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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

07 November 2005

The Divine Logistics of Mass Death

Q: How does God deal with the sudden masses of souls that go to Him, such as in case of the last year’s tsunami deaths?

A: In terms of what you might think of as “counting and processing,” the number of deaths makes no difference to an eternal and infinite God. He who numbers the hairs on our heads and knows when a single sparrow falls (see Matthew 10:29-31) is hardly perplexed or overwhelmed by even the grandest cataclysms we humans experience or imagine. At the end of the world, He’ll instantaneously raise up every person who ever died, gathering them for judgment with those living on the Last Day. This number will be far larger than the “few” hundred thousand who died during the earthquake and tsunami.

What we really need to do is examine your question, especially focusing on the phrase dealing with souls “that go to Him.” While we could say that all departed people go to God, few stay with Him. Sad to say, this is likely the case with the tsunami deaths: Most of whom died truly did not “go to Him” but instead went to hell.

The region affected by the disaster held large numbers of Muslims, plus Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Not one of these religions confesses Jesus Christ as Savior. Thus, each one of their adherents dying in quake and waves died as unbelievers. They were just like the Ephesian Christians prior to conversion — “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:2)”

Our earthly ideas of innocence many times conflict with God’s notion of sinlessness. All too often, when horrible events and tragic circumstances end lives, people convince themselves that the victims gain immediate passage to whatever sort of heaven they believe in. Since a particular sin by a particular person didn’t trigger a particular disaster, those who die in such disasters (tsunami, crashing towers, and the like) are “innocent” of the cause of death.

Yet just because I don’t bring a tornado down upon my house doesn’t mean that I’m not a sinner deserving the fullness of God’s wrath. This, of course, includes death. Not one of us is innocent by birth, by our own works, nor by the “accident” of our deaths. We are each and every one of us “guilty as sin” and are only made innocent — that is, sinless — through faith in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

Oprah at A Prayer for AmericaWhen entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey spoke at “A Prayer for America,” the interfaith worship service at Yankee Stadium following the 9/11 terrorist murders, she similarly confused the cause of the event with the judgment upon its victims. Not only does she mistakenly mix the souls of the departed with a completely different type of created being, she also wrongly assumes that all those who died in the towers entered some sort of glorious afterlife: “I believe that when you lose a loved one you gain an angel whose name you know. Over 6,000 and counting, angels added to the spiritual roster these past two weeks.”

Oprah completely strayed from the somber, sad truth: Anyone in or around those targeted buildings and captive aircraft who died — whether immediately upon impact or as heroes among the rescuers, Pentagon staffers, or Pennsylvania flight passengers — was not taken to live forever with God unless he or she believed in Jesus Christ. Nothing they were, nothing they did, nothing in their deaths’ circumstances could alter God’s judgment upon the unbeliever. Only faith in Christ brought any of the victims safely to eternal life.

God doesn’t want to reject and condemn. He “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4)” As the Lord says in Ezekiel 33:11, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Likewise, the Christian takes no pleasure when the wicked perish. Tsunamis, terror attacks, and other all bringers of death remind us of the necessity of spreading the life-giving Gospel of forgiveness in Christ.

Agnus DeiWith this in mind, we need to clearly know what sin is and recognize how completely bound to it we are by nature. We need to remember that “close” is not “good enough”; only perfection merits eternal life. Since we are frail and imperfect, we must believe in the perfect, sinless Son of God in order to be saved. We trust in His righteousness given us in Baptism and renewed by Word and Spirit.

When we die, it will not be as “innocent victims.” Whenever life ceases, we will have lived longer than we deserve. Stained by sin, crippled by doubt, and wracked by rebellion, our only sure hope is in the merits of Jesus Christ. Yet when we have confidence in Jesus Christ, we will die as His saints and shall live again in His eternal kingdom. For this purpose He came to earth; for this purpose He suffered and died: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15)” He was this world’s only true and complete “Innocent Victim” — the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29)” Because of His innocence, all our guilt is washed away.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.


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