Traditional View of an Angry God Has Softened

Times Staff Writers

To err is human. But is punishment divine? And if God is unleashing his wrath, how do you know?

These eternal questions arose last week when New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said the hurricanes that devastated his city showed that “God is mad at America” and black communities. A few weeks earlier, TV evangelist Pat Robertson suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke was payback for pulling out of the Gaza Strip.

The remarks raised eyebrows and prompted quick apologies, but they were nothing new. Humans have long invoked a deity -- or deities -- when trying to make sense of the world.

In antiquity, Romans blamed their army’s losses to Hannibal on their failure to complete important religious rites. In the Middle Ages, the Black Death was viewed as the wages of sin. The same has been said of AIDS, even of Sept. 11.


Tying divine retribution to politics is nothing new either.

In 1920, some Western religious figures blamed the rise of Communism for an earthquake in China that killed 200,000. After a devastating quake in Pakistan last fall, some Muslim leaders there said President Pervez Musharraf had provoked God’s anger by allowing into the country Western indulgences, such as cable TV, or by aligning himself too closely with the United States.

But the view of a vengeful god has softened over time. God is less interested, many scholars and religious figures say, in creating catastrophes than in seeing how humans react to them.

Humans are still held accountable for their actions, they say. The question is whether punishment occurs in this life or in the next.

Saying God causes calamities to make a point is not “befitting the mercy and the justice of God,” said Dr. Maher Hathout, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California.

If an earthquake destroys life and property, Hathout is inclined to see it as a function of plate tectonics.

“We believe that when God put us on the planet Earth, it is controlled by laws of physics; we’ll have the good and the bad,” said Hathout, a cardiologist. “There are consequences to what we do,” he added, but unfortunate events on Earth are “controlled by the laws of Earth, by the law of this world.”


Also, declaring that God calls people to repentance by dispatching bad times “can be a two-edged sword,” said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara.

“For example, you could say that, with Hurricane Katrina, God went after the evil city of New Orleans and the gamblers of Biloxi, Miss.,” Melton mused. “But because he followed that up with Hurricane Rita, you could say he was going after President Bush and the corrupt elite ruling class of Texas.”

In any case, Melton said, “the Old Testament God who shows his pleasure in dribs and drabs by sending rain or drought is not alive and well. Within evangelical Christianity it is still spoken about, but everywhere else it is almost gone. What knocked it out was the Holocaust, which had a tremendous influence on liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics.”

Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, of B’nai David-Judea Congregation in West Los Angeles, agrees. Carrying the old way of thinking to its logical conclusion, the Holocaust happened because God was angry -- something “not many people are prepared to say,” Kanefsky said.

“Especially in the post-Holocaust era, we stand before events that occur with utmost humility,” he said. “Those who think they know the answer are just not thinking about the wider implications of their thesis that things can be explained.”

When people attribute suffering to God’s anger, it may say less about the ways of God than about the believers.


“To have a God who rejoices over pain is to have a more negative concept of God than I think we should have,” said the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray, former pastor of L.A.’s First AME Church. “People play the blame game with God, and it tells you more about the people playing the game than about the God they are gaming.”

Whether studying the Old Testament or the New, a reader should recognize that humanity’s understanding of God is not static, said Murray, a lecturer at the USC School of Religion. God has allowed humankind’s understanding to deepen. God stays the same, he said, but what people believe about God changes -- and should.

“I think that we fail to see the word of God as an open-ended revelation,” he said. “Thus there are portions of Scripture that condone slavery, but as we mature in our understanding of God, we see that slavery is not justifiable. Women are subjugated in Scripture to second-class positions, but as we grow in God, our understanding grows.”

Still, the concept of divine retribution retains its power for some.

Robertson’s syndicated program drew an average of 863,000 viewers a day during the 2004-05 television season, according to Nielsen Media Research. In 2001, Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks signaled a new era of divine punishment for a sinful nation. Both later apologized.

In November, Robertson said voters in Dover., Pa., risked God’s anger because they recalled school trustees who favored teaching “intelligent design,” which holds that organisms are too complex to have developed independently.

The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, has disavowed some of Robertson’s pronouncement but does not rule out the notion of divine vengeance.


“There is no indication that God is not vengeful -- if you do awful things, awful things will happen to you,” said Haggard, a pastor in Colorado who heads a congregation of 12,000. “If a guy is out at 2 a.m. in a bar with a bunch of hookers, the likelihood is greater that he’ll end up with a disease than [will] a little old lady in bed at that hour.”

Even so, Haggard criticized Robertson’s remarks about Israel’s Sharon. As for Katrina, he said, “that was natural law, not God, because it hit wonderful churches as well as bars and ungodly people.”

Consequences are what fuel the law of karma found in the Vedas, the sacred books of Hinduism: For every action there is an equal reaction.

The law applies to individuals as well as communities or nations, said Lauren Landress, a spokeswoman for the Self-Realization Fellowship, headquartered in L.A. and founded by Paramahansa Yogananda.

“So when we see either different natural catastrophes ... or man-made catastrophes -- wars -- they are the result of cumulative actions. It’s the law of cause and effect,” Landress said.

But many religious leaders argue that those who search for God in calamities would do better to search for him in the aftermath -- in the actions of those offering help and comfort.


Rabbi Kanefsky recalled an essay on suffering by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a noted 20th century scholar, who “was very explicit in saying when a calamity occurs, ‘Why?’ is the wrong question.”

Said Kanefsky: “The only question that we ask is ... how can we help?”