9/11 was a singular event. For a moment it united America like nothing else did. It shaped America in politics, war and religion. Today’s book was written within a year of the event. Now 20 years later, are the words written for America then helpful for all Christians today?
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “When Worlds Collide: Where is God?” by R.C. Sproul. 96 pages, published by Crossway in September 2002. The hardcopy is available for USD6.14 in Amazon. It’s USD2.99 in Logos but only for September. So get it before the deal ends.
September 11, 2001
This book was written in the aftermath of terrorists hijacking planes, crashing them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The book opens with these words:
As I am writing, the United States of America is at war. It is possible that by the time you read this book the war will be over.
Sproul describes a united America, Americans planting American flags, Americans telling one another “God Bless America!”
If we could transport one of those Americans to today, he would be dumbstruck. Today we have Americans calling each other terrorists. Americans sounding like they want to kill each other. Americans making a shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
With the benefit of 20 years behind us, today’s book, “When Worlds Collide” gives us a theological perspective of the country’s response to this national tragedy when the pain was raw. Sproul offers comfort, but a comfort many would reject. He offers condemnation, a condemnation not limited to the terrorists. To a shell-shocked people, Sproul defies convention to deliver a powerful prophetic message.
Was that message heard? Is it still valid today? Keep listening.
War of Ideas
The book is divided into six chapters. I will sprint through each chapter. I will pick up and throw you an idea, a question or a bible verse. My aim is to show you how the book progresses and hopefully entice you to read it for yourself.
Chapter 1 is titled “War of Ideas”. It would be easy for Sproul to target Muslims. Or if he doesn’t want to get personal, he could target Islam as a religion, philosophy or worldview. But he doesn’t. Instead, Sproul sees the conflict, not as Christianity vs. Islam, or West vs. East but as God vs. Anything-But-God.
Since the September 11 attacks on the United States, there has been much public discussion about the role of God in our lives, and we have seen an unprecedented response of the American people in prayer and public worship. Suddenly, the God who had been exiled from the public square, who had been banished to the other side of the wall that separates church and state, was called upon to get back into the game.
Sounds good right? But he continues on.
It became fashionable for the nation to stage religious rallies featuring film stars, politicians, and clerics. Televised worship services called upon the nation to put aside theological differences and come together in a show of religious unity. Ecumenism got a shot in the arm as cooperation went beyond interdenominational Christian worship to worship among people of entirely different religions. The upside of renewed religious zeal was matched with the downside of syncretism.
While people are clamouring for everyone to come together, Sproul calls Christians to unite in the Gospel. Christianity must not be relegated to be the same as all other religions despite everyone’s good intentions.
I love this next part. It shows Sproul’s insight and classic wit.
Nothing is more “un-American” than to have an exclusive understanding of God. Yet nothing is more fundamental to the biblical concept of monotheism than the exclusivity of the God of heaven and earth. In 1 Kings 18 we read of the prophet Elijah engaging in a contest with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. But try to imagine Elijah giving an interview to the media assembled to watch this contest. Imagine him speaking into a microphone, saying, “Well, you know, at the end of the day, I and the prophets of Baal really worship the same God. We believe in the same religion. We just do it differently. Our religious activity is not the same. There are elements in the religion of Baal that are different from the elements of the religion of Israel, but surely the God of Israel doesn’t mind. In fact, He’s honored when we celebrate our religious unity.”
Can you imagine anything more foreign to the teaching of sacred Scripture than that?
In a time of war and amidst calls of solidarity, Sproul not only calls true believers to hold the doctrinal line, he sharpens the divide.
He asks the question that immediately comes after a tragedy hits, “Where is God?”
God has never left and we ask that question because we don’t know who he is.
Peace and Calamity
In Chapter 2, “Peace and Calamity”, Sproul asks, “Does God Only Bless?” He points us to Isaiah 45:6-7:
I am the LORD, and there is no other;
I form the light and create darkness,
I make peace and create calamity;
I, the LORD, do all these things.
Every thinking Christian will sooner or later wrestle with how a good and all powerful God in a world where people crash planes into buildings. And the rest of the daily tragedies we numb ourselves to.
Did God mean for all these bad things to happen?
If God did not ordain all things, He would not be sovereign over all things. And if He is not sovereign over all things, then He is not God at all.
What a terrible thought! Is Sproul saying that God made it happen? He caused this to happen? Isn’t it more accurate to say: “God permits or allows bad things to happen”.
But if you just think about it, saying God allowed it to happen does not let God off the moral hook.
Consider this: a policeman who does nothing when a crime happens in front of him is morally wrong. He did not do the crime but he was powerful enough to stop it but he didn’t. And God can stop every single bad thing from ever occurring. God could have struck each one of those terrorists dead the same way he struck Uriah who touched the Ark of the Covenant, or Annanias and Sapphira who lied, or King Herod who accepted praise that he was a god. God could but didn’t, which means he wanted or ordained it to happen as it did.
I don’t blame anyone from pushing back on this. Sproul doesn’t go deep enough in this book to answer your doubts. I recommend Scott Christensen’s book, “What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty”, which is where I got the policeman illustration from.
Assuming you can accept that God allows or ordains calamities, then what is the purpose?
For that, we turn to chapter 3, “Purpose in Suffering”.
Purpose in Suffering
How do we make sense of senseless tragedies like 9/11? First of all, Sproul points out, there are no senseless tragedies. They may be senseless from our perspective but from God’s perspective, there is a divine reason.
Two Bible stories make this clear. Sproul unpacks in detail what I can only do briefly here.
The first story is the story of Joseph. Joseph famously told his wretched brothers, “You meant it for evil but God intended it for good.” What the brothers did was bad. Clearly, bad. Yet, we also say that God ordained it to happen for His own purpose which Joseph at first did not understand, but later did. God could have struck them all down the moment they thought of killing Joseph but God did not because he wanted Joseph to save everyone.
The second story is the story of Jesus. Jesus was crucified on the cross. The people who did it were evil. But God wanted it to happen. God could have opened up the earth and swallowed them all up, God could have sent his army of angels to rescue Jesus, God could have done so much more for his Son, but God did not, because he wanted Jesus to save everyone.
Drawing from the Bible, Sproul gives us God’s perspective on our pain. If we know that God has a purpose in our tragedies, we can lean on God, just as all the saints before us have done.
And just as everyone is getting used to God being in control, Sproul throws in another bombshell and says God’s wrath is not limited to those terrorists on the plane.
The Grapes of Wrath
Chapter 4 is titled “The Grapes of Wrath”. He unpacks Revelation 14:18-20:
And another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over the fire, and he called with a loud voice to the one who had the sharp sickle, “Put in your sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.
We think of September 11, 2001, as the greatest day of calamity in the history of the United States of America, but that day of calamity is not worthy to be compared with the day of calamity that God says will come in the future when the grapes of wrath are thrown into the winepress and are trampled by His judgment.
Hey, Sproul, aren’t you supposed to be condemning the terrorists, why are throwing God’s Wrath against us in our faces?
I think it was brave, I will call it brave, for Sproul to write such things so soon after 9/11. I am sure he preached this on his pulpit. But I wonder, would he preach on God’s wrath in the funeral service of the victims? Can you see how such a message while the pain is so raw can be seen as insensitive at best, monstrous at worst?
Which is why we must have chapter 5, where Jesus awaits.
Chapter 5 is titled, “Finding Peace”. We soon read Luke 13:1-5.
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he 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.”
I wonder if Jesus could get away with remarks like that in twenty-first-century America? In the midst of tragedy, instead of bringing comfort and hope, Jesus was saying, “Don’t look at those people as being worse than you are, because as long as you maintain a posture of impenitence toward God, you also will perish.”
The rest of the chapter is a Gospel plea. Sproul demonstrates our need for a saviour and only Jesus saves. Ah, the glory of the cross.
Sproul could have ended the book here, but he gives us one final chapter, the epilogue.
Epilogue: Resolve in Warfare
The book begins at Ground Zero, at the tragedy of 9/11. Then Sproul takes the reader’s hand and leads him to process what has happened, telling us that the answer is not found by looking deeper within but looking upward to God. And having scaled the remarkable heights of God’s goodness, wrath and sovereignty, at the epilogue Sproul, like an angel who returns a saint from Heaven back to Earth, brings us back to Ground Zero.
To maintain resolve in a civil war or in a world war is a different matter from maintaining resolve in a war against terrorism. In the first six months following 9/11, the nation went through the throes of pain and anger, and there was a surge of patriotism. Stores quickly sold out of American flags. Indeed, citizens displayed more flags in their yards, on their cars, even in lapel buttons, than we have seen since World War II. However, in recent months the number of flags being displayed has been dramatically reduced. The surge of resolve has passed, perhaps waning until another attack against us.
We know that there were no further attacks like 9/11 since. But reading how Sproul ended this book, we are reminded of the fear and anxiety that gripped America then.
This hints at what Sproul offers that other books can’t.
Theodicy of A Specific Event
This book introduces God’s Providence and the Problem of Suffering.
If you struggle with “The God who ordains even bad things to happen”, and I completely understand the horror of the thought, I truly do, I suggest John Piper’s 700 page magnum opus, “Providence”. That book may help you reach a conclusion or start a journey of discovery, in any case, it’s the most comprehensive and readable book on God’s Providence. You can read my review in Episode 7.
If you struggle with suffering, I recommend D.A. Carson’s “How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil”. One thing I learnt from that book is the best time to read a book on suffering is not during suffering but before. I have taken Carson’s advice to heart.
But both of these book don’t focus on a specific event. Maybe instead of something general you want to see how a Christian can process a tragedy.
And there are bookshelves full of books on personal tragedies, but there are not as many written on a public, national-level tragedy that is shared by all.
In fact, the only book that comes to mind is Augustine’s City of God, written after Rome fell. But that happened so long ago, Augustine’s writing is difficult to understand and his book is too big. The Penguin Classic edition is 1152 pages long.
Other that City of God, I can’t think of any other book that deals with the theology or the theodicy of a major national tragedy. Surely there must be one. If you know of any, please let me know, via Twitter or the contact form in my website at Readingandreaders.com.
Thus, from where I’m sitting, Sproul’s “When Worlds Collide” offers a unique look on how Christians can and should respond to something like 9/11. We don’t have to be swept up by the waves of sentimental unity or furious condemnation. We can remain anchored in the transcendent truth found in Scripture.
Does this mean that pastors should not join inter-faith or inter-denominational services? For one thing, I don’t think they should be called services. But knowing what the Bible says, how Jesus responded to a question on a tragedy, helps us navigate these difficult questions.
Questions like, “Is 9/11 God’s judgment on America?” Sproul did not approve of those who insisted it was. He just said, “I don’t know” but he doesn’t count it out either.
Another question, which forms the subtitle of the book is: “Where is God?” And to that question, thanks to Sproul, we have certainty. God did not go on a holiday. God was not caught off guard when it happened. God knows, God is in control. He remains all powerful and all present. He is still God, and there is no other. Give praise to the Lord!
This is a Reading and Reader’s review of “When Worlds Collide: Where is God?” by R.C. Sproul. 96 pages, published by Crossway in September 2002. The hardcopy is available for USD6.14 in Amazon. For September, you can get the ebook in Logos for USD2.99. Last Day to get it!
Another deeply discounted book for September is “The Grace of Repentance” by Sinclair Ferguson. It is USD6.49 via Amazon Kindle but USD0.99 via Logos in September. I read it, I like it but I don’t know whether I will be able to review it. In case I don’t, I will just say, I never knew how medieval our modern life was such that everything Martin Luther was upset about in his time so inexplicably speaks to our problems today.
Hope you enjoyed today’s episode. Thanks for listening. Bye bye.