It was five years ago today, on August 1, 2007, that the Interstate-35W bridge over the Mississippi River, near downtown Minneapolis, collapsed during rush hour.
Like no other tragedy in recent memory, the bridge collapse seized the collective attention of the Twin Cities metro, the state of Minnesota, and the surrounding five-state region of the Upper Midwest.
It seemed initially that dozens must be dead, but God was merciful. Amazingly, in the final tally, only 13 died — though 145 were injured.
Horror Close to Home
Great as our pain and angst were in those days, the 35W-bridge collapse is a relatively tiny tragedy compared to the 2011 tsunami in Japan, which killed 20,000. Or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which claimed nearly a quarter million human lives in 14 countries.
But for those of us in the Twin Cities, this was our moment of horror close to home. This was our time when metrowide concern came to a single focus, and we stood at a 9/11-like standstill to mourn the tragedy and ask life’s hardest questions.
What We All Deserve
The tragedy was especially close to home for John Piper. Bethlehem Baptist Church is within sight of the bridge, and the Desiring God offices are only a mile away from the site. That year Piper was reading through a Bible-in-a-year plan that providentially assigned Luke 13:1–5 to August 1.
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And [Jesus] answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
Piper wrote on the night of the tragedy,
O that all of the Twin Cities, in shock at this major calamity, would hear what Jesus has to say about it from Luke 13:1–5. . . .
Jesus implies that those who brought him this news thought he would say that those who died, deserved to die, and that those who didn’t die did not deserve to die. That is not what he said. He said, everyone deserves to die. And if you and I don’t repent, we too will perish. This is a stunning response. It only makes sense from a view of reality that is radically oriented on God.
All of us have sinned against God, not just against man. This is an outrage ten thousand times worse than the collapse of the 35W bridge. That any human is breathing at this minute on this planet is sheer mercy from God. God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on those who do not treasure him above all else. He causes the heart to beat and the lungs to work for millions of people who deserve his wrath. This is a view of reality that desperately needs to be taught in our churches, so that we are prepared for the calamities of the world.
The Meaning of Tragedy
The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world. . . .
Tonight across the Twin Cities families are wondering if they will ever kiss a loved one good night again. Some will not. I am praying that they will find Jesus Christ to be their Rock and Refuge in these agonizing hours of uncertainty and even loss.
The word “bridge” does not occur in the Bible. There may be two reasons. One is that God doesn’t build bridges, he divides seas. The other is that usually his people must pass through the deadly currents of suffering and death, not simply ride over them. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Isaiah 43:2). They may drown you. But I will be with you in life and death. . . .
We go through the river. Not over it. He went before us, crucified. He came out on the other side. He knows the way through. With him we will make it. That is the message we have for the precious sinners in the Twin Cities. He died for your sins. He rose again. He saves all who trust him. We die, but because of him, we do not die.
On August 6, 2007, Piper responded to Rabbi Kushner on the collapse of the bridge.
Thirteen months later, Piper celebrated the mercy of God in sparing so many lives, and the manifestation of God’s common grace in the swift rebuilding of the bridge in “The Opening of the I-35W Bridge.”