A Whirlwind of Inconsistencies

A Whirlwind of Inconsistencies May 22, 2013

In the wake of the devastating tornado in Oklahoma, a number of people have drawn attention to John Piper’s tweet of Job 1:19.

Far from this verse indicating the notion that God is judging Oklahoma (which is what some have come to expect to hear from spokespeople for conservative Christian viewpoints), in context the verse is part of a book that depicts disasters as coming upon Job not because he in any way deserves punishment, and for reasons which he never learns.

But that doesn’t get at the heart of the issue, which is what religious believers ought to think about natural disasters (even that term suggests one particular way of thinking about them). David Hayward offered the cartoon below, indicating (again, in accordance with the message of the Book of Job) that human attempts to offer explanation for tragedy are simply more tragedies.

Lots of people have also seen and commented on the video of an atheist who was asked if they thank the Lord for surviving the tornado.

I’d like to suggest that being thankful is absolutely appropriate, whether one is a Christian or an atheist, but being thankful in a manner that suggests that God saved you, while causing or allowing others to die, is not something beautiful but something reprehensible. It is not only sinners or people of some particular religious persuasion who survive disasters, and it is not only the righteous or people of some particular religious persuasion who survive. To suggest otherwise is to turn God into a monster.

So be consistent. Many people reject the attempt to blame people or God for tragedy. But by thanking God for those who survive, you are doing the exact same thing. And so if you think that saying God wanted to kill young children and chose to do so with a tornado is abhorrent blasphemy, then don’t say “thank God for sparing those other people.” It amounts to the same thing.

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  • csiems

    “The point of every deadly calamity is this: Repent. Let our hearts be broken that God means so little to us. Grieve that he is a whipping boy to be blamed for pain, but not praised for pleasure. Lament that he makes headlines only when man mocks his power, but no headlines for ten thousand days of wrath withheld. Let us rend our hearts that we love life more than we love Jesus Christ.” — John Piper

    “How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind? Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right? If your children sinned against him, he delivered them into the power of their transgression. If you will seek God and make supplication to the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place.” — Bildad the Shuhite (Job 8)

    “My wrath is kindled against you…for you have not spoken of me what is right.” — God (Job 42)

    • Ian

      “Grieve that he is a whipping boy to be blamed for pain, but not praised for pleasure.”

      Which is why so many people were thanking God for rescuing them from this natural disaster.

  • Eric

    Excellent point. Side note: do you think Piper took down the tweet because he realized the quote did *not* imply divine judgment?

  • plectrophenax

    I just thought the tweet was crass. If I’d lost dead or injured in the tornado, or had had my home destroyed, what on earth does this tweet convey to me? Far better to give a simple message – pray for the families, or something like that. Thinking theologically is not always the right thing to do.

  • Matthew Maslin

    Perhaps those in the business of quoting bible verses should try John 11:35 sometime.

  • Jerome

    Exactly! If you thank the Lord for protecting you, you are indicating that the Lord didn’t deem those other people worthy of protection.

    Somewhat related: why pray for both the victims and the survivors? What supernatural effect is this supposed to have? Will God do anything because of those prayers that he hadn’t already planned to do, by himself, in the first place? Do or can prayers change God’s mind or opinions?

    • Many theologians since the early days of Christianity have suggested that God will do what is best, and so viewing prayer as an attempt to change God’s will is problematic. Of course, it is depicted in that way in the Bible, in connection with anthropomorphic images of God.

      • Nick Gotts

        But if we take your definition of God: “that reality which encompasses all others”, we have no reason to believe that; indeed, it’s not clear what “will do what is best” could mean if God isn’t an agent.

        • If one takes the view of God as simple, as is traditional in theism, then thinking of God as literally an agent in an anthropomorphic sense doesn’t make sense. But that first cause is viewed as giving rise to all that follows and as being in some sense benevolent. But it is a fair point whether benevolence is compatible with that sort of abstract theological thinking. I was just mentioning what ancient theologians had to say on the topic, as well as noting the more personal depictions in the Bible.

  • Jerome

    Regarding Job: let’s not forget that all those ills befall Job (and get his poor family killed) because YHWH felt he had to accept the challenge/bet offered by the Satan. The members of Job’s family died because YHWH wanted to prove the Satan wrong. As for Job himself, he wasn’t killed because he, obviously, needed to be alive in order for either YHWH or the Satan to win the challenge/bet.

  • Herro

    James, what does your god do when it comes to tornados? Is your god some impersonal thing that can’t care?

    • When I use the term God, I mean that reality which encompasses all others. And so the tornados, the victims, the survivors, the relief efforts, are all part of that reality. To say “impersonal” does not seem a helpful word, since we are talking about a reality that transcends and includes personal entities. But treating tornados as “acts of god” as though they were the conscious acts of a local storm deity seems to me to be talking about a sort of being that could theoretically exist within the universe but almost certainly does not, rather than God as transcendent and all-encompassing.

      • Herro

        So basically ‘the universe’?

        “as though they were the conscious acts of a local storm deity”

        Well, couldn’t it also be the conscous act of a “transcendent and all-encompassing” personal being?

        • Are you certain that there is only one universe?

          What would it mean to say that the universe, or multiverse, causes tornados? On one level, one absolutely can say that. On another, it sounds as though the entire cosmos is conspiring to harm people on a particular planet, and I do not think we have any reason to believe that to be the case.

          • Nick Gotts

            But then, we don’t have any reason to have faith in it or worship it either.

            For that matter, how do you know that there is a reality that encompasses all others? It’s not clear to me the phrase has any useful meaning. Does it include universes that have and will have no causal connection with our own? All possible worlds? Does it include abstract objects, such as numbers? If so, which ones (e.g., does it include large cardinals or all the surreal numbers)? (Whether these numbers can be shown to “exist” depends on what set theoretical assumptions you make, and I think assumptions that allow some may exclude others.)

          • How could I know the limits of reality? It may be infinite, for all I can tell. That is why the use of plain sense language rather than symbol seems ill-fitted to talking about such things, if we are indeed to talk about them at all.

          • Nick Gotts

            My thought was a rather vague one. The very idea of “a reality that encompasses all others” seems to imply that there is some kind of (metaphorical!) “God’s eye view” from which everything is visible – but both modern physics (special and general relativity, quantum mechanics) and modern mathematics (Russell’s paradox, Goedel’s incompleteness proofs, the halting problem, the independence of the continuum hypothesis and other undecidability results) suggest otherwise – that reality doesn’t form any sort of whole.

          • I don’t claim to have a God’s eye view, and so that is why I prefer to talk about what we can perceive, and use metaphor or speak of mystery when it comes to what may be beyond the limits of what we currently know.

          • Herro

            No, I’m not certain of that. But assuming that we’re not living in some kind of a multiverse, you basically just mean ‘the universe’?

            And yes, it’s silly to say that “the universe” causes tornados.

          • I don’t feel comfortable making assumptions about the extent of reality. So I’d prefer to say that I mean at least the universe, if that makes sense.

  • dudex

    In my judgement it is totally okay for religious belivers to thank god for sparing or saving them (even if others die) – the imorality starts when they think that they are something special or better then the ones who died, and that the others deserved their punishment – this is disgusting