November 1, 1755 was a day so many people were looking forward to in the City of Lisbon, Portugal. It was All-Saints Day in the Catholic calendar, and as such, was a day of feasting, celebrations and a parade.
But it was going to be the worst day in that city’s history. Some believe it was the turning point in modern history.
At 9:30 a.m., buildings began to shake, the water in the harbor began to recede out to sea, streets collapsed and heaved, and half of the city’s churches literally disappeared. As the next few minutes collided, the shaking got more intense and people began to die by the thousands. The receding harbor would be re-filled in a half hour by the largest Tsunami to ever hit a European city. In the end, when all the carnage was totaled, 60,000 people were dead.
1755 marked a time when the Enlightenment was nearing its first height of popularity. People were walking away from God into deism, humanism and atheism. At first, theologians rose up and declared that the Lisbon Earthquake was the judgment of God against the teachings of the Enlightenment. Their voices cried out for Europe to repent of leaving God.
But there was a problem with this theory. When Lisbon’s city’s planners went through the rubble to determine which buildings had been destroyed and which had been spared, they came upon a curious truth. Every single church in the city had been shaken to rubble, and almost every brothel and drinking establishment had been spared.
People then began to question: How can this qualify as the Judgment of God if all the churches were annihilated? This, of course, became further fuel for Enlightenment fires. Non-theists mocked Christian scholars. Voltaire, long a believer in God and champion against the inroads of the New Thought proponents, finally gave up and declared that he was an agnostic.
There had been a judgment all right, but perhaps it was not the Judgment of God.
I believe the problem with the pronouncements of the theologians was their quickness to analyze. As I am going to show in a moment from a look at the beginnings of mankind’s history, it is always a bad idea to jump too quickly to announce Judgment. Judgment is a slow formula, arrived at through patience and decided by careful deliberation. This is true of human courts and perhaps even more so in God’s court.
The American Church in recent years has been inundated with outliers who find it delightful to cry “judgment” every time there is a disaster. From Westboro Baptist Church proclaiming God’s judgment at military funerals, to Pat Robertson calling for repentance after a hurricane. From Oral Roberts saying that AIDS was a judgment against homosexuality to a Los Angeles preacher claiming that Rick Warren’s son’s suicide was proof God was judging Saddleback Church because they had grown too big.
What is the problem with these knee-jerk pronouncements? They aren’t biblical for one. And they misconstrue the character of God for another.
In Genesis chapter three, the Bible recounts how sin entered this world. God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Satan, disguised as a serpent, tricked Eve into trying out the fruit. Adam, who was not deceived, watched to see what would happen. God had told him if they ate the fruit they would die. Adam wanted to see if his wife would live or die by her action. He allowed her to be the world’s first food-taster.
In this study on the world’s first sin, we see the Principle of Delayed Consequences. In order to understand this principle, notice the following details from the story:
- Adam is fooled by noticing Eve didn’t die. God never said they would die right away. Until that moment, they were going to be living forever. When they ate the fruit, death came into the world. But because Eve did not die right away, Adam concluded the fruit was safe. He didn’t realize that the consequences for our actions are not always swift and immediate.
- Adam and Eve hid from God because they expected immediate Judgment. Though God would explain the consequences of their sin, God did not judge them right away. And, in running away from God, they put a barrier between themselves and God. This would later become the pattern for mankind. We don’t seek the God we are afraid of.
- Death did not happen for a long time. Adam and Eve lived for almost 1,000 years. This is a longer time than anyone would have expected God’s judgment to be delayed.
- Both the physical and spirit realms are changed because of their actions. Death enters the world. The plants change their DNA. The animals are in hostility. Their bodies change and are no longer as healthy as they were. But, the biggest change is in the spirit realm. They are cut off from the tree of Life and from the direct presence of God. Since God is spirit (John 4:24), they, as spirit beings, do not have the complete access to God they once enjoyed. Both realms are changed irrevocably because of sin. The first part of judgment is always having to face the direct consequences of our actions.
- God makes promises even in the midst of explaining consequences. As we will see in later articles in this series, God almost always shows what can happen as God works to correct the mistakes we make. In this Genesis 3 story, Eve will give birth to a line of men from which will come the Savior. Adam will work the soil and through hard work will achieve great things. The devil will be destroyed by Eve’s offspring. Adam and Eve will have conflict, but they will also have God to help them with the conflict.
With all the talk about God’s judgment, there is so little discussion on the Principle of Delayed Consequences. There are so many examples of these an entire book could be written about biblical examples where judgment was meted out slowly. But let no one be deluded into thinking that some sins have no consequences.
All sin has a consequence to it. Some of them are just more subtle than others. And this is especially true when there is a huge delay.
In 2 Samuel chapter 21 we see a perfect example of this. Israel had been inundated by famine for several years. King David sends the prophet to ask God why this is happening. I imagine David, like most people of his day, believed the cause was recent and immediate.
He could not have been prepared for the answer God gave him. “It is because Saul killed the Gibeonites”. What? Who in the heck are the Gibeonites?
I’m not surprised if you don’t know. They only show up in one small scene in the book of Joshua. When Joshua’s forces had defeated Jericho and then the little town of Ai, the people of Gibeon knew they were next. So, they pretended to be from a far-away country, put dust on their faces and told the Israelites that they had come from a long distance. They begged Joshua to allow them to be the slaves of the Jews. Without checking with God, Joshua made a vow to them.
That’s when they discovered this group of people had pulled a fast one on them. They wanted to kill the Gibeonites, but God takes a dim view toward breaking vows. So God made the people of Israel take in the Gibeonites as servants. They served the leaders of the nation for several centuries.
We don’t know when it happened. We don’t know why it happened. But 2 Samuel 21 tells us that when Saul was king before David, he had a number of Gibeonites killed. It never says what they did wrong; in all likelihood he killed them because they were Gibeonites. In true Saul-like fashion, he probably thought he was cleaning up one of God’s messes. He liked to do that.
David asked God if this is why there was famine in the land. God told him it was indeed the reason. Broken vows have huge results in the spirit realm. The enemy of our souls loves to torture our lives and bring ruin when we do this. (Note: This should be a sobering thought as we realize how many treaties the American government has broken with its native peoples).
But this is many years after Saul did the killing. How can there be judgment now? This is the Principle of Delayed Judgment at work. You can be lulled into thinking you don’t have to make amends or change your ways because there doesn’t seem to be any consequences right away. Saul was already dead. David was nearing the end of his reign. We don’t know why the judgment had this timing, but it highlights the big problem with trying to discern judgment. We don’t know which consequence goes with which sin sometimes.
The same problem can be seen when people do the right thing and don’t see rewards right away. In Jeremiah 44:16-19 we read:
16 “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! 17 We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. 18 But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.”
19 The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?”
This is when the Israelites escaped to Egypt to avoid being taken into Babylonian Captivity. Jeremiah had been telling them to stop sinning and get their lives together. They had been worshiping other gods and God almighty told them to stop. The logic in their answer is intriguing. They want Jeremiah to know a simple formula they figured out:
- When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven, we had everything we wanted.
- When we stopped, everything went wrong.
Therefore, by that formula, they were going to keep burning incense to the Queen of Heaven. These are people who believe that immediate reward and punishment are the way to tell if you’re doing right or wrong.
This is just as dangerous a formula to use when examining disasters like the Lisbon Earthquake or AIDS or Tsunamis or even the death of a loved one. The enemy to our souls loves to whisper in our ear that this is judgment for our bad actions. But he is a liar and seeks to deceive us into burying ourselves deeper in sin.
So why is Judgment delayed? That is the subject of the next article.