Is Suffering and Tragedy a Punishment From God?

In the light of Israel Folau’s recent comments about bushfires and God’s punishment, I was asked by someone whether I believed that God still punishes today. Here is a very brief response.

One of the many differences between the terms and conditions of the old covenant and the new covenant instituted by Jesus is the mode and the immediacy of God’s punishments. In the old covenant, God’s punishments were tangible and immediate; the withdrawal of his blessing, resulting in physical hardship. In the new covenant, however, punishment is usually delayed. Romans 2:5 says “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed”. Under the new covenant, people are accumulating punishment for the Day of Judgment, rather than being “whacked” every time they sin. This is why bad people often seem to be getting away with it – because they ARE getting away with it, temporarily.

In the same way, rewards in the old covenant were immediate and tangible; “If you obey the Lord your God, you will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.” (Deut 28:2). That passage goes on to promise an abundance of food and produce for those who remain faithful to God.  In the new covenant, however, we are promised “treasure in Heaven” (Matt 6:19-20). The immediate, tangible rewards and punishments of the old covenant – a covenant which is now “obsolete” (Heb 8:13) – have now been replaced with the higher, deferred rewards and punishments of the new covenant, which “is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is founded upon better promises.” (Heb 8:6).

The complete obsolescence of the old covenant (Heb 8:13), including its system of covenantal rewards and punishments, is a concept that is not clearly understood by many Christians. Many Christians are convinced that when good things happen to them it is a sign of God’s favour and when bad things happen it is a sign of God’s displeasure. But that kind of thinking is old covenantal thinking. Of course, this was still the view of the Jews at the time of Jesus, which is why we find Jesus correcting them. It is very important that we take note of two key incidents in the ministry of Jesus, in John 9 and Luke 13; the man born blind and the collapse of the Tower of Siloam which killed 18 people. The people of Jerusalem were convinced that both of these tragedies were God’s punishment for sin. Jesus’ response on both occasions was to overturn that kind of simplistic thinking, indicating that they were not God’s punishment for anyone’s sin. (Read the chapters – it’s very clear!)

Part of living in a fallen world means that sometimes bad things happen to relatively good people (although no one is truly good). Bad things often happen simply as a product of the chance interplay of natural forces in a world that is physically out of balance because of our sin. The fall of mankind at the beginning of human history, recorded in Genesis 3, accounts for the brokenness of our physical world – a world which is now physically out of balance and dysfunctional. In this sense we live, day by day, under the perpetual consequences of mankind’s rebellion against God. This is part of God’s judgment on humanity – that we must now live in the world that we broke through our rebellion. In this sense we are all under God’s general judgment.

This is not to say that God no longer institutes specific acts of punishment as he did under the old covenant. Clearly, God still occasionally does this. For instance, the New Testament records the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, who were struck down by God for their attempted deceit (Acts 5:1-11). The problem for us, is our inability to determine with complete certainty whether a particular calamity is a specifically intentional act of God’s judgment or simply another example of a physically broken world that is operating dysfunctionally. Is that instance of suffering in your life an act of God’s discipline, designed to bring you to repentance? Or is it merely a “natural” consequence of living in a broken world; a consequence which God, in his sovereignty, foresaw but chose not to avert for purposes that may remain hidden to us? In both previously mentioned cases in the ministry of Jesus (the man born blind and the collapse of the tower that killed 18 people), Jesus indicated that the tragedies were of the latter kind, and not specific acts of God’s punishment. The fact that the people of his day got it wrong, incorrectly interpreting the tragedies as God’s punishment, shows how difficult it is for us mere mortals to make categorical statements about individual instances of hardship. It is doubly difficult when we are considering tragedies of national proportions.

Jesus prophesied, in Matthew 25, that as the end of human history draws near, the rate of natural disasters will escalate as a sign of the impending Day of Judgment. We should not be surprised to see it happening. But we must not rush to attribute each disaster – storm, flood, drought, fire or famine – to a specific sin or disobedience. It is a very brave person – in fact, I would say extremely foolish – who dares to declare that he or she knows the mind of God and can accurately discern specific punitive purposes in individual natural disasters. In the past, God has been extremely displeased with false prophets who have wrongly declared his mind on a particular matter.

I have written extensively on this topic in my first two books. For example, in “Finding God When He Seems To Be Hiding” there is a whole chapter on the problem of suffering and God’s sovereignty. Similarly, “Making Sense Of The Bible: Surprising Insights” has several chapters on the differences between the two covenants, including God’s different approach to blessings and punishments in the new covenant. You might find those helpful if you want to explore this topic further. (Check out Koorong Books, Amazon or any major book retailer).

4 Replies to “Is Suffering and Tragedy a Punishment From God?”

  1. The thing that troubles me about this conversation broadly is, what seems to be inevitable, the confusion between OT examples that speak to a community or a nation with examples from the NT which speak to personal moral responsibility.
    Is there Scriptural ground for saying God is withholding punishment (in the Christian era) for sinful communities, nations or even civilisations?
    You will often hear me say that Western European Civilisation is crumbling. Clearly within that context we all individually suffer in one way or another, whether “deserved” or not. (I’m not saying there’s no hope of repentance & restoration.)
    I cannot buy the idea of “the chance interplay of natural forces…” The God of Creation has “let go” enough to give us individual moments of moral freedom – but even that much is historically controversial. Cause and Effect (Choice & Consequence) are not suspended, even if Judgement is postponed.
    I feel it is clear that we suffer individually when the community (nation or civilisation) is sinful. Call it Judgement or Cause & Effect. Thus I do not think it “reprehensible” (A. Albanese) to call out the sin of a community, nation or civilisation. To blame individuals is, of course, a step too far!
    Perhaps you have addressed this adequately in your books. Sorry, I should read them or reread them.

  2. Thanks for your comment Tony. Yes, I have dealt with the issues you have raised in MUCH greater detail in “Finding God When He Seems To Be Hiding.” Included in that is the role of chance and its relationship to the sovereignty of God.

  3. Great article I’ve been able to share this with a few non believing friends and they agree with your comments