This past Sunday I preached on Genesis 18 and 19, the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah and going into the prep for the sermon I was looking for similarities to their situation and ours, along with the corresponding prospect of impending judgment.
Along the way I was reminded of the statement at the title of this post "if God doesn't judge America, He'll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah." I found that this was originally spoken by Billy Graham, and I have heard it repeated by many different people in many different contexts.
As I studied the passage though I came to the conclusion that this statement is unhelpful at best, and biblically irresponsible at worst. I say this not to cast aspersion on Billy Graham, a great father in the faith who deserves the honor he receives from his Christian brethren. But the statement itself, with the applications that have risen by many Christians doesn't correspond with Scriptural reality and therefore ought to be removed from Christian rhetoric.
Why did Sodom and Gomorrah fall? Many think that it fell because of the rampant sexual immorality, particularly homosexuality. This brings up another questionable belief in conservative Christian circles - the belief that the acceptance of homosexuality is kind of the "last straw" before God brings judgment and destruction on a nation. This is another view I have often heard expressed, and several times I have heard the Roman Empire used as an example of this. The idea is that Rome descended into greater and greater immorality, culminating in the widespread acceptance of homosexuality, and this precipitated the fall of Rome.
There are several problems with that view. For one, there is some debate as to whether and when Rome actually "fell." Having said that, if there was in fact a fall of Rome, the conventional view is that it fell around 476AD. The problem with the idea that it fell as a result of increasing moral decadence and particularly homosexuality is that by this time Constantine had come and gone and had "Christianized" the empire. Of course, bringing up Constantine raises a whole 'nuther set of issues as to whether or not his form of "Christianizing" the empire was a good thing or the right thing. But I think it is safe to say that in giving Christianity the protection and favor of the Roman government he accomplished what many Americans, who buy the "moral decadence led to the fall of Rome" hypothesis, are seeking to accomplish. In other words, for the 150 or so years before the fall of Rome Christianity was "on the rise" at least in terms of political and cultural influence, again a state of affairs that many Christians seek today. But this leaves those who hold to the "moral decadence precipitated the fall of Rome" view with a conundrum. How is it that the political and international fell during the rise of Christianity in the empire?
Getting back to Sodom and Gomorrah there is an analogy here in the sense that, looking at the biblical texts you can't make the case that moral decadence was the one single cause of the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah.
I suggest that Genesis 18-19 show at least five cultural/social/moral/political conditions that contributed to the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah.
1. They were a threat to others - I'll start here with a bit of speculation and one point that I won't die for, but I think is worth considering. Genesis 18:20-21 talk about an "outcry" against Sodom and Gomorrah. This outcry is similar to the "outrcy" of the blood of Abel against Cain in Genesis 4. It is the outcry of the poor for justice in Proverbs 21:13. It presupposes victimization - some entity has dealt unjuustly and criminally with some other entity. By analogy, when God told Israel to drive the Canaanites out of the promised land in Joshua this was not a mere land-grab on the part of God and Israel. Not only were the Canaanites guilty of gross immorality and injustice within the confines of their own nation, they exported their evil, so that they were a threat to other nations and societies. See Glen MIller's thoughtful words on the annihilation of the Canaanites here for more on that.
So, though the text does not spell this out explicitly I do believe that my speculation is well founded, that Sodom and Gomorrah most likely posed a threat to peoples outside of their own cities.
2. Acceptance of and promotion of immorality - when all of the men of Sodom came to Lot's door to have sex with his visitors we see a predatory form of immorality. Today, it is common for us to discuss morals with people and get the reply that "it's my own body and what I do in the privacy of my own bedroom is none of your business." While there is everything wrong with that statement, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah went way beyond that. For them what they did with someone else's body was also fair game.
And while we often focus on the homosexuality involved here, it is important to see that this is not the only thing going on here. The spirit of Sodom had infected Lot and his family so that Lot's solution to the predatory homosexual intentions of the men of Sodom was to offer his daughters to them to be raped by them instead. Further, Lot had allowed his daughters to be pledged to be married to men of Sodom, and further still, his daughters showed how deeply Sodom had embedded itself in their lives when they committed incest with Lot.
In short, these were towns where moral decadence ruled the day - they not only practiced their immorality, but approved of those who practiced these things (see Romans 1:32) and they foisted their immorality on the unwilling.
3. General lawlessness - again, this is not spelled out explicitly, but I think it is worth noting that there seemed to be no one in Sodom to whom Lot could or would appeal for the protection of his guests. In general, there seemed to be no societal resistance to the criminal intents of the citizens.
4. Unrestrained greed - Ezekiel 16:49-50 offers the following inspired commentary on the sins of Sodom:
The "detestable things" are mentioned here which seems to be a reference to the moral decadence. But of equal import in the sight of God was the sin of arrogance, the apparent greed of the Sodomites. Richard Stearns comments on this passage in "The Hole in Our Gospel"
5. 100% evil
Genesis 19:4 says:
Notice that it was all the men of Sodom, not some, not even a majority. When God spoke with Abraham in Genesis 18 it became clear that there was not one righteous person in Sodom and Gomorrah. Evil had penetrate the whole of those cities, individually, corporately, personally and culturally. This is similar to the situation in Noah's day when God brought the flood. Genesis 6:5 says:
that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.
Every, not some, inclination of man's heart was "only" evil, all, not some of the time.
These passages indicate that in the Old Testament era God didn't bring judgment when some of the people of a society are evil, or even the majority - it's when practically all of the people of a society are evil.
Also, it is worthwhile to point out that God can put up with a great deal of sin for a long period of time - see Genesis !5:14-16, where God is willing to wait 400 years before putting the hammer down on the sins of the Amorites.
So put this all together and I believe that the text of Genesis 18-19 does not give us warrant for saying that America is just like Sodom and Gomorrah.
Are we a threat to other nations? This is an interesting question because our Muslim neighbors would probably say that we are the biggest threat in the world to other nations, particularly Muslim nations. I don't buy that. I think history shows that America has been a great, maybe one of the greatest benefactors to other nations, and I believe that continues today. While I think it is a worthy topic for debate as to whether our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan meets the criteria of "just war" theories, I believe that, setting that debate aside, we have been and still are a nation that has brought much good to other nations.
Do we accept and promote immorality the way they did in Sodom and Gomorrah. I do believe that we accept and promote immorality in our nation like never before and that is only growing. Have we gotten to the point though, where we accept and promote the kind of predatory immorality that was accepted and promoted in Sodom and Gomorrah, I don't think so. Do we accept the kind of behavior that Lot showed in offering his daughters to the men of Sodom? I don't think so. Do we accept incest? I don't think so.
Are we as lawless as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. I don't believe we are. We still have laws in effect and that are enforced, albeit quite imperfectly to protect the weak and vulnerable.
Are we as greedy and uncaring about the poor as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? We have a materialistic and greedy society, maybe one of the most materialistic in the world. Yet, do we, on the whole turn a blind eye to the poor the way that Sodom and Gomorrah do. I don't believe we do. While I believe our governing officials have done as much or more harm to the poor with their social programs, outside of government their are multitudes of individuals and non-profits working to support the poor in our own nation and around the world.
Finally, have we reached a state of near 100% evil in our society, where almost everyone engages in and promotes the kinds of evil practiced by the Sodomites. I don't believe so. While Christianity is on the decline, there are many, many pockets in our nation of practicing believers who are sincerely seeking to follow Christ, albeit imperfectly. And even amongst our neighbors who don't follow Christ I see many wonderful and awe inspiring examples of civic virtue. While immorality is on the rise in our nation, I believe that many, if not most of our neighbors who don't follow Christ would be shocked at the behavior of the Sodomites and would oppose it strongly.
Having said all of the above, I have not dealt at all with the epochal shifts in God's economy after the coming of Christ. In the Old Testament the health and progress of the kingdom of God was tied up in the geopolitical fortunes of the nation of Israel. Thus, the way God showed His favor was largely on the basis of the geopolitical fortunes of Israel and it's enemies. God showed favor by blessing and prospering different nations.
After the coming of Christ, the "nation" of Israel, the true Israel, became the church, an international body, a nation within the nations. The fortunes of the the people of God were no longer tied to the geopolitical prosperity of particular nations. This does not mean that God is no longer concerned with the "nations," after all, even after Christ, He is the one who establishes the "authorities" in the nations - see Romans 13:1. But his way of dealing with the nations is different today. The true "Christian nation," the church can thrive even in the midst of hostile nations. The early church grew and thrived in the midst of pagan Rome. Today, the church has thrived in the midst of a hostile and atheistic nation like China.
None of this changes the fact that evil is evil wherever it is found and it is the duty of Christians to resist evil wherever it is found. We are to resist it biblically, redemptively, with the gospel. And yes, there is no doubt that evil is on the rise in America in many ways and is therefore to be resisted in the strongest terms.
But engaging in over-inflated rhetoric is not the way to resist evil. Yes, saying things along the lines of "if God doesn't judge America He'll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah" is a great way to generate fear, anxiety and worry in the hearts and minds of your constituents. Such rhetoric plays well in fundraising letters and is the kind of rhetoric that can get you on TV or in print but it is biblically irresponsible to speak in such a way.
Conservative Christians are given to rhetorical overstatement, particularly when we speak on matters that have been co-opted by the political industry. Inducing fear and worry in the hearts of people is one of the greatest mobilization techniques available to people of any persuasion on any matter. But playing to or seeking to induce fear and worry in the hearts of people is not a Christian practice. It is capitulation to the spirit of the age which is fueled by sensationalism and the creation of crises.
Yes, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has application today. Many individuals and societies are on the road to Sodom and Gomorrah and we need to heed the warnings implied. But let's be biblically responsible in how we deal this.
It is enough to confront evil by saying what the Scriptures say and applying biblical techniques and remedies to those evils. Its not flashy or spectacular. Practicing true biblical Christianity in the arena of public rhetoric will seem too boring and will take too long to produce results to get you on TV in the way that sensationalistic rhetoric will get you noticed by the press and will mobilize the fearful and worried among the populace.
But you will have the consolation of doing things God's way, and that is sufficient.