John Piper on the Relationship between God’s Sovereignty and Tragedy

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John Piper was asked by Cathy Grossman, from USA Today, what he would tell the children who lost their parents on 9/11. She understood Piper to be suggesting that a victim should concentrate on the greater opportunities that God had granted to the children now, instead of focusing on their past loss. Piper responded that he did not suggest that scenario. Instead, he offered the following:

    What he [God] did was govern all things at the moment when their parents died. So, if they asked me, “So, where was God?” or, “Did God have the ability to stop my daddy’s death?” I would say that he did have that ability and he didn’t use it. And then you would say, “So, you’re saying God took my daddy?” I would say God was wise, loving, and good towards you when he did not stop them.

Grossman pointed out that his response was not at all an adequate answer, to which Piper acknowledged. Piper then added:

      Then, if they say, “I don’t think that’s helpful to tell me, that, it sounds very unloving of God.” I would say, but if you deny that, then what you’re denying is that right now, the help that you need to handle your difficulties given to you [by God, as his theology teaches] by the loss of your dad ~ the difficulties you’re facing, [that] you will face in marriage, [that] you will face in jobs, [that] you will face in cancer ~ these difficulties, the very God who

you let be sovereign

    at 9/11 [his emphasis], that sovereignty is the very thing that will give you stability and strength and hope right now. That’s the gist of it.

Grossman, rightly noting that Piper’s answer begged the question, asked: “How can that person count on that, since they saw that it didn’t [help the ones whom God didn’t rescue]?” Piper responded: “Because, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. In other words, if I get shot tomorrow, if I walk out of here, and somebody didn’t like what I said and would shoot me dead, God was totally in charge of that, and that will be the best thing that could happen to me.”

This worldview is rife with problems, in my opinion. Calvinists, try as they may, cannot escape the inevitable conclusion that their theology is fatalistic. Let us examine Piper’s claims one by one, comparing his Calvinistic explanations regarding God’s interaction with his creatures, his providence, and sovereignty, with that of Classical, historic Arminianism.

GOD AS WISE, LOVING, AND GOOD

Piper would counsel a child who lost his or her parents thus: “God was wise, loving, and good toward you when he did not stop” their death. On what grounds could such a statement be made? Is the child supposed to think that at least God did not stop his or her own death (i.e. the child’s)? Is that how God demonstrated his wisdom, love, and goodness?

However, what Piper’s Calvinism has concealed is the underlying belief that God did not merely, purposefully desist in preventing the death of his or her parents (via 9/11 or whatever other means), but He brought it to pass. What Piper (and all Calvinists) should admit to suffering victims is that God was wise, loving, and good toward them when He brought to pass their loved one’s death. This, however, is not a viable answer.

GOD AS ABSOLUTELY SOVEREIGN

According to Piper, the fact that God is “absolutely sovereign” is supposed to bring the grieving person stability, strength, and hope. Yet, if God brings to pass by decree all of the evil and suffering in the world, how on earth is someone supposed to be stable, strengthened, and brimming with hope? That would cause a person to live in a dome of fear, wondering what God was going to bring upon them at any given moment. This is not the answer.

GOD AS THE GRIM REAPER

If Piper got shot tomorrow and died, he thinks that “that would be the best thing that could happen” to him. And why? Because, according to him, God brought it to pass. And since God is wise, loving, and good toward him, then whatever He brings into his life is “the best thing that could happen” to him. This logic he applies to those whom he counsels. Whatever evil may befall an individual, it is an expression of God’s wisdom, love, and goodness towards them.

On August 17, 2009, CBS news reported on eight year old Sandra Cantu, who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered by Sunday School teacher Melissa Huckaby. God did not stop Melissa Huckaby. So, how would John Piper respond to eight year old Sandra’s parents, according to his statements above? “I would say that God did have that ability to stop Melissa and he didn’t use it. And then you would say, ‘So, you’re saying God took my daughter? He brought to pass her kidnapping, rape, and murder?’ I would say that God was wise, loving, and good towards you when he did not stop Melissa.” This is not only Piper’s Calvinism, this is Calvinism, and this is not the answer.

Piper is right to insist that God is all-powerful. He has the ability to stop all evil. Evil, contrary to the assumptions and ideas of some, is not a problem for God. He could stop all evil and sin by not allowing anyone to have any freedom to do any thing whatsoever. So, one could ask, Exactly how much evil or free will does one want God to stop? All evil? Most evil? Some evil? Your evil? My evil?

Calvinism cannot offer people a viable worldview where sin and evil are concerned, for they have to wrestle with the concept that God brings evil to pass, that He, i.e. God, according to Calvinist Wayne Grudem and Calvinists in general, “influences the desires and decisions of people,”1 and does so, according to Piper, to demonstrate His wisdom, love, and goodness towards them, and allegedly uses all of this to instill stability, strength, and hope in people.

Arminianism, on the other hand, offers people genuine and unambiguous stability, strength, and hope in God, confessing that God could not bring about evil and sin, which are contrary to His holy nature and character, as demonstrated in Christ Jesus. And while God is all-powerful, He has chosen to restrain that power where individuals are concerned, allowing His creatures a measure of freedom to make real choices that genuinely impact the lives of others. Thus when a free creature acts out evil, he or she does so not at the behest (or strict decree) of God, as though that individual had no other choice but to do that which God had foreordained (decreed) for them to do, but did so of their own free will, not being influenced (or decreed) by God to perform the evil.

Now, when bad things happen to God’s people, for example, they can be confident that He is working out those things for their eventual good (Rom. 8:28). He can be trusted where sin and evil actions are concerned, because the believer understands that God was not behind them. God does not, as Calvinism insists, influence the desires and decisions of people.

In Melissa Huckaby’s situation, for the Calvinist, if he or she is to remain consistent, God was influencing Melissa’s desires and decision to kidnap, rape, and murder eight year old Sandra Canto. And yet, the Lord’s half brother, James, wrote, “And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, ‘God is tempting me.’ God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else” (James 1:13 NLT).

While the situation seems utterly horrible, and rightly so, God is more than able to comfort the victim. At the same time, however, we must remember that while God is sovereign, He is not an autocrat or despot. He does not rule by controlling people, but by governing them. Roger Olson comments:

      Even sinful acts (and calamities), however, do not escape God’s governance, although they are in a separate category than good acts. Sinful and evil acts are never planned or decreed by God; God only decrees to allow them. God never instigates them or renders them certain (e.g., by withdrawing the grace necessary to avoid them [something which Calvinism denies]). There is neither a secret impulse of God toward evil nor a hidden God who manipulates people to sin.

Yet evil decisions and actions are circumscribed by God so that they fit into his purposes, and he directs them toward the good end he had in mind for creation. And they cannot happen without God’s permission and cooperation [many Calvinists, when quoting Olson, stop here without quoting the rest of his statement]. The reason God permits and cooperates with them is to preserve human liberty (and thus integrity of personal reality) and bring good out of them. This strong belief in divine sovereignty completely overturns the impression that Arminians believe only in general providence (preservation, sustaining of creation) and not in special providence, or that they do not believe in divine sovereignty.2

One would have to be blind, or lack the ability to read, to not be able to distinguish the paramount difference between the Calvinist’s view of God’s sovereignty and that of Classical Arminianism. Calvinism can be counted as tantamount to determinism or theological fatalism. Classical Arminianism can be counted as tantamount to a free will theodicy, wherein God allows His creatures a measure of freedom, making them responsible for their own desires and decisions, having not been influenced by God.

More and more people are beginning to understand that Calvinism fails at the basic level on which human beings operate. It distorts the character, nature, and being of God, as expressed in the life, ministry, and work of Jesus Christ as recorded in God’s word; it does not bring Him honor and glory, but rather dishonor and suspicion; and it fails to grant stability, strength, and hope to God’s people, to say nothing of giving the lost any tangible hope of salvation (unless God has unconditionally elected to save them).

We will let Olson have the last word:

      Every classical Arminian shares with every classical Calvinist the belief that God is in charge of and governs the entire creation, and will powerfully and perhaps unilaterally bring about the consummation of his plan. Arminians demur from Calvinism’s divine determinism because it cannot avoid making God the author of sin and evil. When the Calvinist responds that Calvinism avoids that, the Arminian asks about the origin of the very first impulse to evil in creation.

If God is the all-determining reality and creatures have no incompatibilist (libertarian) freedom, then where did that first evil motive or intent come from? If the Calvinist says from God, which is logically consistent with divine determinism, then God is most certainly the author of sin and evil. If the Calvinist says from autonomous creatures, then this opens up a hole in divine determinism so large that it consumes it. Can anything at all arise without God’s determining ordination and power? To Arminians, a question mark remains over Calvinism’s intelligibility. It does not seem intelligible to assert absolute divine determinism on the one hand and affirm that any part of creation falls outside that on the other hand.3

1 Wayne A. Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 146.

2 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 126-27.

3 Ibid., 135.