Many Evangelicals believe that the devil is behind all disasters in the world and that God has nothing or little to do with them. Is that comfort?
"The Devil Did It!": The Distressing Message of Green Pastures Ballymena
Who sent the Flood in Noah’s day? (Gen. 6:17).
Who rained fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah? (Gen. 19:24).
Who smote all the firstborn of the Egyptians? (Ex. 12:29).
Who drowned Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea? (Ex. 15:1).
Who kills and makes alive according to Hannah’s song? (I Sam. 2:6-7).
Who struck David’s infant son with sickness so he died? (I Sam. 12:15).
Who gave Jerusalem into the hands of the Babylonians? (Dan. 1:1-2).
Who sent famine, war and pestilence upon Israel? (Amos 3:6, 4:6-9; Hag. 1:10).
On 8th July on Radio North “Green Pastures Church” in Ballymena broadcast a message by Senior Pastor Jeff Wright in which he denied the sovereignty of God over suffering. We did not choose to answer Pastor Wright because of any personal animosity (I do not know him; I am only answering what he said), but because his message is representative of many presentations on this subject, and I hope that a refutation will be helpful to others.
Sadly, Pastor Wright’s message is what we have come to expect from many evangelical pulpits. God, claims Wright, has nothing to do with natural disasters, sicknesses or other afflictions which come upon believers or unbelievers. These are all the works of the devil which Christ came to destroy. God wants His people to be free from disease, free from poverty and free from affliction. Seventy to eighty percent of the church is confused about this issue, he claims. Speaking with passion—which some might even interpret as an angry tirade or rant—Wright says:
“I want to set the record straight about what this pastor believes about his Father God, his ‘Daddy God’ from the Bible ...” “The God which we serve is not the God of tragedy, not the God of suffering, not the God of sickness ... Our God, if he had any role ... the only role he had ... was in the protection of others.” “Would God not weep at such stuff ...?”
Presumably, then, if I understand Wright correctly, when an earthquake struck Haiti several years ago, or more recently, when an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, God was not in control of it, and God stood by and watched in horror—as we helpless humans did—as men, women and children were swept away to their deaths; and then God wept over the suffering which it caused. That earthquake, according to Wright, was the work of the devil and in no sense the work of God.
But such notions do not agree with the Word of God. We quoted no fewer than eight examples above where God sent devastation on the earth. In none of those cases does the Bible shy away from declaring that God sent the disaster in question. In none of those cases does the Bible say that the devil did it. Indeed, the devil has a role to play in evil, but never does God abdicate and give the devil absolute freedom to do whatever he wants so that God is not sovereign.
Let us examine Pastor Wright’s main arguments in the light of Scripture.
“We are living in the day of grace”
Wright is Dispensational in his understanding of Scripture. For example, he speaks of two kingdoms—one is a spiritual kingdom in our hearts which Christ set up at His first coming; the second will be a kingdom on the earth with Jerusalem as its “command centre.” In the Old Testament God was supposedly the God of judgment. Now He is the God of grace. Wright says that in the future God “will get off the throne of grace and will get back on the throne of judgment.” Presumably, then, in the Old Testament God was a judging, vengeful God, but now in Jesus Christ God is a God of grace and love. Since God is (temporarily) on the throne of grace He is not meting out judgments—therefore earthquakes, famines and other disasters are neither caused by Him nor judgments upon people for their sins in “the day of grace.” It is, however, not clear whether Wright even believes that God was sending disasters in the Old Testament because he says about the “death angel” (KJV: destroyer, Ex. 12:23), that it was “not a godly angel; it was a satanic angel ... it sided with the devil.” Exodus 12:29 says very clearly, “And it came to pass that at midnight the Lord [Jehovah] smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt.” We even sing of it in Psalm 136:10, “To Him [Jehovah] that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for His mercy endureth forever.” That latter verse is very interesting: it tells us that Jehovah’s mercy is everlasting, and it tells us that out of God’s everlasting mercy—for Israel, not Egypt—God killed the firstborn Egyptians!
The phrase “day of grace” is not found in the Bible. The closest phrase to it is II Corinthians 6:2, “the day of salvation.” But that is a quotation from Isaiah 49:8, showing that God’s day of grace also included the Old Testament period, and an even more expansive day of grace was promised when God would embrace the Gentiles. The other popular phrase, “under grace” is only found in Romans 6:14-15, and means that believers, whether in the Old Testament or New Testament, are not under the law unto condemnation but in Christ and therefore under grace. That has nothing to do with God supposedly vacating one throne—judgment—for the whole New Testament Age, only to switch back to His throne of judgment at the Second Coming of Christ.
The New Testament makes clear that God continues to judge wickedness and wicked people even in the “day of grace.” Just read the book of Revelation which does not describe only the very end of history but also the entire New Testament Age. If there is a difference, it is simply this: God’s grace is manifested to a greater degree than it was in the Old Testament. Now, Christ has come; He has given Himself for our sins; He has risen again; and He has poured out His Spirit upon Jews and Gentiles alike. But God has not changed. He cannot change. He cannot “swap thrones.”
One caution: some Christians say that a certain disaster was sent on a certain people as judgment for certain particular sins. We must not read too much into God’s particular works of providence. Certainly, God continues to judge the wicked, but we cannot say with certainty what God’s purpose is with any given disaster (see Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-5).
Wright’s understanding of grace is also skewed. He seems to understand by grace a chance of salvation for everybody. But, although God’s grace is now manifested to include the Gentiles, it is never universal in the sense of all men head for head. Even in the New Testament God has mercy on whom He will have mercy and whom He wills He hardens (Rom. 9:18). Grace is never an ineffectual, weak, well meaning attitude toward all men, but the powerful favour of God according to which He actually saves all those on whom He is gracious—having elected them eternally and redeemed them by the cross of Christ.
“Christ came to destroy the works of the devil”
Wright appeals to I John 3:8, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” Who would disagree, but the question is what are meant by the “works of the devil”? The works of the devil in I John 3 are not sickness, poverty, famine, pestilence, earthquakes, storms or other disasters. The works of the devil are sin and unrighteousness. That, surely, is the context—“he that committeth sin is of the devil” (v. 8a); “whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin” (v. 9a).
We gladly confess that Christ has come to destroy the works of the devil—He came to destroy the guilt, pollution and power of sin in the believer’s life. But why should this include a promise to end all sickness in the believer’s life, to make the believer rich, to make the believer successful? And why should this even imply that Christ came to end all earthquakes, natural disasters, storms, floods and other causes of misery in the lives of believers and unbelievers alike?
As proof of his contention, Wright challenges the listener to find a passage where Jesus ever made anyone sick, and points to Christ’s calming of the storm. If, says Wright, God sent the storm which Jesus then calmed by saying “Peace, be still” (which Wright paraphrases as “Shut up!”), Jesus told His own Father to “shut up.” This is typical of the emotional arguments of men like Wright.
But let us consider: who controls the rain? Who determines the amount of rain; the location of rainfall; the recipients of the rainfall, etc? Is it God or is it the devil? Does God only control rain when the rainfall is the right amount, so that when a farmer receives a refreshing amount of rain on his field he should thank God, but when he receives either too much (so that his field is waterlogged and his crops rot in the field) or too little (so that his field is parched and his crops wither and die) he should curse the devil? What about sunshine: is God or the devil in control of the sun? When a Christian has a picnic on a sunny day, should he thank God or the devil for the sunshine? When the sun becomes exceedingly hot so that temperatures soar, who increased the temperature? Or does God adopt a “hands-off” approach to the weather so that it simply acts according to scientific laws without God’s input one way or the other? Does God allow the devil to shake the earth, to cause heavy rainfall, severe drought? Does God then stand helplessly by as the devil wreaks havoc on the earth? Surely, for a Biblically-informed Christian, to ask these questions is to answer them!
“Sickness and disasters are of the devil”
Wright makes this argument—a popular one and appealing to the emotions of man—because he fails to take into account God’s use of secondary means. Is it true that the devil sometimes makes people sick? Yes, absolutely! The book of Job makes that very clear (1:12, 2:6-7), as do other passages (Luke 13:16; II Cor. 12:7), but the Bible makes it equally clear that Satan and wicked men are but instruments in God’s hand. Job, for example, looked beyond secondary causes—the marauders who destroyed his flocks and herds and murdered his servants; and the great wind which demolished his house with his children inside; and even the devil who smote him with boils—to God Himself: “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:22) and “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10).
So, God sometimes directly smites a person or a nation with calamity, and sometimes He uses means. He used a devil to deceive Ahab into going into battle so that He could kill that wicked king (II Chron. 18:22); He used the wicked men of the Babylonian armies to bring terrible suffering upon Jerusalem (Dan. 1:1-2); He used the monstrously cruel nation of the Assyrians to punish Israel, and then He punished Assyria for her ungodly motives in carrying out God’s sovereign decrees (Isa. 10:5-7, 15-16)! This God—not the weak god who has abdicated his throne—declares “My counsel shall stand and I will do all my pleasure” (Isa 43:10). That pleasure includes calling (not simply allowing, but actively calling) a “ravenous bird from the east, that man that executeth my counsel: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it: (v. 11). Compare also Daniel 4:35 and Psalms 115:3 and 135:6. A god who abdicates from his sovereign throne is a figment of Wright’s imagination, not the God of Scripture.
“Jesus never made anyone sick,” declares Wright, and challenges all the theologians out there to quote chapter and verse to prove that He did. No one, of course, ever claimed that He did. Wright’s challenge is a red herring. By Jesus we mean the eternal Son of God in our flesh as our Mediator as He lived among men during His earthly ministry. It was not His calling to make people sick—He was called to heal as a sign of the spiritual salvation He came to give. Why did Jesus focus on sickness? Sickness is a consequence of sin. There was no sickness before the fall of man into sin. Jesus healed sickness as a powerful sign that He had power over sin (Mark 2:10). Each healing miracle revealed something about the nature of salvation—the cleansing of lepers is a picture of Jesus’ delivering us from the corruption of sin; the healing of lame or paralysed people is a picture of Jesus’ deliverance of us from the paralysing power of sin; the restoring of sight to the blind is a picture of Jesus’ spiritual illumination of His people, etc.
But what of the exalted Christ at the Right Hand of the Father? Revelation 5-6 show us Him as the Lion of Judah, the Lamb which was slain, taking the book of God’s eternal purposes and opening the seven seals one by one. When Christ—not the devil—opens those seals, war (6:4) and death (6:8) are sent upon the world. So, in a sense, Jesus—the exalted Lord—does make people sick!
Wright says that the Son is the revelation of the Father, and He that hath seen the Son hath seen the Father. All this is true. However, the Son is not the same Person as the Father. There is nothing absurd about God inflicting sickness on people in His providence and Christ healing those people in His grace. Nor is there anything absurd in God sending a storm which Christ then calms as a revelation of His power over the elements. If the Lord can send a violent storm upon Jonah, why cannot the same God send a violent storm upon the Sea of Galilee? It was not God’s purpose to destroy Jonah, and nor was it God’s purpose to destroy Jesus and the disciples. God’s purpose was to test the weak faith of the disciples and to glorify His Son. We cannot judge God’s purpose from providence, and it is dangerous to try.
“You cannot blame God for evils!”
Wright complains that even secular insurance companies call fires, floods and other disasters, “acts of God” and that the devil has succeeded in getting men to blame God for these things. Wright is confused here. It does not follow, if God sends evils, that He is responsible or to blame for them. Responsibility or accountability only pertains to us, not to God. God is sovereign but He is not blameworthy. God cannot be responsible because there is no one higher than He is to whom He might be responsible—to whom He would have to give an account.
The instruments whom God uses, however, are a different category. God uses humans and even devils as His instruments to bring evil and evils upon the world, and they are accountable to Him and guilty before Him for how they have acted. There is no clearer example of this than the humans who brought Jesus to the cross. All of them—Pilate, the Sanhedrin, Judas Iscariot, the people of Israel, the Roman soldiers—acted freely and wilfully, and wickedly. All of them are accountable to God for their actions. None can absolve themselves of responsibility by saying, “God made me do it!” “I wanted to do good but God forced me to do evil!” We all act as free, moral agents. We are neither manipulated by God, cajoled by Him or threatened by Him into doing evil. Yet for all that, when Pilate and the others acted wickedly they did “whatsoever God’s hand and counsel determined before to be done” (Acts 4:27-28). The hands which nailed Jesus to the cross were “wicked hands” but Christ died “by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). So, God can take wicked instruments and fulfil His sovereign purpose through them without in any sense becoming stained by their sin or “to blame” for it.
And what if God does not use human instruments? What if God simply shakes the earth and destroys thousands of people in an earthquake? What if God stirs up a swarm of locusts or rats with the bubonic plague? We will say of God—“None can stay His hand or say unto Him, What doest thou?” (Dan. 4:35). If you say, as Wright does, “the only role He had was in the protection of others,” then we ask, why could God not protect them all, and why did He not prevent the earthquake, the fire or the plague in the first place? Wright seeks to pour scorn upon the idea that God would send an earthquake: “Why are Christians out there in Haiti trying to relieve suffering if God sent the earthquake?” The answer is simple: God commands us to live, not according to what He does in providence, but according to what He commands in His word. God commands us to love our neighbour, not speculate about whether God is judging our neighbour for his sins. God is sovereign over earthquakes, and He commands us to help those devastated by earthquakes. Both are true.
“Not all are submitted to the will of God!”
“This is the bit that really gets me,” fumes Wright, “people say that God has everything under control. But you must qualify that statement. God does not have everybody under control. Not all are submitted to God’s will.”
Wright continues: “God is such a gentleman. God loves you so much that He gives you freewill.”
Now, as usual, evangelical sound bites appeal to the biblically illiterate, but where does the Bible ever say that God is a gentleman? The Bible says that God is a great King, a Lord, a Judge but never Gentleman! And what is this “freewill” that man supposedly has received from the love of God? It is true that God created man with freewill, but is Wright not aware that there was a fall, a fall so devastating that man has become totally depraved? Man’s will is corrupted like his entire nature, so that he cannot will anything good, and certainly cannot do anything good until he is born again. When Wright says, “If you invite [Christ] into your life, he will give you a new nature,” he has it backwards. We cannot believe on Christ unless we first have a new nature—“Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is [has been] born of God (I John 5:1).
When Wright says that not all have submitted to God’s will, he fails to make the right distinctions. The word “will” can be ambiguous so let me use two other words—purpose or decree and command or precept. God’s decrees or purposes shall always come to pass. Isaiah 46:10-11 speaks to this: “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure ... I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.” This is the will of which Paul writes in Ephesians 1:11, “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” All things happen according to the will of God’s purpose or decree. No one can thwart God’s purposes to the slightest degree. In reference to wars, Christ teaches His disciples, “See that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass” (Matt. 24:6). Why must war (and pestilence, famines and earthquakes, v. 7) happen? Because God has decreed them as part of His purpose for the history of this age! It is not because the devil has wrested the world out of the hands of the Almighty so that God is powerless to stop these things happening!
God’s will of command is different, however. That is what God commands His creatures to do. That will almost never is fulfilled. Men and women, as sinners, are not submitted to that will. Take the very extreme example of Judas. God’s will of command to Judas was that Judas love and believe in His Son. Judas disobeyed that will of command by hating and ultimately betraying the Son of God—and in so doing Judas fulfilled God’s will of decree! (Acts 4:27-28). Yet, as we have seen, Judas remained entirely accountable for his own wickedness, while God remains entirely just and holy.
These things are deep and mysterious. God is sovereign, and man is fully responsible for his sins. They are deep, but they are not inexplicable. God has revealed some things about these things, and we will go as far as—but no further than—what God has revealed for His own glory and our comfort. This is Biblical Christianity, and a pastor must be willing to give his people sound biblical exegesis of the relevant passages, not evangelical sound bites, as does Pastor Wright.
A Terrifying Doctrine!
If Wright was attempting in this message to defend God’s character and comfort God’s people, he failed in both respects. God’s sovereignty is His glory, and Wright’s doctrine robs God of His glory and gives that glory to the devil—in Wright’s theology, the devil is on the throne, while God looks on.
Finally, consider: how can all things work together for the good of God’s people (Rom. 8:28) if nothing—not the weather, not the rise and fall of nations, not the movements of the planets, not the life and death of animals and human beings, not even the movement of microscopic bacteria, viruses and so-called “rogue cells” in the human body—is under His control? Wright assures us that God ultimately has the final word, but for now, it would appear, God is not upholding all things by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3); a sparrow does indeed fall to the earth without the will of our heavenly Father (Matt. 10:29); the hairs of our heads are certainly not numbered by God (Matt. 10:29); and all power in heaven and in earth have most certainly not been given to Christ (Matt. 28:18). If this is true, this in the most terrifying news a man could ever preach. God has abdicated and God has given this world into the hands of the devil!
Our comfort is that all things are in the hands of our heavenly Father, a truth which is a terror to the wicked, an offence to the self-righteous and self-willed, but which brings unspeakable consolation to the child of God.
“The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice!” (Ps. 97:1).