Students cautiously moving about campus. Parents frantically searching for their children. Law enforcement officials and reporters flooding the scene. 17 left dead.
Of all days, these images dominated the news outlets on Valentine’s Day 2018. The story: a school shooting had at occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Sadly, such horrific events have become commonplace to us in America. It seems that every few weeks we hear of another brutal tragedy. Whether it is 58 gunned down in Vegas, or the increasing number of those lost due to hurricanes Maria and Florence, death and turmoil surround us. The public is left distraught, enraged, and afraid.
In attempt to grapple with these shocking events, pundits alike been quick to propose solutions and to place blame:
It is time enforce stricter laws.
We need to march.
This is why we need to equip teachers.
The 2nd Amendment must be defended.
If only aid had been provided more quickly.
In light of the various reactions to tragedy and disaster, we are right to wonder: is there a “Christian way” to respond? How should believers interpret these horrific events? In Luke 13:1-5 , we find Jesus answering similar questions.
Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. “Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
The events described in this account are not unlike catastrophes that occur in society today. The first is a heinous act of murder carried out upon people in the midst of worship. The second would be considered a “freak accident,” an unavoidable catastrophe that left eighteen dead in Siloam. Unimaginable evil and devastating circumstances, similar to the villainous murders and terrifying natural disasters that exist today.
Jesus’s response to such tragedies demonstrates how we too should respond to tragedies in our society. There are four lessons believers can learn from Jesus regarding tragedies.
Tragedies Show No Partiality
In response to the tragedies, Jesus asked the crowd if they believed that the victims were worse sinners than others (v.2, 4). He asked not because He wanted to know their opinion; He already knew their common belief. They believed Pilate’s act of evil and the tower’s fall were directly connected to the sinfulness of those who died. The theology of the day was simple: suffering happens to those who deserve it. Today, many would call this “Karma.”
It is true that God does judge the wicked (Ex. 34:7, Ezek. 18:4), and that people will reap what they sow (Gal 6:7). However, there is plenty of evidence, both biblical and experiential, that demonstrates the suffering of the righteous and the flourishing of the wicked. Scriptures make clear that the godly suffer (Acts 14:22). Psalm 73 provides readers with the internal struggle of Asaph, a man who can’t understand why the wicked seem to live better lives than the righteous. In our own dealings with the world, we know plenty of atheists who land the dream job and who enjoy healthy lives while believers struggle.
Were the victims of tragedy worse sinners? Jesus, along with the rest of Scripture, say not necessarily.
Tragedies Demonstrate the Horror of Sin
Jesus declared that those who had perished were not worse sinners than all others. He also warned His audience that unless they repent, they will likewise perish. In doing so, Jesus is touching on a doctrinal truth that is described in the rest of Scripture: the equal guilt of all men.
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. – Romans 3:9–12, 23
The problem with that crowd is the same problem that exists in all people. We tend to maximize the guilt of others and minimize our own sin. We rename our sin, excuse our sin, or blame others for our sin. The crowd saw Pilate’s heinous act and could only think of the sinfulness of the victims. Jesus’ warning to repent demands they consider their own sinfulness.
A question must be asked at this point: Why does Jesus connect tragedy and with the need to reflect on personal sin? The theological connection goes back to the fall.
In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve do something far worse than breaking God’s rule. They reject God personally. The allurement of “being like God” (Gen. 3:5) was too enticing, and they forsook their maker. From the beginning, sin has always been an attempt to supplant God as the ruler of our lives and to assert our own authority over the Creator’s authority. In taking the fruit, Adam and Eve committed treason at the highest and most malicious level.
How does God respond? After cursing both the serpent and the woman, God says to Adam,“Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life.” (Gen 3:17b)
Notice, Adam is not personally cursed; the ground is. The natural order of the earth is corrupted in response to the sin of Adam. According to Romans 8:20, the creation “was subjected to futility.” Why? So that the natural order of the world would provide for us an illustration of how horrible it is to rebel against a holy God. John Piper describes it like this:
God disordered the natural world because of the disorder of the moral and spiritual world — that is, because of sin. In our present fallen condition, with our hearts so blinded to the exceeding wickedness of sin, we cannot see or feel how repugnant sin is. Hardly anyone in the world feels the abhorrent evil that our sin is.
Therefore, when we hear about young ones lost in a hurricane, a lunatic placing a bomb in a delivery package, or innocent lives cut short at a school, our first thought should not be about constitutional rights or insufficient aid. We must first consider our own sin.
Tragedies Call You to Repentance
Instead of seeing these calamities as an act of judgment on others, Jesus warns the crowds to “repent,” or they will “likewise perish” (v.3, 5). They are to consider their own sinfulness and are threatened with judgment that they may face for their own sins. Pilate’s murderous rampage and the tower’s fall were meant to impress on the crowds their own need to repent.
Once again, we learn disastrous events are illustrations. In a small way, they illustrate the wrath to come on sinners who have not trusted in Christ. Not only do these tragic events illustrate the ugliness of our sin, but they further illustrate the wrath to come if we do not repent. The lesson is simple: Judgment is coming, so repent immediately.
Jesus follows up this warning with a short parable. In Luke 13:6-9, He tells the story of an unfruitful fig tree which had been barren for three years. The farmer’s frustration had reached a boiling point; “why does it even use up the ground?” Instead of removing the tree, the farmer decides to show patience for one more year. The man concludes, “and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.” (Luke 13:9)
God is patient, but God is just. In His mercy, He provides sinners time to repent. In His grace, God allows tragedy to be a warning about judgment rather than executing wrath on all sinners. Make no mistake; it is a mercy for sinners to be warned in this way. And yet He will not be patient forever. For those who ignore His kind warnings, they likewise will perish.
Tragedies Point to the Cross
The horrific events we see today certainly are disturbing. They cause a range of responses, from fear, to rage, to confusion, to sorrow. All are normal reactions. Therefore, it may seem that Jesus’ response is inappropriate. How can He be insensitive or cold in the midst of such calamity?
The truth is Jesus understands suffering. In fact, He understands it better than we do.
On the cross, Jesus suffered immensely more than anyone has ever suffered. The beating. The mocking. The wrath of God. In our suffering, we are heartbroken and sometimes feel abandoned by God. Jesus was forsaken by the Father (Mark 15:34). At the cross, Jesus was “crushed” (Isa 53:10) and become “accursed” (Gal 3:13) on behalf of sinners.
In His own death, Jesus rescued sinners from the destruction they deserve. He willingly suffered at the hands of sinners and under the wrath of God so that repentant sinners could avoid eternal suffering. Instead of wrath, the cross of Christ guarantees that believers will only and always be objects of God’s greatest affections (Rom 8:1, 32-39).
As a mercy, God allows tragedies to illustrate sin and serve as a warning to the unrepentant. Yet tragedies also point us back to the cross, where Christ died to rescue sinners from suffering forever.