Haiti Earthquake

Dear Editor Huizenga

I read the articles about Haiti and earthquakes in the March Beacon Lights with great interest, but some of the arguments left me bewildered. Allow me to submit my thoughts and I hope that you can publish them in a future issue.

In the fourth paragraph of your editorial you somehow manage to link Haiti rescue efforts to common grace. It is not clear to me how, for example, using computers, bulldozers, or airplanes to rescue starving children is an example of the heresy of common grace. Moreover, I don’t know how many non-Christian rescue workers you have conversed with, to judge that they all went to Haiti so that they would achieve great glory. The ones I talked to were moved with compassion and hoped to bring some healing to suffering people. (More about that later).

On page 6 Rev. Decker also deals with “sinful man.” Sinful man, he says, measures the earthquake, forecasts a volcano, and tries to prevent famine and illnesses. I’m not quite sure how forecasting a tornado or trying to prevent and/or cure illness is a sign of godlessness. Are there no Protestant Reformed physicians who try to alleviate suffering?

Rev. D. gives a gruesome catalog of all the evils and suffering in human history, including natural catastrophes. His only explanation for this suffering is: “This is divine necessity. God brings these things.” I wonder if he does not allow secondary physical, scientific explanation. Think of thunder and lightning. They are cited in Revelation as signs of the end times (8:5; 16:18). Do PR members try to avoid the lightning and urge others (including non-Christians) to do so and thereby try to escape God’s actions of judgment, and the divine necessity of God’s wrath? Or do they go out into the storm or stay inside a rickety house as the earthquake begins? After all, says Decker, “be not terrified. Rejoice and be very glad”—no matter how many children in Haiti are killed. If an influenza pandemic or another “pestilence” is threatening, do PR members inoculate their children and urge their non-Christian neighbors to do so? But should they not rest in divine necessity and “rejoice” because God is bringing these things? Do the scientists in the PR community not use the principles of cause and effect and might they not tell a PR congregation not to build a church on the most threatening fault line in California?

Sherry Van Egdom writes in the same vein: “I had the privilege of witnessing the power of God as he struck Haiti with an incredible earthquake. This was not a privilege from an earthly point of view, but from a spiritual point of view, for we see God’s glory when his power is displayed in such a fashion.” For Sherry it’s not only a necessity, but “God’s glory”! One feels like yelling, “But Sherry, over 200,000 people were killed!” On TV I saw them use bulldozers to push the dead bodies into mass graves—I will never forget that terrible sight. Thousands more lived, but their bodies were crushed, others lost arms, legs, eyes, face, and the hunger and disease was just beginning. Sherry, were your ‘spiritual’ heart and eyes closed to compassion when you saw the mangled bodies of little children?

This brings me to Scripture. I just finished reading the book of Matthew again and noticed how important Jesus’ healing ministry is. Often the healings are introduced with “Jesus had compassion on them,” and then he cures one or two (e.g. 20:34), or dozens or more (15:30). (The original meaning of pity is “having your bowels yearning!”) That combination of having pity on suffering people (whether they are believers or not) and curing them is one of the greatest concerns/tasks in Jesus’ earthly ministry. And he orders his disciples “to heal all manner of sickness” (10:1). Never once does Jesus seem to wonder if these illnesses had been brought on by “divine necessity” or by the people’s own sin. People suffer—Jesus has pity—he heals the “lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others.” (15:30). Indiscriminately! Again, when John the Baptist wonders if Jesus is the Christ, Jesus “proves” that he is, mostly by pointing to his healing. The application seems clear. If we are to be like Jesus and carry on his ministry, we need hearts of compassion, of “feeling with people,” and do all we can to alleviate suffering. Indiscriminately!

Another applicable Scripture is the story of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37). John Calvin and (all?) Reformed Bible commentators assume that the Samaritan is not a believer. And this man has compassion and helped the injured man in every possible way. Just as Jesus would have! And Jesus says to the Pharisee (and all of us), “Go, and do thou likewise.”

This parable brings me back to the Beacon Lights articles. I could see the Samaritan as a rescue worker going to Haiti—out of compassion. And it would not occur to me to see him as a worldly “common grace” person trying to establish his own glory. No, I would thank God for this person’s compassion and his desire to alleviate suffering.

And that’s what ultimately makes me sad about the articles and the theology displayed. Where is the compassion? Where is the Scriptural application to be found in the healing of Jesus and of the Samaritan? Where is the call to help in any way possible to alleviate this terrible suffering? In those five pages of theology and rejoicing about the suffering coming in the end times, there is one sentence (thirteen words) that only hints at mercy, at healing, and doing likewise. And even then it’s a lame sentence: “And when we can, let us give in the name of the Lord.”

Harry Boonstra
Theological Librarian–Emeritus
Calvin College and Seminary

  1. S. I will be glad to suggest ways how your readers can give and help the Haitian people.
  2. S. 2. Incidentally, I was delighted by Ms. Van Egdom’s working in Haiti, first with a dental team and then a trauma team. However, as far as I can tell, there is nothing in the articles that would suggest why she would or should do so. Did I miss something?


Editorial response

You make a number of thought provoking and important points in your letter, and I appreciate the opportunity to clarify my point and discuss issues you raised. In an effort to explain how “using computers, bulldozers, or airplanes to rescue starving children is an example of the heresy of common grace,” we should get the three points of common grace before us as set forth by the CRC in 1924:

In addition to the saving grace of God, shown only to those who are elected to eternal life, there is also a certain favor, or grace, of God shown to his creatures in general.

Since the fall, human life in society remains possible because God, through his Spirit, restrains the power of sin.

God, without renewing the heart, so influences human beings that, though incapable of doing any saving good, they are able to do civil good.

In regard to the third point, one practical illustration described in the Wikipedia article on common grace is as follows: “Providential blessings to mankind—Human advancements that come through the unredeemed are seen as outcomes of God’s common grace. For example, medical and other technological advancements that improve the lives of both the redeemed and unredeemed are seen as initiated by common grace.” It is the advancements so described that I had in mind when I wrote “Haiti offers an opportunity for the fruits of common grace—the relief organizations, technology, and human care—to be displayed on a grand scale for all the world to see.” If one believes that it is a certain grace of God that results in helpful technology as well as the desire to use it to help with the rescue of starving children, then one would also be quick to point out how wonderfully this grace is being revealed against the dark and devastating backdrop of the earthquake.

Some of the other points you made regarding sinful man, divine necessity, and God’s glory end with your concern for the lack of compassion in five pages of the March issue of Beacon Lights. I would like to address some of the questions raised about a practical life ruled by knowing a sovereign God, but first address what seems to be the heart of your concern: “And that’s what ultimately makes me sad about the articles and the theology displayed. Where is the compassion? Where is the scriptural application to be found in the healing of Jesus and of the Samaritan? Where is the call to help in any way possible to alleviate this terrible suffering? In those five pages of theology and rejoicing about the suffering coming in the end times, there is one sentence (thirteen words) that only hints at mercy, at healing, and doing likewise. And even then it’s a lame sentence: ‘And when we can, let us give in the name of the Lord.’” You are right, that was a pretty lame sentence. Much more can be said about compassion and our calling to “give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple” (Matt. 10:42).

There is no doubt at all that we as believers are called to live a life of thankful gratitude to God, and demonstrate our gratitude not only in an attitude of love toward our neighbors, but to give willingly of our time and resources in acts of love. It is love that is rooted in compassion which is literally “suffering with” someone else. In such compassion, we forget all about ourselves and never think whether or not the one in need is a friend or enemy, rich or poor, Christian or Muslim. We show compassion not to fill a spot on our resume, not because we know the good feeling that comes afterward, and not because everyone else is doing it. We think only of the needs of the one suffering. The love and compassion that God demands of his children must include, but also go beyond the natural compassion that human nature displays. It is a love that flows out of our love for God; from one who knows that he is not his own, but belongs, body and soul to God. It is the kind of love that Jesus illustrates with the parable of the “Good Samaritan.”

In your letter you write “I could see the Samaritan as a rescue worker going to Haiti.” Perhaps, but don’t you think the lawyer would be interested in going too? The only people he was not ready to see as a neighbor were the people who had in one way or another done him injury or despised him. I see no reason to believe that the helpless Haitian who has never done anything to offend, would be just the kind of neighbor this lawyer had in mind when he asked, “and who is my neighbor?” The point of the parable of Jesus was to reveal a deeper, more profound kind of love and compassion than the normal human love and compassion that God providentially preserves in the world for the sake of the gathering of his church. Often it is those people who are closest to us who can arouse in us scorn and disgust and therefore are the most difficult to love. The Samaritan had compassion on a man going from Jerusalem to Jericho, and therefore likely a Jew which despised the Samaritans. If Jesus would have told a story about a Samaritan going as a rescue worker to help some Zidonians in need, the lawyer would have been quite pleased to respond that he would be happy to do it too and thus fulfill the whole law of God.

Jesus demanded that the question be turned around when he says, ask yourself: “am I being a neighbor to those I find among thieves?” In other words, am I one who “shows mercy” (Luke 10:37)? Am I someone who is known by everyone around me to be “the neighbor/merciful one”? Am I someone who would have compassion on a man like Zacchaeus who just cheated me and forced me and my family onto the street because I could not pay the debt on my home? One who immediately identifies the Hatian orphans as his neighbors today and sends $1000, but in his daily life he so devotes himself to career or hobby that he neglects the needs of his wife and children is a good example of the lawyer who asked “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He is one who is only going to give for causes that don’t require giving oneself, don’t require a pride wrenching denial of self and pride, helping those who are far away and have not offended or injured him. When we understand what being a neighbor entails, we are not really interested in the question “who is my neighbor?” We certainly love those that love us, but we really don’t know the love of God yet, really aren’t being neighbors, until we “love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and pray for them which despitefully use us, and persecute us” (Matt. 5). Our compassion compels us to send money or help out the Haitians in other ways, but we may not do it as a smoke screen for not being neighborly to all those who cross our path of life.

Though it is a gracious work of God in the heart of the believer to engage in such work, and through it display the mercies of Christ, it is not a work of grace in the heart of the unbeliever. The only outward difference between the believer and unbeliever as they might work side by side in relief efforts is the fact that a believer brings the comfort of the gospel along with his or her help. As difficult as it may be for us to understand, it is God himself who says that “the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” (Prov. 12:10).

On the flip side, it may also be difficult for our human mind and heart to grasp the truth that the sovereign God does not helplessly watch children wander about the rubble of their home, but rather is in sovereign control and has from eternity determined such pain and suffering. Again, as difficult as this is for us, we humbly submit to his word and say “But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Psa. 115:3). What he pleases is not necessarily pleasing or comprehensible to us; “Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good? Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins? (Lam. 3:38-39). We may not be fooled into thinking that a common grace of God is being displayed when we see the bowels of the world yearn at the suffering of so many desperately needy people. To do so is unbiblical and makes God unfaithful to his bride, the church in Christ.

Non-Christian rescue workers were moved as you state “with compassion and hoped to bring some healing to suffering people.” If these created instincts within man were destroyed with Adam’s fall, this world would be a terrifying place to live and unfit for the birth and growth of the church. This compassion and hope is a part of human nature that is necessary for human survival. God in his sovereign work of gathering his people throughout history and from the nations of the earth is pleased to preserve the entire framework of the universe along with the gentler feelings of man. The people of God through the Levites confessed of God, “Thou, even thou, art Lord alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee” (Neh. 9:6). Whatever we see of the non-Christian, unbelieving world doing things to alleviate suffering in the world is due to God’s preservation of the world, not his grace.

Compassion is a normal human response to those who endure great suffering and loss. This emotion is greater in some than in others, and for various reasons and circumstances it may be virtually nonexistent in some. The believer has every reason to cultivate this quality within himself and let it show forth in concrete action. But to say that curing the sick and alleviating suffering was “one of the greatest concerns/tasks in Jesus’ earthly ministry” ignores much of Scripture and misses the point of this work of Jesus. If alleviating suffering was a goal of Jesus, he would have accepted the nomination to become an earthly king (John 6:15). Every time Jesus healed, he directed the attention to the need for the healing of spiritual sickness, repentance and the forgiveness of sin. God made this power to heal one of the signs that Jesus was indeed the Christ, the promised Messiah who would crush the head of the serpent as promised. Everything Jesus did pointed to his high priestly work as the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin to make the whole people of God, the church, holy and fit for eternal covenant life with God. It is not, therefore, our chief calling to “do all we can to alleviate suffering indiscriminately,” but primarily to support the preaching of the gospel indiscriminately.

Regarding the articles by Rev. Decker and Sherry Van Egdom you raise some questions about the lifestyle and condition of the spiritual eyes of those who believe in divine necessity and the glory of God displayed in the Haiti earthquake. In that connection you suggest a “secondary physical scientific explanation.” I would assume then that viewing the earthquake as a natural result of the earth’s tectonic plates grating past one another would shield God from responsibility of causing an earthquake that would kill children. One who understands these scientific explanations would also then use her scientific knowledge of the earth and its forces to protect herself with technology instead of ignoring technology and living helplessly under divine necessity.

I’m not quite sure what to think about your conclusion. Personally I am quite fascinated by forecasting technology, remote sensing technology that orbits our planet, and the incredible surge of knowledge gained about the workings of earth and its atmosphere. The more we learn about this creation, the more I am inclined to declare: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33). I don’t fret about every possible danger the earth and its germs provide, but I don’t stand under trees during a thunderstorm either. I am not sure what you mean by “divine necessity.” I believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation as well as in his providential upholding of all creation as expressed in the answer to question 27 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

The almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.

I believe God knows the exact position of every electron orbiting every atom in the universe at every moment in time. Having created the earth, he created it along with the position of every cloud and the moment of each earthquake determined before in his eternal counsel. I also know the promise of God: “There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways” (Psa. 91:10, 11). When Satan suggested in the light of this revelation of God that Jesus jump from the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus’ response was, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (Matt. 4:7); and that is the response for anyone who believes in the sovereignty of God and is encouraged to test that faith by ignoring what I would prefer to call “laws of creation.” There is no inconsistency between believing God’s word as it stands and true scientific knowledge.