Bad Theology

They say a blog entry should be short, but what can you do when a man like Pat Robertson causes such a mess? Some things take a while to clean up. Hopefully you’ll bear with me.

If you somehow missed it, you can read the text of Pat’s comments and see the video here. To be fair, he said these things in the context of a broader report in which he expressed sympathy for the Haitian people, and it was part of a fund raising segment for earthquake relief, so I’m not going to comment on his intentions. Pat Robertson may have genuine love in his heart for the suffering people in Haiti. But what he said was very wrong.

Many people have slammed Pat, of course, and I hate to pile on too, but to my dismay, some friends of mine—well-known Christian authors who should know better—seem open to the idea that Pat was right. “Look at all the times God punished other nations with disasters in the Old Testament,” they said to me. “It’s Biblical!”

Well, no actually, what Pat Robertson said is not Biblical. On the contrary, it’s heretical.

Before I mention a few of the many theological arguments against this grave error in thinking, let’s ponder the human cost. If we allow ourselves to start believing any specific natural disaster is the result of any specific nation’s sins, we need not go much further along that same path before we find ourselves calling a specific case of cancer (for example) a punishment from God. After all, in the same way the Bible shows God using disasters to punish nations, so it shows Him physically punishing individuals for their sins. Think of Nadab and Abihu, or Ananias and his wife. The Bible does indeed teach us God has sometimes supernaturally entered history to physically punish both nations and individuals for their sins. It also says God will do it again one day. But how heartless it would be to use that as an excuse to tell a woman she just lost her breast to cancer as a punishment from God!

That is essentially what Pat Robertson said to the Haitian people the other day. Maybe he simply has a very inappropriate sense of timing. Maybe the love is there. I don’t know his motivation, but I do know there are grave dangers in what he said. Judgmentalism. Legalism. Isolationism. Fatalism. So much evil can flow from the prideful notion that we are equipped to know a disaster on any level, national or individual, is a particular punishment or admonishment from God.

Ask yourself: after we have moved from attributing God’s wrath to nations to attributing it to individuals, what is the next step? Why, imposing divine wrath on God’s behalf, of course.

Nineteen men and women were hanged and one was crushed to death in Salem because of a natural extension of this theology. Here’s how the logic went: “The Bible says God blesses good people in this life, and curses bad people, and I am being good yet bad things are still happening, so the neighbors must be devil worshippers.” After all, the same Bible that tells us about God’s use of natural disasters also says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” And sure enough, following exactly that same logic after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson famously blamed their neighbors, their fellow Americans who are “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians.”

So much for the human cost. Let’s look at this heresy of Pat’s from a Biblical perspective, beginning with the fact that the Bible says “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness.” Certainly there are places where the scriptures tell us the righteous will be blessed and the wicked will be cursed, but elsewhere it says the righteous sometimes get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked get the rewards of the righteous.

This is not a contradiction. It simply means we don’t know nearly enough about God’s intentions to be able to connect any person’s behavior with the earthly blessings or curses he receives. God has his own reasons for giving easy lives to some and trials to others. We can never fully understand those reasons.

This should be especially obvious to Christians. After all, Jesus taught us that our righteousness will often lead to suffering. We are told we must pick up a cross to follow Him, and “In this world you will have trouble.” If God-fearing believers are guaranteed suffering in this life (and we are) where is the logic in Robertson’s statement that Haiti’s suffering is a curse for devil worship? Isn’t it just as possible, based on what the Bible says, that this earthquake is a cross for the faithful Haitian Christians to bear?

In the wake of Robertson’s comments, some have pointed to passages such as this one, this one and this one to assert that humanity’s sins can “defile” the “land” though sins such as sexual immorality, the wrongful shedding of blood and idolatry. Read those scriptures carefully and you’ll see it’s a giant theological stretch to apply them to any "land" except the promised land of Israel, but never mind that for now. Let's pretend "the land" means any land, anywhere, just for the sake of conversation.

If any land could still be "defiled" by sexual immorality, the wrongful shedding of blood or idolatry, then every land on earth would be pretty much equally defiled. After all, what nation can claim it is innocent of those sins? Yet few nations have ever suffered a natural disaster on the Haitian scale. In fact, many nations which have been "defiled" by those sins have been richly blessed on the whole, including the USA of course, despite our rampant adultery, homosexuality, history of genocide against the American Indian and the African slave, and widespread worship of the almighty dollar and all the idols it can buy. So while the idea of cursed land makes for a great scenario if you’re a novelist, it just doesn't have any basis in observable history.

Another flaw in this theology is found in the root of the word translated in all those verses as "defile." That root is tame, the same Hebrew word translated elsewhere as "unclean" to describe houses where a person has died, bowls which have contained unclean food, chairs where an unclean person has sat, and of course unclean foods, among many other inanimate things. We know from Peter's famous vision of the sheet filled with animals that God has made all foods "clean." That's one of the proof texts used in support of the doctrine that Christians are no longer required to observe the letter of the Mosaic law. Funeral homes, dishes, chairs and pork are no longer "defiled" for us. Would this be true of everything inanimate except "the land" itself? Of course not.

The idea that the land of Haiti was somehow “defiled” centuries ago in a way that caused an earthquake here and now runs counter to everything the New Testament teaches about the law.

If we apply those Hebrew verses to "the land" of Haiti, then we have no consistent justification for disobedience to anything else the Mosaic law has to say about cleanliness and uncleanliness. Are we really prepared to return to that? Or do we agree with Paul that "...through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death"?

Moving on, consider a similar discussion that once took place between some Jews and a rabbi. Rather than comment on it I’ll just quote the conversation, with a few minor modifications to make it more obvious how it relates to the topic at hand (please do compare my version to the original):

“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the New Yorkers whose blood Osama bin Laden had mixed with their office building. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these New Yorkers were worse sinners than all the other Americans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those thousands who died in the earthquake in Haiti — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in the Caribbean? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’”

If we ever had any doubt what Jesus meant when he warned us “Do not judge,” this conversation should remove those doubts. Don’t let anybody tell you different: Jesus doesn't want Christians saying the kind of thing Pat Robertson said the other day.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:28 PM  


arlee bird said... January 17, 2010 at 8:42 PM  

I have not seen Pat Robertaon's comments in their entirety, only the snippet that has been show and commented upon repeatedly. In this statement I am not hearing him say that God cursed Haiti and this is why they had the earthquake, but the "they (Haiti) have been cursed". And to my understanding of what is being said, as well as what I have observed from many other natural disasters resulting in great loss, is that the curse is the consequence of lax building codes, disregard for human life, corruption, and many other factors which ultimately have come from sinfulness and turning from God as we have seen in Haiti, Iran, China, etc. I am not one who believes that God is delivering direct judgement based on any actions of modern history, but as you indicate that judgement is to come.

WordLily said... January 18, 2010 at 5:31 AM  

Thank you for saying what needed to be said.

Athol said... January 18, 2010 at 6:39 AM  

Arlee, here's the quote:

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French ... and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.'

"True story. And the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another."

Context is everything of course. If he had said this the day before the earthquake it might have meant something different, but he said it the day after the earthquake, in the midst of a segment reporting on the earthquake, so clearly he meant the viewers to understand that the earthquake was caused by a curse.

Mocha with Linda said... January 18, 2010 at 7:19 AM  

Excellent words. I had posted Luke 13:1-5 this morning on my blog as well.

Kay Day said... January 18, 2010 at 10:37 AM  

Papa Doc and Baby Doc both sacrificed pigs to the devil and dedicated the country to him. This was in the last century.

I have been there. The place has been cursed in many ways. But much of it is the way Arlee said. The people have destroyed their land. Misused their resources, etc. It is a dark and oppressive place.

But, oh how I loved it there. I love those people. Jesus loves those people. My biggest prayer right now is that all of this suffering will help them find Him. They need Him. The believers there have a joy that I don't see here. They shine.
And though many have chosen badly as to whom to worship, God has not forsaken them.

I agree with you. If this were a direct result of their sin, we would all be rattling around, or covered in debris. I have no idea why this happened. And I think the problem here, as in Job, is people trying to explain it.

Sometimes, I imagine, God does bring catastrophe on people as a result of sin. But that's not always the reason for bad things. When we try to explain the actions of God or claim to know His mind in anything, I think we're on dangerous ground.

Meg Moseley said... January 18, 2010 at 4:56 PM  

Thanks for saying it, Athol. I agree with you.

Nicole said... January 18, 2010 at 5:56 PM  

My comment doesn't really have much to do with Pat Robertson's comments. It has to do with God's judgment, not man's.
This world is cursed by sin. Original and ongoing sin. God's love is available to all. As Kay pointed out, the curses abound in Haiti because of their dark government's and religious choices. God's patience waits, God's people reach out, believers come forth out of sin.
Our God is a jealous God. He does allow catastrophes and they do suffice as judgments, don't they? No "land" on this earth has gone without natural and unnatural disasters.
Sometimes I think we forget that the resulting deaths are a blessing to those in Christ; that the sadness and sorrow of losing loved ones happens to all of us. The loss of the lost is tragic, but all of us have a number of days to seek God and find His Son Jesus Christ.
Yes, it'a a tragedy of huge magnitude and great loss. Does it serve as judgment or a wakeup call? Life is fragile. God is waiting.
I agree that Pat Robertson could amp up his discernment, perhaps refrain from spouting off his opinion, but I wonder why we shudder at the possibility of judgment being involved.

Athol said... January 19, 2010 at 7:26 AM  

Nicole, thanks for posting your thoughts. I agree that the earthquake can serve as "a wake up call" for those who do not know the Lord. Life is indeed fragile, and the more aware we are of that, the more we tend to turn to Jesus. I pray there will be a huge revival of faith in Haiti because of this terrible tragedy.

Just in case my own post wasn't clear, please know that I don't "shudder at the possibility of judgment [for sins] being involved" so long as that judgment is God's. The Bible says God has judged humanity in this way before and will again, as I wrote above.

But all that said, I do shudder when we presume to judge our neighbors. Maybe the earthquake was God's judgment on Haiti for the devil worship of their forefathers as Pat Robertson said, but maybe it was just an earthquake. Only God could know. Therefore, when we announce that a disaster of this kind is divine punishment for a particular sin, we put ourselves in God's place. That is (or ought to be) a scary thing to do indeed.

Tim George said... January 22, 2010 at 7:03 AM  

"Only God could know" is a most important statement. Pat Robertson is right about Papa Doc and the leaders' of Haiti in their vocal devotion to Satan. Where Pat goes astray is to presume he has received some direct indication from God that this natural event was the result of divine judgment.

Now another question. Is our country any less devoted to the evils of the flesh, disregard for the unborn innocent, gluttony, materialism, and the list goes on?

Hosea was well qualified to say "Thus says the Lord" apart from the written Word. I am not. Neither is Pat Roberston.

Nicole said... January 23, 2010 at 9:38 AM  

Think about it, though, Gentlemen. "Natural disaster"--so God has no say in what the earth does?
I realize this post concerns the comments of Pat Robertson, and I don't deny the discernment and wisdom of voicing these opinions in a public forum gives the impression of him speaking with a prophet's mantle.
So do you not think the office of prophets and their utterances exist today in spite of Paul's explanation of their use in today's body?
Not suggesting Mr. Robertson holds this office, but it seems Christians are quick to dismiss the possibility of judgment on any nation--we've certainly had our share of "natural" and "unnatural" tragedies in this country. And let's face it, there isn't a nation on earth that doesn't "deserve" it/them.

Athol Dickson said... January 25, 2010 at 7:37 PM  

In my last comment, above, I addressed your question about whether God has a say in what the earth does, so I won't get back into that here. But with regard to modern prophets, yes indeed, I do believe the gift remains available to some Christians. I believe ALL the spiritual gifts remain available. That said, I don't want to get into the matter of whether Pat Robertson is a prophet. The post speaks well enough to that. (Mat 7:15-20) Thanks for sharing your thoughts again, Nicole. I really appreciate you being here.

Neppie said... February 1, 2010 at 3:58 PM  

My comment will probably seem a little childish to some, but I totally believe God is in control of all. His ways are not our ways and what he does or doesn't do will and can not be understood by man. Whether God caused or allowed this earthquake to happen is not the point to ponder. The point to ponder is will we as Christians look to see the glory in it and give God His due. God will be glorified whether we accept it or not.

Athol Dickson said... February 2, 2010 at 9:25 AM  

Neppie, that's not a childish comment at all, except perhaps in the faithfully committed sense Jesus had in mind when he told us to "become like little children" in Matthew 18:3.

When we say "God is in control of all," I think every Christian must agree. There is a paradox in our agreement, however, because God allows free will. James addresses one aspect of this paradox here:

13 When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:13-15) NIV

So we see that although temptations or trials, like troubles, are bound to come, they do not come from God, therefore in that sense God is not "in control" of them.

Should we assume this means the SOURCE of trials such as natural disasters is not God? Or should we only assume our RESPONSE to trials (our conversion of disaster into temptation through the "evil desire" James mentioned) is not from God?

Either way it's a fine line to walk in a dispassionate theological conversation, and an almost impossible distinction to make in the heat of the moment. So I agree with your conclusion. In the end, what really matters is not God's precise role in a disaster like the Haiti earthquake, but rather how we will respond to it as Christians. We should be doing love to Haiti at a time like this, not assigning blame.

Lori said... February 3, 2010 at 8:46 AM  

"....we don’t know nearly enough about God’s intentions to be able to connect any person’s behavior with the earthly blessings or curses he receives." AMEN and once we begin to tell others what God's intentions were, I think we need to DUCK. What a dangerous place to be.

Thank you for laying this out so clearly. I have really been (surprised is not the right word but I am drawing a blank) to see several pastors cite scripture to back their theory and in reality have the context all wrong. I find this in the homeschool debate I am a supporter of homeschooling, but sometimes the scripture they use to back their theories are wrong. They are putting extra words in God's mouth to support their beliefs.

God explicitly states we are not to add or take away anything written scripture.

I guess it goes back to when you said, "by defending the truth we sometimes destroy it."

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