How Pat Robertson was wrong and right

At a time when the world should be focused on the tragedy of the Haiti earthquake and how we can best help the people of the Carribbean nation, Pat Robertson’s insensitive comments are an unwelcome distraction. If he wasn’t so well-known, Pat Robertson could be easily dismissed. Instead, his claim that the Haitian earthquake was a result of a Satanic pact has caused Christians to both cringe and join in the outrage of others. If you haven’t heard, Robertson’s comments came on the Christian Broadcasting Network, where he explained to viewers:

…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, uh, you know, Napoleon the third and whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the devil, they said, we will serve you, if you get us free from the Prince, true story. And so the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free, and ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor. . . the Island of Hispaniola is one island cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti, on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is, is, prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty, same Islands, uh, they need to have, and we need to pray for them, a great turning to God. And out of this tragedy, I’m optimistic something good may come, but right now we’re helping the suffering people, and the suffering is unimaginable.

Robertson has made many injudicious statements in the past, but this has to be his most stupid. It is a difficult thing to read into God’s intentions concerning specific disasters and it is never acceptable for us to pronounce why God has done something unless He has actually already told us. While the Bible reveals that God has often judged nations in the past, and has used natural disasters to implement that judgment, it does not follow that every natural disaster is an instance of His judgment. Our understanding of these events should be set in the context of Jesus’ response in Luke 13:

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5 ESV).

Suffering should remind us of our own self-centeredness and finitude, and force us to reconsider our theology by the cold light of reality. John Mark Reynolds also makes some good points about the appropriateness of Robertson’s comments:

Robertson has been inhuman in two ways.

First, even if he were right, he has picked a horrid time to pontificate. When my friends is suffering from cancer, even if it is his fault, it is the wrong time to remind him that I told him he should have stopped smoking. It is ugly and useless.

Heal the sick, bury the dead, feed the hungry and then deal with root spiritual causes. Safe to say every nation, and Haiti is surely one, has made philosophical and practical decisions that help cause tragedy. We can talk about that when the people of Haiti have been helped by the Church.

Second, even if his theology were sound, he has stated it in such a way and at such a time that it will be misunderstood and will be mocked. He has pronounced a “truth” that (he must concede) would be hard for our culture to hear in a way and at a time that brings that “truth” into derision.

If Robertson were right in his theology and philosophy, his timing has fed his pearls to swine on a silver platter.

Recently Robertson faced major health problems and rightly asked for our prayers. It would have been wrong to be facile and associate his problems with sin. Robertson should grant the people of Haiti the same treatment that he demanded in the case of his illness. (HT: JT)

Melinda on the Stand to Reason blog also makes the important point that for all the ridicule that Robertson is receiving we should not ignore the fact that he is not wrong to remind us of the real-world consequences to religious beliefs. She writes,  “The consequences not only affect our lives now, but also have eternal consequences.  Religion is real and the choice is serious”. Melinda goes on:

“Pat Robertson had no grounds to claim he knew the earthquake was God’s judgment on the Haitians for voodoo.  He was right to point out that practicing voodoo is evil and results in a curse, as do all false religions.  People are truly lost when they follow a lie, and are truly saved when they follow the truth.  There are consequences to practicing false religion because the spiritual world is real.”

10 replies
  1. Simon
    Simon says:

    So we could summarise this as:

    God does act in the world and can cause natural disasters at his will, and based on spiritual reasons, however we can never know as humans what disasters are caused by God and which by solely natural processes.

    Fair summary?

    Oh, and the scriptures are the only reliable source of God being involved in natural disasters? So in the past 1900 odd years, and for all the natural events that occurred in the universe over 6 odd billion years that the scriptures don’t mention, we can’t attribute any of these natural events to God for sure, right? It would be basically guess work.

  2. Other Simon
    Other Simon says:

    ||“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you||; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.|| Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you||; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5 ESV).

    I’m sorry, but does no-one else see this as perhaps the most oxymoronic passage ever?!!

    The first and third section insist that disaster does not portend guilt, and the second and fourth sections essentially say “but if you are guilty of not repenting, you will bring about your own demise”.

    !!!

    Even the book of Job, whose whole point is to say that disaster does not indicate guilt, is sabotaged by its own ending when Job is reinstated due to his non-guilt! Admittedly Job was plagued by a multitude of authors.

    And now we have John Mark Reynolds vs. Melinda.
    Methinks I see a pattern emerging. Confused people abound where thinking is allowed to be ungrounded by reality.

  3. Jason
    Jason says:

    Thanks for your comments guys.

    Simon –

    Your summary introduces a distinction that most Christians would be uncomfortable with. There is nothing that occurs apart from God’s will and purposes. The universe is not a clock that he has wound up and let go. Therefore, no natural process is “solely natural” or outside his governance and sovereignty (Ps 75:3 John 1:4 Col 1:17; Heb 1:3; Re 4:11). While I said that we should be cautious in saying whether a specific disaster is an example of His specific judgment, in fact there is a sense in which natural disasters are a part of his judgment for humanity’s fall into sin (Gen 3:14-19, Rom 8:20).

    With this in mind, the question is not whether God is involved, but what are God’s specific purposes at work? This is where Pat Robertson went astray, in thinking he could speak directly to God’s purposes in the Haitian earthquake.

    Other Simon –

    If you ignore the fact that the Bible claims (and Jesus acknowledges) that all of humanity is under the sentence of God’s judgment, then perhaps Jesus’ comments might seem confusing. According to the Bible, we are all guilty and are offenders against God. All Jesus is saying here is that those who died were not greater offenders and that their destruction was not a specific judgment from God.

    I’m not sure why you think John Mark Reynolds and Melinda disagree. Their comments are congruent. You’ll need to explain how they are at odds.

  4. Other Simon
    Other Simon says:

    Jason,

    Yes. I just think that at best the intertwining of these statements is very, very, bizarre.

    According to the Bible, we are all guilty and are offenders against God. All Jesus is saying here is that those who died were not greater offenders and that their destruction was not a specific judgment from God.

    But that if you don’t repent you will receive that very specific demise as a result. !!

    Reynolds and Melinda: Yes, perhaps. But my point is merely that, still today, we get the contradictory messages that disaster doesn’t strike people who deserve it but that god does bring disaster on those who deserve it.

  5. Simon
    Simon says:

    Jason,

    So God is always involved, necessarily, but in only some instances is he purposefully causing events to happen or not. And it seems we can never know this distinction for sure, unless written in the Bible. I mean, we could never trust a modern day human for the same reasons we don’t trust Pat.

    This doesn’t really make sense to me. The difference of purpose seems a weak distinction at best.

    Not that we could ever understand the mind/logic/whatever of a god.

  6. Gregory Anderson
    Gregory Anderson says:

    It would appear that we who claim to be Christians in the public forum would do well to read the Book of Job prior to making public comments about what God thinks about suffering and whether the righteous suffer, etc.

    suffering servant,
    gralan

    http://www.TrinityTheology.org

  7. Jason
    Jason says:

    Simon,

    I appreciate the conversation.

    I’m not sure Christians wouldn’t even make that distinction. God is always involved and is always working things according to His own purposes and will. Even the darkest act in history – the death of God’s own Son at the hands of Pontius Pilate and the religious elite – was according to His plan and purposes (Acts 4:27-28). There is nothing unintentional or accidental in God’s universe.

    The only difference is between what we know and do not know, between what God chooses to reveal and chooses to keep hidden (Deut 29:29). Just as it is difficult for me to know a person’s exact intentions unless I’m told explicitly (although I can sometimes get a rough idea from that person’s actions) so we should be careful in declaring what God’s intentions are in an event that He has not explained. You’re right, God’s ways should be unknowable and incomprehensible – however Christian’s believe God has chosen to condescend and disclose Himself to us. The problem with Pat Robertson’s comments is that he has gone beyond and against what God has actually disclosed.

  8. Jason
    Jason says:

    Other Simon,

    Let me try and break down some of the implicit and explicit assumptions that are operating here in the Luke 13 passage:

    1. Physical death is a consequence of (and judgment for) sin.

    2. In a fallen world, all have sinned and must bear this consequence.

    3. Therefore, in dying, the people who were crushed by the tower suffered this unavoidable consequence (and judgment) that everyone must bear.

    5. Jesus explains that the actual way they died (by the falling structure) does not imply that they deserved any greater judgment.

    6. Jesus also explains that those who reject him and do not entrust themselves to him will also bear the temporal consequences of sin (physical death) and therefore face the eternal consequences of sin (hell).

    If there is a contradiction here, you’ll need to demonstrate which two statements are in conflict (remember to be contradictory A must be A and non-A at the same time and in the same relationship).

  9. Other Simon
    Other Simon says:

    Jason,

    I do not see your point 1 in the verse. Fankly, I think you are wrong on this. Consider:

    The sentences about the ‘worse sinners’ are clearly intended to show that just because someone suffers more it does not mean that they were worse sinners or deserved it more. I think we agree on that.
    Nowhere is it even suggested that (your point 1) physical death is a consequence of sin. Furthermore, even if, as you suggest, the passage means that physical death is the consequence of sin, Jesus is just blatantly lying, for even those who have repented physically die, yet he is suggesting that those that repent don’t physically die!

    If, as I presume it would be claimed, Jesus is not talking about a physical death when he suggests that one must repent to not perish then why does he use physical death as an analogy to death from not repenting? Why does he use the term “likewise”? And why does he not just spell out that he doesn’t mean a physical death?
    Furthermore – and this goes back to my original claim about how bizarre this passage is – if Jesus was trying to show that if one does not repent that one will perish (in a non-physical way), why would he confuse the issue by adding the complication of the more-suffering-doesn’t-mean-more-guilt issue? Why wouldn’t he just say “everyone dies, and so will you if you don’t repent”?

    This passage is fraught with these problems, which is why I call the juxtaposition of these issues, at best, very bizarre; and at worst, oxymoronic.

    thanks

  10. Simon
    Simon says:

    Jason

    You say “The problem with Pat Robertson’s comments is that he has gone beyond and against what God has actually disclosed.”

    I would reply the problem with this is that you, and no other human, is in a better position to determine God’s purpose than Pat. So for anyone to say he’s wrong, if they also believe he could theoretically be right, seems to be proclaiming a greater knowledge of God’s will.

    Now, someone could say, as the originally quoted author implied, that he might be right but he was wrong to say it like he did because it is rude in our current society/culture. This is a different issue. Surely if he is right, to state a supreme truth like this shouldn’t be rude – we should be investigating this pact with the devil and resolve the spiritual issues with the French, otherwise more Haitians will die! This would seem of great importance…

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