Friday, March 18, 2011

The Christchurch and Japanese Earthquakes: the judgment of God?

How do we as Christians interpret these events? Are they God's direct judgment on the cities and/or nations involved, or are they just things that happen in a fallen world?

There seem two general schools of thought on this out there. There is a very common school of thought that the recent earthquakes are a direct judgment of God on Christchurch and NZ and Japan. A friend told me of one of his friends who went to a meeting at which all the pastors involved thought so. They tend to see how such things happened in the OT where events were seen as directly caused by God because of Israel's or the nations sins. One of the best examples is Amos 4:6-13 where God brought successive disasters upon Israel to cause them to repent including famine, drought, blight and mildew, pestilence, defeat etc. Israel did not repent, and so were destroyed by exile.

Other Christians think that Jesus ended all this sort of direct linkage between personal or the corporate sin of a nation or city and judgement. Jesus took the judgment of sin upon himself and now the bad stuff that happens should not be interpreted this way, but seen as a result of sin in a general sense; the whole world under destruction, sin and suffering (Rom 8:19-23). As such, God has taken suffering upon himself, and is with us in our sufferings. This view sees suffering not through the lens of God's direct intervention or non-intervention, but as a result of sin and evil corrupting God's world. God is with us in it grieving with and in us, and to strengthen and give us hope.

So who has it right?

There are at least three NT situations that suggest that God in the age after Christ acts in judgment. The first is the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 66-70 which Jesus foretold (see Mark 13:1-2; Matt 23:37-24:2; Luke 21:5-6, 20-34). It could be that Matthew 27:35 suggests for Matthew, that the fall of Jerusalem was the judgment of God on Israel for their killing of Messiah (if so, this does nothing to justify the shocking anti-Semitism of history!). This could be seen as an example of divine judgment post resurrection. The second is Acts 5:1-11 where Ananias and Sapphira meet their death due to them lying about the percentage of money they gave to the communal purse. Luke records this as divine judgment. The third is 1 Cor 11:30-32 where Paul interprets sickness and death in the Corinthian church as a result of their failure to uphold the Lord's Supper in unity and love. These suggest that there remains a possibility that natural and other events are due to human sin.

However, there are NT passages which warn against making the connection too quickly. First, there is the account in Luke 13:1-5 where some report to Jesus of some Galileans put to death by Pilate who mingled their blood into their sacrifices made at the temple. This is horrendous stuff! Jesus takes the opportunity to teach on this very idea. He asks, 'do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?' For many of the ancients, this would be typical thinking. Suffering is a result of sin, and so the horrible suffering of these Galileans necessarily presupposes their sin. This would be akin to saying, that the Japanese and Christchurch earthquakes must be a result of their personal sin. Jesus answers, 'No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.' The point being, that we are all sinners, and the suffering was not a direct result of their sin, but all such suffering is a result of the macro-problem of human sin since the Fall at which time sin and suffering, death and destruction entered the world of human experience. The lesson is that we should all repent and turn to God and place our trust in him, and then we will have hope and confidence when these things happen. Jesus follows it up in v.5 with another example of eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and died – sounds rather like an earthquake. Jesus asks, 'do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?' Jesus goes on, 'No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.' This refers of course to eternal death. The point of this passage is that we cannot equate a disaster with personal sin or a cities sin. This is dangerous thinking.

Two other passages reinforce this well. In John 9 Jesus' disciples ask him whose sin caused the blindness of the man beside the road, his own or his parents. Again, this is typical ancient and Jewish thinking before Christ. That is, personal sickness like this is a curse due to sin either of the person, or his parents or grandparents (to the third or fourth generation). Jesus rejects the link completely stating that it is for the glory of God to be revealed. Similarly, we need to be really careful to assume Christchurch or Japan is due to their sin or their nations' sins. Perhaps in some way, over time, God's glory will be revealed in the rebuild?

In the account of the leper lowered through the roof in Mark 2 and parallels, a seriously disabled man is brought to Jesus. Jesus looks at him and his friends, and seeing their faith, forgives him. This offends the Jewish watchers who consider this blasphemous, as only God can forgive. Jesus then gives them a riddle, 'Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, "Your sins are forgiven," or to say, "Rise, take up your bed and walk"? As westerners we struggle with this. Some say, 'to forgive' is harder as only God can do it. Others say 'rise…' is harder as this is a sign that requires an instant visible demonstration. The point is missed when we do this. For the ancients, the man was disabled because of sin and so, if he is forgiven, he will be healed. So Jesus is challenging at a deeper level than an either-or question. The watchers are caught in a quandary, as one leads to the other. Jesus then heals the man, and so in ancient terms proves that he has forgiven the man. His healing demonstrates visibly that God has forgiven him. What Jesus has done is not only forgiven, healed and proven his authority; but he has challenged their thinking, that all suffering comes from sin. 

One other passage needs mentioning, one I refer to more and more in my thinking, Rom 8:17-23. Paul in this passage speaks about suffering not as a consequence of sin, but as a result of living in a fragile, broken world, enslaved to decay. The whole creation groans, desperate for its release. If we connect Paul's thinking with Rom 5:12-13, because of Adam's (and Eve's) sin, suffering, destruction and death was let loose like a virus in God's world affecting all parts of it. As such, we should expect such events in a shattered world as mortal beings. There will be natural catastrophes that will come and cause pain and suffering. The ancients knew this better than anyone in a world with a life-expectancy of around 40. Sickness, death, natural disasters, war, violence, etc, are all a part of the same problem. It is a terrible mistake to simply assume when an earthquake hits that it is God's direct judgment! (in a sense all events are a judgment, but not in a direct sense, a result of us causing the rift we have with our God).

So where does this leave us? First, it leaves us knowing that sometimes suffering is a result of direct divine judgment where God allows an event to occur. If so, there is always a reason, even though we cannot see it. It is ok to ask the question, but we must not jump to assume the connection. Second, most suffering is not a result of this, but due to the cosmic problem of evil which has permeated every nook and cranny of God's creation, it is a consequence of the Fall. We should not jump to judgment, but jump to groaning in the Spirit (Rom 8:26-27), seeking God's consolation in Jesus who suffered on the cross for us, and compassion and action for those suffering.

So where Christchurch and Japan are concerned let me ask with Jesus, 'were those who died in the earthquakes of Japan (and tsunami/nuclear disaster) and Christchurch worse sinners than the others in the city or us who are unaffected by the events?' No way! We are all sinners, and need to repent and place our trust in God or we will perish. And again, are the events judgment on these people or city because of their terrible sin? Or is it the result of the cosmic problem of evil that has invaded God's previous world, and which we are all prone to experience now and then because of a dangerous world with tectonic forces, the sea, and the weather? If it was judgment, I would have expected to hear clear warnings leading up to them, calling for specific areas of repentance, and warnings that if they do not they will be punished (a la Amos). I never heard them. I hear general statements warning the world in its decadence that such events will occur, but if anyone out there had God's word for these nations given to them, they needed to get up and cry it out through the media so it was heard. If not, they like Ezekiel's watchmen are guilty of not doing so, the blood of those who perished is on their hands. It is really easy to say it is judgment after the event, but is this what God is saying. Again, where is the evidence?

No, we cannot attribute these events to the judgment of God in a direct sense. They are what many are experiencing around the world, have done so since Eve and Adam, and will continue to do so. They are horrendous events where people in the wrong place and wrong time were killed because of natural forces. They cannot be trivialised to the punishment of God or theologised away in some simple way. We don't know why they happened other than @^&**@ happens now and again. And they hurt like hell. The last thing people need is people standing in judgment over them as if they have some divine right to do so. That is the stuff that drives people away from Christian faith into agnosticism, atheism, or other perspectives. Jesus came to walk with us in suffering, to love us through it, to strengthen us as we experience it. The greatest miracles are not God's direct miracle intervention, but the day by day way his Spirit sustains people through trauma like this. Our God is one of grace not judgment.

God bless them all and their families. We should be moved to deeper faith, deeper trust, deeper yearning, deeper prayer, deeper groaning, as we seek God for them. We should be moved to acts of love, grace, mercy and generosity for such people, rather than looking to lay blame. When we do, we judge ourselves, the great log of our sin banging around in our eyes as we cast judgment on the specks in theirs. Ours is not to lay blame, condemn and judge, ours is to love and care and show mercy. If we feel we have to judge, we should examine our own lives and not theirs.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

End of the World? Or the Beginning of a (re)New (ed) One?

I thought I would add to my comments especially in the final paragraph concerning the end of the world in the previous blog post.

There is an assumption among many Christians that when Jesus returns it is the 'end of the world.' The idea is that Jesus returns, plucks his beloved people out, and then either the world dissolves into war, chaos, and destruction, or comes to an abrupt and destructive end (depending on how you think the 'end' fits together). Saved humanity then lives on with God forever in a new heaven and/or on a new earth. This perhaps involves a secret rapture, with all the believers plucked out leaving the rest of the world in chaos. There are popular novels and movies built on this scenario. Such thinking often leads Christians to have less concern for the world, and want the church to focus on evangelism to save people from the horror to come, that they can live with God forever. This can lead to lack of concern for the transformation of society, the poor and needy, the environment etc.

The main bible text that has moved me to reject this idea is Romans 8:19-23. These verses give a view of the world that differs from the above scenario. The context is about suffering and hope to the Romans who face very real threats from persecution and natural disasters in a pre-industrial 4th world (worse than the 3rd world). Paul explains the inevitability of suffering, but the hope of glory (v.18). He writes of the creation awaiting eagerly the revelation of God's children, something that will occur at the culmination of the age when Jesus returns. He speaks of the creation subjected to frustration. As 8:20 unfolds, this frustration is related to its 'bondage to decay.' 'Decay' is phthora meaning 'breakdown of organic matter, dissolution, deterioration, corruption'
(BDAG). It is thus enslaved to decay and death. Paul speaks of the hope of liberation 'from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.' This tells of the creation ultimately being set free from its enslavement to the effects of Adam's sin, which subjected all of humanity and the world to decay. In v.22 Paul states that the 'whole of creation has been groaning as in the pains of the childbirth right up to the present time.' Paul here reinforces the picture of a whole creation held captive to the effects of sin, corruption and evil. It recalls Jesus' use of birth pains in Mark 13:8 of global events including natural disasters.

The picture here is not of a world being blown up, or coming to an end, but of it being set free. It is enslaved, and Jesus will redeem it. It is the picture of the end of the age not as a cataclysmic end, but of renewal, of a restored world. It is not the end of the world, but the beginning of a new one. The experience of redemption the children of God will experience is the same experience that the creation will have. This implies that, for Paul at least, the sin and corruption of humanity beginning with the first pair, has not only caused human relationships to be marred, but the whole created order prone to decay, death, and destruction. When Jesus comes back, he will set it free.

There are a range of things in Scripture that support this idea. First, in the prophets the hope of a new heaven and earth (Isa 65-66) is not so much a complete obliteration of this one and a new one, but this world renewed.

Second, the similar hope in Rev 21-22 is the same picture. The world involves nations as this one does, and there is healing through the tree of life for all. This is a renewed earth, not a new earth.

Thirdly, the other chapter that is helpful in Paul is 1 Cor 15. In the chapter Paul is addressing false ideas of resurrection in Corinthian church, likely that they denied bodily resurrection (cf. Wright). In v.v.25-28 Paul speaks of Jesus reigning until his enemies are squashed, recalling Ps 8:6 and 110:1. The last enemy to be defeated is death (not the world), the very problem that corrupts the world referred to in Romans 8 (cf. 5:12-13). After this, God will be all in all in his creation. At the end of the chapter Paul describes the transformation of people at the resurrection from corruption to incorruption, from mortality to immortality, from death to eternal life (vv.50-55). He quotes two OT verses from Isa 25:8 and Hos 13:14. Both OT passages are set in contexts about healing of this world, not being whisked away to another one.

Fourthly, when we read Jesus' words about the second coming in Matt 24:36-44 it speaks of the coming as the coming of the flood at the time of Noah. It was not the believers who were washed away at that time, but the unbelievers. As such, it is likely that when Jesus comes, he will cleanse and purify his world after judgment, and his people will live with him forever, amen! (by the way the verses in 2 Pet 3 say a similar thing, have a read).

Fifthly, the idea of millennium for those who hold the view that Jesus will return and establish a millennium fits sweetly with a restored world. In this time, Jesus will restore his world. I am sure he will put us to work for him in the project. For amillenialists, this works as well, with the world coming to a climax at Jesus' return, and the world then being restored.

Finally, theologically, the idea of God as a restoring God is far more appealing than him as a destroying God who will demolish what he has created. Evil is the corruption of good, and it works out in the violation of God's world. It is far more compelling to consider God as a God who restores, he heals, he purifies. He will remove evil from his world.

Whereas once I believed in a completely new world in heaven into which we will be squirreled away as the world implodes and is finally wiped away, I now believe that I was sincerely wrong. I believe that the end of this age is not the end of the world, it is the beginning of a new one. I find this very exciting. Just as we will be free, so will the world and indeed the whole creation. We will no longer face the terror of natural disasters that shake the earth destroying violently, or of tsunamis that with terrifying force, wipe out whole towns. We will not have to fear human evil, wars, despots who want to take over the world. We will be safe and secure living in a world of peace (Shalom). It is a compelling vision. Our job is to work for this world today. We are God's hands and feet to restore. No matter how weird and seemingly insignificant our passions are, they are part of the glorious whole of God's mission, what I call God's kosmission (mission to the kosmos, the world). At the heart of the mission is the healing of every human heart, that begins when we are united with God in Christ and filled with the glorious Spirit who works gently and lovingly in us bringing healing. There is a lot to do, so we better get on with it.

So we should stop freaking out, living in fear and terror that the end is nigh. Rather, we should live full on for God and good. We should not allow anything to paralyse us in this. We can spread hope of this new age that is to come. And even if it is imminent, we can rejoice that the renewed earth is about to dawn. Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Is It the End of the World?

My daughter has been on Facebook and she has said to me that due to the events in the world and in particular the earthquakes, 'everyone thinks it's the end of the world!' The events in the Middle East and the movie 2012 and the idea that there are a number of ancient writings pointing to now being the end of the world has amplified this feeling for this generation. So the question is, is it, from a Christian perspective, the end of the world?

The first thing to say is that this would not be the first generation to think this, with Christians many times believing the end to be nigh! We need to be very very wary of such a thought, Jesus himself did not know the day or the hour. In 2 Thess 2:1 Paul refers to people at his time who are thinking the end has come even. So we should be very cautious assuming the climax of world history is drawing near. There are texts in Thessalonians and the Gospels where it is said the return of Christ will come like a thief in the night, that means it might come at any point.

In the Bible the key passages for the end of the world are what's called the 'Olivet Discourse' or the 'Little Apocalypse,' Mark 13 and the parallel passages in Matt 24 and Luke 21. Of course Revelation is also seen by many as important in terms of the Second Coming, and it may well be, but it is full of symbolism and possible interpretations, so I tend to prefer to focus on Jesus' teaching in the Olivet Discourse when thinking about this question.

In this passage in Mark 13:5-7 (Matt 24:4-7; Luke 21:8-11) Jesus warns of wars, famines, pestilence, and earthquakes. He explicitly says that these are the beginning of birth pains and that they will precede the final events before his return. There are varying interpretations of this passage. Some like Wright and Goheen believing that this refers exclusively to the forthcoming Fall of Jerusalem which occurred in AD 66-70. They do not see it as a set of signs relating to the return of Christ. Personally, I don't quite buy this myself, as Matthew uses Mark 13 in putting together his gospel, and makes clear that it refers to more than the Fall of Jerusalem. This is especially so in Matt 24:3 where Matthew records it thus: 'when will this (the fall of Jerusalem) happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age.' Much as I respect Wright and Goheen, I think Matthew's perspective is to be preferred. As such, I think the passage points both in the direction of the Fall of Jerusalem and the return. I think the end of the age may indeed be patterned on the fall of Jerusalem, this being a double-layered prophecy. Having said that, such great scholars may be right, and if so, we should not be looking so much for Christ's return as a cataclysmic event with a whole lot of preceding signs, but Jesus will come like a thief in the night and suddenly, and we should live full-on for him and stop being worried about it. That is a viable Christian position. So again, we need to be careful not to over-react.

Having said that I disagree with their interpretation, how do I see things? I fall in the camp then of those who think that there will be disasters preceding the climax of the world including famines, wars, earthquakes, pestilence etc. This means there will be a whole range of natural disasters across the world which will have a dramatic effect and cause great alarm. I am not sure whether there will be an increase in them in literal terms i.e. more famines, more earthquakes; or whether there will be more effect from them and that the fear they bring will be increased.

If the bible is pointing to an increase in the regularity and intensity of such disasters, there are several reasons not to be too panicked. First, there have always been such disasters and seismologists tell us that there is no real increase in the number of earthquakes. Secondly, we have to remember that the ancient world knew all about natural events. For example, in Rome, at the time of Paul the River Tiber flooded every year. In the Lycus Valley (modern Turkey; where Laodicea, Colossae, Hierapolis are), there were regular earthquakes. On a visit to Laodicea last year, at the site is a list of earthquakes that hit the region at the time of the NT. There were heaps! Colossae itself was completely destroyed by one just after the writing of the letter of Colossians and never rebuilt. When an earthquake hit in the ancient world, the results were devastating as they had nothing like our building codes. There are also famines mentioned in the NT, with Paul taking up collections twice for Jerusalem (Acts 11; 1 Cor 16:1-4; 1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9). So natural events are nothing new and whether there is more of them is unclear and unprovable. Thirdly, contemporary globalism and media ensure that we hear about them to a greater degree than in previous times. We can watch them on TV, and their effects are beamed into our lounges. This doesn't mean more are happening, it means we know about them and can in a virtual sense, experience them. This means we think there are more, but it's just that we know about them and experience them. Fourthly, we Westerners tend to read the world through our eyes, we are 'euro-centric.' So, when we see terrible events his us, we think it is the end of the world. Yet, in non-western countries these are common. Similarly, when we see westerners abandoning the gospel we think the whole world is, when in fact the gospel is spreading like wildfire in Africa, Asia and South America. We tend to read the world in very narrow ways from our own perspectives. We need to watch this, as it can cause us to skew our reading of the world. Having said that, if the bible is pointing toward a time when the news and events of such events is on the increase, it is arguable that this is occurring, but it is not certain. I encourage caution.

A number of Christians believe other signs will mark the culmination of this age including widespread persecution, wars with a climactic war over Israel, antichrists, world-wide economic systems, and a general rise in evil. As with natural disasters these are equally hard to gauge. Concerning a rise in evil, on the one hand one can argue it is happening with ecological issues, corruption, war etc. Yet last century there were two world wars and things were way worse. There were two nuclear bomb threats and near nuclear war in the 1960s. There were also a number of despots like Pol Pot, Mao, Stahlin, Hitler etc. These guys were bad. Looking further back, there were such leaders all over the world. It can be argued things are more peaceful now. Interpretation of this then is very subjective and we should be careful not to assume as much. Sure, there are always bad things in the news, yet we are not in the midst of a world war. The potential for evil grows with new technologies, but there is a lot of good in the world and evil could not be said to be dominant in that gross absolute sense. Where Israel is concerned, the place has been a hotspot for the last 160 years and more, so it could all come to a head anytime, but there is nothing to suggest it is happening now. Yet, it could happen at any moment. The world remains very divided economically although Europe has formed an economic collective. One can argue that the conditions are coming into place, but we cannot be sure.

The clearest sign as I see it is Jesus' prediction that the gospel will be preached to all nations before the end comes (Mark 13:10; Matt 14:14). This is subjective as it is hard to be sure of what this means. Some Christians reject that this is a sign at all in qualitative terms arguing that it is a mistake to read it literally; rather, Jesus is saying that the gospel will be preached throughout the world. If we take it as a sign, it is equally hard to be sure when this is complete. Did Jesus mean that every person has heard the gospel personally? If so, he will never return. Is it that the gospel is translated into every language and every people group has heard it clearly and churches dot every one of them? It is not clear. One way to look at it I suggest in my book What's God Up To on Planet Earth is that Jesus preached the gospel throughout his nation Israel and established a community of faith. Then he effectively said do the same in all other nations (Matt 28:18-20). Assuming a nation is a group of people with a common language, then the work of preaching the gospel is incomplete. The Joshua project (http://www.joshuaproject.net/people-profile.php) tracks the spread of the gospel and believes we are yet to get there. One can argue though, with globalisation and the power of e-media, it could happen very quickly. But we are not there yet. Again caution is required, it may be close, or it may be a long way away.

So, I don't think it is the end yet, but it could be approaching rather quickly and we may be there soon – of course assuming my thinking is correct, and I am very tentative in assuming I am right on this stuff. I think the gospel has to penetrate further into those unreached people groups. Considering too with globalisation, that one can see an increasing potential for ecological and other human-caused disaster, the potential for a global economic-religious system, the heat in the Middle East around Israel, the speed the gospel can now spread etc, one can argue that the conditions for the climax of this age may be coming into place.

Yet, as Christians we should not be perturbed about this and continue to live the same anyway. We should live full-on for Jesus. When we meet people who are afraid, we encourage them to look to Jesus, because the gospel says he will return into the chaos and save. If their lives are in Jesus, they have nothing to fear, and we can model that and invite them to experience it. I would get them to buy my book actually, but that sounds like an unashamed ad.

A final thought. The idea of the 'end of the world' assumes a certain view of the climax of history. That is, that Jesus will return, pluck his people out, and the world will come to a terrible end, with God and his people safely whisked away to live forever in heaven. There is another way of reading the Scriptures (again N.T. Wright here) which suggests Jesus will return, will intervene to end the chaos, and the world will be rebuilt and peace ensure. All enemies of God will be subdued and the world will be as it always should be. Perhaps there will be a millennium of some sort, whether a literal 1000 years or a long period of time, in which Jesus and his people will restore the world. Or perhaps we are in the millennium now, and this will come. Rom 8:19-23 speaks of the liberation of the world not its destruction. Rev 21-22 speaks of a restored world, with God dwelling with humanity, in total peace and absence of evil. This is not then talking of the 'end of the world' but the restoration of the world.

So, I suggest that the presence of these disasters does not prove it is the end of the world. These have happened for centuries, and will continue to do so. But it could be that conditions in the world are moving toward this, but I am not going to give any dates or predictions. I also don't think the world will end anyway, but that Jesus will return and restore it. The date and time of his coming is unknown and it may be in 1 year, 10 years, a century, or even in 2000 more years. In the meantime we should life full on for him and spread his message of faith, hope and love. We should not live in fear, but hope and love. The key thing to ask is, are we ready? We can ask them are they ready. How to be ready? Put our confidence and trust in Jesus.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Problem of Natural Disasters and Hope For the Evangelical

For the evangelical who employs the free will theodicy (theology of evil), explaining natural disasters is a most difficult theological challenge. The free will theodicy explains evil's existence through the Fall of humanity described in Gen 3 when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This event symbolises human rebellion and the point at which evil began to corrupt God's good earth, and humanity began to die.

The free will answer to the problem of evil generally argues that death, chaos and destruction affected God's good creation at the Fall. Before the Fall, there is evil present in creation in the form of the snake (Satan symbolically); however, the snake could not directly affect the creation unless humanity sinned and allowed evil's release.

There are two main ways they argue. First, that there were no natural disasters before the Fall which affected humanity. For the old-earth Christian who holds to an old earth and universe in line with contemporary science, there were likely natural events such as earthquakes, eruptions etc, which God used to help form his world. By the time of the creation of animals the world was in perfect equilibrium without such catastrophic events or with them contained. At the Fall these resumed or were amplified/released and death and destruction ensued. For a young earther, there was no need for these events as God created the world in equilibrium and death, and all destruction, decay, chaos and death resulted from the Fall.

Secondly, you can argue that there were natural disasters before the Fall and these continue until today. There are two main variants here. One is that there were natural events but no death as God preserved his creation. The alternative is that there were natural events which caused animal and other death, but God preserved humanity through them. Another alternative is that the OT accounts should not be taken literally and that natural disasters are part of life and that we cannot be sure of the origin of evil. What matters is not the origin of evil, but that Christ has come into his world to bring hope and to overcome evil ultimately redeeming creation and ending suffering. This new creation can be this world restored – which of course implies that the world did previously exist in equilibrium and will again when Christ returns and all things are sorted. Or, the new creation will be an alternative existence and free of such problems. This implies of course that such a world is possible and so one can then argue, why not this one before evil's chaos took hold?

Contemporary scientifically minded people outside of Christianity and other faith's who rely on the same creation story (Islam, Judaism) struggle to accept any perspective that does not accept that natural catastrophic events have occurred from the inception of the world. They see them as 'normal', part of the world as it is. They argue that the amazing geography of the world and fossil record relies on such events e.g. floods, eruptions, and earthquakes.

Because of this, for us evangelicals this is a point of great challenge in our theological construct no matter how we argue it. I tend to opt for the idea that God created his world with a process that climaxed at a point of equilibrium, something that took a long time (old earth). I am a little torn as to whether death in the animal world was normative but that humans were preserved, or whether death in the animal world did not exist at all before the fall. The latter seems to fit better with the thinking of Paul in Rom 5:12; 8:19-23; the former with what appears evident in scientific enquiry. Currently, I hold the latter in line with what Paul appears to be saying, but am not completely confident of this position. There seem problems with either.

The ancients tended to explain natural disasters in terms of curse and blessing and the peace of the God/gods. If the deity was happy, then there was a cessation of such events. If the deity was displeased for one reason or another, these events would happen. Events such as the Christchurch or Japanese earthquakes were necessarily a message from God, a warning, and some form of repentance or penitence was expected. The Jews thought this of events in the OT period and especially exile, which all pointed to their failure to uphold the covenant and law. Their exile was the ultimate judgment of God, although restoration was also promised. In the Roman world, the same problem occurred, with Romans blaming Christians for natural events, and persecuting them. They destabilised the context and upset the gods (peace of the gods).

Such thinking is common in the Christian world with people interpreting events as God's judgment for sin; often for such things as sexual sins etc (cf. Sodom and Gomorrah). Those Christians who hold to a view that such events happen and that is life in a fallen world, do not blame them directly on sin. Rather, they reflect the problem of a fallen world in general, not direct judgment, but the result of a world fractured and broken. Taking them in this way frees such Christians from having to speak 'prophetically', assuming that they need to find out why something happened, and call for repentance. Rather, they get alongside those suffering knowing that 'sh...t happens' and they grieve with those who grieve and mourn with those who mourn. They do not seek to judge, and blame; rather, they seek to comfort. Hope comes from the presence of the Spirit expressed through love, compassion, care and support. Hope future comes from the return of Christ when the world will be renewed or a new world is created, and never again will the people of God's world suffer from such events. Of course, there is still a call for repentance in the gospel, but the natural events are not directly related to specific sins; rather, it is the general problem of sin from which all humans, Christian alike, must repent.

I strongly prefer the latter point of view. Jesus predicted that such events would occur across his world (esp. Rom 13; cf. Revelation), and does not necessarily link these to direct sin from the nations involved. Rather, it is part of the story of a broken world. Jesus is the key to all this. He came into his fallen world and lived the full experience of being human, frail, weak, and subject to the forces of the world. He was persecuted, suffered, was beaten, and killed, and died. In so doing, he experienced the full brunt of human malice and violence. He also experienced the struggle of living in a broken world, experiencing the forces of the natural world like hurricanes on the lake etc. Whatever the cause of natural events, he is our point of hope, the God who suffered on our behalf for us. He rose from the dead and his Spirit is now released to fill us, not so we can escape into some holy ether above suffering; but to live in it, experiencing it, and yet finding our hope and strength in Jesus and the Spirit, and ultimately in his return. It is about comfort in the midst of suffering, not release from it. This does not rule out miracles where God for his own good purposes intervenes and does something counter-natural. However, the power of death continues to weave its web and the healed fall sick again and eventually die. Death is at work powerfully in God's world. As we live in Christ we experience hope from Christ, in Christ, through Christ, and by his Spirit. Suffering then is real. Suffering is to be expected. We will see more of these events, and no doubt even worse. Some interpret Mark 13 and its parallels in Matt 24; Luke 21 to suggest there will be an increase in intensity in such natural events leading to Christ's return, although others dispute this interpretation. Whatever, hope is greater, dwarfing suffering no matter how horrendous.

The greatest passage in the Bible without question is Rom 8:17-39 which speaks of the glory of hope in the midst of the horror of suffering. In this passage Paul gives reason after reason for believers to never give up hope because of the work of the Triune God in creation.

As we live in the midst of horror such as Christchurch and Japan we must not fall into the trap of seeking simple theological answers, of standing as prophets in judgment condemning the victims as if it is direct judgment from God on sin, of trotting out trite answers. Rather, we must walk with those who suffer, grieving with them, comforting, supporting, helping, and praying. What should dominate are compassion and hope, not judgment and harsh calls for repentance. We must allow others to minister to us when we are weak, walking with our fellow human pilgrims in frailty and weakness, but never giving up on the hope of a new world and Jesus' love for us. We must serve, feed, love, comfort, and care.

Neither should we panic as if all this means Jesus is about to return. Perhaps he is, but that should not bring fear but hope, for the redemption of the world is near. Whether he is about to return, or it is a 1000 years away, we need to live full on for him, ready for these events in every moment, for you never know when they will hit.