Dr. Olson’s Further Thoughts about Catastrophes and God

, posted by SEA

by Roger Olson

This is a response to comments made in response to my previous post about John Piper’s blog entry about the recent tornado outbreak in the eastern U.S.

True, in this particular blog entry Piper does not explicitly say the tornadoes were God’s judgment on those towns. He does say, however, that the tornadoes were “God’s fingers.” In light of everything else he has written and said about calamaties and catastrophes, it is clear to me that he believes not only this tornado outbreak but every natural and man-made disaster (including the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.) are from God and not only in some attenuated sense in which most Christians would say they are from God by concurrence. (That is, by God’s permission and granted ability as the creator and governor of nature.)

So, IF Piper does not think this tornado outbreak was God’s judgment on those specific towns, what does he think about God’s purpose in sending it? He seems to believe it, like other natural and man-made disasters, is a wake up call to people to repent. But IF he only means that we all should sense our finitude and repent, that’s a Christian truism. I don’t know any non-liberal Christian who would disagree with that. But he seems to mean more than that. Not all non-liberal Christians believe that all natural or man-made catastrophes are directly from God.

What I wonder is this: IF Piper was NOT saying that this tornado outbreak was God’s judgment, what does he think about it (beyond it was from God)? The natural question, all inquiring minds want to know, is WHY would God drag his fingers across that particular landscape at that particular time? Simply saying something like “to bring people to repentance” doesn’t suffice. Of course, Piper’s no more obligated than Jesus was to explain further. (Although we don’t know that Jesus didn’t explain his cryptic comments about those who died when the tower of Siloam fell further.) However, I think he should not be surprised if people assume he thinks God’s fingers had a specific purpose for that particular tornado outbreak at that particular time and that it is God’s judgment. Think of the possible alternatives.

Option 1: God chose those particular, specific towns to destroy with those tornadoes (his “fingers”) because of something about them.

Option 2: God chose those particular, specific towns to destroy with those tornadoes (his “fingers”) randomly. (Like the TV reporter who blindly throws a dart at a map of the U.S. and then goes to the location to find a story.)

Option 3: ?

I can’t think of a third option that doesn’t fit within one of the first two. Can you? Assuming the tornadoes were “God’s fingers,” either God dragged his fingers across that particular landscape at that particular time because of something about that particular landscape or arbitrarily.

If God chose that landscape (towns, farms, etc.) randomly, then he is arbitrary. I’m certain Piper doesn’t believe that. I’m sure he believes God always has a reason for what he does. At least I hope so.

But if God was not choosing arbitrarily, randomly, then he had to have a reason for destroying the towns and farms (etc.) of that particular landscape at that time. What could it be?

How many options are there for thinking of God’s reason for destroying a town?

Now, again, I agree that a person can simply say “God did it” and not offer any further explanation, but I think such a person ought not to be surprised if people press for a better answer than that. And surely Piper himself has some idea why God chose that particular landscape to destroy at that particular time in that specific way.

Option 1: God chose them (the people living there) simply to make an example of what he can do anytime, anywhere, unexpectedly to anyone without any particular reason. Meaning, he chose it because it isn’t where people would expect God to do it so that people in such areas won’t become spiritually complacent.

Option 2: God chose them because there was something about them or some of them that made him angry or at least wanting to cause them great harm and even death. Most people would call that “God’s judgment.”

Option 3: ?

Again, I can’t think of a third option that doesn’t fit within one of the first two. Can you?

Now, remember, all of the above assumes, with Piper and all consistent Calvinists and other divine determinists, that every catastrophe is specifically from God whether directly or indirectly. That is, they are all sent by God in some manner and are not simply what happens in a fallen world.

Appeals to the book of Job to explain catastrophes raise more questions than they answer. For example, if one correlates what Piper said about this particular natural catastrophe and what he surely believes about all of them (“fingers of God”) with Job, then Satan becomes God’s fingers.

So, at the end of the day, anyone who says a natural or man-made disaster, calamity, catastrophe is from God must be thinking either that it was an arbitrary act of God, done for no particular reason other than perhaps to create fear (which still doesn’t explain why that particular place), or that it was in some sense God’s judgment.

Rule those out and you are back to God’s simply permitting natural and man-made disaster to happen because this is a fallen world and the kingdom of God is not yet. Rule out that and God’s arbitrariness and you’re left with God’s judgment. I would prefer to say it was God’s judgment than to say God is like the TV reporter who blindly throws a dart at a map.

Now, again, let’s step back and take a bird’s eye view of Piper’s and other Calvinists’ divine determinism. If everything without exception is from God, planned, designed and governed by God for a reason such that God is not merely permitting it but actively willing it and rendering it certain (and I demonstrate in Against Calvinism this is the traditional Calvinist view and I am confident it is Piper’s as well), then the holocaust and the kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of an innocent two year old child are also “from God” in that sense.

IF that’s true, then, I ask, why ever be upset about such things? Why react emotionally or with righteous indignation as if something happened that shouldn’t have happened? After all, God’s ultimate purpose in everything is his glory. (I demonstrate that that also is the traditional Calvinist view and I have asked many Calvinists if it’s their view and the answer has always been yes.) So, one who believes that has to say that the holocaust and the kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of a two year old child glorify God. Then why object to them? Why oppose them? Why blame the perpetrators? Why try to prevent them?

This is the supreme Calvinist conundrum. Yes, every theology has its soft spots where appeal to mystery is necessary. But this is more than a “soft spot.” This is a true conundrum because Scripture directs us to be righteously indignant about certain things and to oppose them and to blame the perpetrators as if they are responsible for them. And we cannot help it. We all operate daily AS IF horrible events such as these were NOT from God for his glory even if we say, when pushed, they are.

In other words, while divine determinism (including strict Calvinism) may be able to appeal to a few verses in the Bible and while it may be touted in an ivory tower or from a nice, clean pulpit in a nice, clean sanctuary or over the internet, it is literally impossible to live consistently.

For the original post and comments, see http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/03/further-thoughts-about-catastrophes-and-gods-judgment/