By Monte Sahlin, September 11, 2017: Two of the biggest hurricanes on record have destroyed the homes of many people on a number of islands in the Caribbean, and in Texas and Florida. A major earthquake has destroyed cities in Mexico. And today many Americans remember the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC sixteen years ago; the largest terrorist attacks on civilians in the history of the United States.
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A number of readers have posted comments or written letters to the editor suggesting that these tragic events are indicators of God’s judgment. And undoubtedly many thousands of others have said the same to their friends and families. In fact, many religions teach this very concept.
For Adventists it is common to see such events as “signs of the times,” indicators that the Advent is near. Don’t get me wrong: if Jesus returns before tomorrow dawns or the week is out, I will be absolutely delighted. This old world has seen too much suffering and death, too much disease and sorrow. I would welcome the opportunity to put aside all else and enter into the Kingdom of God.
At the same time, it is important to remember that Jesus spoke to this very issue. When His disciples asked Him, “What will be the sign of your coming? (Matthew 24:3) He responded, “Beware that no one leads you astray. … You will hear of wars and rumors of wars … but the end is not yet. … there will be famines and earthquakes in various places, all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (Vss 4-8).
In fact, Jesus said that there is only one certain sign of the Second Coming and that is that the good news of His grace and mercy will be shared with all peoples “and then the end will come.” (Vs 14) In the extensive teaching by Christ about the end times and the signs of the times, the focus is on how to wait for Him, how to remain faithful over a long time, not how to calculate the nearness of the event. Read Matthew 24 and 25 for yourself and tell me if I have read wrong.
In His divine wisdom and mercy, God has prioritized freedom over correctness. In fact, the only righteousness He values is that of free moral agents, not the fearful or narrow-minded. It is sometimes called “the openness of God.” He does not relish the suffering nor enjoy the disasters, but knows that things must work themselves out naturally in order to bring real healing and hope.
How does this apply to nature? I am not entirely certain, but it is clear to me that if the stewardship of the natural world, particularly as it relates to climate science, had been practiced more widely in a way more attentive to the goodness of God’s creation, it is likely that it might be less destructive.
I know that it is reassuring to think, “These are signs of the times,” and so take comfort in our smug heritage of insider knowledge about the time of the end. I am a fourth generation Adventist. I have heard comments of this nature ten thousand times and felt the reassurance of an explanation that frees one from the sense of chaos and fear.
Yet it is clear to me that God is not in the destroying storm nor the devouring disaster, and certainly not in league with the crazy politicians who want to start war. His is in the still, small voice inside my head that tells me I am loved no matter what happens. He wants a world where there is no more suffering or tears, no more death or destruction. He (or is it She?) is a God of peace, not a punisher.
Man-made religion sees God as punisher and judge and destroyer. The gospel does not!
Monte Sahlin is an ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister who has served at all levels of the denomination in the 45 years before he retired. He is now chief executive officer of Adventist Today.