the Hands of an Angry God?
Rev. Carlton Pearson’s fall from power came when he stopped
believing in hell. Up until then, he had been the African-American
golden boy in the largely white evangelical movement.
He was a rising megastar, a fire-and- brimstone-preaching
graduate of Oral Roberts University with a whip-smart wit,
and charisma for days. He grew wealthy and powerful. He was
well-regarded—guests of both Bush administrations, a guest
on the 700 Club. He grew used to the very good life.
But then he lost his faith in a retributive God, and the whole
thing came crumbling down. People didn’t want to hear about
a God of grace and grace alone. Within a matter of months
he lost his 500-member congregation with its staff of five
pastors. He lost his income. He was ostracized by fellow evangelicals.
His words about God’s grace fell on deaf ears. Without a sanctified
“us” and sinful “them,” his theology couldn’t make the saved
feel special and the lost pathetic.
I thought of the Rev. Carlton Pearson the other day as I was
listening to a call-in talk show on WGY. And I’m still trying
to wrap my mind around the labyrinthine logic I heard.
The issue: Several well-known Anglican bishops have made world
news claiming that the recent dam-bursting rains in the United
Kingdom are signs of God’s retribution for human sinfulness.
is a strong and definite judgment because the world has been
arrogant in going its own way,” declares the Right Reverend
Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle. “We are reaping the consequences
of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage
that we have caused.”
are now reaping what we have sown,” says the Right Reverend
James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool. “If we live in a profligate
way then there are going to be consequences.”
Local people were calling the radio show to voice their opinions
about this Falwellian-style claim—a claim very much at odds
with the image of the Anglican church where the men, like
the Queen, wear dresses and funny hats.
As I listened I noticed that, by and large, the callers didn’t
disagree with what the bishops were saying. After all, they’ve
heard it all before; American evangelical leaders are big
on retribution theories: AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality.
9/11 was God’s punishment for homosexuality. Hurricane Katrina
was God’s punishment for sexuality.
So while nobody seemed to take issue with the bishops’ statements,
they did seem interested in sharing their theories on the
means and methods of God’s retribution.
One man pointed out that we see too many pictures of God as
loving, so we start to form the wrong idea of who God really
is. Enough of Jesus with the children, Jesus with the sheep,
Jesus stilling the storm. Check out the book of Revelation,
the caller pointed out—or even Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind
series—and you get a pretty good glimpse of some serious
divine retribution: At a word from the Lord, whole portions
of the human population are wiped out by sword, famine, pestilence,
The radio talk-show host had a problem with that. Why would
it be God-like to make innocent people suffer for the sins
that others committed?
Another caller agreed with her. After all, an awful lot of
humankind is law-abiding, straight and church-going. Why would
God smite the common man, innocently driving his Tahoe to
Wal-Mart to find some bargains on motor oil and disposable
diapers? People like that hold the fabric of society together.
God wouldn’t punish them.
So if full-scale smiting is happening it just could be that
the devil is trying to get people to think it is God’s handiwork.
The devil can be crafty like that. He can even fool Anglican
bishops who think that the problem with “environmental judgment
is that it is indiscriminate.” In fact, it might just be the
devil’s very discriminating trickery.
Not so, another caller argued. God wants to punish
sinners. So when disasters kill massive numbers of people,
God is only “smiting” sinners. The rest of the dead, the innocent
ones, God is “harvesting.” He is bringing them back to heaven
since life on earth is no great shakes anyway if you’re a
poor kid in Africa or Asia. AIDS, tsunamis, famine, civil
war—it’s just God’s way of harvesting the good guys and punishing
the bad. Divine multi-tasking.
Wait just a minute, the radio host countered. Didn’t God say
he wouldn’t destroy Sodom if even as few as 10 righteous people
were found there? Doesn’t it say right there in Genesis “never
again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood
and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth?”
So maybe those Anglican Primates ought to study their scriptures
a little more closely.
But her words—reasonable words given the unreasonability of
the topic—didn’t seem to sway her listeners. The notion of
a divine chastisement was too dear a notion to dispense with.
If they were certain of anything, it was that God could—and
probably does—kick some butt.
It isn’t that I’m not afraid of that kind of God; I would
be if I believed in that kind of God. And yet none of the
callers I heard seemed to think the Anglican Bishops might
be wrong—except the one who thought the devil had tricked
them. Nor did they see themselves as part of the “moral degradation”
that God was now so wetly addressing. It was just a call-in
show, and the just were calling in.