquakes. They moved to Missouri and died in a tornado. You just can’t get away from death. C.S. Lewis was right; the statistics are very impressive—it is one out of one. We all know that; but what we don’t know is the moment that God has ordained for us to die. And natural disasters remind us that life is so uncertain. We can plan for tomorrow, but only say “if God wills.” There are people who are listening to this broadcast today, John, who very probably will not be alive this time next week. Very sobering.

Ankerberg: Yes. Talk about self-delusion, and let’s hook up to the illustration that you had about the Titanic.

Lutzer: Well, self-delusion. You know, I think of the story that Jesus told about the rich man who had all of these things and yet he ended up being in Hades; and Lazarus, if you remember, the poor man, ended up in heaven. What Jesus was trying to show is the reversal of values. Rich people here on earth may lose everything and yet they end up in judgment, whereas the poor may end up in righteousness. Not because whether we are good or poor determines whether we get to heaven, but eternity has such a different value system.

But you mentioned the Titanic. Of course, we all know the story of the ship. More than 1,500 people went down into the icy waters. But, you know, when news reached England, of course people were concerned about their relatives. Were they dead or alive? So I am told that they had two huge boards and they put up names. On one side it said, “Known to be saved,” and on the other side, “Known to be lost.” And so relatives would come there and they would watch to see which side the names of their particular friend or relative. They would look for that name and they would ask themselves, under what column.

You know, John, I think that that is a great example of something. That the day is going to come when, even if we don’t die in a natural disaster on the earth, though natural disasters are coming—huge ones are still coming according to scripture—no matter how we die, at the end of the day the real question is, will we be in the saved column or will we be in the lost column? And the way we lived, what we believed, what we believed is going to be very, very important.

Ankerberg: How can people get into the saved column? What is that all about?

Lutzer: Well, the Bible says very clearly that “As many as received Christ to those He gives the authority to become the children of God.” In fact, I would like to talk to those of you who may be watching us. I need to plead with you, because the Bible is very clear that God is a God of wrath and anger. I know we don’t like to hear that in today’s world, but that’s true. But the good news is this: that Jesus absorbed the wrath of God for those who trust Him and believe on Him. It is like finding a shelter in the midst of the storm. No matter where you are at, no matter what you have done, no matter your past, Jesus is a real savior for real sinners. And I greatly encourage you to believe in Him right now.

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