Why do the innocent suffer? It’s a modern question as old as the Book of Job

A banner proclaiming, “Together We are Strong,” is displayed in Newtown, Conn., in memory of the children and adults who died at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. RNS PHOTO/Arthur McClanahan/Iowa United Methodist Conference

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WACO (ABP)—Many criticized prominent evangelicals like James Dobson and Mike Huckabee for claiming December’s Connecticut school massacre was God’s punishment of a morally disobedient nation, but don’t expect such views to change.

Scholars insist the belief in divine retribution for personal and national transgressions not only goes back as far as the Old Testament Book of Job, but also is a concept fused into the American worldview.

“This is a recurring pattern in American history since the Puritans,” said Barry Hankins, professor of history and resident scholar in religion at Baylor University. “They believed God is in covenant with nations and in covenant with America.”

Theologians call it theodicy—beliefs that seek to explain why a just God allows human beings to suffer. In the United States, biblical theodicy becomes intertwined with civil religion.

“It’s hard to tell where one begins and the other one ends,” Hankins said.

Both have been in full display since the Dec. 14 murders of 20 first graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., he noted. Naturally, people, including the victims’ families, are asking, “Why?”

For former presidential candidate and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, the answer is that God is punishing the nation because schools do not sanction prayer and religious instruction. Huckabee later added the use of abortion pills to the list of causes.

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson said gay marriage and secularism forced God’s hand to allow the slaughter at the school in Newtown.

Those are just the latest examples. Some Christians have blamed everything from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina on Americans living what they consider to be unbiblical lives.
“It’s all born of this idea that God judges America on a case-by-case basis,” Hankins said.

That’s an idea straight out of the Old Testament, said Matthew Baldwin, associate professor in the department of religion, history and philosophy at Mars Hill College in North Carolina.

Baldwin teaches theodicy and historical biblical theology and sees both in the recent comments of Huckabee and Dobson. But he said their God-punishes-America view is a narrow one, even by biblical standards.

The early Hebrew prophets interpreted calamity as God’s punishment of Israel for the misbehavior of individuals, Baldwin said. But the prophet Jeremiah offers a view in which the nation is not held accountable for the actions of a few or even many. In the Book of Job, meanwhile, Baldwin said, “The author says, ‘Look, sometimes suffering just happens.'” The belief that God smites the many for the sins of the few is even further dissipated in the Gospels, he added.

But that evolving message is not reflected in the theology of some conservative American Christians, Baldwin said.
“The theodicy these guys are working with … holds God responsible for both natural disasters and these human-made tragedies,” Baldwin said. “It’s rooted in the ancient Israelite conception that God is in control of every single thing that happens.”

Dennis Sansom, professor and chair of philosophy at Samford University, said it also is rooted in human nature. “It’s part of the human condition to ask why and look for explanations” when disasters and suffering occurs, he said.

It’s also natural for those who believe in a good, loving God to ask why evil exists—and what behaviors can be adopted or modified to prevent disasters. It’s why he predicts more of the same in the future—especially in the United States, where theodicy is woven in the social and political fabric.

“I think such comments will be with us, regardless of how secular or non-churched the society becomes,” Sansom said.

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