On blaming God for swine flu

Danny NalliahIt was reported last week that an American priest had told a Canberra Church that swine flu was God's punishment for sin. The report seems to have been a beat-up. The reporter's 'usually reliable source' proved to be the usual tendentious and unchecked source.

But stories about preachers who attribute disaster to divine punishment for sin have been in the news lately. And they have a long history.

Danny Nalliah (pictured), of Catch the Fire Ministries, attributed the Victorian bushfires to God withdrawing protection after the passing of abortion laws. In Austria, Gerhard Wagner withdrew after being nominated Auxiliary Bishop of Linz. He had claimed in a newsletter that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment for sexual permissiveness.

This line of preaching has drawn fire since Jesuit missionary Gabriel Malagrida was exiled from Portugal in the 18th century for preaching that the Lisbon earthquake was God's punishment for sin. Voltaire famously ridiculed the argument.

For Christians the issue is complex. The idea that God might use natural disasters to punish people for general sinfulness or particular sins is repugnant. But at first glance the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, do seem to represent God as doing just that. This tension bears reflection.

On examination the Scriptures are more equivocal about attributing disasters to a punishing God than might appear. They certainly represent the popular view that God uses natural events as rewards and punishments for individuals and nations. But in their representation of God they also stand at an angle to this view.

In stories like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the great flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah, God threatens annihilation but relents and spares humanity. When it comes to bargaining, God is a soft touch.

The prophets display the same complexity. They attribute disasters like military defeat to sin and the abandonment of God. But this sin has to do with misrule that crushes and impoverishes ordinary people. The disasters suffered by the nation are not simply inflicted from without but result naturally from a corrupted polity. And within this bleak picture, God is still presented as wanting to restore the people to prosperity and happiness

Two Old Testament books, in particular, subvert the popular nexus between sin, God's punishment and disaster. In the Book of Job, Job's comforters press him to acknowledge that his sins caused his calamities. The reader knows that Job is correct in refusing this connection. In the book of Jonah, too, the grumpy prophet finishes up furious that yet again God has chickened out of delivering on threats of destruction.

The New Testament also subverts the popular account of a judicial God. Its central message is that God loves sinners, that in Jesus God joins and dies for sinners. This view certainly insists on the catastrophic character of human sin. But God's response to it is anything but punitive. Jesus, too, refuses to blame the death of people in a building collapse either on their own sin or that of past generations.

The Scriptures then represent a prevailing view of a God who uses natural and military disasters to sanction bad behaviour. But they also undermine this view by describing God as concerned above all with relationships and as acting more as lover than judge. It is this image of God as lover that should control the way we speak of God's response to sin and involvement in disasters.

By these criteria it is not only unreasonable but also doubtfully Christian to attribute disasters to sinfulness in general. It is even more questionable to attribute them to particular sins.

The principal difficulty arises from the consistent movement in Scripture to define God in terms of relationship and not in terms of abstract theories of retribution. A God whose abiding disposition is one of love, and whose consistent focus is on the individual person and on their good, could not consider disasters an appropriate recompense for evil doing. Disasters are impersonal and indiscriminate. They kill the innocent whom God loves.

This becomes clear if we imagine a God sending the plague on a nation whose parliament has legalised same sex unions. It would be impossible to believe this God had the personal and special love for the poor, sinners and excluded of the world, as does the God we know in Jesus Christ. For the plague would generally spare the wealthy legislators who were well-nourished, could buy medicines and lived in hygienic surroundings. It would target precisely the poor people for whom Jesus had a special concern and who had no say in the legislation.

Another difficulty in attributing disasters to God's intention to punish sinners is that it assumes that you know the mind of God. The Old Testament prophets could claim this knowledge. But Christians have no warrant for making such a claim. Dreams and apparitions simply underline the point.

The more precise the knowledge claimed, the less credible becomes the claim. If a meteor struck the Sydney CBD, for example, how would you know whether it was to punish the practice of contraception, the pressure to legalise same sex marriages and abortions, galloping secularism, disregard of the environment, discrimination against asylum seekers, crass consumerism or the greed of banks?

The idea that we might know the mind of a God who sends disasters as punishment for particular sins is sub-Christian and sub-rational.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: vengeful God, danny naillah, swine flu, victorian bushfires, catch the fire ministries, gerhard wagner



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thanks, Andrew,great to hear the voice of reason here and an intelligent understanding of the scriptures and the non-judgemental person of Jesus.
Patrick Durack | 06 May 2009

Don't be so sure that the media report was a beat up. I heard the named priest say equally unacceptable things on an earlier night. After that I ceased to attend his mission, but was not surprised to read the newspaper report.

There are very learned and charismatic priests in Canberra. To bring in a culturally insensitive American who promoted fundamentalist interpretations of the scripture was a mistake.
Clair | 06 May 2009

Thank you for a very clear and logical argument. I have often wondered if some clerics had a special communication line to God that the rest of us do not have. Ah, the power to be enjoyed in knowing something that the rest of humanity does not know!
Kevin Luxford | 06 May 2009

It's good to see the 'retribution' nonsense knocked on the head.

The Book of Job is certainly the great challenge from within the Old Testament tradition to a prevalent view that divine intervention administers just punishments. Besides the stories of destruction, consider the implications of Psalm One: If you behave well, agreeable things will happen; what are people supposed to assume when Job is so afflicted?

In the Jonah story, the inhabitants of Nineveh were given forty days notice, during which they repented, so Yahweh could be seen as keeping his side of an implicit deal. Jonah, from an oppressed country, was sent to the centre of the empire. Understandably he had earlier tried not to go there, fled in the opposite direction, and ended up inside a whale. (Imagine a Hungarian in 1956 commissioned to stand in the Red Square and denounce the Soviet empire, a Central American bombing victim sent to the Pentagon, or a Tibetan to Tiananmen Square).

After going and delivering his public message, it's no wonder he was furious that his nation's oppressor escaped destruction, adults, infants and cattle. Jonah - unlike the Yahweh of this tale - had no soft spot about collateral damage.
CHRIS WATSON | 06 May 2009

Thank you Andrew for both clarifying the mixed biblical record in accounting for God's place in the outcome of human events and for focusing us on the point of departure that is the person and message of Jesus.

I was really disturbed to read one defence of the idea of events as God's judgement of people, played out in particular events. It was Archbishop Mark Coleridge - whom I believed to be a biblically well educated person - who commented that seeing the consequences of calamitous events befalling some is not necessarily a judgement on them individually or as communities.

So God does act through events but as an indiscrimnate sadist, carelessly and capriciously applying his penance wherever it falls, irrespective of guilt, does he? I don't think so.

The idea of events as God's judgement is just a bung place to start a theological discussion and anyone who starts it should be either ignored or asked to go home. Is it a place to start, for example, an assesment of the Twentieth Century's two World Wars, of the invasion of Iraq or anything else? Not at all.

But these events put starkly what is the real question believers have to face and respond to in assessing their adequacy of Christian faith in the face of human reality - the problem of evil: why do bad things happen to good people and why do bad people go to their graves acclaimed, even revered?

It's the problem of evil, one that's never allowed itself to be reduced to the corny calculus of small minded clerics offering their naive assessments.
Michael Kelly | 06 May 2009

Like Clair I was at that mission at St Peter Chanel's on that night. The reported words are correct. It was an unfortunate wording to achieve effect.

Worse still was the abstruse theology used by Archbishop Coleridge to clarify Fr Wades intended meaning. It has gone down like a lead balloon in Canberra. Met Fr. Wade and he is a charming, sincere man who tried too hard to get his message across with fundamentalist fervour.

Am delighted to read Andrews clear and balanced account which should have been sent to the Canberra Times to soothe many worried brows.

Len. Tuohy | 06 May 2009

I haven't heard this priest speak, but did attend two sessions of a mission in my parish given by the order of American priests he belongs to. Our priest showed no knowledge or interest in learning anything about Australian culture. It was a fly in fly out situation. No parish visitation was done as it was in an old fashioned mission.

On the second occasion I attended, there was great emphasis on sins of omission directed at parents of adult children.

Parents who suffer much anguish about their children's approach to their faith made up the vast bulk of the congregation and this emphasis is not very much help to them.I don't think love was mentioned. The sacrament of reconciliation (called Confession in this case) can bring parents comfort provided it is acknowledged that once children reach maturity parents no longer have control over their actions.

Marg | 06 May 2009

Andrew, I wish to add my congratulations to those already written.

I believe that had Archbishop Mark Coleridge published a response similar to your article, then the concerns expressed in the media in Canberra might have been stilled. I understand that the Archbishop invited this priest.I think it was an unfortunate choice as we have many talented clergy in Australia who would have done a far better job.It seems we 'import' too many priests to attempt to solve our shortage.

I feel this has done a lot of damage to the Church in Canberra.
Gavinj | 06 May 2009

I do not believe it's God's punishments, God love us so much, there is no one to blame but us,God love us so much unconditionally, ( I mean no conditions)The love is God is so big to judge us,we condemn ourselves,The God from the old testament is a God of strictness; in contrast the God in the Gospel is a God of tenderness, caring , supportive in the hardest moments, full of solidarity with the oppressed and those who are victims of this unjust system.
Roberto Monterrosa | 06 May 2009

In my article I was concerned to tease out the reasons why it is wrong to ascribe disasters to a punishing God. I didn't want to pass judgments on people.

But I remain unconvinced that Fr Menezes propounded the view which I criticised, for two reasons. First I believe that what people say should be read in the most favorable possible light. That means not giving credence to hostile hearsay accounts of what they say that are not tested against the original words used.

Second, Archbishop Coleridge wrote on the Archdiocesan website that he had been present at the talk, and believed Fr Menezes had been misrepresented by the newspaper report. He explained clearly enough that the visiting priest had used swine flu as an example in a more general argument that sinful actions have bad social and other consequences. I have argued the same point in saying that the greed of bankers and others has brought great misery on the world. The same kind of argument could be made about ecological damage.

Finally, I have read some of Fr Menezes' writings and I do not find there anything like the position attributed to him.

So on this single point I can find fault neither in Fr Menezes' sermon nor in Archbishop Coleridge's account, and I refrain from judgment as I would hope others would refrain from critical judgment on me in similar circumstances.
andy hamilton | 06 May 2009

Andy, thank you for another very accessible article.

I know the immediate response from reading the headlines and the following brief press reports of comments from Fr Menezes do stir the blood, but that is about all they do.

Passion is necessary for movement, but when we consider that the human propensity to create and shift blame in an instant, it is not surprising that media proprietors delight in controversy. This whole saga reminds me of the day I realised that Scripture is really about my life journey. In its many moods and expressions, my story could be seen as having been lived out by millions of my brothers and sisters as they searched for meaning in their lives. Scripture depicts the whole gamut of human nature on a continuum that traverses from the divine to the profane. Those thousands of years of history offer each of us an insight into how fragile we are when facing the forces of this universe. The patterns of ignorance and learning, failure and success, hate and love, wrong and right; are real in one sense yet temporary and illusory an another. I need them, they feed my ego and my desperate desire to be right.

The irony is that this primal urge to be right can only be measured against the wrongness of another. The tragedy is that in this process, another, becomes the other.
Vic O'Callaghan | 07 May 2009

Would it be simpler to admit that in scripture God was used to explain the unknown, be it good or bad. As our generations are more educated and aware we see things in a different light.
Paul McCluskie | 07 May 2009

Thank you Andrew for your clarification: that criticism of persons is not what you intended, but of attitudes we can safely speak. I have learned that whatever one says about God is more indicative of the person's own context than a theological truism.

In my experience God is the source of all life and the nucleus of relationships. In the face of disaster God is the way back to life, not the source of destruction.
P. Martin | 07 May 2009

“The idea that God might use natural disasters to punish people for general sinfulness or particular sins is repugnant.”

Why? Hamilton makes no attempt to defend this assertion, he simply begins from it as axiomatic.

And it is quite false to state that “The New Testament also subverts the popular account of a judicial God.” God is abundantly merciful but He IS also a Judge Who administers justice. Surely Mr Hamilton acknowledges that God will punish us all for our sins in the next life? What is so “repugnant” or “sub-Christian” or “sub-rational” at acknowledging that He also delivers part or all of the punishment for our sins through our sufferings in this life, including those brought upon us by plagues, earthquakes and other “acts of God”? In fact even we mere men, whose reason has been clouded by the Fall, can often see the causal relationship between sins and suffering.
Ronk | 07 May 2009

I was brought up a Catholic. I now embrace reason and a natural (as opposed to supernatural) view of life. It amazes me that intelligent clergy still seem to believe the myths of an ancient people which are full of contradictions and blatant misogyny. It is obvious that men invent their view of God and update it to fit in with changing knowledge and culture. God used to be vengeful but now he is not so much!
Patricia Brosnan | 19 April 2011


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up