It is truly hard to comprehend the horrors people are even now experiencing in the aftermath of Katrina which, of course, devastated huge sections of Louisiana , Mississippi , Alabama and Florida . Eighty percent of New Orleans is under water. Looting has become epidemic. Casinos built on barges along the coast of the Mississippi have been damaged or destroyed, their revenue estimated in the billions lost. In Alabama three hundred and twenty-five thousand homes and businesses are without power. Dead bodies are floating in infected flood waters. And that is just the tip of this horrifying human tragedy. The images flashing across our television sets will forever be emblazoned on our collective consciousness.
Americans have long considered their country impervious to natural disasters so common in the rest of the world. We have seen images of people in third world countries looting and ravaging a vulnerable city and somehow supposed that here in America things are different. It seems to me that in the space of just a few days, major sections of the Gulf Coast have become virtually indistinguishable from poor African nations plagued by poverty, civil strife, and a large population of homeless refugees. To awaken to a headline in USA Today which reports that the death toll in New Orleans alone numbers in the thousands was unthinkable just forty-eight hours ago.
And that, of course, is precisely the problem. We live in a world that believes in natural and moral evil from an intellectual perspective, but pragmatically we think it could never happen to us. That was precisely the condition of a man described by Jesus in Luke 16. One day he lived in pampered luxury, purple linen caressing his skin; the next he found himself in a tragic condition that trumps New Orleans . While America woke up to the devastation of Katrina, he woke up to a far more horrific reality-the reality of eternal conscious torment in hell. Too late he perceived the unbridgeable chasm between heaven and hell. Too late he supposed that he should have been a witness to his brothers. Too late he postponed repentance. Too late, too late, too late.
As I watched the twin towers of American invincibility and ingenuity crumble and collapse on 9/11, so too when I saw an American city known for Mardi Gras and jazz become submerged in its own water. I could not but pray that this would be a catalyst to arouse American Christians, people like you and I, from our luxury-induced stupor and incite us to rush to the aid of those trapped within the ruins of sin-sick souls. I am reminded of the words of Jesus Christ regarding those who perished when the tower of Siloam crashed down upon them: “Do you think that they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem ? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:4-5).
As the reality of what has happened in the last forty-eight hours sinks in, may we be riveted by the truth that those who turn their backs on Christ’s love and mercy will experience hell’s irrevocable reality, whether you live in New Orleans or you live in Charlotte, North Carolina or on the West Coast of the United States, it doesn’t matter. The Master Himself will say to those who spurn his sacrifice, “‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels….Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matt. 25:41, 46)-and that is a devastation that dwarfs the devastation left in the wake of Katrina.
Today, as never before, Christians must be prepared to declare hell’s reality to all those who have been momentarily snapped out of the stupor of their daily routines. See, the tragedy is this: as Eastern religions have become popular and influential in Western regions, common-sense distinctions between good and evil are not only being blurred, they are being obliterated. In the face of political correctness, it is increasingly difficult to communicate common-sense verities like the existence of heaven and hell; yet, without the realities of heaven and hell, wrongs ranging from looting – the kind of looting we’re seeing now that’s almost epidemic – to terrorist attacks that we saw on 9/11 that will never be fully righted and the hope of a world in which we will no longer experience death, mourning, crying and pain will never be fully realized.
We must remember that while the Creator made natural and moral evil possible by granting us freedom of choice, it was humanity that actualized that evil. We can’t put this on the Master’s table. We have to realize that the fingers point back at us. It may be popular to refer to the hurricane devastation that we see in the wake of Katrina as “unthinkable,” but the history of humanity graphically demonstrates there is virtually no limit to the possibilities to disease, disasters and death. Katrina reminds us that the world is groaning in travail, but the gospel reminds us that creation will yet be liberated. As the apostle Paul put it “one day creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.” This liberation begins with the conquest of the cross and will be completed at Christ’s second coming. As Christ’s conquest ensures our bodily resurrection so too his conquest ensures the resurrection of this cosmos.
Those who die in Christ will experience the new heaven and new earth as both a physical place in creation as well as the personal presence of the Creator: “The dwelling of God is with men,” said John, “and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away. He who is seated on the throne says, ‘I am making everything new!’” (Revelation 21:3-5).
It is my prayer that the images of devastation emanating from the Gulf Coast will arouse us from our lethargy and engage us to give water and food to those in need and to use the testimony of our love and our lives as an ultimate witness which will lead us to give them the bread and the water of life so that they may truly never hunger and thirst again.
The worst thing that can happen is not to die young in the waters of a flood or in a hurricane or in an earthquake or any other human tragedy. The worst thing that can happen is to live a long, robust life and then to forever be separated from the love and grace of the one that knit you together in your mother’s womb. Ultimately, when we see things like this we cannot cope with them unless we have an eternal perspective.
- Hank Hanegraaff