How in charge is God when tragedy strikes?

piper tweet re oklahoma

I knew it was coming: the Piper tweet, this time quoting Job in response to the Oklahoma tornado. As the dean of the neo-Calvinist movement, John Piper likes to push the envelope with his commentary on God’s role in natural disasters. He did it about a year ago when tornadoes hit the midwest. In 2007 after the Minneapolis bridge collapsed, he wrote that he and his daughter discussed how God must have done it so the people of Minneapolis would fear Him because our sin against God is “an outrage ten thousand times worse than the collapse of the 35W bridge.” Piper would say that he’s just being Biblical and that it shouldn’t be surprising that speaking Biblically would make people feel uncomfortable. So how do we talk about God’s role in tragedies?

Piper’s perspective on God’s role in disasters has two components: 1) Every event that happens is orchestrated by God for the purposes of His divine plan; 2) Violence within nature reflects God’s infinite anger over human sin, which is primarily understood in Anselmian terms as an abstract offense against His honor. In Piper’s post on the Minneapolis bridge collapse, he cites Luke 13:1-4 where Jesus uses tragedies in His day to issue a warning to his listeners to repent.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

It’s a pretty strange passage. When Jesus says “perish just as they did,” what is he saying? Is he saying you’ll die too in general or you’ll die in a similarly gruesome way? Piper eisegetes his Anselmian view of sin onto the text by making it about whether humans deserve to die as a punishment from God (“Jesus implies that those who brought him this news thought he would say that those who died, deserved to die, and that those who didn’t die did not deserve to die”). But taking the text at face value, there’s no reason to understand “perishing” as a divinely instituted punishment for sin rather than just a natural consequence of it (e.g. getting tangled up with bad people and dying a violent death as a result). Jesus wasn’t carrying the book of Romans around with him to make sure that his teaching was “Biblical.”

Regardless of what Jesus is saying in that particular passage, there are plenty of examples in the Old Testament of misfortune being proclaimed as the manifestation of God’s wrath and punishment for sin whether it’s a drought or an epidemic or the invasion of an enemy army. The ancient Israelites had no intellectual resources for thinking about disaster as anything other than a personal expression of anger from God. This puts us in an awkward place as Christians living in an age when scientific disciplines like meteorology exists.

Does the authority of scripture force us to say screw meteorology, tornadoes are a warning from God to bring the world into repentance? Or do we say God used to send tornadoes to punish Israel for its sin because the infallible Old Testament prophets say things like that, but now tornadoes happen because of atmospheric thermodynamics? Piper at least recognizes the inconsistency of trying to say that nature only began to behave according to predictable scientific principles after the Bible was written as a clumsy means of rescuing the Bible from being in error. In Piper’s perspective, if Jeremiah and Amos and all the rest were infallible, then the way we interpret disaster should emulate how they interpreted it. Thus he writes about the Minneapolis bridge collapse:

The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world.

I imagine that this view is repugnant to most people. Is it because we have gone apostate and are no longer appropriately terrified by God? That’s what folks like John Piper would say. But there’s a subtlety to John Piper’s ideological stance here. God is not a terrifying mystery to Piper, because he knows the exact “meaning” of the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge. John Piper’s God may be a horrible Godzilla, but the prophetic authority Piper gives to himself means that he is sitting on Godzilla’s back holding the reins.

What’s far more terrifying than an angry, dangerous God with predictable motives who offers a canned salvation formula by which people can get right with Him is an unpredictable universe whose violence we do not try to explain even though we stubbornly cling to the belief that somehow a loving Creator is in charge of it. It is God’s unpredictability that makes Him truly sovereign.

The ancient Israelites grasped for prophetic explanations to natural disasters as a means of coping with the terror of an unpredictable universe. If Babylon sacked the city of Jerusalem just because they were the most powerful empire in the world at the time, then Israel’s God would lose all His authority and the Babylonian god Marduk would be the new God. Thus, Babylon had to be an agent in the hands of a God who was punishing his people for their apostasy.

Does it make the prophetic explanation of the Babylonian exile “false” to recognize that Babylon was going to conquer Israel regardless? No, but I believe the proper way to understand it is that God inspired His prophets to use natural disasters like war and drought to confront Israel about its sin. The events happened because of natural processes and human sociology, which are of course under God’s sovereignty and part of His creation, but the interpretation happened through God’s direct inspiration.

The question is whether in a scientific age, we should be using natural disasters to talk about sin. I don’t think that it represents a spiritual or moral regression for people in our day to find it unbecoming of God to crush elementary school kids in order to express His wrath against sin and instill repentance in His people. I believe that the reason God let the Israelite prophets talk about natural disasters the way they did is because He was meeting His Israelite people where they were. Even though God didn’t “make” the Babylonians conquer Israel, if the Israelites had not interpreted their Babylonian exile as God-ordained, they would have assimilated into Babylonian culture and ceased to exist as a people. So what if we understand the more “civilized” view of God’s relationship to natural disaster not as apostasy but as a greater fulfillment of the theology that understands God to be at His most persuasive and sovereign when He lets humanity crucify Him in the flesh?

I do think that as individuals, we can interpret our lives’ hardships in terms of our personal relationship with God. Psalm 119:71 says, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your statutes.” I went through half a decade of severe depression in my twenties. Part of my meaning-making process has been to say that God blessed me with that affliction as part of the preparation for my pastoral vocation and in order to make me exouthenemenos, a “despised one,” a person without worth apart from the grace of God, inside of which I have infinite worth.

That story works for me; I could not cope with a story of my mental health history told entirely in biological terms. However, as a pastor, I do not give myself the authority to tell others how to interpret their tragedies. I can point them to the rich resources of God’s poetry in the Bible so that God can breathe into them the poem that fits. Raw experience is overwhelming to process; we need and we always will use some form of poetry to give our lives coherence.

The question is whether it’s good poetry or bad poetry. God’s poetry misapplied is bad poetry. The tragedy in Oklahoma is not a time to be making theological points about the sovereignty of God. I hope that the people of Oklahoma will find better poetry from God that breathes life and mercy and peace in a difficult time.

29 thoughts on “How in charge is God when tragedy strikes?

  1. Pingback: A Whirlwind of Inconsistencies

  2. WOW! I feel personally offended by Piper’s tweet. I just want to publicly apologize on behalf of Christians to anyone who may also feel offended by this. I am pretty sure God’s covenants are good and endure. The rainbow was His covenant that He would no longer respond to our sin in such wrath, and Jesus death on the cross was atonement for all of our shortcomings- no need for natural disaster. As a biologist, I can assure you that there are legitimate weather patterns that determine the tragic, yet natural disasters that occur.
    Thanks for the post!

  3. Pingback: A 140 char response to tragedy is always bad pastoral care | Mercy not Sacrifice

  4. Great point Morgan. We all have are motives.

    I would just say be careful in how you judge. So many people love to lash out on public figures and pat themselves on the back. Do you judge yourself with the same standard?

    For these reasons I would never have a twitter account if I was well-known. Thankfully I am just a random guy named Jeff on the internet that none you you know. 😉

    • I think there has to be a distinction between making an observation about the appropriateness of a comment and making assumptions about the motives behind it. I am not always good at making that distinction.

  5. There’s an issue in your thinking in that you are trying to explain away the Bible in light of the modern world view. Surely we as Christians need to stand by the Bible? If you apply your logic to this topic because you find the literal meaning of the Bible difficult, you could apply it to any other part of the Bible and so we stop believing in The Lord of our ancestors and begin believing in a God we want him to be. Hebrews 13:8 says “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The writer of Hebrews is telling us in this passage to emulate our past leaders, not start afresh in a new generation. Matthew 5:11-13 “11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Evidently Jesus appreciated the prophets work for the kingdom, and also recognised the difficulty of accepting the Christian message. It is not a modern difficulty, the Christian world view clashed with the Romans and Greeks as much as ours and the early church was willing to die to spread the true message.

    • So in other words you would say that tornadoes are not a meteorological event but an expression of God’s wrath because that’s how the Hebrew prophets would have understood it?

    • “There’s an issue in your thinking in that you are trying to explain away the Bible in light of the modern world view. Surely we as Christians need to stand by the Bible? If you apply your logic to this topic because you find the literal meaning of the Bible difficult, you could apply it to any other part of the Bible and so we stop believing in The Lord of our ancestors …”

      The snowball theory. Its fear-mongering. Besides, when you get right down to it, Jesus himself changed this interpretation 2000 years ago anyway. Whereas the Hebrew prophets (or poets) do describe God as sending this storm and that to punish sinners, and as withholding rain from sinners (see the story of the drought in the days of Elijah), Jesus describes God (also with some poetic license) as “sending the rain on the just and the unjust.” Now the rain is not always good. It may be good that the just and unjust both receive rain, if they need rain. But if they don’t need rain, it may be bad for both the just and unjust (they may encounter flooding!). Jesus’ point is simply that these weather events (Whether good or bad in their consequences) take place without respect to our righteousness or unrighteousness. Yes, he describes God as “sending” them, but I don’t suppose he would be opposed to the roundabout interpretation that God “sends” them only in the sense that he established the laws of nature which cause them to happen now and again. The important point in what Jesus is saying is the neutrality of the weather: it doesn’t care whether you are just or unjust: the weather is the same for both. That interpretation differs from what some Old Testament writers seem to be saying: WOULD YOU ACCUSE JESUS OF APOSTASY FOR THAT?

  6. I am starting to wonder if Piper uses horrible crisis to bring attention to himself? How exactly is this Glorifying God when people are in crisis and so many hurt or dead?

    Would not our Perfect Father want us to think of those who are so devestated and reach out to them?

    • I suspect he thinks it’s his prophetic duty to speak the way that he does. Of course all of us myself included have a mixture of motives whenever we comment on a national event.

  7. I find Piper’s understanding of God’s sovereignty abhorrently, yet neatly cold and detached. In response, D.B. Hart has a helpful discussion of primary and secondary causality, from which the following quote is drawn, in his short but powerful book “Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?”
    “A Calvinist pastor, positively intoxicated by the grandeur of divine sovereignty, proclaimed that the Indian Ocean disaster–like everything else– was a direct expression of the divine will, acting according to hidden and eternal counsels it would be impious to penetrate, and producing consequences it would be sinful to presume to judge… If all that occurs, in the minutest detail and in the entirety of its design, is only the expression of one infinite volition that makes no real room within its transcendent determinations for other, secondary, subsidiary but free agencies (and so for some element of chance and absurdity), then the world is both arbitrary and necessary, both meaningful in every part and meaningless in its totality, an expression of pure power and nothing else.”
    Two other helpful discussions on the topic of God’s sovereignty are Thomas McCall’s papers entitled “I believe in divine sovereignty” and “We believe in God’s Sovereign goodness,” which are direct responses to Piper’s teachings on the subject, and with which Piper interacts. They are available here… http://evangelicalarminians.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/McCall.-I-Believe-in-Divine-Sivereignty-Contra-Piper.pdf and here… http://evangelicalarminians.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/McCall.-We-Believe-in-Gods-Sovereign-Goodness.pdf

  8. (I’ll do my best not to flame away, you are picking on one of my favorites🙂 )

    I like John Piper and I’ve learned so many things from listening to his sermons over the years. I don’t agree with him on calvinism, but he honestly loves God with a passion that I admire.

    I’m guessing that tweet was him reminding his followers that God is sovereign and that all things do work towards God’s purpose. I agree it comes off harsh. Perhaps Psalm 46 would be a better tweet. But don’t make this out to be more than it is. I can assure you Piper and his church are the kind that will offer compassion and assistance in the times of crisis.

    It’s easy in the internet “blog-a-sphere” to pick our enemies, follow them, and then wait for them to say something we can use as ammo against them. People are easy to pick on. Give them enough time and they will condemn themselves. (Look at politicians, very easy targets)

    I like the overall theme of your post. When it comes to natural disasters we can’t possibly claim to know why God did it or allowed it to happen. But we can turn to him for comfort and healing. That’s why I love Psalm 46.

    God is our refuge and strength,
    a helper who is always found
    in times of trouble.
    Therefore we will not be afraid,
    though the earth trembles
    and the mountains topple
    into the depths of the seas,
    though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with its turmoil

    • Desiring God is one of the most important books that I’ve read. I know he earnestly yearns after God even though he interprets some things differently than I do. I just wish he would stay off twitter after disasters happen.

  9. Calvinism in all it’s forms is easily disproved by this scripture:

    Deu 30:19 “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants,

    Life and death is a choice given to us.

    Jhn 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

    Moreover, the Bible says in James not to say that God is behind evil that befalls us:

    Jam 1:13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.
    14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.
    15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.
    16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.
    17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.

  10. Isn’t the book of Job directly opposed to the rationales for national disasters and other calamities as given in the prophets? It seems to condemn the deuteronomistic history of obey –> blessing; disobey –> curse.

  11. Excellent article Morgan! I will be sharing this. One question though….would it be better to say that God entered into the brokenness of your depression verses God blessed you with depression? That God entered into it in order that the brokenness could then be used for something good…that God refused to let you remain where you were, but used the broken pieces of your state to bring together something with meaning and purpose. It seems your chosen words work against the argument of the rest of your article and raise questions as to whether God chooses to give us diseases and disorders such as cancer or depression, etc.

    • Basically God gave me the interpretive means to call what was simply meaningless suffering a blessing that gave me a vocation.

  12. I’m not so sure about the Godzilla and dragon references, but overall I think this is spot on. I love this quote:

    “The ancient Israelites grasped for prophetic explanations to natural disasters as a means of coping with the terror of an unpredictable universe. If Babylon sacked the city of Jerusalem just because they were the most powerful empire in the world at the time, then Israel’s God would lose all His authority and the Babylonian god Marduk would be the new God. Thus, Babylon had to be an agent in the hands of a God who was punishing his people for their apostasy.”

    In my opinion, Piper’s view on the infallibility of Scripture, his extreme view of God’s sovereignty and the human condition make for a toxic combination. Is there any way they might realize how their view of Scripture paves the way for destructive theology?

    • Nope. They don’t think of it as destructive theology. And if you call it destructive, you’re being “worldly’ and they’re being “persecuted.” The persecution complex makes for perfect epistemic closure.

  13. I feel we are arrogant when we try and figure God out (me included). Obviously God allowed these horrific acts to happen. But, did he do it on purpose in order to teach, or punish, etc. I feel it’s a mistake to focus on that. Instead focus on what we can do to help, to minster to, to love on these precious people who’ve been hurt.

    • We should most definitely seek to love and help those in need after disaster strikes. Yet how we speak of the origin of disaster and God’s role (even if it’s only vaguely) matters a great deal. I don’t claim to fully know the interplay between free will and God’s intervention, but I personally cannot remain silent when fellow Christians suggest God purposely caused or allowed evil to occur for God’s glory. Yes, crap happens and it sure seems like God doesn’t always stop it. But let’s try to be gracious in how we speak of theodicy.

  14. It’s funny – back in Bible times I would venture that looking at a tragedy (such as Job’s life) as coming from the hand of God, was somehow a comforting thought. It upheld a certain notion of how things worked….that God was at the helm…and thus everything had order and meaning in some way. Then came Job – and there was a disturbance in the system – for while the tragic affairs of Job’s life WERE viewed as proceeding FROM God, there was no sin on Job’s part to account for WHY God had struck him. Indeed, the entire book grapples with the extreme unsettledness and confusion that resulted in that culture from the idea of an innocent person being tormented by God’s dealings.

    Today as a society we are in a very different place. On the whole, it is no longer comforting or assuring to view disasters as “coming from God.” It is offensive to even suggest that a disaster “came from God.” It is no longer just an issue of whether or not a disaster came from God as a punishment to the guilty or for unknown reasons upon the innocent (as in Job’s situation) – although saying that a disaster came upon a city for some sin-guilt IS indeed MORE offensive than merely stating it came from God for no sinful reason…. but still, we have a different system than they did in Bible times. Our system is one of science, of nature, of weather, of chaos…we can handle the idea of mindless chaos with no entity behind it. But what upsets our system is interjecting God in the midst of it – saying that He is not allowing it to proceed randomly, but that he actually chose a city for a tornado to hit, and people for it to kill. These things, which were once comforting to a society in one system, are entirely abhorrent and ugly-sounding to a society in our present system of thought.

    Just an observation.

    If Job was written today, the story might be different. The main character would not be asking, “Why have you punished me when I was innocent? Why did you give authority to my enemy to strike me when I have served you?” Guilt or innocence would no longer be an issue, although the question of God’s empowering of our enemy would still be an issue. But the enemy would be seen not as satan, but as another. Today’s main character would instead be asking, “Why did You not intervene when the forces of chaos and randomness came against me?”

    The upset is the same. A system does not make sense when God is in it, God doesn’t fit well into any of our systems, whether they be theological systems or scientific systems. To one system, the one of Job’s time, God answers, “Were you around when I set up the natural world? Can you control it? Tell me, you who demands an answer from me!” Ironically, God answered Job’s system with his preeminence in the natural/scientific system. Perhaps to us, He would answer us in the opposite: “Tell me, were you around when I set up the Spirit realm? Can you control it? Tell me, you who demands an answer from me!”

    Who knows? Either way, both Job, and our theological offenses and discussions today, represent the same thing – our own inability to take comfort in any of our own answers, and God’s willingness to offend those very efforts to comfort ourselves that we might embrace a less settled position.

    • That’s a good point how God’s sovereignty over nature functions in an opposite way today vs. in ancient times.

    • Back then they were Ok with the concept of collective guilt. I was reading 2nd Maccabees today. There is a section there that covers the same story as 4th Maccabees, the 7 sons and their mother who endured a torturous death at the hands of Greek tyrants rather than disobey the Law of Moses and eat swine’s flesh that was sacrificed to an idol. And in the 2nd Maccabees version one of the brothers, the last one I think, says something like “The only reason you’re getting away with this is God is punishing our nation for its sins; but hopefully our deaths here today will avert God’s wrath from the whole nation.” We don’t think like that today. We would never imagine that is Ok for God to punish a whole city or a whole nation for just as few guys, or to take it out on 7 innocent brothers on behalf of the sinful in the nation.

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