Luke 13:1-5 – There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
Questions about Tragic Events
How can a good, all-powerful God allow “innocent” people to suffer and die? When tragedy strikes, this question is raised by believers and unbelievers alike—whether the tragic event be caused by natural calamity, such as an earthquake or flood, or whether it be by intentional human evil, such as a serial killer or a terrorist attack. If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He prevent such events? And if God is all-good, how can He allow such events to hurt innocent people?
Does the Bible give us answers to these and other related questions? It certainly does, but the answers are not simple, and they’re not complete and exhaustive and final answers. In fact, the Bible refers to the “mystery of iniquity or lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2:7). In the Bible, the term “mystery” refers to something that is concealed from human knowledge and reason, and can only be known from what God reveals in Scripture. So we should not expect to know everything about the “why’s” of tragic events in this life, but we can gain some understanding from what God has revealed in His Word. So what does the Bible say about what’s going on behind the scenes when tragic events occur?
Cause of Tragic Events
First of all, we can be certain that there would not be one single tragic event if there were no sin in this world. After God completed His work of creation, “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31). There were no tragic events in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, and there will be no tragic events in heaven, because there will be no sin there. So sin is the root problem behind all tragic events. Romans 5:12 says “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:” Notice that this verse also has something to say about so-called “innocent” people. According to the Bible, everyone falls short of God’s absolute standards (Romans 3:23), so there really are no “innocent” people. Furthermore, in Romans 8:20-22, we see that sin affected the natural world as well, so tragic events like violent storms or volcanic eruptions are also the result of sin which man brought into this world.
Discipline and Tragic Events
There is no doubt that God can use tragic events to judge the wicked and discipline His people. Through the natural disaster of the world wide Flood God brought judgment on the whole world of wicked people (Genesis 6:5-7). God can also use intentional human evil to accomplish His purposes of discipline or judgment. In Isaiah 10:5, God referred to the pagan nation of Assyria as the “rod of My anger,” and in Jeremiah 51:20, God called Babylon “My battle-ax.” God used the intentional human evil of these cruel pagan nations to bring about tragic events of judgment. Death, destruction and captivity were God’s judgment of Israel and Judah because of their persistent wickedness. However, the fact that God can use human evil does not in any way make God responsible or morally culpable for the evil. The fact that God used their evil actions for His purposes did not justify the evil intent or actions of Babylon or Assyria. Furthermore, God held these pagan empires accountable for their evil ways, and they in turn were judged. (See Isaiah 10:12 and Jeremiah 51:24.)
God not only can use tragic events to judge cities and nations, but He can use tragic events to judge the wickedness of individuals as well. God used the natural disaster of an earthquake to deal with the rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16). He used a natural calamity—a horrible illness—to strike down proud Herod (Acts 12:21-23). And He used the evil intent of Jehu to deal with the wickedness of Ahab and Jezebel (2 Kings 9-10). Make no mistake about it—the Bible teaches that God can use all kinds of tragic events to judge the sin of mankind—right down to the individual sinner!
Misjudging Tragic Events
Having established the biblical concept that God can use tragic events to discipline His people or judge the wicked, let’s not jump to the conclusion that every tragic event is God’s discipline or judgment. Certainly not! In fact, the Lord Jesus strongly cautioned against such thinking in Luke 13:1-5, when He rebuked some people who had wrongly concluded that all tragic events are the judgment of God for sin.
In Luke 13 Jesus was questioned about two tragic events. One was a natural calamity, and the other was the result of intentional human evil. The tragic event in which eighteen people were crushed under a collapsed tower in Siloam was an accident—a natural calamity. Whether the tower fell because of an earthquake, faulty construction or age is not important. There was no intentional moral evil involved -it just happened. It was a natural disaster. The other tragic event, in which some Galilean pilgrims were killed by Pilate as they were offering their sacrifices, was caused by intentional human evil. Notice that the Lord Jesus gave the same answer for both events. The people who were questioning Jesus assumed that those killed in these tragic events were worse sinners than everyone else, and that their deaths were God’s discipline or judgment upon them. The Lord, in both cases, emphatically said, I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
So when tragic events occur, either as the result of natural calamity or human evil, let’s not jump to the conclusion that the people who suffer the results are more guilty of wrong-doing than others who escape tragedy. Just as “That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45), so God sometimes allows tragic events to occur, regardless of the moral condition of the people who are caught in the tragedy. While God can and does use tragic events in sovereign judgment, Luke 13 teaches us that this is not God’s normal operating procedure. In fact, unless there is a clear indication of direct judgment, we should assume that the tragic events are not the judgment of God for some specific sin.
Other Reasons for Tragic Events
A tragic event may be God’s warning or “wake-up” call for individuals who have drifted into self-centered, complacent or sinful lifestyles, or nations which have deliberately turned away from God’s moral standards. Unfortunately, a tragic event may be the only way God can get people’s attention! In Zephaniah 3:6-7, the Lord revealed that the calamities that befell other cities were a warning to Jerusalem. Unfortunately the warning was not heeded: “I have cut off the nations: their towers are desolate; I made their streets waste, that none passeth by: their cities are destroyed, so that there is no man, that there is none inhabitant. I said, Surely thou wilt fear me, thou wilt receive instruction; so their dwelling should not be cut off, howsoever I punished them: but they rose early, and corrupted all their doings.” The violent events mentioned in Luke 13 were a wake-up call to the Jews of Jesus’ day, and Jesus’ message to them was “Repent!” Their failure to repent resulted in the overthrow of Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Roman armies. It is a blessing when a tragic event brings people to their knees in repentance. As a result, one tragic event may serve to prevent further and greater tragic events.
God may use tragedies of illness or death to display His power and glory, with the purpose of bringing unbelievers to salvation. In John 9 we read of the tragic situation of a man who had been blind from birth. In that culture a physical disability or illness was thought to be God’s judgment for sin, but Jesus explained to His followers that sin was not the cause of the man’s blindness. “Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” (9:3). The man’s sight was restored, and he became a believer in Jesus (9:38). John 11 describes the tragedy of the illness and death of Lazarus, which, as Jesus explained, was permitted to happen for a specific purpose: “for God’s glory, so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (11:4) and “so that you may believe” (11:14). The tragedies of John 9 and 11 were permitted to display the power and glory of God so that people might believe in Jesus.
God can even use man’s intended moral evil to result in praise to Him! Psalm 76:10 says that God makes the “wrath of men to praise Him.” The Pharaoh of Egypt refused to free the Hebrew slaves and thus allowed God to work mighty miracles for His people (Exodus 5:1-2 and 11:9). In Acts 16, God used both the evil intentions of men and a natural calamity to bring about the salvation of the Philippian jailer and the establishment of the church at Philippi. And the Roman persecution and dispersion of the early Christians caused the gospel to be spread throughout the known world!
Living faithfully in the midst of tragic events develops God’s people into mature and disciplined believers. “Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ:” (1 Peter 1:6-7). The tragic events in Joseph’s life were caused by the intentional evil actions of his brothers and Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 37 and 39). It was through tragedy and suffering that Joseph learned to trust God ever more deeply, and gained great spiritual maturity (Genesis 50:20). Job’s understanding of God grew and his faith matured through the tragic natural disasters that befell him (Job 42:1-5). Martha’s faith and Mary’s trust were strengthened by the tragic death of their brother. “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.” (Hebrews 12:11).
Sovereign Control of Tragic Events
In Ephesians 1:11 we read that God “works all things after the counsel of His will.” If He works all things after the counsel of His will, then He is in purposeful sovereign control of every event, including tragic events. Nothing happens by chance! God has a reason for everything He allows to happen. We may not understand His reasons now, but we may be assured that He has His reasons. Remember that God said, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
While we finite creatures do not understand all of God’s reasons for allowing tragic events, we can be sure of one thing: God’s reasons are good reasons. God is good (Luke 18:19), and God is love (1 John 4:8), and God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). So whether tragic events are God’s judgment or they “just happen,” we know that God is in control and has His reasons.
The Supreme “Tragic Event”
The greatest demonstration of how God caused good to triumph over evil was the “tragic event” of the Cross. Here God used the intentional moral evil of man and Satan to triumph over sin and Satan. At Pentecost, Peter captured the concept concisely when he said, “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.” (Acts 2:23-24). Notice that it was the intentional evil of man that nailed Jesus Christ to the cross, but the situation was never out of God’s control. God’s plans were not disrupted by an evil government or the hostility of unbelievers. The death of Jesus Christ was accomplished according to God’s predetermined plan. God’s ultimate purpose was to conquer death, the penalty for sin. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33).
The End of All Tragic Events
Because of the triumph of God’s plan at the cross, tragic events won’t be around forever. When sin and its effects are removed, tragic events will cease. The creation, which “groans” because of sin, will no longer produce natural calamities and disaster (Romans 8:18-23). Moral evil will be completely judged and eliminated (Revelation 20:10-15). “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21:4). Our present world is subject to tragic events of natural disasters and intentional moral evil. God calls us to trust Him and live faithfully in the midst of the sin and suffering. But we look forward to a glorious future when evil will be gone forever, and tragic events will be no more!