Written Word

John 9:2 – “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The theory of retribution, that bad things happen to people as punishment for their sin, was a common belief in Jesus’ day, and is still believed by some today. Even sincere, committed Christians can secretly entertain the notion that the bad things that happen to them are a sign of God’s displeasure. How this belief gained common acceptance is difficult to know, as Scripture is certainly against it.

The Missing Link

On one occasion some people told Jesus about Galileans who had been killed and whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Apparently Jesus knew what was in their hearts and what they were thinking for he responded by saying, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!” (Luke 13:1-3) In this specific case, Jesus is saying that the sins of those who were killed were not the cause of their tragedy even though those who asked the question had linked suffering to sin.

Jesus then reinforces the point that bad things are not always a sign of divine judgement by recalling the death of eighteen people on whom the tower of Siloam fell. They were no more guilty of sin than the rest of the citizens of Jerusalem. It just so happened that these eighteen were in the vicinity when the tower fell. (We could say that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.) The collapse of the tower was not a judgement on them or a commentary on their spiritual condition. I recall hearing in a news item that a person had jumped to his death from Notre Dame Cathedral and landed on a tourist, killing him. Was this tourist a worse sinner than the others around the cathedral that day? I doubt it. So why do tragedies happen?

Why Tragedies Happen

Tragedies happen because we live in a fallen world. Sometimes they are the result of the sins of others, sometimes our own sins, and sometimes they happen through natural disasters. Here are some examples:

  • Other People’s Sins
    A drunk driver crashes and kills a pedestrian; a pregnant woman addicted to heroin gives birth to baby who now is drug dependent; a child lives with an abusive parent. In each case the victims of such tragedies have not brought the tragedy on themselves and what has happened to them is not punishment for their personal sins.
  • Our Own Sins
    Tragedy may occur because of personal sin: the drunk driver crashes, sustaining personal injury that confines him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Sometimes there is a connection between sin and tragedy.
  • Humanity’s Sinfulness
    Wars bring terrible tragedy on innocent people; mass starvation exists because of the sin of indifference, or selfishness, or the abuse of power.
  • Natural Disasters
    Nature has within it the potential for tragedy, as we so recently saw in the Asian tsunami. Although some floods and other “natural” disasters may be caused by man’s misuse of the planet, some are because the perfect world created by God was reduced to imperfection because of sin. As a result the earth was cursed and to this present day is “groaning… [waiting to be] liberated from its bondage to decay.” (Romans 8:21-22; Genesis 3:17)

How God Can Use Tragedy

One day Jesus and his disciples came upon a man blind from birth. When the disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2), they expected him to identify the guilty party and show the link between tragedy and sin. But he did neither. Instead, Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned… but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Then he put mud on the man’s eyes, told him to go wash them, and the man returned, seeing. (John 9:3) The restoration of his sight was a display of the power of God, a miracle that not only opened the blind man’s eyes, but the eyes of faith in those who saw the miracle as proof that Jesus is the Christ, the Saviour of the world. The record of this miracle has been read for two thousand years and for all those years, it has been opening the hearts of those who would see in Jesus the hope of their salvation.