Were the 1,500 people who died in the Titanic punished by God? What about the 4,000 victims of Chernobyl or the 20,000 killed in Bhopal? What about the 7 crew members who perished in the Challenger space shuttle disaster? What about the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904? Are such tragedies God’s way of punishing us? Jesus answered the question in the context of an apparent construction accident (Luke 13:1-9). 130 were killed in the 1944 East Ohio Gas Explosion and 114 were killed in the 1981 Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway collapse. Were they worse sinners than we are? Just like the 18 who died in the Tower of Siloam collapse, they were probably no worse or better than you and me. Unless we all repent we too will perish. We love to judge the fate of others, but Jesus reminds us to judge ourselves.
Just about every human government that has ever existed has been responsible for mass murder. Is that God’s way of punishing evil? What about the mass murders committed by the Empire of Japan, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany? Were those victims worse people than us? What about the bombing of Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Were those women and children worse than us? What about the massacres of history? Were they God’s punishment? In our passage Jesus described a massacre of worshipers by Pilate, who apparently killed them in the very act of worshiping God. Was their worship insincere? Was it tainted? Such judgmental questions annoy Jesus, because as he said, we will perish too unless we regret our wrongs. Human governments claim to judge between the right and wrong but their opinions do not constitute divine judgment.
Are catastrophes God’s judgment on the sins of others? While such claims seem to be justified by stories of divine judgment the Bible teaches that not every calamity is God’s punishment. What would Jesus say about judging suffering? In our passage Jesus answered religious people who made such claims about similar disasters. A political murder and a local construction disaster were not reasons for believing that the victims were any more sinful than the rest of us. Such self-righteous judgmentalism seemed to disgust Jesus who replied that we all need to repent or perish. As Ecclesiastes plainly teaches, time and chance happen to us all. Not every loss is punishment, just as not every gain is a reward. Even when punishment is due, rather than chastise immediately, Jesus showed God’s preference to give us a second chance to repent.