Volume 34 - Issue 1

Divine Retribution: A Forgotten Doctrine?

By Andrew Atherstone


The summer of 2007 was the wettest in Britain since records began, registering over twice the usual amount of rainfall between May and July. It led to extreme flooding, the most serious since 1947, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Thirteen lost their lives— including a man swept away when crossing a road in Sheffield; another drowned when his foot got trapped in a storm drain in Hull; a teenager fell into the River Sheaf; and a father and son were found dead at Tewkesbury rugby club where they had been attempting to pump water out of the premises but had been overcome by fumes.

The summer of 2007 was the wettest in Britain since records began, registering over twice the usual amount of rainfall between May and July. It led to extreme flooding, the most serious since 1947, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Thirteen lost their lives— including a man swept away when crossing a road in Sheffield; another drowned when his foot got trapped in a storm drain in Hull; a teenager fell into the River Sheaf; and a father and son were found dead at Tewkesbury rugby club where they had been attempting to pump water out of the premises but had been overcome by fumes. Across the country 48,000 households and nearly 7,300 businesses were flooded, causing billions of pounds of damage. In Yorkshire and Humberside, the Fire and Rescue Service launched what they called the ‘biggest rescue effort in peacetime Britain’. In Gloucestershire, 350,000 people were left without mains water supply— the most significant loss of essential services since the Second World War. The floods brought with them many other problems, including infestations of rats, mosquitoes and flies, and health problems such as diarrhea and asthma. In farming communities 42,000 hectares of agricultural land was under water; a thousand sheep were killed in Staffordshire; and several thousand chickens drowned in Lincolnshire. To put these events in a global context, during 2007 there were over 200 major floods worldwide, affecting over 180 million people, and leading to 8,000 deaths. But even against that stark reality, in purely economic terms, the floods which devastated Britain were the most costly floods in the world in 2007.2

Why did it happen? The independent review conducted by Sir Michael Pitt (published in June 2008, with over 500 pages) naturally focused on questions of meteorology, infrastructure, and politics. The unusual amount of rainfall was explained as the result of ‘the position of the Polar Front Jet Stream and high North Atlantic sea surface temperatures’.3 The devastation caused by the water, Pitt concluded, was due to poor drainage, insufficient flood defences, and incompetent local authority planning. God is mentioned only once in the entire report, as an expletive, quoting a woman from Hull.4

Nevertheless some observers, notably a handful of Anglican bishops, were willing to offer an alternative commentary on the floods, from a theological perspective. Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, was quoted in the Sunday Telegraph as saying that the disaster was caused not just by humanity’s lack of respect for the planet, but was also a divine judgment on British society’s moral decadence:

This is a strong and definite judgment because the world has been arrogant in going its own way. We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused. . . . We are in serious moral trouble because every type of lifestyle is now regarded as legitimate. . . . Our government has been playing the role of God in saying that people are free to act as they want. . . . The Sexual Orientation Regulations [which came into force in April 2007] are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God’s judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance.5

Bishop Dow referred not just to sexual immorality, but to the sins of greed and oppression. He suggested that the West was being punished for the way in which it had exploited poorer nations in its pursuit of economic gain: ‘It has set up dominant economic structures that are built on greed and that keep other nations in a situation of dependence. The principle of God’s judgment on nations that have exploited other nations is all there in the Bible’. He acknowledged that those affected by the flooding were innocent victims, but explained that the problem with ‘environmental judgment is that it is indiscriminate’.6 Although God was not specifically ‘targeting’ the places affected, Dow urged that in the face of natural disaster it was wise to pray, ‘Lord, have mercy’.7 On Radio Cumbria he suggested that sins like sexual permissiveness, violence, occult practices, and disrespect for school teachers had a direct effect upon the fruitfulness of the land. He reiterated:

In the eyes of God our morality and its consequences affect everything. . . . we need to heed the signs and to seek God and his mercy. . . . there is a clear link between rebellion against God, moral collapse, exploitation of others . . . and environmental catastrophe. And what God is looking for is repentance.8

Meanwhile James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, focused upon global warming and human abuse of the natural world:

People no longer see natural disasters as an act of God. However, we are now reaping what we have sown. If we live in a profligate way then there are going to be consequences. . . . We have a responsibility in this and God is exposing us to the truth of what we have done.9

Unlike Bishop Dow, Bishop Jones was careful not to use the language of ‘judgment’, but this theological distinction was lost on the newspapers.10 Secular journalists had a field-day, pouring scorn on these Anglican dignitaries. Most entertaining was the Times columnist, Libby Purves, who proclaimed,

Bishops! Lead them not into temptation, because their verbal trespasses can be hard to forgive. At the weekend, as thousands of families and businesses confronted the filth and devastation of their homes and livelihoods, and some faced actual bereavement, two mitred misfits spoke out in a way that only the kindest could fail to interpret as smugly opportunist.11

For Bishop Dow to speak out like this when ‘families of blameless sexuality and, very likely, considerable goodness are being comprehensively stuffed by rogue weather pattern’ was not, said Purves, ‘a tactful remark from a man with dry feet and a palace’.12 Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, spoke of ‘living as if we owned the earth’,13 but Purves mocked,

A fine motto, suitable for embroiding [sic] on any teacloth. But not when you pin it to one miserable, wet, freakish and indiscriminate meteorological disaster. This sort of smug punitive opportunism gets religion a bad, bad name. I was brought up religious, and know that there are plenty of more constructive ways for churchmen to meet disaster that going ‘na na na, God is punishing us, told you so’. . . . To hijack a natural disaster and harness it to their own political and ethical bandwagon is the last thing good pastors should do.

Unfortunately, too often it is the first.14

The comments emailed to Times Online were less restrained, and Bishop Dow bore the brunt of public anger:

Wouldn’t it be nice if, just for once, these garrulous fossilised clerics dumped their opportunist agenda and identified, on a humane level, with the displaced people who have had their homes and property ruined or families who have lost relatives through these floods. . . . If bishops are truly seeking to make social connections presenting themselves as caring human beings, then pouring guilt over the population at every opportunity is a perverse way of doing it.15

The fact is, trying to scare people by invoking frankly barmy notions that the weather is ‘out to get us’ on the whim of an angry God, is puerile, facile, and just makes most normal people think he’s a complete nut case.16

Graham Dow is a deep embarrassment to all sensible, rational, modern-minded Christians. He is mentally stuck in the 14th century: the fact that Christians used to believe in such nonsense, and the fact that the Old Testament is full of nonsense, is no excuse whatever. It does not make him a more authentic Christian, merely a more authentic twerp.17

One Episcopalian wrote from Arizona to distance himself from the bishop’s ‘garbage’: ‘This is hate, pure and simple. I’m sorry, but when people in the Anglican church make statements like this, I am deeply embarrassed’.18 Another churchgoer proclaimed in the Times,

As a Christian, I am appalled. Has this Bishop not read the Bible from which he purports to spout? In the good book, after the great flood, God promised never again to punish man in this fashion. Sometimes, senior clerics make it harder to be a Christian than it is without their ridiculous statements.19

Given the fierce public backlash experienced by Bishop Dow and his colleagues, it is no surprise that the theological connection between calamity and judgment is very seldom elucidated by the Church of England’s episcopate. It is not considered good ‘PR’. Like many other traditional Christian doctrines, it provokes endless derision amongst modern sceptics. Nevertheless, as this paper seeks to illustrate, Dow stands within a long and honourable tradition of evangelical preaching. As will be shown, the doctrine of divine retribution was widely held by the churches in Britain from the early centuries until the very recent past, and has fallen into neglect only since the late-Victorian period. Reaction against such teaching has not been motivated by better biblical exposition or more mature theological reflection, but by a clash with the presuppositions of our contemporary culture.

1. From the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century

Throughout the Middle Ages, from the arrival of the first Roman and Celtic missions to Kent, Scotland and Northumbria in the sixth and seventh centuries, a theology of divine retribution was frequently taught by the Christian churches in Britain. As Antonia Gransden has shown in her magnum opus on English historiography before the Reformation, the doctrine was a dominant feature of medieval chronicles, beginning with Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the 730s. Bede was the primary model for later works like Orderic’s Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy and Henry of Huntingdon’s History of the English in the twelfth century, or the Eulogium Historiarum (A Eulogy of Histories) in the fourteenth century. These chroniclers consistently interpreted calamity, whether sudden death, natural disaster, or military defeat, as a sign of God’s wrath and made the link explicit in their didactic historical narratives.20

Likewise during the theological upheaval of the Reformation and Civil War periods, the doctrine of divine retribution remained alive and well—taught as boldly by Puritans as it had been by their medieval forebears. Alexandra Walsham examines the trends in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in her magisterial study Providence in Early Modern England (1999) and concludes, ‘No Protestant minister could pass up the opportunity afforded by a major conflagration, blizzard, drought, inundation, or epidemic to deliver a thundering diatribe on the doctrine of divine judgements.’21 Natural disasters were called flagella dei, the scourges of God, sent to ‘awaken and affright’ sinful humanity to repentance. For example, Hugh Roberts, a Welsh clergyman preaching in Sussex in 1598, spoke of the lessons to be learned from these catastrophes:

everie plague, everie calamitie, sudden death, burning with fire, murther, strange sicknesses, famine, everie flood of waters, ruine of buildings, unseasonable weather: everie one of these and of the like adversities, as oft as they happen in the world, are a sermon of repentance to all that see them, or heare thereof . . . a memento to every one of us to looke to our selves, and to call to remembrance our owne sinns, knowing that it is the same God that will take vengeance of everie sinne, and transgression of men, & that he will strike with a more heavie hand, if his warning, and example of his justice be not regarded.22

Disasters were widely interpreted as warning of worse to come and gracious chastisement by a heavenly father, as Walsham explains:

Such gentle strokes and lashes were, in fact, encouraging signs: they indicated that the Almighty had not yet given up hope of reclaiming a village or city from its Babylonian captivity in sin. It was when He ceased to castigate a locality and allowed it to wallow in its own wickedness that the inhabitants should really begin to worry and prepare themselves for the worst.23

So when a town was ravaged by fire, it was a sign of grace that the Lord had held back from making ‘one general bonfire’ of the entire world. Likewise when East Anglia, London, and Kent were shaken by the ‘Great Earthquake’ of 6 April 1580, it was interpreted as a sign that the Lord was losing his patience. Yet in his mercy he had limited the tremor to less than a minute, ‘so rather shaking [his] rod at us, than smiting us according to oure deserts’.24 When it came to identifying the specific sins which had brought forth divine retribution, early modern preachers had many from which to choose. When Banbury burned to the ground in the spring of 1628, the people were rebuked for Sabbath-breaking, abuse of the Lord’s Supper, and drunkenness. On other occasions, the correlation between vice and punishment seemed more obvious. For example, one Sunday afternoon in January 1583, a gallery full of bear-baiting fans at Paris Garden on the south bank of the River Thames collapsed, killing eight spectators and leaving another 150 maimed—in what Walsham calls an ‘Elizabethan Hillsborough’.25 Likewise the burning of the Globe and Fortune theatres in 1613 and 1621 led to urgent appeals for actors and audiences to forsake this depraved entertainment. A similar lesson was drawn from a disaster at Witney, near Oxford, in February 1653 when a large crowd was watching a play in an upstairs room at the White Hart Inn. After the second act, the floor suddenly collapsed, killing five and injuring sixty more.

By the early nineteenth century, this theological interpretation of disaster was still going strong, especially (although not exclusively) within evangelical discourse. Historians like Brian Stanley and John Wolffe have shown how late-Hanoverian and early-Victorian preachers consistently interpreted national calamities as divine judgement—whether military disasters like the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, premature royal deaths like those of Princess Charlotte and Prince Albert, or plague and famines like the cholera epidemics and the Irish potato famine.26

2. J. C. Ryle

One well-known exemplar of this theology was J.C. Ryle (evangelical vicar of Stradbroke in Suffolk, and first Bishop of Liverpool from 1880). During an outbreak of cholera in 1865, he wrote a tract called The Hand of the Lord!, insisting that ‘cholera, like every other pestilence, is a direct visitation from God’.27 His title was taken from King David’s exclamation in 2 Sam 24:14 that the sudden death of 70,000 Israelites from plague was due to ‘the hand of the Lord’. Ryle cited several other Old Testament texts which show that God sends plague upon his people because of their sin—Lev 26:25; Num 14:12; Ps 78:50; Jer 24:10; 29:17; Ezek 14:21; Amos 4:10. He proclaimed,

Some men will tell us confidently that cholera arises entirely from second causes. Bad drainage, bad water, want of cleanliness, want of sufficient food—all these are enough in the eyes of these men to explain the present visitation. But unfortunately for these people there was no drainage at all in former days! The streets of our great cities were dirty and unpaved! The water supply was miserably defective! The sanitary condition of the people was in every respect disgracefully bad. Yet in these days there was not cholera. No! it will not do. Second causes, no doubt, may help on cholera when cholera begins. But second causes will not account for its beginning. There is no standing ground for a man on this point, but the simple ground of the Bible. . . . It is the Lord’s hand!28

The primary cause of cholera, according to Ryle, was not bad sanitation but national sins like ‘Sabbath-breaking, drunkenness, infidelity, blasphemy, fornication’.29 The disease was sent to awaken the nation to repentance:

It should oblige us to remember that heaps of spiritual and moral filth are just as dangerous to a nation as heaps of material dirt. Oh! that God, by the cholera, may give Englishmen an eye to see and an ear to hear! . . . Once more God is speaking to us by His providence. Once more He is calling on us by His judgments, to repent of our national sins. I trust that He will not call in vain.30

In particular, Ryle called upon his hearers to put their faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, so that they would be ready to die and to meet their God. Although the epidemic was heaven-sent, Ryle also offered practical advice on how to avoid contagion:

Insist on the utmost cleanliness in every part of your house from top to bottom. Wage war against bad smells and heaps of dirt, as you would against a poisonous serpent. Complain at once to the parish authorities if nuisances near you are not removed. Be very careful about your own eating and drinking, and the eating and drinking of all the members of your family. Forbid green apples, unripe plums, and cheap stale fish to come within your doors. . . . Have a bottle of simple cholera medicine always in the house.31

This has led some modern readers to accuse Ryle of inconsistency, by the logic that if cholera is God’s will then to evade cholera is to evade God’s will.32 Yet Ryle saw no conflict of interest here. As D. A. Carson comments on the locust plague prophesied by Joel,

We should not adopt the stance of fatalists. If we can stop locusts today (satellites can sometimes spot incipient swarms that are then stopped by trucks with pesticides), then we should do so—in exactly the same way that we should try to stop war, plague, AIDS, famine, and other disasters. But in a theistic world where God is sovereign, we must also hear the summoning judgment of God calling his image-bearers to renounce sin’s selfism and cry to him for mercy.33

Shortly after the cholera, a terrible cattle plague (the deadly rinderpest virus) swept through Britain, calling forth dozens of sermons and tracts which urged national repentance, such as Edward Harman’s The Cattle Plague: Its Warnings and Its Lessons, W. W. Clarke’s The Cattle Plague: A Judgment from God for the Sins of the Nation, Newton Smart’s The Cattle Plague: A Divine Visitation, and Bishop Samuel Waldegrave’s The Cattle Plague: A Warning Voice to Britain from the King of Nations.34 Ryle again contributed a booklet entitled This is the Finger of God, taken from Exod 8:19 where the pagan magicians tell Pharaoh that the plague of gnats upon Egypt is ‘the finger of God.’ Ryle comments, ‘Reader, it would be well if all Englishmen were as wise as these Egyptians!’35 To those who asked where the cattle plague originated, Ryle asserted,

I answer unhesitatingly that it comes from God. He who orders all things in heaven and earth—He by whose wise providence everything is directed, and without whom nothing can happen—He it is who has sent this scourge upon us. It is the finger of God. . . . I refer any one who asks for proof to the whole tenor of God’s Word. I ask him to mark how God is always spoken of as the governor and manager of all things here below, from the very least to the greatest. Who sent the flood on the world in the days of Noah? It was God. . . . Who sent the famine in the days of Joseph? It was God. . . . Who sent the plague on Egypt, and specially the murrain on the cattle? It was God. . . . Who sent disease on the Philistines, when the ark was among them? It was God. . . . Who sent the pestilence in the days of David? It was God. . . . Who sent the famine in the days of Elisha? It was God. . . . Who sent the stormy wind and tempest in the days of Jonah? It was God.36

But why had God brought the cattle plague upon Britain? Ryle continued,

I answer that question without hesitation. It has come upon us because of our national sins. God has a controversy with England, because of many things among us which are displeasing in His sight. He would fain awaken us to a sense of our iniquities. This cattle plague is a message from heaven. . . . I believe that this cattle plague is a special national chastisement on England, because of our special national sins.37

In case some doubted that God judges nations, not just individual men and women, Ryle pointed to Old Testament prophecies about Babylon, Tyre, Egypt, Damascus, Moab, Edom, Ammon, and Nineveh. He observed, ‘Surely, if a man believes the Bible, these passages should set him thinking. The God of the Bible is still the same. He never changes.’38

Ryle was reticent about identifying the specific sins which had brought God’s judgment upon Britain in the 1860s, because he was not an authoritative Old Testament prophet but only a fallible preacher. He admitted, ‘I may be quite wrong’. Nevertheless, observing ‘the signs of the times’, he pointed to seven specific national sins: covetousness, love of luxury, neglect of the Lord’s Day, drunkenness (‘We are worse in this respect than either France or Italy’), contempt for sexual purity, toleration of Roman Catholicism, and scepticism (‘Nothing, I am thoroughly persuaded, is so offensive to God as to dishonour His written Word’).39 The preacher concluded,

I believe firmly that these things are crying to God against England. They are an offence against the King of kings, for which He is punishing us at this very day. And the rod He is using is the cattle plague. The finger of God, I believe, is pointing at our seven great national sins. To say that we are not so bad as some nations, and that the sins I have named are far more abundant in other countries than in England, is no argument at all. We have had more privileges than other countries, and therefore God may justly expect more at our hands.

Ryle’s booklet has been republished twice in recent decades, in 1967 (by the Banner of Truth Trust) and in 2001, when plague again swept through British cattle in the form of ‘foot and mouth’ disease. Some again wondered what national sins had hastened the disaster, observing that 1967 was the year abortion was legalized in Britain.

3. Francis Chavasse

A similar theological emphasis is consistently found in the sermons of Francis Chavasse, principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and Ryle’s successor as Bishop of Liverpool from 1900. During his early ministry in the 1870s and 80s, he had an influential preaching ministry among students at St Peter-le-Bailey in Oxford, and notes of over 700 of his sermons survive in the

Bodleian Library in twenty-six manuscript volumes.40 These reveal that Chavasse frequently spoke from the pulpit about national disasters.41 His sermons include many references to the calamities dominating newspaper headlines. For example, in September 1878, the Princess Alice sank on the River Thames with the loss of over 600 lives. Eight days later a massive explosion at the Prince of Wales Colliery at Abercarn in south Wales left 268 men and boys dead. In October 1878, one of Scotland’s largest banks, the City of Glasgow Bank, suddenly collapsed, leading to financial ruin for hundreds of families. November 1878 saw the start of the second Anglo-Afghan war, while in December Princess Alice herself, Queen Victoria’s second daughter, died of diphtheria at only thirty-five years old. In January 1879 British forces in the Anglo-Zulu war were slaughtered at Isandhlwana by King Cetshwayo’s impi warriors. Two years later British soldiers in South Africa were again routed, this time on Mount Majuba by Boer insurgents. Meanwhile the late 1870s and early 1880s brought a fresh wave of violence and murder across Ireland, instigated by Charles Parnell and the Irish National Land League. There was a crisis in British agriculture, compounded by severe weather and a succession of poor harvests. Britain was also in the midst of a widespread economic downturn, known to some modern economists as ‘The Long Depression’.

Chavasse understood these events to be the voice of God to the nation. They were divine judgment upon Britain’s sins and a warning to repent. At the St Peter’s Church harvest celebration in October 1879, after another bad year for the farmers, Chavasse entitled his sermon ‘The Voice of Dearth’ and declared, ‘We have sown much but we have brought in little. There is a close connection between England’s sin and sorrow’.42 On a similar occasion a quarter of a century later, he observed, ‘Dearth has its lessons as well as Plenty. A scanty Harvest has a voice from God as well as a year of abundance. God speaks to men by judgments as well as by mercies. May we hear and obey’.43 This theme was often reiterated. The lesson was simple: ‘National sins lead to national ruin.’44 The preacher proclaimed,

Clouds thick and dark are beginning to mass themselves round our country. . . . God has been smiting England when she deemed herself strongest and most secure, as if to teach her that all her strength and safety lies in Him. . . . Our national pride was never greater. . . . We have deemed ourselves secure, all powerful, never to be removed, with great colonies round us. . . . We have gloried in our own strength and forgotten to give God the glory.45

God deals with nations as with individuals. First He calls, then He smites—smites gently at first, but if we will not listen harder and yet harder. And if voice and rod fail, then He leaves us. And the nation that God has left, who can sustain? Its fall is speedy, terrible, irreparable. May England hear, before it be too late.46

4. Scientific Advance and Ethical Revolt

As this paper has sought to illustrate, the doctrine of divine retribution was widely taught by British Christians for many centuries. However, it began to be eroded from the middle of the nineteenth century—as symbolized by the demise of public days of fasting and humiliation, which had been a regular feature of national life since the Reformation.47

In part, this theological shift was the result of scientific advance in disciplines like geology, pathology, and meteorology. Now that the material causes of earthquakes, diseases, and hurricanes were better understood, many ceased to accept spiritual causes. Likewise rapid medical advance reduced human suffering. For example, James Young Simpson, who was largely responsible for popularizing anaesthetic childbirth in the 1840s, laughed at Christian teaching that labour pains were part of God’s curse upon Eve at the Fall. For the first time in human history it was possible for women to give birth pain free, and the spiritual lesson was quickly forgotten.48 In the face of medical or military disaster, commentators now began to blame the incompetence of surgeons and generals, while leaving God out of the picture.

Secondly, the doctrine of divine retribution was eroded by what Howard Murphy has called ‘the ethical revolt’ against Christian orthodoxy.49 Victorian Britain witnessed a growing repugnance towards concepts like election and reprobation, eternal punishment, vicarious sacrifice, and divine retribution as ‘morally barbarous and a relic of primitive society’.50 For example, in October 1853, F. D. Maurice was dismissed from his post at King’s College, London for his notorious Theological Essays, which rejected the traditional Christian doctrine of hell and claimed that vicarious atonement ‘outrages the conscience’.51 Two years later, Benjamin Jowett’s New Testament commentary denied the idea that Christ’s death was vicarious sacrifice, denouncing the doctrine as ‘horrible and revolting’ and ‘inconsistent with truth and morality’. He asked, ‘Was it that God was angry, and needed to be propitiated like some heathen deity of old? Such a thought refutes itself by the very indignation which it calls up in the human bosom. . . . God, if He transcend our ideas of morality, can yet never be in any degree contrary to them.’52 This moral revulsion against traditional Christian orthodoxy was also evident among biblical scholars like Bishop Colenso, who decided that the massacre of Midianites under Moses was non-factual, because it was even more morally reprehensible than the Cawnpore massacre during the Indian Mutiny.53 There was a similar reaction against the idea that God in his providence brings death and disaster upon communities as chastisement for their sins. In her study of Victorian attitudes to pain, Lucy Bending observes, ‘For Evangelicals, as indeed for Catholics, the righteous trinity of atonement, eternal damnation, and physical chastisement was unbreakable’.54 These three teachings were interwoven. As many British churches began to abandon the doctrines of hell and penal substitution during the late nineteenth century, so the doctrine of divine retribution vanished as well.

Today divine retribution is a forgotten doctrine. It is hardly ever preached in Britain today, even within evangelical churches. It has fallen by the wayside and been discarded. Yet the question remains—the question which history so often forces us to face—why has it been forgotten, having been readily accepted by Christians for so many centuries? The historical evidence suggests that this teaching has been neglected not because the churches have engaged in more rigorous biblical study than their predecessors, but because it clashes with our modern and post-modern sensibilities and presuppositions.

5. Questions Demanding Attention

Of course, the doctrine of divine retribution presents many vital theological and pastoral questions which we have not begun to explore in this paper. Let us note ten key concerns raised by contemporary theologians (both evangelical and non-evangelical) which demand attention:

  1. Would a just God bring such destruction?
  2. Are not natural disasters precisely that—‘natural’, not supernatural?
  3. Is not God’s wrath held back until the Last Day?
  4. Why do the innocent suffer and the guilty so often escape?
  5. Are we able to discern which sins God is judging?
  6. Is there such a category as ‘communal’ or ‘national’ sin?
  7. Is God’s justice remedial or retributive?
  8. Is this another brand of the ‘prosperity gospel’?
  9. What is the difference between chastisement and punishment?
  10. Has not all the punishment deserved by Christians already been borne by Christ on the cross?


The only way to answer these questions is through rigorous biblical exegesis, which space does not allow here. However, it is worth observing how many biblical texts relate directly to the subject. Throughout the Old Testament, the link between sin and calamity is regularly and explicitly emphasised on page after page, as preachers like Ryle and Chavasse were ready to acknowledge. Individuals, families, cities, and nations experience disease, military defeat, flood, famine, plague, exile, and death as a direct result of their rebellion against God.

Divine retribution is also taught within the New Testament, albeit less frequently. For example, after Jesus healed an invalid at the Pool of Bethesda he warned the man, ‘Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you’ (John 5:14). In contrast, on a later occasion, he explained that a beggar’s blindness was not due to sin but ‘that the works of God might be displayed in him’ (John 9:3). When some speculated that two local calamities—the massacre of Galileans by Pontius Pilate and the collapse of a tower in Siloam—were God’s judgment on sin, Jesus turned the question around, warning his hearers that they were equally sinful so must repent or they too would perish (Luke 13:1–5). He went on to pronounce judgement upon the whole nation of Israel (Luke 13:6–9). Similarly, Jesus prophesied the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman armies, because the people had rejected the Messiah (Luke 19:41–44; 21:20–24; 23:28–31). Later in the New Testament, the early church witnessed the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5) and of King Herod Agrippa who was struck down by an angel of the Lord because he pretended to be God (Acts 12). Meanwhile, Paul taught the church in Corinth that some had fallen ill and others had died because of their scandalous approach to the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:30). James also seems to link sin and sickness (James 5:14–16). If we are to recover an understanding of divine retribution which is faithful to Scripture, we must wrestle honestly and carefully with these biblical texts, not merely follow our current cultural presuppositions.55

6. A Prophet in Our Time?

What then are we to make of Bishop Dow of Carlisle’s controversial comments during the calamitous British floods of 2007? Some preliminary conclusions are possible. As has been shown in this essay, he stands in a long and honourable evangelical tradition, courageously proclaiming that a nation which has turned away from the Lord (as shown both by government legislation which promotes immorality and by widespread exploitation, violence, greed, sexual permissiveness, and occultism) stands under divine judgment. Those sins have consequences today as well as on the Last Day. Therefore the bishop is to be applauded for his willingness to speak out. He was right to describe the floods as a wake-up call from heaven, and right to urge self-examination and repentance. He was also right to remind his hearers that the innocent are caught up in calamity and that those who were flooded were no more guilty than the rest of the British population—which is all the more reason that everyone must repent without delay (see Luke 13:1–5).

Bishop Dow was mistaken, however, in two ways. First, his comments lacked theological humility. The Bible encourages a healthy caution in interpreting the cause of disaster. Sometimes it is wrong to connect sin and suffering (see John 9:2–3). Furthermore, the church today lacks authoritative God-inspired prophets and apostles to interpret events for us. Therefore it is impossible to know for certain which sins are being judged. Bishop Ryle was wisely hesitant in his analysis of disaster, making a link with specific national sins but also acknowledging that he might be wrong. Bishop Dow displayed no such reticence or admission of his own fallibility.

Second, Dow’s initial comments were pastorally careless. Ryle always delivered his teaching on this subject as an exhortation to a congregation or an evangelistic booklet, motivated by a desire to promote spiritual change in the lives of his hearers and readers. He eschewed speculation about why calamity had fallen upon other people and instead sought to persuade his audience that they must consider their own lives and repent of their own sins. In contrast, Dow’s first pronouncements about the floods were made ‘off-the-cuff’ to a journalist on the telephone looking for a quick news story. This was bound to lead to controversy rather than to genuine spiritual engagement by readers of the Sunday Telegraph. Only later, in a sermon on Radio Cumbria, did the bishop direct his comments to a congregation, urging them to repent and turn

back to God. This should have been his first pastoral instinct—to exhort a congregation, rather than to feed lines to a journalist.

Despite Bishop Dow’s two mistakes (theological and pastoral), his courageous declarations about the floods of 2007 are nonetheless laudable. Despite the fierce backlash he was likely to provoke, he willingly laid down a challenge to British society, calling for repentance and spiritual reformation. As a Christian leader he sought to bring biblical and theological reflection to bear on a national crisis. While most commentators and politicians focused on mundane questions like rainfall and drainage, Bishop Dow urged the British people to lift their eyes and look to the Lord. In these ways, the bishop is an excellent example, whom other preachers and theologians would do well to imitate.

  1. ^ This paper was first delivered at the second ‘Still Deeper’ day conference, held at St Andrew Undershaft in the City of London in September 2008. I am grateful to Peter Sanlon for the invitation to speak on that occasion and to participants for their helpful interactions.
  2. ^ Details from The Pitt Review: Learning Lessons from the 2007 Floods (June 2008), esp. 3–15.
  3. ^ Ibid., 3.
  4. ^ Ibid., 156.
  5. ^ Quoted in Jonathan Wynne-Jones, ‘Floods are Judgment on Society, say Bishops’, 2 July 2007, available at An abridged version of this report was published in the Sunday Telegraph, 1 July 2007, 1.
  6. ^ Quoted in ibid.
  7. ^ ‘A Statement by the Bishop of Carlisle’, 5 July 2007; ‘Bishop’s Full Statement of his Comments on the Floods’, 15 July 2007, available at
  8. ^ ‘Bishop of Carlisle’s Talk on Radio Cumbria’, 8 July 2007, available at
  9. ^ Quoted in Wynne-Jones, ‘Floods are Judgment on Society’.
  10. ^ Letter from James Jones, Sunday Telegraph, 8 July 2007, 26.
  11. ^ Libby Purves, ‘Our Smug Bishops, Busy Hijacking the Floods’, Times, 4 July 2007, 15.
  12. ^ Ibid.
  13. ^ Quoted in Wynne-Jones, ‘Floods are Judgment on Society’.
  14. ^ Purves, ‘Our Smug Bishops’.
  15. ^ Posted by Hugh Manitas in response to Ruth Gledhill, ‘Dow, Decadence and the Deluge’, 3 July 2007, available at .
  16. ^ Posted by J. Pearce, ibid.
  17. ^ Posted by Nelson Jones in response to Ruth Gledhill, ‘The Face’, 3 July 2007, available at
  18. ^ Posted by Craig, ibid.
  19. ^ Letter from Alan Copage, Times, 5 July 2007, 18.
  20. ^ See Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England, c.550—c.1307 (1974; reissued, London: Routledge, 1996) and Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England, c.1307 to the Early Sixteenth Century (1982; reissued, London: Routledge, 1996).
  21. ^ Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 116. The material in these paragraphs relies on her chapter, ‘Visible Sermons: Divine Providence and Public Calamities’, 116–66.
  22. ^ Quoted in ibid., 116.
  23. ^ Ibid., 123.
  24. ^ Quoted in ibid., 132.
  25. ^ Ibid., 136.
  26. ^ John Wolffe, ‘Judging the Nation: Early Nineteenth-Century British Evangelicals and Divine Retribution’, in Kate Cooper and Jeremy Gregory, eds., Retribution, Repentance, and Reconciliation (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2004), 291–300; Brian Stanley, ‘Christian Responses to the Indian Mutiny of 1857’, in W.J. Sheils, ed., The Church and War (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), 277–89; Richard Janet, ‘Providence, Prayer and Cholera: The English General Fast of 1832’, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 51 (September 1982): 297–317; Peter Gray, ‘National Humiliation and the Great Hunger: Fast and Famine in 1847’, Irish Historical Studies 32 (November 2000): 193–216; Olive Anderson, ‘The Reactions of Church and Dissent Towards the Crimean War’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 16 (1965): 209–20.
  27. ^ J.C. Ryle, ‘The Hand of the Lord!’ Being Thoughts on Cholera (London: William Hunt, 1865), 5.
  28. ^ Ibid., 7–8.
  29. ^ Ibid., 10.
  30. ^ Ibid., 11.
  31. ^ Ibid., 13.
  32. ^ Lucy Bending, Representation of Bodily Pain in Late-Nineteenth Century English Culture (Oxford: Clarendon, 2000), 21.
  33. ^ D. A. Carson, For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Treasures of God’s Word (2 vols, Leicester: IVP, 1998), vol. 2, comment for 9 November.
  34. ^ See Matthew Cragoe, ‘“The Hand of the Lord is upon the Cattle”: Religious Reactions to the Cattle Plague, 1865–67’, in Martin Hewitt, ed., An Age of Equipoise? Reassessing Mid-Victorian Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 190–206; Stephen Matthews, ‘Explanations for the Outbreak of Cattle Plague in Cheshire in 1865– 1866: “Fear the Wrath of the Lord”’, Northern History 43 (March 2006): 117–35.
  35. ^ J.C. Ryle, ‘This is the Finger of God’: Being Thoughts on the ‘Cattle Plague’ (London: William Hunt, 1866), 3.
  36. ^ Ibid., 4–5.
  37. ^ Ibid., 8.
  38. ^ Ibid., 9.
  39. ^ Ibid., 9–11.
  40. ^ Bodleian Library, MSS Chavasse dep. 45–73. See Andrew Atherstone, ‘“The Prince of Pastoral Preachers”: The Oxford Sermons of Francis Chavasse’, in Mark Smith, ed., British Evangelical Identities Past and Present (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), 201–14.
  41. ^ See in particular, ‘Our National Sin’ (1878), ‘True Patriotism’ (1878), MS Chavasse dep. 48; ‘National Calamities’ (1879), MS Chavasse dep. 49; ‘The Voice of Dearth’ (1879), MS Chavasse dep. 50; ‘England’s Mission’ (1881), MS Chavasse dep. 55; ‘The National Recognition of God’ (1887), MS Chavasse dep. 66.
  42. ^ ‘The Voice of Dearth’ (1879), MS Chavasse dep. 50, fo. 106.
  43. ^ ‘The Call of Dearth’ (c.1902), MS Chavasse dep. 69, fo. 49.
  44. ^ ‘True Patriotism’ (1878), MS Chavasse dep. 48, fo. 26.
  45. ^ ‘National Calamities’ (1879), MS Chavasse dep. 49, fos 145, 147–48.
  46. ^ ‘The Voice of Dearth’ (1879), MS Chavasse dep. 50, fo. 108.
  47. ^ See Roland Bartel, ‘The Story of Public Fast Days in England’, Anglican Theological Review 37 (July 1955): 190–200; C.J. Kitching, ‘“Prayers Fit for the Time”: Fasting and Prayer in Response to National Crises in the Reign of Elizabeth I’, in W.J. Sheils, ed., Monks, Hermits and the Ascetic Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), 241– 50; Christopher Durston, ‘“For the Better Humiliation of the People”: Public Days of Fasting and Thanksgiving during the English Revolution’, Seventeenth Century 7 (Autumn 1992): 129–49; Philip Williamson, ‘State Prayers, Fasts and Thanksgivings: Public Worship in Britain 1830–1879’, Past and Present 200 (August 2008): 121–70.
  48. ^ Bending, Representation of Bodily Pain, 21.
  49. ^ Howard R. Murphy, ‘The Ethical Revolt against Christian Orthodoxy in Early Victorian England’, American Historical Journal 60 (July 1955): 800–817.
  50. ^ Susan Budd, Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society 1850–1960 (London: Heinemann, 1977), 111.
  51. ^ F.D. Maurice, Theological Essays (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1853), 138. See further, Geoffrey Rowell, Hell and the Victorians: A Study of the Nineteenth-Century Theological Controversies concerning Eternal Punishment and the Future Life (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), 76–89.
  52. ^ See Andrew Atherstone, Oxford’s Protestant Spy: The Controversial Career of Charles Golightly (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007), 163–78.
  53. ^ Peter Hinchliff, God and History: Aspects of British Theology, 1875–1914 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), 29.
  54. ^ Bending, Representation of Bodily Pain, 21–22.
  55. ^ A helpful place to begin is Stephen Travis, Christ and the Judgement of God: The Limits of Divine Retribution in New Testament Thought (rev. ed., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009).

Andrew Atherstone

Andrew Atherstone is tutor in history and doctrine, and Latimer research fellow, at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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