This was written by SEA member Bob Anderson in response to John Piper’s recent post “What Made It OK for God to Kill Women, Children in Old Testament?” He gave us permission to post it here:
I read Piper’s post and want to comment. I will begin by saying that I consider John Piper a brother in Christ, one who follows a different tradition than I do, but a brother none the less. He confesses the same God and same King as I. We differ in an internal understanding of how God works, but this difference does not exclude us from fellowship with each others as members of God’s family.
The above link is to a post that seeks to answer a difficult question, one which has been wrestled with for centuries – how are we to understand the goodness and righteousness of God in the light of human sinfulness.
So let’s examine the argument presented in the post.
The article is a response to a difficult question:
“Why was it right for God to slaughter women and children in the Old Testament? How can that ever be right?”
Piper’s answer is summarized in his very first paragraph of is response.
It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.
It is to this that I wish to take exception.
First, let me state that I agree with Piper in part. God, as God, is allowed to give life and to take it. When he takes life, he is returning it to himself and ushering that person either into his kingdom or to judgment. I think rhetorically (with respect to the argument) we need to agree with the Calvinists here that God is the author if life and all life belongs to him. In Athens Paul stated, “ In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts17:28).
Second, I believe that God’s temporal judgment on people and groups often is exercised at the hands of others. The killing of women and children at Jericho was an exercise of extreme judgment for the sin of the Canaanites, a removal of a social cancer that would have spread to corrupt Israel. It is not something that makes me comfortable, but I understand it. There are times where God commands (shall I say “decrees”?) that judgment come on peoples and evil befalls those upon whom he has declared such judgment. Israel and Egypt both suffered from the decrees of God – decrees that are given and articulated within the Bible.
Piper notes this later in his argument, stating that there was “a point in history, a season in history” and God is acting politically and ethnically for Israel, using the people of Israel for divine judgment of the sin of the Amorites. This fits my consideration of God bringing about judgment above. Judgment is the province of God.
Third, I understand the concept of goodness that occurs at a macro-level that may reflect an apparent evil or trouble at a micro-level. Antibodies in the body destroy life, bacteria that can cause disease. But they benefit the whole in doing so. Removal of cancerous cells take away part of me and may require a loss to the body. But they benefit the whole by removing the spread of the cancer. The death of a serial killer may destroy someone made in the image of God, but it removes from society someone who is a danger to us all. (I am generally opposed to the death penalty, but understand the rationale for it on occasion.) There are multiple levels within an ethical evaluation that can and must be addressed – the individual, the group, the interaction with others, the structural, etc. (We will return to these later.)
But these are not really the issues where we disagree with the Calvinists. What is at stake is the morality and righteousness of God with the random killing of individuals or groups. The deterministic paradigm, which reduces the very concept of the “good” is manifest in Piper’s statement below:
“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he
That is an appalling statement, because it contradicts the righteousness of God that we seek to affirm – the righteousness of the God who pleads with sinners to repent so as not to die. It certainly is an expression of sovereignty, but not righteous sovereignty. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:4 NRS). By definition, Christians define God as the good and the good is for all. Evil, in and of itself cannot be the good. The good can only be derived when God labors within an evil situation to bring it about. Perhaps that is what we should see as the miracle of the transcendent God. God is not part of the evil that exists because of human sin. Rather he brings about good because he is not part of the sin.
The deterministic Christians try to perform a noble deed by attempting to preserve the sovereignty of God over all things. In their minds, for God to be God, he must control ever atom, every event, and every action in some way. He does so by decreeing them and by working through his decrees in history. The decrees are atomistic, down to the very sin of the individual. They then, knowing that Christianity rises and falls on the righteousness of God, declare that there must be good in all that occurs. To deny such would be to concede that the deterministic paradigm allows for God to be both good and evil – a concept no Christian would allow.
The problem with this view is that its adherents simply have gotten their theology of righteousness backwards. They want to declare sovereignty (deterministic sovereignty) because God “carries the big stick.” He is God and there is no point in questioning what he does. You will often hear them say that if there is anything God does not control, then he is not in control anything. (This rather nonsensical perspective certainly does not correspond with reality.) And then they want to declare any action he does as “good” on the basis of that sovereignty. You cannot question the action because he is sovereign, with an appeal to Romans 9:20, “Who are you, O Man, to argue with God?”
The other problem I see with this type of argument is that while God is active in history, he is not the only actor. And while we might attribute some events to the decrees of God, that does not necessitate that we attribute all events. Piper tries to equate all events under a single type in his argument to draw his conclusions. This, of course, is an error.
To see this, let us examine Piper’s example.
“If I were to drop dead right now, or a suicide bomber downstairs were to blow this building up and I were blown into smithereens, God would have done me no wrong. He does no wrong to anybody when he takes their life, whether at 2 weeks or at age 92.”
If you notice Piper gives two examples of death, which I will follow in the first person. In the one, I drop dead right now. Perhaps a heart attack or some other event causes my immediate death. I am ushered into God’s presence and standing in judgment for good or for ill. One might immediately conclude that God has taken my life and arguably he could have prevented in some way this event. (In my tradition we do believe that God is the God of the body, and he can and does provide healing in his providential will.) But the argument given seems to ignore the fact that death is the enemy that God is seeking to destroy (1 Corinthians 15:26). Even Christians die and we accept that fact, but we must recognize death as the enemy of life, and God is the giver of life. Death should be seen, as Ben Witherington noted in a recent post, as a corruption of God’s creation – a creation that was made very good.
Piper’s second example is appalling for its moral bankruptcy. God’s decree has been equated with the terrorist, as the ultimate cause of the evil. The result of this is that we have no basis for judgment of the terrorist, because God is the ultimate cause of the event. It is not the terrorist who takes my life. Piper asserts that it is God taking my life. This is the clearest statement Piper makes to affirm God as a deterministic cause of sin.
Any rational person would understand that there is a radical difference between the two types of events. One is a death by natural causes (presumably), where the other is the wanton act of murder by another. Yet what Piper does is treat them both as the same kind of event, which no moral theory that I know of would do. When I have a heart attack, whether of my own neglect or some other physical problem, I can well attribute that to natural causes – we live in a broken, shattered world, where sin and death reign. This is the result of a decree given to Adam that the day he ate of the tree he would die. Adam was cast from God’s presence, “dying” that day, barred from the tree of life. Death is the natural consequence of that act for all of us.
However, this is a far cry from decreeing a terrorist act wherein I die. God explicitly decrees against murder in the Commandments. How then are we to suggest that God decrees a terrorist’s murder?
Piper’s failure here is to confuse the morality of the event with God’s permission of events to occur. Piper suspends moral judgment of the event in order to affirm God’s goodness and errantly equates the act with a personal dictate of God, the ultimate cause of all events (for Piper). He does this by provided two events of different types and then treating them as though they were the same type of event.
We need to understand the danger of this type of argument. From a moral perspective, we as Christians affirm that “the good” is defined by God and is reflected in His nature. We also claim that sin is contrary to “goodness.” What the Calvinists does is to suggests that God is also the cause and determiner of sin, using it at his own discretion for furtherance of his will and the ultimate (often unknown) good of his own sovereignty.
In Piper’s paradigm, God ceases to be the model of goodness and morality for us. Rather, he simply becomes a primary cause of both good and evil. In such a model, we could easily remove the concept of “God” as a moral agent and see the universe as simply a series of events, all with prior causes. Even the temporal modification Piper makes later in his argument concerning
What we must do as Christians is begin with the goodness of God and define the other attributes with respect to his righteousness. This is not a denial of sovereignty, but a definition of how God operates. God will be righteous in all he does, but according to scripture he is not the only power at work. We battle against principalities and power. We contend with powers like sin and Satan that war against the soul. We give ourselves in servitude to the power of sin or to righteousness. These are clearly not the same thing and to suggests that God authors both through the decrees is simply to make God amoral, which we do not want to do.
How then are we to understand Jericho? We must understand it as an uncommon type of event, one which seeks to eliminate a cancerous situation (as Piper notes) of the sin of the Amorites. But we must not equate this with the norm or say that any killing is a direct result of the goodness of God. That would be to confuse evil with good, and maturity in the faith demands that we practice distinguishing good from evil (Hebrews 5:14). We need to distinguish between the good that God can bring out of an evil event and the evil itself when it is a result of sin.