University Congregational Church
Aug. 18, 2019
America’s Four Gods: God & Evil
His disciples said, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.” Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” John 16: 29-33
Many people believe that when something good happens to us, God is involved. Does that mean that when something bad occurs, God has to have been involved as well? When so-called natural disasters strike, some evangelists are quick to make statements about God punishing sinful people or sinful cities with these disasters. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, televangelist John Hagee declared, “All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God… and I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.”
New Orleans is obviously a place that celebrates gambling and debauchery including the annual observance of Mardi Gras! Drunkenness, nakedness, gambling, overeating, and all kinds of over the top behavior occurs there. Mardi Gras was scheduled just a few days after Katrina hit. But not all people of faith thought that God chose Katrina as punishment for New Orleans. John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop weighed in with these words: “The idea of God sitting on a throne above the clouds manipulating the weather in order to punish sinners is so primitive and so naïve that it is staggering to the educated imagination… it is surely not a God of Love who punishes New Orleans’ poorest citizens with a hurricane that New Orleans’ wealthiest citizens could and did manage to escape with their lives, because they had cars.”
Today we are continuing our study about what Americans believe about God. We are basing this study on a book by Paul Froese & Christopher Bader called “America’s Four Gods; What We Say about God – & What That Says About Us”. They did an intensive survey around the United States and found some distinctive differences in how we understand God. Using these theological differences, they split the American public into four categories:
1. Americans who believe in a God who is both engaged in the world and judgmental – The Authoritative God
2. Americans who believe in a God who is engaged, yet nonjudgmental – The Benevolent God
3. Americans who believe in a God who is judgmental, but disengaged – The Critical God
4. Americans who believe in a nonjudgmental and disengaged God – The Distant God
Today, we are talking about how your understanding of God impacts your way of thinking about evil. 17% of Americans assert that God (at times) causes disasters as a warning to sinners. More of us are uncomfortable with God actually causing the disaster, so we say that God allows disasters to happen. 27% of Americans believe that God lets, but doesn’t cause bad things to happen.
If you believe in a Benevolent God, you might believe that God intervenes when bad things happen. Some people claimed that God held up the Twin Towers for an extra thirty minutes so that people could escape. Others suggested that God created traffic jams in downtown Manhattan to reduce the number of people in the buildings that day.
Most Americans, about 60%, believe that God plays no role in tragedy. We offer a variety of explanations:
• There is free will for humans
• God doesn’t intervene in our daily lives
• There are natural laws
Americans who believe in an Authoritative God are most likely to believe in a God who causes disasters. Bad things that happen are a sign of God being angry, warning us or calling us to action. They imagine a world in which evil forces lurk everywhere and they see the world as a place of spiritual struggle between good and evil. In fact, they often call this “spiritual warfare” – a continue struggle between good and evil. Some people take this very seriously. Several popular books have been written about spiritual warfare, and the use of prayer and angelic intervention to battle the forces of evil and so forth.
Take this a bit further… think about it in terms of political theory. After the 9-11 attacks, President George W. Bush talked about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as his “mission from God”. His national foreign policy urged us to be on the offensive in a War on Terror. He understood and made a strong case for a fight between good and evil; between a Christian nation and terrorists; between right and wrong.
A quote from our authors, “Ideas about war go hand in hand with ideas about God”. When a person strongly believes that the world is faced with true evil and that God may punish us for failing to fight those forces, she will be highly motivated to heed the call. Believers in an Authoritative God tend to think that great disasters are either caused or allowed by God, but in either case, they feel that tragedies are divine warning signs. And disasters that occur in the United States are especially significant because these believers tend to feel that America is favored and closely watched by God.”
Americans who believe in a Distant God are the most skeptical about the existence of evil coming from being such as Satan or demons. They are also less interested in a cataclysmic end of times in which evil will be ultimately vanquished. Instead, they worry that tragic events and disasters are probably the result of human action, natural randomness, or dumb luck. Believers in a Critical God also share this worldview. Both types of believers don’t see disaster as a supernatural war between good and evil, but as natural or human produced disasters.
Believers in Critical or Distant Gods find world affairs a bit shocking and even antagonistic to their faith. They don’t like to think of worldly conflicts or disasters in spiritual terms.
Believers in a Benevolent God may support war, but don’t tend to think that God plays a role in destruction. They do like to think that God provides protection for faithful soldiers. And they focus on God’s love and mercy during times of hardship. Believers in a Benevolent God are more likely to see God’s hand in daily events, but tend to dismiss or ignore the issue of why God lets these tragedies occur. They focus on the good that God brings from the bad. They are optimists.
Most of us haven’t always been aware that our images of God actually determine our theories about evil and our political ideology, but it certainly influences how we (and how others) think.
Next week we will wrap up this series by talking about how our ideas about God impact our thoughts about the future. A reminder that I’m always interested in hearing your ponderings and ideas about the sermons and your input about these topics!
Froese, Paul & Bader, Christopher. America’s Four God’s; What We Say about God- And What That Says About Us. Oxford University Press: 2010