Maybe the place to begin is with a premise: if we believe the Christian teaching that God is just, all-wise, and the creator of all things, then it is His prerogative to judge human beings. The bracing claim that Christianity brings to us is that we are all sinners, that none of us have lived a life that merits escaping judgment.
As the US has now tragically ascended to the place of having the most reported COVID-19 deaths in the world — over 71,000 as of this writing, more Americans than died in the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined, as well as in the attacks on 9/11 — the predictable spate of articles has begun, variations on the theme “Can’t you see that God is judging America?” I remember similar articles and sermons after 9/11, and they have occurred many times before that and since then.
Into that milieu, NT Wright published his Time magazine article Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To. Professor Wright argues that discerning God’s will in that way, with such precision, is simply beyond our capacity. Instead, Wright says, the proper way to understand the Bible is not that it offers clear explanations for trouble but provides reassurance within it; that the Christian vocation is not to explain why this or that catastrophe happened but to lament it.
Yet, many Christians will point to numerous instances in the Hebrew Scriptures when God explicitly judged Israel for its sins. So, they reason, why shouldn’t God do the same thing to America now? How do we really know God is not judging America? Or is He? What can we say about this? What should we say?
Could God Judge Nations Today?
Maybe the place to begin is with a premise: if we believe the Christian teaching that God is just, all-wise, and the creator of all things, then it is His prerogative to judge human beings. The bracing claim that Christianity brings to us is that we are all sinners, that none of us have lived a life that merits escaping judgment. No one can say that God’s judgment is unwarranted on the grounds that he or she has lived a life of moral perfection. Accepting the twin ideas of a holy God and sinful humanity immediately leads to God’s right to judge sin. At a gut level, in fact, we want a God who judges sin. We do not want a God who is uncaring when humans are trafficked for sex slavery, nor do we want a God who does not care when children are abused. Our souls cry out for justice, as did the biblical prophet Habakkuk. In the end, a God who cannot judge sin is either not all powerful or not all good.
Further, the Bible regularly shows that God can judge nations. If it is God’s right to judge every person, then it would certainly be his right to judge any group of people. The Old Testament is replete with warnings to Israel and Judah, God’s covenant people, that God will judge their sins with national disasters, particularly those of failed harvests and losses on the battlefield. Today’s individualist society struggles with this idea, as we realize that some of the citizens of Israel and Judah who lived through these devastating judgments were people who had remained faithful to God. The nation was never 100 percent apostate (1 Kings 19:18). The bible, though, is more corporate than those of us living in the West in the 21st century are — and when the whole nation suffered judgment, that judgment temporally fell on both the faithful and the apostate together. That strikes people with a modern sensibility as unfair, but it is the common biblical approach. One can almost open the books of the Old Testament prophets at random and find such a statement – from Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others — and while the reasons for those oracles of judgment are not always given, they often are, including nations that are guilty of injustice and idolatry.
The Old Testament also regularly testifies to God’s ability to judge other nations as well, not just his covenant people Israel and Judah. The short books of Nahum and Obadiah are concentrated entirely on the judgment that would fall upon Assyria and Edom, respectively. Ezekiel chapters 25-32 is composed of oracles of God’s prophets against foreign nations. One might object that those other nations are not God’s people, so He has no right or reason to judge them; however, if God made all peoples and all nations it remains His right to judge any of them. To be certain, He judges them by the light they do have, not by standards they have never known. But from a theological perspective all people, whether they know it or not, are in covenant with God through our descent from Adam to Noah. In that sense we are links in a covenantal chain.
In other words, it is God’s prerogative to judge any human being, and to argue otherwise means one is denying in a fundamental sense who God is. He has a right to judge us because he created us, because he is perfectly holy, and because we sin. God would be well within his right to judge any person at any time.
But the reason the Christian claim is bracing instead of deadening is because of what follows — the proclamation of God’s grace to sinners in Jesus Christ. Because God has that right does not mean He will always exercise that right. This is an important distinction, and a biblical one, too. The Bible testifies that God normally is holding back His judgment, restraining it, because He wishes to be merciful to sinners, not to smite us. 2 Peter 3 meditates on God’s judgment which has not yet occurred, even to the point of unbelievers mocking the Christian expectation of Jesus returning in judgment, and concludes, “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8–9)
Nor is such a delay a merely New Testament phenomenon, a contrast to an “angry Old Testament God” who loved to smite nations. In fact, the grace of judgment delayed jumps off the pages of the Old Testament. God did bring judgment on the Canaanite practices of human sacrifice, but only after 400 years of delay (Gen. 15:13-16). God did judge Israel and Judah for stepping into those same practices of human sacrifice and for their continued idolatry and injustice, but only after hundreds of years of patience (1-2 Kings).[i] God may have the prerogative to judge sin at any time, but the story of the Old and New Testaments is really the remarkable story of how rarely He exercises that prerogative. Indeed, at some level the point of emotional struggle with the Old Testament should not be, “How could a loving God do that?” but instead “How could a loving God have waited so long to stop that?”
While God regularly restrains his judgment, the Bible also testifies to certain instances when He brought that judgment to bear in history, not waiting until the end of time. He did finally bring judgment on the Canaanite practices (cf. the book of Joshua) and upon Israel and Judah (cf. 1-2 Kings). He likewise brought judgment upon Egypt via the plagues and Israel’s exodus (cf. the book of Exodus). God who has the right to judge all people and will do so at the end of time also can choose to bring that judgment forward into history.
When a nation was conquered, the biblical prophets made the case that God was behind that event. They made the case generally, that God was in control of all human history, but they also occasionally made that case specifically (e.g.: Nahum and Obadiah, mentioned above), connecting specific behaviors and injustices to the national disasters that befell various nations and arguing that those disasters were God’s punishment on the respective nations. Likewise, the prophets made clear that the Assyrian and Babylonian attacks that destroyed Israel and Judah were his particular judgment on his people for their sinful behavior:
And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. (2 Kings 17:7-8)
In summary, the Bible teaches that it is God’s right to judge nations in real time; that He has done so in the past; and that He has done so not just in the case of Israel and Judah but also with other nations.