After Church – On Thought Experiments For Divine Retribution

Pat Robertson

A peculiar though experiment struck me as an interesting idea. Join with me, won’t you?

I remember nearly a decade ago when Hurricane Katrina swept through the southern coast of the United States. It was terrible, awful, and nigh-unthinkable what happened when it arrived, killing many and displacing more families. Truly, no one disputes that this remains a terrible natural disaster by any sense one could imagine. Yet, there were those who sought to make light of this tragedy to make a political or religious point. I’m sure you remember well the words of Pat Robertson during that time; news media lambasted the man in the press for his lack of tact, if not the content of his words. He did imply, pretty explicitly, that perhaps Hurricane Katrina had some connection to the abortion issue:

You know, it’s just amazing, though, that people say the litmus test for [Supreme Court nominee John G.] Roberts [Jr.] is whether or not he supports the wholesale slaughter of unborn children. We have killed over 40 million unborn babies in America. I was reading, yesterday, a book that was very interesting about what God has to say in the Old Testament about those who shed innocent blood. And he used the term that those who do this, “the land will vomit you out.” That — you look at your — you look at the book of Leviticus and see what it says there. And this author of this said, “well ‘vomit out’ means you are not able to defend yourself.” But have we found we are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster? Could they be connected in some way? And he goes down the list of the things that God says will cause a nation to lose its possession, and to be vomited out. And the amazing thing is, a judge has now got to say, “I will support the wholesale slaughter of innocent children” in order to get confirmed to the bench. And I am sure Judge Roberts is not going to say any such thing. But nevertheless, that’s the litmus test that’s being put on, the very thing that could endanger our nation. And it’s very interesting. Read the bible, read Leviticus, see what it says there.

The outcry, generally, seemed to create a rather obvious response from Christian and non-Christian alike – God would never do that! God is a God of love, and surely He (or whatever gender you want to assign, depending) could never bring a natural disaster to bear as punishment on people for sin! Of course, I could propose the obvious examples through the Bible – for example, the Flood (was that an easy one) – but it would not make the issue clearer for anyone. Nor can I say with any certainty what God would do to make said judgment clear, if in fact there was one. When New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin supposedly asserted “Surely God is mad at America”, that does not magically grant legitimacy to such a claim.

Nor does my personal emotions, feelings, and sympathies automatically refute an argument. It is interesting that I could barely find any resource at all that grappled with Robertson on a level other than indignation and moral outrage. Sure, I do not agree with many of the thing Pat Robertson has said, but dismissal only leads to further reprisals at a later date (which he continued in the 2010 Haiti earthquake). If it is, in fact, an error, then why not convince him as such? I always find these discussions problematic because the blame sets in first (as I discussed with idolatry), and then we forget entirely until the next one. Christians need to corral their own in some respect! At the least, we can get ourselves two or three people to confront him, right?

Let us assume a Christian worldview, then, to take the claim seriously. If you take Scripture as inerrant, or at least inspired, you must grapple with this question. You could swallow the reductio and admit this as an example of divine retribution (if that is what we must call it), but I call that wholly unsatisfactory. Rather than denounce the claim outright, let’s take a look at the actual context of Robertson’s citation; I’m sure that works better than a blanket refusal to discuss with the man on his own terms, correct? Leviticus 18 presents God’s laws (in the “Old Law”, as some might say) regarding immoral relations. God prefaces the long, long list of immoral sexual relations with this warning:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘I am the Lord your God.You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes. You are to perform My judgments and keep My statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the Lord your God. So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the Lord.

So Israel must separate itself from other nations by not doing the following…all well and good. I’m sure you’ve seen the list before, so let’s not get into the sordid sexual details. The part that Robertson actually cited, however, is in the chapter down further:

24 ‘Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. 25 For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. 26 But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you 27 (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); 28 so that the land will not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you. 29 For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people. 30 Thus you are to keep My charge, that you do not practice any of the abominable customs which have been practiced before you, so as not to defile yourselves with them; I am the Lord your God.’”

What does it mean to “spit out” a people out of the land? Robertson obviously interprets this as “weather punishment”, but that seems a little broad for a general principle. Let’s imagine “uncleanliness” in the context of purity laws, then, which makes a great deal more sense in this context. Earlier, we’re privy to the idea that purity remains a requirement in relations among a husband and wife:

19 ‘Also you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness during her menstrual impurity. 20 You shall not have intercourse with your neighbor’s wife, to be defiled with her.

Again, we see the word “defiled” used in a religious purity/devotion context. When something is “holy”, then it is set apart for a purpose, and purity requires maintenance. Otherwise, it is impure. To do the list of acts above “defiles” the land, in other words; I’ve found this explanation holds in multiple translations as well, who either kept the original English renderings or just see it as the best translation of the ideas contained in the ancient Hebrew manuscripts. We can take the literal/metaphorical meaning a bit further. To defile could also mean a sickness of some kind – sickness does involve vomiting, does it not? Sin and uncleanliness spread like a disease and infect the land, so the only means by which to cleanse a sinful people would be to send them away, right? So there’s your interpretation right there – follow the laws, or face expulsion like the former people in the land. A pure land cannot face continual containment.

What does this have to do with divine retribution in the form of weather specifically? Well, not much! I think the greater problem isn’t the idea of divine retribution, but whether or not we can label anything as such without looking rather foolish in Western society. If you are a Christian in some sense, shouldn’t the possibility have crossed your mind at one point or another? It definitely crossed Pat Robertson’s mind, but he believed that the mind of God was his to know by citing a particular sin as the root and cause. But that does not mean divine retribution isn’t a thing, any more than God isn’t a being that exists; a Christian learn early on that he must think in a complete way (hopefully) to make sense of anything. The Bible convey that message rather fully – as God did create everything, so is everything connected on some base level.

So here is the problem: the idea that God does not punish a people in this fashion comes from a relatively late development in the (late) Victorian era. As demonstrated by Andrew Atherstone, our currently held popular opinion on the subject has not existed for most of human history; in my mind, that sets off the warning bells right off the bat. What changed isn’t the disasters themselves, but our response. Whereas they viewed such events as a call to repentance for the individual, we now view it as a complete mystery of an event to which we respond with sympathy and practical help. The former did both; J.C. Ryle, even though he called cholera epidemics a judgment from the Lord, also gave practical advice and helped people with that very sickness. It worked on two levels: the physical and the spiritual. We have, in our transformation to a secular society, see it merely in the former sense with a dash of the latter. That will not do!

We assume that the man who calls a grand disaster a judgment from God merely sits in his chair of fatalism and watches gleefully as sinners meet their demise. If it is true in the case of Robertson, I have not found any evidence that speaks of such convictions. Rather, Robertson’s Operation Blessing International came in full force to help Katrina victims. That seems rather bizarre, doesn’t it? If you take the assumption that God orders the heavens and earth, day and night (Gen 1:1, Jer 33:25), then can we say that God did not send/allow a disaster?

God isn’t to blame for anything. God does what God wills. It is our response that is the key component here. Perhaps it is our “national sins”; perhaps not. Whatever the case, our spiritual call to repentance and our physical call to help the poor, needy, and downtrodden remain the same regardless. Our idea of how the world works should, inevitably, effect our responses.

So it’s an experiment with a moral, but a good one!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.