My Response to John Piper’s Recent Statements about God and Tornadoes
by Roger Olson, PhD
During the last week or two I have received numerous e-mails, some from journalists, asking my opinion about John Piper’s explanation of the recent rash of deadly tornadoes across the South. Apparently, he has at least implied that God sent them as judgments on particular communities and reminders of their need to repent.
My first response is that this is nothing new. John has been saying things like this for a long time. This reminds me of Oral Roberts’ claim that God told him he would die if he failed to raise eight million dollars to save his City of Faith in Tulsa. I had just left ORU a year or two before the media had a heyday with that claim. People who knew I taught at ORU asked me about it on a daily basis for weeks. All I could tell them was that this was nothing new. I had heard Oral say things like that (and even stranger things) long before the media discovered that one and made a circus out of it. I don’t know why that particular claim went viral, so to speak.
The same is true here. If I’m not mistaken, Piper has been saying things like this for a long time now. Why is everyone suddenly so worked up about it? Also, Piper is certainly not the first Calvinist to say such things. Are people really so unfamiliar with Calvinism that they don’t expect a Calvinist to say such things? Well, most Calvinists don’t say them so publicly. But many Calvinists have believed them and said them more quietly and discretely for a long time. For example, R. C. Sproul has long said that there is no maverick molecule in the universe, that God controls every thought and twist and turn of every molecule in the universe.
John Calvin himself said it. If you doubt it, read Chapter XVI of Book I of Institutes of the Christian Religion. See especially part 2: “There is no such thing as fortune or chance.” Then see part 7: “God’s providence also regulates ‘natural’ occurrences.” There Calvin says “…no wind ever arises or increases except by God’s express command.” Then, in section 9: “The true causes of events are hidden to us,” Calvin offers an illustration of God’s special, meticulous providence that rules over everything. He asks his readers to imagine a merchant who enters a wood (forest) with a company of companions and unwisely wanders away from them and is slain by thieves. He concludes “His death was not only foreseen by God’s eye, but also determined by his decree.”
I could give similar examples from later Calvinists including Edwards, Boettner and Sproul. And I do give them in Against Calvinism. So when Piper says that God did not merely foresee or permit the terrorist attacks of 9/11 but designed and governed them and when he says that a tornado was not merely permitted by God but sent by God, he is simply saying what conservative Calvinists (not necessarily all Reformed people) have always said.
What may be new in Piper’s statements is his apparent certainty that these events are judgments of God. Most Calvinists have been content to say they are from God without drawing that conclusion. Perhaps it’s what they meant and perhaps they said it, but I haven’t found where they assigned a particular reason to specific catastrophes.
What I would like to know is how Piper can be so sure a tornado outbreak was not only foreordained by God but also that it was foreordained as judgment. Judgment on whom? Why? Why that particular region of the country? Of course, he’s not obligated to answer those questions, but he shouldn’t be surprised if people ask and expect some kind of answer.
It seems to me the better part of wisdom not to say immediately after a calamity that it was God’s judgment UNLESS you are prepared to explain why it was sent by God then and there. Even more, it would seem to me cruel to say it was God’s judgment, while people are still burying their children, AT ALL. AND it might have the unintended (?) consequence of inhibiting people from rendering aid to victims. After all, if God sent this as judgment….? It’s an inevitable question for some people.
But let’s take this further. If Piper (or anyone else) believes ALL calamities and catastrophes are sent by God (as Calvin apparently did), I would suggest he/they bite the bullet, so to speak, and go the rest of the way. It’s fairly easy to speak from a distance about God’s judgment on a whole region of the country far away from where you are. But wouldn’t an Old Testament prophet go to that region and stand in the middle of the destruction and proclaim it and call for repentance? That would take courage and it would demonstrate how seriously you take what you are saying.
But even more: I’d like to hear one of them (Calvinists or anyone who believes God foreordains and designs and renders certain everything that happens) say publicly that it was God who caused a predator to kidnap, torture, rape and murder a child. I seldom hear or read them saying so. And yet, it would seem that, too, must be included in God’s meticulous providence AS IT IS BELIEVED BY THEM.
I once heard then Surgeon General C. Everett Koop speak on “God Killed My Son.” He spoke for almost an hour on how the only comfort he received after his son’s tragic mountain climbing accident was that it was not really an accident. It was planned and rendered certain by God. God killed his son is what he said several times. Then he went into great detail about how his son’s death was sudden and painless. But what if it wasn’t? What if his son was instead tortured to death by a psychopath? It happens. Would that also be God? Because then it involves moral evil and hideous, innocent suffering.
I am not willing to rule out the possibility that God might send judgment on a city with a seemingly natural disaster. Who knows? (But I don’t believe God causes people to do evil as in the case of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.) God is God. He may very well have reasons I can’t even fathom. And, of course, in the end, we are told God will intervene in history and defeat his enemies. I’m sure that won’t be pretty. However, EVEN IF GOD TOLD ME a natural disaster that caused untold suffering was his judgment I would not announce it publicly. Unless, of course, he told me to. Does Piper claim God has told him to proclaim these things? Or is he just speaking out of his theological convictions? I’m not sure about that.
Like most Christians, I suspect, when I hear about a natural disaster that kills people I tend to think it’s simply evidence of the world’s fallenness and the not-yetness of the new world God has in store for those us. In other words, it’s evidence of God’s absence caused by our forgetfulness of God rather than something planned and brought about by God. And I see it as evidence of the not-yetness of God’s plan to free creation from its bondage to decay (Romans 8).
I think it is the height of insensitivity to target calamities in which husbands, fathers, mothers, children have died horrible deaths and pronounce them “God’s judgment.” I would urge Christians not to do that unless they are certain God has called them to do it and given them the reason that particular disaster was his judgment. And I would urge people like Piper not to do it unless they are also willing publicly to proclaim that a kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered child was also targeted by God and why. It’s all part of a package deal in his and their case (i.e., Calvinists). So, my challenge to them is to bite the bullet and not just proclaim natural disasters or even man-made disasters “God’s judgment” but also to explain that they believe every child murdered, tortured, raped is also suffering because God willed it.
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