Upon hearing that two conservative religious leaders had blamed last week's terrorist attacks on the judgment of God, a pastor friend of mine said he couldn't speculate because he "wasn't invited by God to those meetings."
Still, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell raised some important questions about the way we live. They just didn't ask enough. Neither are they the first to connect temporal events to divine retribution. Abraham Lincoln said that the Civil War came because of slavery and because America had "forgotten God" and was "intoxicated with unbroken success...too proud to pray to the God who made us." Alexander Solzhenitsyn said communism strangled the Soviet Union for seven decades because his people had "forgotten God."
To the extent that disasters, whether natural or instigated by man, lead people to examine themselves and re-order their lives in ways that good comes from evil, even the horror of last week can be redemptive and innocent people will not have died in vain.
There is a problem, though, when a single event is considered the tripwire that brings God's judgment. Falwell and Robertson agree that abortion, homosexuality, liberalism, the ACLU and People for the American Way have ticked off the Almighty. Yet, God has far more to say in Scripture about inattention to the poor, lying, gossip and even divorce (which He says He "hates"). Why wouldn't any, or all, of these sins make God at least as fed-up?
There are people who believe that America is a special nation, chosen by God above all others for unique blessing. That is idolatry. There is only one nation with which God ever had a special relationship and that is ancient Israel. In Isaiah 40, God says he views all nations as "a drop in a bucket," "less than nothing" and "dust on the scales," a statement that is cause for humility, not ecclesiastical jingoism.
There are other questions. When the Apostle Paul visited the ancient city of Corinth, unbridled immorality prevailed. The worship of Aphrodite fostered prostitution in the name of religion. At one time, according to notes in the New International Version of the Bible, "One thousand prostitutes served her temple." Were not such lifestyles sufficient for God to send a meteorite to smash the city? Instead, in the midst of such wickedness, God sent not judgment but His Son in the greatest act of love ever recorded. "Even while we were yet sinners," the record says, God sent Jesus to die for us. (Romans 5:8)
While that same record also tells of a final judgment in which everyone will have to stand before God, and while it also warns of the immediate consequences of sin - from physical disease to emotional distress to death - that same record also says that "God is not willing that any should perish" but that all would come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9).
God would have spared ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from judgment for only 10 righteous men (Genesis 18:32). Do those who believe the terrorist attacks were the judgment of God think there were fewer than 10 righteous people in New York City and at the Pentagon when those planes struck?
While God allows bad things to happen, it is His nature to do only good and to bring good out of evil. How do I know this? Was I "in on the meetings"? No. Psalm 5:4 says, "You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil..." Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers - yet became Pharaoh's right-hand man and supplier of grain to the starving - said to them, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." (Genesis 45)
In Genesis 18:25, Abraham is pleading for the lives of the people of Sodom. While negotiating with God to spare that great city, he says something important about God's character that those who believe He has judged America by terrorist acts might wish to consider: "Far be it from you to do such a thing - to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike...Will not the judge of all the earth do right?"
Indeed He will. Evil exists but God is not its author. The world is broken and bad things happen. But God has provided a way for mere humans to be repaired if we heed His voice.
As for the world, well, He's got that in His hands.