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In the Hands of an Angry God?


The 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.

“This 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.”

“We 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, fire, drought.

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.

—Jo Page

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