The numbers boggle the mind as much as they terrify it. As of November of 1986, 24,011 cases of AIDS had been reported in this country, claiming 13,272 lives (the remainder are almost certain to meet the same fate). The U.S. Public Health Service believes the number of people with AIDS will increase to 270,000 by 1991. And Surgeon General C. Everett Koop projects the number of people worldwide who will die from AIDS could reach 100 million by the end of the century unless a cure is found.

But as incomprehensible as these figures are, they also invite speculation, especially among Christians. In fact, the urge to speculate has been almost irresistible. Why? The main way to get AIDS is to commit a certain kind of sin. In the U.S., about 73 percent of the people diagnosed with AIDS are homosexual and bisexual males. Hence, the speculation: Is the deadly disease God’s judgment on homosexuals?

The Judgment Theory

Already, a number of articles have appeared in conservative Christian publications suggesting AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexual behavior. We may cringe at this notion, but we cannot dispute it. The Bible condemns homosexual acts as sin, and the wages of sin is always death. God’s holy anger is set against all sin. He will not be trifled with and he will not be mocked. What we sow we will reap—if not now, certainly in eternity.

God may indeed be using AIDS to confront homosexuals with their sin. And since the disease is spreading to the heterosexual population, God may also be confronting all forms of promiscuity. There is literally no such thing anymore as “safe sex” outside the boundaries of marriage as God intended it. AIDS could be one dramatic method God is using to wake up a sinful society to the realities of sin and judgment.

Such a conclusion may be reached, but it is not helpful to stop there. Two reasons come to mind.

First, focusing on the judgment theory exposes the apparent inconsistency of the punishment. If God is using AIDS to punish homosexuals, why is he so ambiguous about it? Among homosexuals, AIDS is almost exclusively a male disease. Lesbians seem to be untouched. Then there is the growing number of innocent people who get AIDS: newborn infants, hemophiliacs, and wives of AIDS victims. The judgment theory raises more questions than it answers. Does God practice sex discrimination by afflicting only male homosexuals? Is he unjust to punish gays and to throw in a few random wives, hemophiliacs, and infants while he is at it?

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I agree with William Cowper: “God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.” Despite the problems I have with the idea, God might be judging sexual sin with AIDS. And there may be a righteous symmetry to his actions whose subtlety and wisdom escape my feeble, sin-darkened mind. But until I can see that symmetry—until the judgment theoreticians can explain it satisfactorily—it would be better to regard the theory with a benign agnosticism. It should be enough simply to say that sexual promiscuity of all kinds is sin and that the wages of sin is death, and leave it at that. We are all sinners and we all live out our days under the wrath of God, says Psalm 90. Disease, accidents, wars, earthquakes—all can be used by God to jolt us into repentance. But none need be seen as singling out a particular kind of sin for special punishment.

The Compassionate Response

There is another, more important reason that dwelling on the judgment theory is not helpful. What we need, what all gays need, is not a theory that says, in effect, “I told you so!”—but a call to compassionate action. God met the evil of the world not with a theological analysis, but with a cross. So should we.

In Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, the Jesuit priest Father Paneloux explains to his parishioners why the bubonic plague has hammered their city. “Calamity has come on you, my brethren,” he thunders, “and, my brethren, you deserved it.”

But later, a child of one of his parish families falls deathly sick with the plague. Paneloux the pastor must sit by his bed and watch him die in the midst of a ward of other dying sufferers. The little boy hangs on for days until one morning his frail body doubles up in a paroxysm of pain. Paneloux stares helplessly as the boy’s lips part and from them comes “a long, incessant scream, hardly varying with his respiration, and filling the ward with a fierce, indignant protest … that … seemed like a collective voice issuing from the sufferers there … the angry death-cry that has sounded through the ages.” Paneloux falls to his knees and himself cries out, “My God, spare this child!” But his prayer is drowned out by the wails of others in the hospital, joining the boy’s, flowing together in one continuous cry—a “gust of sobs” sweeping through the room.

The boy dies and Paneloux rises from his knees. He is a different man, no longer as confident of his grasp of God’s ways with the world, but sure of his duty as a Christian. He must stand with the sufferers. In his next sermon, he no longer addresses his people as “you” but as “we.” And he pleads with them to go forward to do whatever good might lie in their power.

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In Camus’s novel, it took the death of an innocent child to give Paneloux the kind of wisdom that fosters compassion. Such a tragedy should be reason enough to elicit a caring response, but true followers of Christ have more. We have the love of a God who freely offered his mercy to everyone. He singled out the guilty not for punishment, but as the special objects of his concern. He did not condemn them further by reminding them of their sin. Instead, he took great pains to explain something utterly foreign, yet immensely comforting: There is mercy and forgiveness with God for even the most undeserving.

Near my home, in the neighboring city of Santa Ana, is a hospice for AIDS victims. It is a residential home opened to men who have no place to go, mainly because no one wants them. From all I have read about it, the motive of the owners is simple human compassion. To these frightened men, that feels like heaven.

It is not our job as Christians to make dying people feel worse. It is our job to give them hope and healing in the name of Christ. We have a wonderful opportunity to give the victims of AIDS simple human compassion and much, much more. We can give them not just a feeling of heaven, but heaven itself. We can give them hope in the mercy and forgiveness of God.

By Ben Patterson, a CT contributing editor.

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