By Ryan Patrick Hoselton
The Boston Marathon bombing represents a society that is worlds apart from the Boston inhabited by the Puritan Increase Mather (1639-1723). Abhorrent evils perpetrated in any city—like the Newtown shooting, 9/11, and the Oklahoma City bombing—raise the very human question: why? Each generation has to wrestle with new and complicated manifestations of wrongdoing. Increase Mather had no category for making sense of how two Chechen brothers could plant explosives at a massive annual foot-race. However, perhaps his response to the calamities of Boston in his day could help us gain perspective on the city’s recent catastrophe.
In many ways, modern-day Boston has failed to live up to Mather’s lofty aspirations for the city. Mather, the former minister of the historic Second Church and President of Harvard from 1685-1702, planned for Boston to become the new Jerusalem—God’s holy society on earth. But even in his day, Boston was far from heaven. The seventeenth-century New Englanders intimately knew suffering. The reason many of them came to New England was to flee religious persecution. If they survived the long voyage, they faced the threat of frequent and devastating plagues.
But it was the attacks from the native New England tribes that evoked one of Mather’s fullest reflections on the evil of his times, An Earnest Exhortation to the Inhabitants of New-England (1676). In this treatise, Mather blamed the tragedies on the sins of Boston’s citizens: “What shall we say when men are seen in the Streets with monstrous and horrid Perriwigs, and women with their Borders and False Locks…whereby the anger of the Lord is kindled against this land (9)!” He’s just getting warmed up. He listed Boston’s iniquities and warned that unless the citizens reform their lives, “New-England hath not seen its worst dayes.” For Mather, Boston’s prosperity and its demise was contingent on its righteousness before God. Thus, his solution for eradicating Boston’s suffering was to recruit its citizens to significant moral reform.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking (or should be thinking if you’re not): so far, Mather is not helping us understand evil today! But briefly give him a little grace. As a result of these events, Mather ministered to many hurting people: “Is it nothing that Widdows and Fatherless have been multiplyed among us?” He wanted to see evil and its effects eliminated just as much as those impacted by the Boston Marathon bombings. However, no earthly city could ever be righteous enough to completely evade adversity—all of mankind is fallen. His solution was geographically misguided.
Mather placed his hope in the right city, but he located it in the wrong place. Revelation 21:2-4 describes how the new Jerusalem will come:
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’
Boston is not the New Jerusalem—it does not exist on earth. The events from last week’s race testify to the sad reality that evil still afflicts the city four-hundred years later. Ever since Babel, mankind has had the tendency to rely on the kingdoms that we can construct. We like our societies because they reflect us rather than God. However, despite our best efforts, we cannot create the righteous kingdom that will bring us peace.
Mather was right that God will entirely eradicate all evil and its consequences in his new Jerusalem. However, this is not a city that mortals can build. Instead, we must rest our hopes for peace on the King of the new Jerusalem, Jesus Christ, who will lovingly assemble this city for his people.
Ryan Patrick Hoselton is pursuing a ThM at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He lives in Louisville, KY with his wife Jaclyn, and they are expecting their first child in August.