My response to John Piper’s Recent Statements about God and Tornadoes

My Response to John Piper’s Recent Statements about God and Tornadoes

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.

  • Will

    I haven’t read any of the other comments, so if mine is repeating someone else’s, sorry. First thing that came to mind when he mentioned the children was the first child of David and Bathsheba. Next, nothing takes God by surprise. Lastly, concerning Jesus, God’s son, I mean Satan didn’t kill him/allowed him to be killed. Dare I say it was the Jews? Did his crucifixion come as a surprise to God? Was there some other cosmic force in the universe that allowed/ordained/caused the crucifixion? Not trying to get to the point of bickering w/ anyone, but these are legit questions. Think about them; I do, and quite often.

    • rogereolson

      Actually, it wasn’t the Jews. It was the Romans. Paul says it was the “rulers of this age” who crucified Jesus (1 Cor. 2:8).

  • Steve

    John Piper and all the others are struggling like everyone is. They simply do not know. We are not asked to ‘know’ the reasons why. We are to respond in love to catastrophes. Yes it is easy to stand way off and judge but much harder to ‘get involved’ to alleviate the pain and suffering. Which of course ‘speaks’ way louder than words.
    Piper and the others sound rediculous when they make these crazy statements and then attribute them to God.
    Get out there and help. Thats what I say.

  • Nathan

    Sheesh. If mother nature and random chance are stronger than God then I’ll start worshiping them. God is in control of all things and anyone who says that God does not control the kidnap, murder, or rape of a child has not studied Lamentations. Jeremiah is lamenting because God has ordained exactly that. Yet, he says in 3:38, “is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both ill and good go forth?”
    A god who is at the mercy of criminals or tornadoes is weak and is not the God of the Bible. There is indeed no maverick molecule for what molecule will say to his God “why did you make me like this?” Romans 9:20.

    • rogereolson

      Since you began with a colloquialism meant to express disdain, I’ll start with this: C’mon. Nothing in those passages teaches that God is the author of every evil or innocent suffering or wants them to happen. You are wrongly assuming that there are only two choices here–either exhaustive and meticulous divine determinism or a pathetic, powerless God who can’t stop things from happening. That shows ignorance of the historical options between those. Go read.

      • Nathan

        Few things to respond to:

        My reference to Lamentations was not meant to be exhaustive but a response to you saying that nobody would dare say that kidnap and etc. were caused by God. All I did was give you an example of one case where that was exactly what was going on. I think the burden of proof is on you to tell me why God is ordaining these horrible things in Old Testament and yet He has no power to ordain it in a contemporary culture.

        Maybe I am ignorant of historical options. I wouldn’t dare call myself an expert on historical views on this subject. I don’t see how a God can be omnipotent and in the heavens doing whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3) and yet be submissive to the acts and will of His creation (man or nature).

        Sorry if I offended you with my sheesh comment. I’d take it back if I could.

        • rogereolson

          You are confusing God’s power with his will. Surely God is sovereign over his power. Just because God omnipotent doesn’t mean everything that happens is caused by God.

    • John Inglis

      Nathan, you do not establish what you mean by “control”, whether your meaning is that established by the bible, nor whether you understand what others mean by their use of that word.

      • John Inglis

        By which I meant, “please clarify”

      • Nathan

        Maybe I don’t understand the question, but I meant control to mean that God is causing things to happen. He might be using a pawn like Satan to carry these plans out (Job) but in the end He is in control (ultimately providing causation if that makes any sense?).

        • rogereolson

          Even Arminius believed nothing can happen without God’s permission and “concurrence.” But those do not add up to “causation.” Calvinism goes the next step beyond permission and concurrence to (in Piper’s words) “designing and governing.” Everything else he says makes clear he means it is all willed and rendered certain by God. That is the difference. Arminians do not think Satan is God’s instrument, but, of course, he cannot do anything without God’s permission.

          • Brendan P. Burnett

            There are also many different kinds of causation. I like to use the example of Michelangelo’s David:

            Michelangelo (M.) had a block of stone with which to make a statue, the “David.” M. was the efficient cause and the author of the statue; he thought it up and brought it into being. M. also used means. The stone block was the material cause of the statue. The instrumental cause was the tools M. used to chisel it out. Perhaps the opportunistic cause was the commission of the David by a investor. Maybe the permissive cause was the mining company (or whatever) which allowed the block of stone to be sent to M. so he could begin his work.

            Anyway, here are identified several kinds of causes. Arminius made these distinction. As for the fall for example, God is the permissive cause, Satan the influential cause and man the efficient cause and author of that sin. I think these distinctions are important.

    • Steve Dal

      Your hypothesis does not follow. The connection between the ‘strength’ of God as it relates to whether or not natural events are ‘random’ is not necessary. It’s the same as the sovereignty of God. What makes anybody sovereign is not that they have ‘control’ or are controlling or indeed are manipulating every single outcome within their realm but that in the end ultimate outcomes are always realised contingent upon the activity of those within the realm in relation to the dsign of the realm. So a ‘soveriegn’ exercises ‘ultimate’ authority in a very real but broad context but within the realm their is ‘room to move’ (read choice). The God of the Bible is not ‘at the mercy’ of criminals or tornadoes because that activity occurs within his realm because ultimately the behaviour of the individuals concerned will be called into account. You also demonstrate this real problem that many have and that is that God only has 2 choices. This is dualistic and a trap. Black and white are not always the only choices particularly to a transcendant eternal being. It is your mind and rationale that is struggling. It is also quite possible that there are alternative and more plausable explanations for the verse you use here. Namely that contingencies are at work when ‘when out of the mouth ill and good go forth’. Also, ‘out of the mouth’ is different to actually outworking it yourself particulalry in this context. There are many scriptures that clearly place the burden of responsibility on the individual and God wants no part nor plays any part at least initally. James 1:13 would be a good start. In that scripture it is clear that it is the individuals own activity that is the problem and God has NO PART in it whatsoever. As usual your Calvinist position has huge holes in it. Be careful where you end up with all of this.

      • Nathan

        “As usual my Calvinist position has holes in it”
        Wow, that’s pretty bold since I wrote one paragraph about God controlling nature and you know how I feel about human responsibility.
        Just to respond to your post, I don’t find any of that argument convincing. I am probably going to be mean if I keep typing, so I’m just going to stop and wish the best. I will be glad to be in heaven with you one day and if you end up being right I will walk with you to the Throne and confess to God that I gave Him far too much credit.

    • Ryan

      It disturbs me that you are more interested in worshiping something that is “powerful” than in something that doesn’t do evil.

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