Response to Rabbi Kushner on the Collapse of the 35W Bridge

From 11 to 12 this morning, Gary Eichten of Minnesota Public Radio interviewed Rabbi Harold Kushner about the collapse of the 35W bridge. Kushner is best known for his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. There were several astonishing things about this interview—not unusual for religious talk shows on public radio, but astonishing still.

1. The most astonishing thing is that God’s grace is so great neither the Rabbi nor I was struck dead by God during the interview—he, because of his blasphemous belittlings of God, and I, because of my contaminated anger at what he said.

2. Another astonishing thing is that Gary Eichten, as far as I heard, never challenged the Rabbi to support anything he said with an authority beyond his own opinion. Think of it. Here is a solitary, flawed, finite, fallible human being (like you and me) speaking over public airwaves with no support beyond his own personal viewpoint making unchallenged pronouncements, with no accountability whatsoever, about the greatest Person in the universe—statements that are contrary to what most Christians and Jews and Muslims have believed during the entire history of those religions. And they let him just go on and on preaching his opinions.

3. Less astonishing for our day, but more outrageous is the claim of the Rabbi that God is not “all-powerful.” Specifically, he does not “control the laws of nature.” On the contrary, both the Rabbi’s Bible and the New Testament teach that he is all-powerful and does control the laws of nature.

Job 37:5-7 “Out of the south comes the storm. . . . [God] disperses the cloud of His lightning. It changes direction, turning around by His guidance, that it may do whatever He commands it on the face of the inhabited earth. Whether for a rod . . . or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen. . . . Stand and consider the wonders of God!”

Psalm 135:5-7 “The LORD is great. . . . Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth. . . . He makes lightnings for the rain, and brings forth the wind from His treasuries.”

Psalm 148:7 “Praise the LORD from the earth, sea monsters and all deeps; fire and hail, snow and clouds; stormy wind, fulfilling His word”

Mark 4:37-39 “There arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat. . . . And Jesus got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.

There’s not a plant or flower below,
But makes Thy glories known;
And clouds arise, and tempests blow,
By order from Thy throne.
Isaac Watts

4. Finally, the Rabbi is pastorally short-sighted in saying, “People need consolation, not explanation.” He does not mean, “Hug and cry first, give God-centered explanations later.” That would be wise counsel. He means, “All our attempts at answering ‘Why?’ will be wrong. So don’t try.” The reason for this is that God did not “intend” anything by the collapse of the bridge. You can’t intend something by what you have no power to control. So God did not exercise any wisdom or love in causing or permitting the bridge to collapse. It was strictly random. So one should only give consolation, not explanation. There is not explanation.

There are two reasons why this is pastorally short-sighted and unsatisfying. One is that it is built on a falsehood. God does not need to be “all-powerful” to keep people from being hurt in the collapse of a bridge. He doesn’t even need to be as powerful as a man. He only needs to show up and use a little bit of his power (say, on the level of Spiderman, or Jason Bourne)—he did create the universe, the Rabbi concedes—and (for example) cause some tremor a half-hour early to cause the workers to leave the bridge, and the traffic to be halted. This intervention would be something less spectacular than a world-wide flood, or a burning bush, or plague of frogs, or a divided Red Sea, or manna in the wilderness, or the walls of a city falling down—just a little tremor to get everybody off the bridge before it fell.

So the Rabbi is not pastorally helpful to build his counsel on the fact that God is not “all-powerful.” Bereaved wives know in their heart that this is a copout. A human could have cleared the bridge. If God is just a little bit powerful, he could have figured out a way to save her husband.

The other reason why the Rabbi’s pastoral approach is shortsighted is that sooner or later the anguished human heart does need some answers about the power, wisdom, and love of God. The Rabbi’s Bible (and my Bible)—the only authority he or I have for making any pronouncements about God at all—gives more comfort than the Rabbi is willing to offer. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph explains to his brothers why their murderous treatment of him is not meaningless: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” God did indeed (contrary to the Rabbi’s assertion) have an intention in this evil. “God meant it (the evil) for good.” (See also Genesis 45:7 and Psalm 105:17).

This is the final pastoral comfort, and I do not write this without 30 years of seeing it in people’s lives. From the hundreds that have testified with breathtaking faith, just two weeks ago a woman stood up at the Billy Graham Training Center in Asheville, NC, during a testimony time in front of 450 people and spoke of throwing herself across the grave of her dead son. With tears, she thanked God that someone pointed her to the sovereign control of an all-wise, all-loving God. Her husband stood with her, and together they spoke of the strength and stability and hope and, finally, the joy that comes from knowing that they are not in a random world, but one where God assures them that the worst things will indeed work for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28). This I have seen in the lives of hundreds of those who have suffered far more than I have.

No, Rabbi Kushner. Your soft words offer no hope in the end. The foundation is false. And the consolation does not satisfy the God-given passions for truth and meaning in the human heart. May the Lord open your eyes to the One who died for your sins and rose again, Jesus Christ, so that if you would trust him, you would be saved from the wrath of God that your blasphemy and my contaminated anger deserve.

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