On December 14, 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. After a shooting rampage, 26 lay dead, among them mostly children.
Inevitably, there was a single question that arose in the face of such a tragedy: Why?
Many answers have been offered to that question, but one of the most ill-advised was that of Dr. James Dobson. In a December 27, 2012 radio broadcast (click here to listen), Dobson spent the first ten minutes or so reading a letter he had produced thirty years earlier, lamenting the breakdown of the family. Here he was on solid footing, clearly commenting within the area of his own professional expertise. Though Dobson has chafed in the past when critics have wrongly called him a preacher or evangelist, this did not prevent him from speculating about how God fits into the picture, comments picked-up and critiqued in multiple media outlets:
I am saying that something has gone wrong in America. We have turned our back on God. Millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist or He’s irrelevant to us. And we have killed 54 million babies…I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and upon God Almighty, and I think He has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.
Like James Dobson, I lament the 54 million unborn babies lost to abortion since the legalizing of Roe v. Wade in 1973. However, there are multiple problems theologically with Dobson’s statement. Here are some of the questions that arise:
1. Would God retaliate for 54 million abortions by allowing the killing of elementary school children?
These are not Dobson’s words as such, but in context, it is his clear implication. God allowed – on Dobson’s reading – “judgment” to fall on America. Apparently, the gunman was the instrument of that wrath. Yet did not Jesus say: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9b, NIV)? If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Our Savior is the one who took little children on his lap, hugged them, laughed with them, and told us that if we want to enter the Kingdom, we must become like them (Matt. 18:3). What a picture of unconditional love! God is not let off the hook by Dobson’s insertion of the word “allowed,” as if making God a bystander somehow lessens the offense. Child protection agencies recognize that child abuse is not the only way children are harmed; child neglect can be equally harmful to a child’s well-being. By Dobson’s logic, by allowing the gunman to go on his rampage, God neglected those children that day, supposedly to allow God’s “judgment” to fall. If Dobson is correct, how could we worship such a God?
2. Is there an “evil streak” in God?
We serve a God who is just. God cares deeply about sin, and constantly warns us against its negative effects (Galatians 6:7, Romans 6:23). But James Dobson’s comments go beyond the image of a God of justice, painting instead an evil God.
I’m reminded of a story of a old golfer with salty language. One day, his pastor invited him out to golf. On the first hole, the old man stepped up to the tee, swung at the ball and totally failed to connect. “Darn’t!” he cried. “I missed.” Surprised, the preacher warned him: “You need to watch your language. God doesn’t like it when we talk that way,” to which he replied: “Nah, it’s no big deal.” On the second hole, the same scenario repeated itself – another swing, another miss. “Darn’t, I missed” he swore. “I told you on the last hole, God doesn’t appreciate that kind of talk” the pastor warned. Again, the old man shrugged it off. Finally, on the third hole, he swung like before and totally whiffed. Yet again, he griped: “Darn’t! I missed.” Suddenly, the skies opened up and a bolt of lightning descended, striking the pastor dead. Then came a booming voice from heaven: “Darn’t! I missed!”
If the killing of 26 at Sandy Hook was truly a demonstration of God’s judgment, we must admit that God had lousy aim, punishing the wrong individuals. In Ezekiel 18, God affirms that each of us bear the weight of our own sin, that judgment comes upon the guilty party and not upon the innocent. To say that God allowed a gunman to mow down school children in a hail of bullets is to make God the de facto executioner . In this way, shall we passively attribute to our just and loving God such a callous and wicked act? To do so would be to project upon God a darkness that is foreign to the divine nature. John affirms:
God is light. In him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5, NIV).
A dark cloud, an evil presence, invaded Sandy Hook on that day. A Hindu could believe that God – like the Force in Star Wars – has a “dark side” and a “light side,” but Christians dare not tolerate such a foreign idea in our theology. Shall we claim that God had anything to do – even passively – with that dark presence at Sandy Hook? How does that begin to fit with what we know about the character of God as revealed in Christ?
3. Are God and humans the only actors on the stage?
A final concern with James Dobson’s comments touch upon who exactly are moral agents with the power of free will. In theologies that over-accentuate the sovereignty of God – a God who controls all events in the minutest of detail – one is obligated to try to discern God’s plan in every circumstance, even the most egregious acts. Either God directly caused it or – to use Dobson’s language – “allowed” it. On the other hand, Gregory Boyd in God at War argued that God is not all powerful in so far as others also have volition that God has freely granted to them.
Who are these others?
These include human beings but also faithful angels and rebellious angels, including the devil and his demons. Since the Fall in Eden, Boyd argues that earth has become a battlefield. On such dangerous terrain, innocents are sometimes caught in the cross-fire. They may be injured, even killed. Through the Christ event – his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension – God has won a decisive battle, but the war will not end until the return of Christ in triumph. Meanwhile, we live in the precarious parentheses when the reign of Christ has been inaugurated but awaits final consummation. In this “already/not yet” of human history, terrible things still happen, yet we put our trust in a God who ultimately will defeat the forces of evil.
This acknowledgement of multiple actors on the stage frees us up to imagine other possibilities. I don’t for one minute believe that God had anything to do with the massacre at Sandy Hook, either actively or passively. What was God doing that day? God was surely seen in the heroic, selfless acts of administrators and teachers who laid down their lives for their students. God was there in the great calm granted to other teachers as they comforted their students, leading them hand-in-hand to havens of safety outside. God was there as reflected in the quick thinking of some teachers who hid their children in classroom closets and cupboards, and God was there in the warm embrace of first responders and churches who brought solace to the grieving. Evil showed up at Sandy Hook that day, but it was hardly a sign of God’s judgment. Rather, in the face of that evil our active and loving God was on the job as always, using people as divine instruments to bind up the wounds of the traumatized and the brokenhearted.
Dr. Dobson has earned the respect of many for giving sound advice on the family across the years, but in this instance, I think he misspoke, for the reasons I’ve outlined. Of course, this happens to all of us now and then. Hopefully he can revisit the issue in a later broadcast and clarify his remarks.
Photo credit: Mark Davis
11 thoughts on “James Dobson’s strange theology of Sandy Hook”
Greg, thoughtful post!
I wonder, had Dr. Dobson not used the word “judgement” would his statement be more palatable? I think that as our country turns its back on God more and more, the usual “protections” offered to a people which come simply from devotion to God can fade. Not that God is necessarily “judging” that people, but that the lack of (or decreasing) presence of God increases the presence and incidence of evil.
Just wondering . . .
Hello Daryl –
Your comments are similar to what Scott King has written below, at greater length. Yes, the use of the “judgment falling” line bothered me. That just opens a whole can of worms, since often it is the righteous who suffer and the wicked who prosper. At the end of the day, at the last judgment, God will balance the scales. Meanwhile, this out-of-sync world we live in (affected by sin and its consequences) keeps on groaning for redemption.
Does our sin “decrease” the presence of God? Can you tease that out a bit more?
“Decreasing the presence of God.” Shea & I went back and forth on this over at NazNet. I was suggesting that the more people deny God, the more evil is manifest and less of God is “present” with us. Shea emphatically denies that God’s presence can be diminished. I think we arrived at an agreement that our recognition of, or response to, God’s presence is diminished. Either way, even if it’s just perception, I see it as: more evil=less God which leads again to more evil . . .
Thanks for the clarification. As one who leaves a strong place for prevenient grace in my own think, I would probably come down closer to Shea on this.
I think you raise some decent points, Greg! I agree that this incident reveals God in the hearts and heroic actions of some individuals. I also agree that it would be strange for God to punish the children for the sins of the fathers or the culture. I don’t think Dr. Dobson speaks inerrantly on all issues, and this issue is no exception.
Perhaps Dr. Dobson is indeed implying something heretical here (we’d have to ask him to clarify it for us), but I respect Dr. Dobson enough to look for a non-heretical inference if I can find one. So here’s a thought:
Firstly, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to link culture-wide sin with culture-wide suffering, including suffering of the innocents. In that I think we can both agree with Dr. Dobson– suffering is simply where sin leads, and more sin leads to more suffering just as inevitably as more love leads to less suffering– it’s an almost tautomeric principle of God’s creation. In this, I suppose we would make God accountable for the principle, at least in an abstracted “Divine Watchmaker” sort of way if not in an immediate “Sword-Wielder” way. In any case, when ancient Israel embraced Molech, innocent babies were sacrificed. God did not “prevent” it, but He did eventually judge it (whether you consider Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar to be Sword-Wielder or Watchmaker judgments is your call– where we would disagree is if we said the whole Scriptural account was simply a theological lesson applied to some non-Divine historical or fabricated events.) When Herod slaughtered the babies in Bethlehem, He had already pronounced it in Scripture, warned the wise men to depart another way and warned Joseph to flee. In these things He shows that He was neither ignorant of impending suffering nor powerless to prevent it. At least in these two events, I think I can see some principles that might bear on Dr. Dobson’s statements.
In the case of Sandy Hook, it looks to me like Dr. Dobson is suggesting that there is a link between suffering and a culture that trivializes life and celebrates violence (e.g. by making abortion a solution to the problem of pregnancy-fettered sex, by sensationalizing real-life brutality, and by embracing entertainment that rationalizes/glamorizes violence). None of this seems inflammatory or controversial.
The specific place you take exception with Dr. Dobson is in what you characterize as his CLEAR IMPLICATION that the gunman himself was God’s instrument of judgment, and that the murder of those children was God’s mode of judgment. Personally, I don’t have to infer those things from Dr. Dobson’s statement. If I did, I’d be led to some of the same questions you raised– like why would God punish those children and those parents for the sins of the culture?
I can just as easily infer from Dr. Dobson’s statements that the Sandy Hook event is a symptom of pervasive sin in the culture. The gunman’s part in this would be to participate in that culture, embrace those elements of it that justified and stoked his own sinful nature, and finally employ his own free will to carry out sins that he himself would know deserve eternal death. God’s part in it would be to “allow” it– to see it coming, yet not intervene in either the decline of the culture or the specific actions of that gunman. I think Scripture has abundant evidence that God has these options at his disposal (e.g. by raising up new cultural leaders, steering Supreme Court decisions, disabling the gunman or enabling someone to oppose him). Sometimes God exercises such options– but not always. When He exercises them, we call it “mercy” (withholding the just consequences of sin), and when He doesn’t exercise them, we call it “justice” (allowing or dispensing the just consequences of sin). In either case, it reflects well on Him. If He elected to let the natural consequences of sin (i.e. the principles He built into the fabric of the universe) play out in the form of atrocities like Sandy Hook, and if Dr. Dobson characterized that as a form of “judgment”, I wouldn’t judge it as heretical. In either case, we’re “stuck” with the problem that God built a universe that allows one person’s sin to result in suffering for others– a problem that either leads one to try to deny God’s existence, to curse God and die, or to embrace Jesus and the Cross as the only way that ‘Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other’.
Whether Dr. Dobson was indeed implying one thing or the other is impossible for us to determine without directly asking him, but it might be safer to look for an inference that doesn’t pronounce Dr. Dobson a heretic!
Hello Scott, as always, you have made a solid contribution.
Let’s begin with your last line, re. me pronouncing Dr Dobson a “heretic.” That’s not a word I used; that’s your word. Questioning theology that should be questioned, on the other hand, is a duty that we too often shirk. In Dr Dobson’s instance, to criticize his ideas is always risky because he has become an icon to some.
Like you, I believe sin has consequences. Where we struggle the most is when the innocents bear the brunt of the sin of others. Why would God set-up such a world? The two traditional answers (i.e. that suffering is a result of the Fall and an one inescapable possible outcome of free will) go a long way to answering this, as you have demonstrated. I don’t think it can all be answered this side of the final judgment; ultimately, evil will be punished and good will be rewarded. We believe in the resurrection! Theodicy must have future tense.
Blessings on you, brother.
I like your post, don’t get me wrong issues of Theodicy are difficult and complex and for a person of such prominence as Dr. James Dobson to so quickly assign blame or make casual assumptions is dangerous. Not only because his assertions on the character and nature of good border on incorrect, but it turns people off to the true good news that Churches and Christians are bringing in these times of national heart break.
I do what to point out you shortened his quote. Dr. Dobson also blamed the gays for wanting to get married.
“54 Million babies… and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too.”
We are not the reason events like this took place. Pastors have blamed gays for Katrina, and 9-11. We are being scapegoated by the evangelical church. This should be a red-flag to you that gays and lesbians are a people group that is on the margins of society, and therefore a people group that the Church of the Nazarene needs to protect.
Our policy in the Manual supports pastors to make outrageous claims, and continual oppression of people who by no choice of their own are being subjugated by society and even more so by the Church.
want to point out*
Thank you, Tyler, for your comment.
You are correct that at the time of 9-11-01, some (wrongly) drew the conclusion that this attack was God’s judgment upon homosexuals. (Even if one buys into that kind of cause/effect thinking, why single out one thing like that for special treatment?) Likewise, comments about same-sex marriage in Dobson’s radio address could be interpreted that way, i.e. as one such offense that triggers judgment. You are not alone in having heard Dobson in that way, as I’ve read other critiques online.
The point I was making in this post was not that judgment is out-of-the question as an explanation in some cases. Clearly, even in the NT, judgment is not a category that is excluded – see Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. The difficulty arises when someone sets themselves us as having a special knowledge of the inner workings of the Godhead, to say that in this case judgment has “fallen” (to use Dobson’s term), and here’s why. About as far as I would be willing to go is to ask the question: “Is it possible that in this case we see the judgment of God?”
Yet EVEN there, I don’t see how Dobson is on firm ground, simply because those who bore the brunt of this supposed judgment were the innocent, not the guilty. If I were one of the parents of Sandy Hook, how would that sound to my ears? God punished my child because other people had abortions and act on gay attraction? That was the point of my story about the pastor struck dead for the bad language of his parishioner.
You write, as a gay individual:
“We are not the reason events like this took place. Pastors have blamed gays for Katrina, and 9-11. We are being scapegoated by the evangelical church. This should be a red-flag to you that gays and lesbians are a people group that is on the margins of society, and therefore a people group that the Church of the Nazarene needs to protect.”
I think Dobson is quite isolated as a “scapegoater” and his kind of response is becoming much more rare. We can quibble about whether all gays and lesbians are on the “margins of society.” Some obviously are; some are at the levers of power. I think this varies depending upon location. Is the Church “subjugating” more than the society? That is too strong a word, on any reading. You are seeing a movement toward what in another post I call “loving, but not affirming,” a Solomonic compromise on a tough issue.
In any case, Ty, thanks for commenting.
First let me say that I IN NO WAY am ascribing a direct immediate cause effect relationship between Sandy Hook and some specific moral deficiency in our land… i.e Abortion directly leads to the specific “judgment of God via sandy hook”.. nor would I blame unjust wars, sexual promiscuity and perversion etc.)
However, I do have a question, and at this point it is a question that I don’t have the answer to… What do we make of God in the Old Testament who had no problem saying, “Israel has messed up so I am bringing down the whooping stick via Assyria, Babylon etc.?” Innocent and the wicked are wiped out alike when an entire nation goes into captivity or is destroyed.
Does God simply not work that way anymore?
The younger, but more theologically clueless brother…
ps For a classic example of innocent suffering because of the guilty you might want to give some thought to the children of the advisers to Darius who were tossed into the Lion’s den because of Daddy’s sin…
I’m telling you nothing you don’t know, Todd, when I say that this is one of the thorniest questions in biblical interpretation. It’s not for nothing that Marcion in the 2nd century wanted to cut the OT out of the Canon, seeing the God of the Jews as a different deity than the Father of Jesus Christ.
Ezekiel 18 has always been an interesting passage for me, for it seems to be a divine reversal in how God deals with people. No longer will the sins of the fathers be visited in judgment upon the children. Each is responsible for his/her own actions. By the end of the NT, in the book of Revelation, we have no indication that at the final judgment God will throw entire nations into the lake of fire. Rather, each is judged based upon individual criteria.
I’m not sure this helps, but as a general principle, I think we always need to ask: What has this understanding of God become in Christ? As Christians, I don’t think we can take the OT at face value. We always read it through the “lens” of the NT ethic.