Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 2, 2005

Jonah 1:17-2:10 Jonah's prayer

Now the Lord provided a large fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the fish's belly, and he said: "I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, and he answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and he heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods surrounded me, all your billows and your waves passed over me. Then I said, 'I have been cast out of your sight, yet I will look again toward your holy temple.' The waters encompassed me even to my soul, the deep closed around me, weeds were wrapped around my head, I went down to the foundations of the mountains. The earth with its bars closed behind me forever. Yet you have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer went up to you, into your holy temple. Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice to you with the voice of thanksgiving. I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord."

So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out onto dry land.

Matthew 18:10-14 The parable of the lost sheep

Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. For the Son of Man came to save the lost.

What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

Arcana Coelestia #2395 The Lord destroys no one

The Bible often says that "Jehovah destroys." But the deeper meaning is that people destroy themselves; for Jehovah, or the Lord, destroys no one. But since it seems as if the destruction comes from the Lord, because he sees and governs every single thing, the Bible does make that statement in various places. This is to keep people to the general idea that the Lord sees and guides all things. Once this idea has been established in people's minds, they can then be taught easily, since explanations of the deeper meaning of the Bible are simply the details that fill out the general idea. Another reason is to keep unloving people in a state of fear so that they will be in awe of the Lord, and go to him for deliverance. So you can see that it does no harm to believe the literal meaning--even though the internal meaning teaches something different--as long as it is a simple-hearted belief. . . .

Since angels have the inner meaning, they are so far away from thinking of the Lord as destroying anyone that they can't stand even the idea of it. So when people read passages like these in the Bible, the literal meaning is pushed into the background for the angels, and eventually merges into the teaching that evil itself is what destroys people, and that the Lord destroys no one.

It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. (Matthew 18:14)

With the death toll now climbing past 125,000, and likely to reach 200,000, the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, has become one of the top fifteen worst natural disasters in recent centuries. These range from 77,000 killed in a 1755 earthquake and tsunami near Lisbon, Portugal, to 3,700,000 killed in a 1931 flood of the Huang He River in China.

To put these figures in perspective, the worst human death tolls have come from wars, governmental oppression, famines caused either by human conflicts or by natural disasters, and plagues and epidemics. Examples of these are 600,000 killed in the U.S. Civil War in battle or from war-related disease; 15-20,000,000 in the African slave trade between 1700 and 1865; 30-50,000,000 civilian deaths during Mao's regime in China; 50,000,000 military and civilian deaths in World War II; and looking farther back in history, the biggest epidemic on record, a whopping 100,000,000 estimated deaths in the Justinian Plague in the years 540-590 in Europe.

What it all adds up to is staggering numbers of human deaths, some by natural disasters, and even more by human greed and power-lust, or by human-preventable causes.

Of course, throughout history the human death toll has always remained constant at 100%. Every single person born into this world does die, whether at one hour old or one hundred years old. Yet when disaster or human evil strikes, and large numbers die all at once, we naturally ask, "Why?" And if we are religious, we naturally ask, "How could a loving God allow such terrible things to happen to so many innocent people?"

For some people, the answer to this question is that there is no God. Many of these people, of course, have rejected God anyway, and are simply looking for reasons to back up their atheism or agnosticism. Others, though, simply can't find reasons that an all-powerful God would allow such suffering, or they are unwilling to accept the character of a God who would, and therefore they reject God's existence altogether.

For many more people, the answer is simple: God is angry and wrathful with the human race due to our stubborn refusal to live by his laws, and is punishing us for our sins. This view is by no means confined to Christianity. One Buddhist monk in a hard-hit area of Sri Lanka is quoted as saying, "The people are not living according to religious virtues. Nature has given them some punishment because they are not following the path of the Lord Buddha. The people have to learn their lesson." Though this monk attributed the punishment to nature rather than to God, the idea is the same: natural disasters are punishments for departing from divine commandments.

This view of death and disaster is found in many of the sacred writings of the world, including the Bible. For example, we read in Psalm 18:6-7:

In my distress I called upon the Lord;
    to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
    and my cry to him reached his ears.
Then the earth reeled and rocked;
    the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked,
    because he was angry.

As Swedenborg explains in our reading from Arcana Coelestia #2395, there is a reason these statements about God's wrath, anger, and destruction of the wicked appear in the Bible. Some people who are not particularly thoughtful or loving need to believe that God has the power to destroy, and that he will use this power against those who displease him. To these people, a God who was only loving and never wrathful would look like a weak God. They themselves think of evil as powerful due to the powerful hold it has on their own minds and lives. They are not at a state of spiritual development in which they can realize that all power is in love, and that despite the outward appearance, evil is actually weak and self-destructive.

But the main reason for the appearance of divine wrath is that God wishes to reach out to all people, both the loving and the unloving, both the spiritual and the materialistic. And God will use whatever language it takes, gentle or harsh, loving or wrathful, to break through to people and induce them, if possible, to change their hearts, their attitudes, and their lives. For many people, this means pounding them with words of divine anger, wrath, and destruction wreaked upon sinful humans.

This, however, is merely an appearance. God is not actually wrathful or destructive, but only appears that way to those who are caught up in evil thoughts and actions. This truth is beautifully stated later in Psalm 18, verses 25-27 where the Psalmist says to the Lord:

With the loyal you show yourself loyal;
    With the blameless you show yourself blameless;
With the pure you show yourself pure;
    And with the crooked you show yourself perverse.
For you deliver a humble people,
    But the haughty eyes you bring down.

"With the crooked you show yourself perverse." It is not that God actually is perverse, but that he appears that way to those who are "crooked"--to people who have not straightened up their lives. And if the only way to reach these people is to plant a very literal "fear of God" in their minds, then God is quite willing to work in this way. This is not from any real anger or destructiveness on God's part. Rather, it is because of God's infinite love for all, both the good and the evil.

It is not only Swedenborg who states that God does not actually hate or destroy anyone. The Bible also teaches this--though in somewhat more subtle ways. For example, in our reading from Matthew it says, "It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost."

How can we reconcile this with the fact that in every disaster, whether natural or caused by human greed, selfishness, and ignorance, thousands, even millions of children die? That in fact, children are some of the hardest hit and are often among the first to die? If it is not the will of our Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost, why are thousands of them lost every day to disease, hunger, war, and disasters of every kind?

From a natural, or materialistic, perspective, this question has no real answer. If the statement in Matthew 18:14 is taken literally, the only conclusion is that God is weak, or at least not all-powerful, so that even though he does not will that children should die, they die anyway. From a materialistic perspective, there simply isn't any way of reconciling disasters with a loving and all-powerful God. After all, even if God were justified in destroying the wicked, why does he not prevent the deaths of so many innocent children and adults?

Only a more spiritual view of reality can bring real and satisfying answers to these questions. And though we can easily spend our lifetimes coming to a full understanding of such difficult issues, perhaps a few thoughts will help.

From a spiritual perspective, death does not mean physical death. Yes, 125,000 people's bodies died in the recent tsunami. But the people themselves did not die. They continued to live in the spiritual world, having left their physical bodies behind. From the angels' perspective, physical death is not death at all, but a continuation of life. In fact, for the angels, each time someone here "dies," they experience it as someone arriving to make heaven a fuller and richer place. And for children in particular, our belief is that all who die as children will find their place in heaven as angels, since they are still innocent of any truly intentional and spiritual evil.

Spiritually speaking, death has a different meaning. It is the death, not of the body, but of the soul. And the only way our souls can die is if we willfully and intentionally turn away from God toward evil and selfish ways of living. When we do this, we are heading toward a death far worse than the death of the body. When the body dies, we continue to live, and in a place far more beautiful than this one. But when the soul dies, that eternal life becomes instead the eternal death of living in the hell of our own collective human evils, where, as it says in Psalm 34:21, "Evil shall slay the wicked." It is to save us from this true and deeper death that the Lord is willing to show himself as loyal, blameless, pure . . . or perverse as needed to save every single person who has the least willingness to be saved.

So the first thing to understand, as hard as it is for those of us who still live on this world in our material bodies, is that physical death is not a curse, but a blessed part of the divine plan. It is through death that we leave our temporary and often rather dark home here on earth, and pass into a far brighter and more beautiful home. For those children (and adults) who die like flies from disasters natural and human-caused, life immediately gets better. Although they do, of course, miss their loved ones who are still here on earth, they are greeted by the angels of those who have gone before them, and welcomed into the beauties of heavenly life. In other words, for those who die, death is not a curse, but a blessing.

It is those who are left behind that suffer. Those who survive the mayhem and disaster must endure, with pain and anguish, not only the death of their loved ones, but the continuing struggle and darkness of life in this world.

And again we ask, why? Even if we accept that it is not God's will for human beings to suffer, why does God allow so much pain and suffering in this world? Why does God not prevent not only large-scale disasters such as the recent tsunami, but all the small-scale disasters of suffering and pain that strike thousands, millions, and even billions of people each day? How could a loving God stand by and allow us to suffer so?

There are many answers to this question. Each of you will have to ponder this question, and struggle with it, and come to your own conclusions. One answer is that God will not violate human freedom, because to do so would be to make us non-human, and make it impossible for us to be saved spiritually and live eternally in heaven. God will not save us from the consequences of our own actions, because if he did, we would never learn what is evil, and make the commitment to destroy the evil in our own attitudes and actions.

This answer, if fully thought through, can satisfy the minds of those who must have reasonable explanations for the mysterious ways of Providence. But what about the heart?

I believe there is also an answer that the heart can accept--and it is one that will not allow us to merely stand by and think things through. God is loving, and does not simply stand by and let us suffer. Rather, God, in his tender love and compassion, works through us, through people here on earth, to show love and mercy to all the people he has created.

Why does God allow natural disasters to happen? When we humans face these ultimate disasters, our hearts are stirred, and we move beyond our usual self-absorbed and materialistic focus. When we hear of people suffering and dying, our compassion--which is really the Lord's compassion in us--is awakened. The human anguish we see and experience opens our own hearts, and prompts us to live for others rather than for ourselves. And when we do this, we are moving closer to the blessings of heavenly and spiritual life. Amen.

Music: Forever
2001 Bruce DeBoer
Used with permission

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