It all started in October when the “St Jude’s storm” hit Britain. Four people died, more than 6000 homes were left without power; rail journeys and flights were cancelled. Further storms followed in December. January came and the storms continued. Gale force winds, torrential rain and strong waves battered the coastline and caused floods in many places. As we moved into February, the pictures become more alarming: villages under water, landslides, roads become waterways, cliff-top homes swept away by giant waves. We’ve watched the crisis deepen with a mixture of fascination, horror, and awe.
We’re near the end of February now. The floods have abated. The gales seem to have blown themselves out. But for many people it will be months or years before life returns to normal. Ruined homes will need to be rebuilt, railway lines repaired, farmland drained. Our hearts go out to people who have lost everything – including, in some cases, their nearest and dearest. And we give thanks that the worst of the storms passed us by here in Stockport.
So who’s to blame?
Many people are very angry. They acknowledge that the weather is beyond human control. But they’re sure that someone is to blame for the way crisis turned to catastrophe. They want someone to be held responsible. Some are blaming the government. Others, the Environment Agency. Or the weather forecasters. Or the EU. Or the Global Warmists. Or the Climate Change Deniers. Some put it all down to incompetence and apathy in high places. Others believe that the government’s cost-cutting strategy is the problem. Others believe that environmentalists have deliberately put in place policies designed to cause flooding and create wetlands.
One UKIP counsellor had no doubt about whom he should blame. David Silvester wrote a letter to his local newspaper, the Henley Standard. It was published on Friday 17th January:
“Since the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, the nation has been beset by serious storms and floods. One recent one caused the worst flooding for 60 years. The Christmas floods were the worst in 127 years. Is this just ‘global warming’ or is there something more serious at work?
The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war.”
He said he had warned Mr Cameron that bringing in same-sex marriage would result in disasters:
“But he went ahead despite a 600,000 signature petition by concerned Christians and more than half of his own parliamentary party saying that he should not do so. Now, even as Cameron sheds crocodile tears on behalf of destitute flooded homeowners, playing at advocate against the very local councils he has made cash strapped, it is his fault that large swathes of the nation have been afflicted by storms and floods.
He has arrogantly acted against the Gospel that once made Britain ‘great’ and the lesson surely to be learned is that no man or men, however powerful, can mess with Almighty God with impunity and get away with it for everything a nation does is weighed on the scales of divine approval or disapproval.”
The response: swift and furious
I wonder if Mr Silvester expected the explosion that followed. Within a matter of hours, his comments had become headline news in the national press. The day after it was published, protesters gathered outside the Town Hall in Henley to demand his resignation. The local MP declared that Mr Silvester’s comments were
“completely wrong… There’s absolutely no place for that sort of attitude in today’s world. He really needs to consider his position.”
A UKIP spokesman initially defended Mr Silvester’s right to hold his views:
“If the media are expecting UKIP to either condemn or condone someone’s personal religious views they will get absolutely no response… he is more than entitled to express independent thought despite whether or not other people may deem it standard or correct”.
But then Mr Silvester repeated his comments in a radio interview and went further.
“My prayer for them (homosexuals) is they will be healed. It is nonsense to say it is homophobic… If you love a person enough to want them to be healed and to have a proper family, that is hardly homophobic. It is a spiritual disease…”
The UKIP leadership was swift to react. By Sunday evening he had been suspended from the party. 25,000 people have now signed a petition demanding Mr Silvester’s resignation from his position as councillor.
“On Friday 17 January, Councillor David Sylvester (UKIP) wrote an open letter to the Henley Standard, blaming the legislation of the same sex marriage bill for the floods that we are currently experiencing in the UK.
Councillor Silvester’s letter has hurt, upset and openly discriminated against the gay community far and wide as well as their friends, families and the general public at large…
As a local resident I am outraged that a councillor elected to represent me has not only made such offensive remarks, but refuses to accept that he was wrong to do so…
…The community need to be assured that Mr Silvester will have no more influence on the people of Henley. There is no room for his religious views in his political position.”
For some people – such as those who drafted the petition – Mr Silvester’s views are outrageous, offensive, hurtful, unacceptable. For others, they are simply crazy. Conservative minister, Michael Fallon quoted his words to pour scorn on UKIP “there clearly are one or two fruitcakes still around there”. A Telegraph commentator called Silvester “not to put too fine a point on it – a bit of a nut job”. The editor of a business magazine labelled him, “completely bonkers”.
Even Christian commentators agreed. “Archbishop Cranmer” (pseudonym of an Anglican blogger revered by many evangelicals) told readers that they may well think that David Silvester is “unutterably stupid, biblically illiterate or bigoted” and talked about the damage done to the Faith by “each crass utterance”. He dismissed Silvester’s views as illogical and unbiblical.
“His Grace (ie Cranmer himself) has received an email telling him that these present floods and interminable downpours are God’s judgment upon a sinful and rebellious nation. No, they absolutely and unequivocally are not. Firstly, God promised never to do that again (Gen 9:11-17); and secondly, the books of wisdom found in the Bible suggest that the wicked may prosper while the righteous suffer.”
Absurd – but why?
What was it about Mr Silvester’s comments that people found so laughable? In most cases, they didn’t say. Was it the idea that God could view same sex marriage as sinful? Was it the idea that God would ever punish sin? Or was it the idea that particular judgements could be sent on particular nations for particular sins?
Apparently, for Cranmer, it’s the third idea that’s absurd. He points to the fact that the Bible says that “the wicked may prosper while the righteous suffer”. For Cranmer, that means that God never punishes particular wicked people or communities here in this world. God never singles out wicked people and wicked nations and sends particular judgements against them.
Well, does he? What does the Bible say? Here are six questions to consider.
(1) Why do disasters happen?
The short answer is this. They happen because we deserve them. Not just some of us, but all of us. Mankind viewed as one.
The Bible teaches that God has justly sentenced the whole human race to death – and to every lesser affliction. At the beginning of history, the human race rebelled against God, and has been in rebellion ever since. And God has responded. He has cursed the earth so that it has become a dangerous, hostile environment for man. He has decreed that man shall return to the dust from which he was taken (Genesis 3:17-19). God could in justice sweep away any individual or any community at any moment in time. If he were to deal with human beings as we deserve, the world would immediately be plunged into nightmare. All stability would vanish, all structures would collapse, the forces of chaos would engulf everything. Earth would literally become hell – a place of unbroken darkness, hopeless ruin and utter misery.
What keeps the world from breaking down into such chaos? Only God’s kindness. The Bible teaches that God is constantly at work holding back disaster, prolonging human lives, granting a measure of comfort and protection to human beings here in this world. He does those things for us not because we are entitled to them, but because he chooses to be merciful.
And he reserves himself the right to withdraw that protection at any time. There are those times when instead of protecting us, he allows us to face the consequences of our sins. Just once he did it on a global scale. In Noah’s day, human wickedness had become so blatant that God decreed instant execution for the entire human race. The waters of the great deep were allowed to overwhelm the whole earth. All order collapsed – sea and dry land, the waters above and the waters beneath, day and night, became one. Only eight individuals were preserved by God’s grace.
What he did then on a global scale, he is entitled to do at any time he chooses and in any place he sees fit. He has said that he will never again allow flood waters to cover the whole earth. Until the return of Christ, there will be seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, somewhere on earth (Genesis 8:21-22; 9:11). But God may still remove his protection from any individual, any family, any city, any nation and bring it to disaster or death.
Reverently we may say that the strange thing is not that disasters come so often, but that they come so rarely. It is strange that so many human beings are allowed to live contentedly for many years, to eat, to drink, to work, to rest, to have families, to experience all sorts of good and pleasant things. It’s not what we deserve. As Paul said to the idolatrous people of Lystra, God “allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness..” (Acts 14:16-17).
(2) When we see disaster fall on particular people or communities, should we assume that those people were more wicked than others?
The short answer is no. As we’ve said, God chooses to be kind to undeserving people every day. And he reserves himself the right to allow disaster to fall on anyone, any community at any time. So the Bible teaches that he may hold back disaster from appallingly wicked people, while allowing disaster to fall on people who by human standards seem blameless. On one occasion Jesus was confronted by a man born blind. Jesus’s disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he should be born blind?” (John 9:2). The disciples took it for granted that the tragedy which had fallen on this man was due to some particular sin committed either by himself or his parents. But Jesus said, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (vs 3).
On another occasion, Jesus was told about a shocking incident. Pilate’s troops had slaughtered a group of Galilean pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices. Jesus’s response? “Do you think that those these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2). He pointed to another example. “Or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them: do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you all repent, you will all likewise perish” (vss 4-5). The one tragedy might be classed as an act of human brutality, the other as a “natural” event. But in both cases, God had allowed disaster to fall on some – while sparing others who were equally guilty.
The book of Job is one long rebuke to the idea that it’s always the guilty who suffer most. Job’s “comforters” claimed that God reserves disasters for outstandingly wicked people, and protects the innocent. Job was able to point to countless examples where their claims were clearly untrue.
(3) But does God ever bring disaster on people or communities as a punishment for particular sins?
“Cranmer” says no. The Bible says yes, and says it again and again. You can think of particular individuals. Pharaoh, sentenced to drown in the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus ch 14). Nebuchadnezzar, sentenced to madness and humiliation (Daniel ch 4). Belshazzar (Daniel ch 5). Herod: “On an appointed day, Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, ‘The voice of a god and not of a man’. Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:21).
And you can think of communities. Sodom and Gomorrah. The Canaanites. Babylon. Nineveh. Read the first three chapters of Amos for a list of particular nations and the particular disasters that God intended to unleash against them for their particular sins. “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they have threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron. So I will send a fire upon the house of Hazael, and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad. I will break the gate-bar of Damascus, and cut off the inhabitants from the valley of Aven…” (Amos 1:3-5). Read John’s vision in Revelation 18 of the downfall of Rome – “for all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality,a nd the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living…” (Rev 18:3).
Worldly people may laugh at the idea that particular disasters are due to particular sins. But no-one who takes the Bible seriously can dismiss that truth.
Our Christian forefathers took it very seriously. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer includes these words:
“Almighty Lord God, who for the sin of man didst once drown all the world, except eight persons, and afterward of thy great mercy didst promise never to destroy it so again; We humbly beseech thee, that although we for our iniquities have worthily deserved a plague of rain and waters, yet upon our true repentance thou wilt send us such weather, as that we may receive the fruits of the earth in due season; and learn both by thy punishment to amend our lives, and for thy clemency to give thee praise and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord”.
Apparently, the real Archbishop Cranmer – who composed that prayer – was not afraid to connect national sin with plagues of rain and water. He believed that in times of flood, every minister should lead his congregation in confessing that this was God’s judgement on human sin and should plead for mercy. David Silvester’s views might be absurd in the eyes of godless journalists and trendy clergymen, but they are in line with the prayer book of our national Church, established by law and constitution.
(4) Is there such a thing as a “Christian” nation, under God’s special protection?
In his letter to the press, David Silvester talked about Britain as “a Christian nation” which had abandoned its faith. But is there such a thing as a Christian nation? No, the Bible never talks in those terms. God has no chosen nation or nations today. Believers, individually, are God’s chosen people. The Church, made up of people from across the world, is God’s chosen nation.
In Old Testament times, Israel was indeed, a chosen nation, in covenant with God, and under God’s special protection. God promised that while they remained faithful to the covenant, he would not allow plague, famine or any other disaster to engulf them. God has not given such a promise to any nation in this New Covenant Age. But, while there is no such thing as a Christian nation, there are nations where there is a strong Christian presence and influence. And such a nation may indeed be shielded from many disasters which fall on other nations.
Abraham appealed to God for Sodom. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” (Genesis 18:24). And God pledged that he would spare Sodom from disaster if he found just ten righteous people in that city. He didn’t, and the city was destroyed. But his promise was clear. He was willing to protect an entire community for the sake of the righteous within it. Could God give such a promise in New Testament times? Think of Paul’s voyage to Rome and the assurance he gave his shipmates in the storm: “There will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you’.” (Acts 27:22-24). God promised to protect all on board for the sake of Paul and his fellow-believers.
Of course, it’s not just that God protects a larger community for the sake of his people among them. Very often he does so through the influence of those believers. It was Paul’s God-given wisdom that saved his shipmates from disaster. When the sailors were trying to escape from the ship, “Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, ‘Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved’. Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go.” (Acts 27:30-32).
The book of Genesis tells how Joseph’s presence and influence protected the land of Egypt from mass starvation. It was godly Joseph who warned Pharaoh of the famine that was coming and prepared the strategy for survival (Genesis 41:46-57). God protected Egypt through Joseph just as he had earlier protected Potiphar’s household, and even the community in Pharaoh’s prison. Potiphar “put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake” (Genesis 38:4-5). “The keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there he wast he one who did it… The LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed” (Genesis 39:22-23). In each case the godless community was protected by the presence and influence of one godly man.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “First of all then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions that we (believers) may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way”. (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Paul believed that it was God’s will that Christians should live in a stable and peaceful society. And he believed that their prayers for those in authority could bring about such a society.
So, a Christian society, no. But a society protected through the presence and influence of Christians, yes, that can happen.
If a community is willing to listen to the wise counsel of believers as the centurion listened to Paul, or as Pharaoh listened to Joseph, it will be spared from many disasters. If Christians and churches pray for the society in which they live, even godless rulers may be given wisdom to govern well.
(5) Should we expect to see particular disasters in Britain today?
As a country, we, in the UK, have been wonderfully protected from many of the horrors that have afflicted other nations. Yes, we have seen appalling events. I remember my class-teacher stumbling into our classroom (I was a child of eight) and telling us with shaking voice of the disaster that had engulfed the school and village of Aberfan. We have seen rail disasters, pile-ups on our motorways, mining tragedies, shootings in our schools. Every life cut short by illness or accident is a disaster for a family. But in our lifetimes we have not seen the civil wars that have ravaged so many African countries or Eastern European countries. We have not known famine or seen our cities devastated by earthquakes. We have not experienced floods like those in Sri Lanka or the Philippines. Life expectancy in the UK is double that in many third world countries.
It seems that God has protected us in a way that he has protected few other nations. It is not “stupid, biblically illiterate or bigoted” to believe that he has done so for the sake of the believers who have lived here. If God was willing to spare Sodom for the sake of ten righteous people, perhaps he has spared the UK for the sake of the godly men and women who have lived in this land. For hundreds of years believers have preached the gospel here, built churches, brought the Bible to the masses, sent missionaries across the world. Perhaps it has been the presence of such believers that has shielded our country from many disasters.
Believing Christians have exercised great influence on our society. Through their efforts, the Bible became the book at the centre of national life. And bit by bit, its values filtered through into the culture, the schools, the justice system, the thinking of even godless leaders. The preciousness of human life, the dignity of hard work, the necessity for impartial justice in the courts, the sanctity of the family, the importance of truth – these are not “British” values, instinctive to people who live on these islands – they are Bible values, disseminated through the influence of Christians. And those values have shielded us from countless disasters. A train driven by a well-trained, sober, driver is safer to travel on than a train driven by a drunken incompetent. A hospital-ward run by an incorruptible matron who cares about every patient is safer than a ward run by a sloppily educated manager interested in nothing but status and career. An Environment Agency led by officials appointed for their competence and dedication is likely to do a better job than one where key posts are awarded through political cronyism.
Should we expect to see an increasing number of disasters in Britain today? Yes, I think so. Not just because of same-sex marriage. But because all the Bible values which gave stability to our society are being abandoned. As Christian influence declines, we may expect God’s hand of protection to be withdrawn. As Biblical wisdom is jettisoned, and folly embraced, we may expect all sorts of tragic consequences. A nation sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind.
(6) So what should we, as Christians, be doing?
Answer. We should be rejoicing. Wasn’t that Habakkuk’s answer? He lived in a society on the verge of catastrophe. He had seen the nation he loved slide into every deeper depravity. He had pleaded with God to intervene. And God replied. “I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation…” (Habakkuk 1:5-6). Habakkuk listened with horror as the LORD painted the picture of the disaster that lay ahead – invasion, massacre, exile at the hands of the Babylonians. And yet, he recognised God’s justice in it all. He prayed that God, even in wrath, would remember mercy (ch 3:2).
He looked forward to the day when all sin and sorrow shall be banished from God’s world and “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (ch 2:14). And he rejoiced. “Though the fig tree should not blossom nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (3:17-18).
If an Old Testament prophet could rejoice in the Lord, even in time of famine and disaster, surely we who know so much more of God’s eternal purpose, can learn to do likewise. Rejoice in the Lord, and again I say, rejoice!