I sit looking out the window as I write. The rain continues to fall, just as it has for the past three days. We are told that three more days of rain are still to come. Buildings are flooding, streets are collapsing, levees threaten to be breached. If Houston were a towel, I cannot imagine how many days, and months, and even years, it would take to wring it dry. One of the most disconcerting facts of the storm is that it hems you in. My neighborhood remains in good shape. Our drainage has been good, and all is well…for now. Not far from us, though, are friends who have been flooded out. We want to help, but the roads are closed. Hopelessly unable to help, we sit, and I write.
I get asked questions frequently about God and life and faith. There is hardly a question asked more frequently than, Why does the bad stuff happen? Or more specifically, Why are there hurricanes and tornadoes and floods, and where is God, if He exists, in the midst of them? I wonder if questions like these will become more frequent in the days to come. In some ways, I hope they do. They are worthy of the times.
The God and suffering question can be approached in many ways. I won’t attempt to come at it from all the possible angles. Here I will just offer one. Let me say upfront, however, that I never propose to answer why God has allowed a particular disaster to befall anyone. I do not know if God has very specific reasons for seeing a family lose a child, or for a Midwestern town being decimated by a tornado, or for a city like Houston experiencing massive flooding. I do believe, though, that there are some general reasons that can give us perspective, and one has to do with deeper magic.
Deeper magic is not my phrase. I borrow it from C.S. Lewis. He used it in his classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Aslan, the Christ-like figure, was willingly captured by the witch and killed. All seemed lost for those who had any desire for good in the land of Narnia. But then Lewis’ story reminds us that in the dark hour of Aslan’s death, there was a deeper magic at play. Evil’s seeming victory was short-lived; Goodness would win and the witch and her minions would find themselves on the run from there on out.
One way to look at the Houston flooding is to believe there is a deeper magic at work. There are lost lives, and homes, and businesses, and dreams. But perhaps, just maybe, there is a deeper work going on that more than justifies the scale of suffering, a work that will make even this disaster seem like a light and momentary affliction.
Towards the end of Jesus’ life, he spoke of his return. A return not marked by the grace of his first coming, but by a judgment that would separate the sheep from the goats, those who sought his mercy and forgiveness from those who didn’t. Among his words, is this warning:
But as for that day and hour no one knows it — not even the angels in heaven — except the Father alone. For just like the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. And they knew nothing until the flood came and took them all away. It will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:36-39)
Of course, given the circumstances besetting Houston at this time, the term flood jumps off the page. “What? Did Jesus say flood?” Yes, he did. He referred to a flood that makes what is happening in Houston child’s play. Even if you don’t believe there could have been a global flood, there are simply too many ancient accounts of a catastrophic flood to think that something of monumental proportions did not happen in the days of Noah. But let’s look at Jesus’ point in bringing up that epic flood. Maybe we will find some deeper magic at work.
Jesus says that the day of his impending judgment cannot be predicted. No three- or four-day warning like we get on The Weather Channel. Think if no warnings had been given in advance of today’s Houston flooding. How much more damage would there be? How many more lives would be lost? But Jesus is emphatic, there will be no specific warning of his return. The warning is the warning he gave when he first walked the earth. The warning is the warning given when the earth flooded in Noah’s day. And the warning is floods that happen today in cities like Houston.
Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms that God promised never to send another flood like that which beset Noah’s era, but it says nothing of God promising not to send smaller regional floods and disasters. So how do we interpret these events? I tend to believe it is best to think of them as aftershocks of sorts, as echoes of the same warning spoken in the flood of all floods. Jesus said the flood of Noah’s day caught people off guard. They should have known better; they should have listened to Noah. But they didn’t, and they paid dearly for it. They didn’t heed his call.
Now, echoing through the millennia, is a similar call to be ready. Tornadoes and earthquakes and hurricanes cry out to us: “Turn back, get on the boat, call out to Jesus! No time to waste! He will return, and there will be no second chances!” In Noah’s day “people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark.” Sadly, people do the same today. They live with no thought of what is beyond. They mock the coming return of Jesus, by doing as they please. No worries, be happy” is their mantra. All the while, the clock ticks down, the flood waters gather their wrath.
“So what about the deeper magic?” you ask. “What deeper magic is there in all of this flooding?” It is this: Some will hear the echoing message wrapped up in Houston’s flood waters. Some will be reminded that this life is fragile. Some will recognize they are nothing compared to nature and its Creator and Sustainer. And some, in the midst of all this tragedy, will make themselves ready. Not ready for an elongated power outage, or for months or years without a home. But ready for eternity. And they will make themselves ready by turning to Jesus. And they will be saved, not for a day, not to live for a few more decades, but from evil and death into all eternity.
If this deeper magic is at work, then Houston’s flooding is not a loss, not by a long shot. And we have reason, even as the rain continues to fall, to give thanks and praise to the One who opens the heavens.
If you’ve been exposed to Christianity for very long, you have likely heard that the Bible teaches that all have sinned and as a result been distanced from God. This distance extends into eternity unless one places his or her trust in Christ as the only means of salvation. As Jesus himself said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:17-18). But even if you understand this, you might ask the question, “Can people lose their salvation after they have it?” That’s a very good question, and it gets right to heart of the Christian message.
Let’s suppose you were given a gift by your parents of a trip to Europe. Of course, that would be a wonderful gesture on their part. But let’s also suppose that soon thereafter, it was made clear they would take away the gift if you did not keep up doing all the things they thought were good for you to do. At that point, the gift would not feel very much like a gift anymore, but something you must earn day in and day out. The message of the Bible is that we cannot earn our salvation. We don’t have what it takes to earn it, so Christ offers it to us a gift. If we were told at that point that the only way we can keep the gift is if we keep up God’s standard from here on out, it would not be a gift, would it? But the Bible is emphatic, salvation is not something we can earn by works, either before or after our first step of faith. Consider the words of the Apostle Paul, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Paul writes something similar in Titus 3:4-7:
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
Some might say, “So you’re telling me that if I stop believing or if I start doing terrible things, I am still saved?” That’s a bit more complicated question. When someone “stops believing” or consistently participates in openly sinful behavior, the question arises as to whether the person ever really believed in the first place. Christians in the Bible are found to have doubts and even to sin in grievous ways, but when they do we see that God meets them at their place of doubt or convicts them of their sin. The end result is often reassurance and repentance. So should be the case of the true believer today. If one turns her back on God in word and deed, after an initial profession, it may be that she never possessed true belief in the first place.
I have met many Christians who show every mark of looking faithfully to Christ, but still they doubt their salvation. In addition to sharing with them the thoughts above, I try to help them understand that our psychological assurance (or lack thereof) regarding any belief is not necessarily connected to its true trustworthiness. Let’s imagine there is a suspension bridge that is touted to be the most secure in the world. You have an engineering background and have a chance to see the plans and then follow the bridge’s construction. You agree that the bridge is very secure. At the same time, you have a personal fear of heights and are scared it will not hold you up when you try to cross it. Will your fear affect the structural soundness of the bridge? Not at all. Likewise, even if we do have doubts about the security of our salvation from time to time, we can know that our doubts in no way impact the ability of Christ to take us home to be with him.
One final thought on this matter. In the Bible, you are likely to come across verses that seem to suggest you can lose your salvation. When you compare those with verses that suggest you can’t, you might become confused. In instances like this, it is important to look beyond individual verses and look at the larger picture to know that you are interpreting Scripture rightly. In regards to the security of our salvation, I think the larger picture is powerfully illustrated throughout the whole first letter to the Corinthians. In that letter, Paul outlines all the ways the Corinthian believers had fallen short. They had become boastful, allowed sexual sin, grossly misused the Lord’s Supper, doubted the bodily resurrection of Christ, and much more. If it is possible to lose your salvation, the Corinthians would have done so. But despite all these sins and faltering belief Paul still writes in 1 Corinthians 1:4-9:
I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge—because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.
If Paul says this about the Corinthians, God can say the same about you.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.