Further thoughts about catastrophes and God’s judgment

Further thoughts about catastrophes and God’s judgment March 10, 2012

Thoughts about Catastrophes and God’s Judgment

This is a response to comments made in response to my previous post about John Piper’s blog entry about the recent tornado outbreak in the eastern U.S.

True, in this particular blog entry Piper does not explicitly say the tornadoes were God’s judgment on those towns. He does say, however, that the tornadoes were “God’s fingers.” In light of everything else he has written and said about calamaties and catastrophes, it is clear to me that he believes not only this tornado outbreak but every natural and man-made disaster (including the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.) are from God and not only in some attenuated sense in which most Christians would say they are from God by concurrence. (That is, by God’s permission and granted ability as the creator and governor of nature.)

So, IF Piper does not think this tornado outbreak was God’s judgment on those specific towns, what does he think about God’s purpose in sending it? He seems to believe it, like other natural and man-made disasters, is a wake up call to people to repent. But IF he only means that we all should sense our finitude and repent, that’s a Christian truism. I don’t know any non-liberal Christian who would disagree with that. But he seems to mean more than that. Not all non-liberal Christians believe that all natural or man-made catastrophes are directly from God.

What I wonder is this: IF Piper was NOT saying that this tornado outbreak was God’s judgment, what does he think about it (beyond it was from God)? The natural question, all inquiring minds want to know, is WHY would God drag his fingers across that particular landscape at that particular time? Simply saying something like “to bring people to repentance” doesn’t suffice. Of course, Piper’s no more obligated than Jesus was to explain further. (Although we don’t know that Jesus didn’t explain his cryptic comments about those who died when the tower of Siloam fell further.) However, I think he should not be surprised if people assume he thinks God’s fingers had a specific purpose for that particular tornado outbreak at that particular time and that it is God’s judgment. Think of the possible alternatives.

Option 1: God chose those particular, specific towns to destroy with those tornadoes (his “fingers”) because of something about them.

Option 2: God chose those particular, specific towns to destroy with those tornadoes (his “fingers”) randomly. (Like the TV reporter who blindly throws a dart at a map of the U.S. and then goes to the location to find a story.)

Option 3: ?

I can’t think of a third option that doesn’t fit within one of the first two. Can you? Assuming the tornadoes were “God’s fingers,” either God dragged his fingers across that particular landscape at that particular time because of something about that particular landscape or arbitrarily.

If God chose that landscape (towns, farms, etc.) randomly, then he is arbitrary. I’m certain Piper doesn’t believe that. I’m sure he believes God always has a reason for what he does. At least I hope so.

But if God was not choosing arbitrarily, randomly, then he had to have a reason for destroying the towns and farms (etc.) of that particular landscape at that time. What could it be?

How many options are there for thinking of God’s reason for destroying a town?

Now, again, I agree that a person can simply say “God did it” and not offer any further explanation, but I think such a person ought not to be surprised if people press for a better answer than that. And surely Piper himself has some idea why God chose that particular landscape to destroy at that particular time in that specific way.

Option 1: God chose them (the people living there) simply to make an example of what he can do anytime, anywhere, unexpectedly to anyone without any particular reason. Meaning, he chose it because it isn’t where people would expect God to do it so that people in such areas won’t become spiritually complacent.

Option 2: God chose them because there was something about them or some of them that made him angry or at least wanting to cause them great harm and even death. Most people would call that “God’s judgment.”

Option 3: ?

Again, I can’t think of a third option that doesn’t fit within one of the first two. Can you?

Now, remember, all of the above assumes, with Piper and all consistent Calvinists and other divine determinists, that every catastrophe is specifically from God whether directly or indirectly. That is, they are all sent by God in some manner and are not simply what happens in a fallen world.

Appeals to the book of Job to explain catastrophes raise more questions than they answer. For example, if one correlates what Piper said about this particular natural catastrophe and what he surely believes about all of them (“fingers of God”) with Job, then Satan becomes God’s fingers.

So, at the end of the day, anyone who says a natural or man-made disaster, calamity, catastrophe is from God must be thinking either that it was an arbitrary act of God, done for no particular reason other than perhaps to create fear (which still doesn’t explain why that particular place), or that it was in some sense God’s judgment.

Rule those out and you are back to God’s simply permitting natural and man-made disaster to happen because this is a fallen world and the kingdom of God is not yet. Rule out that and God’s arbitrariness and you’re left with God’s judgment. I would prefer to say it was God’s judgment than to say God is like the TV reporter who blindly throws a dart at a map.

Now, again, let’s step back and take a bird’s eye view of Piper’s and other Calvinists’ divine determinism. If everything without exception is from God, planned, designed and governed by God for a reason such that God is not merely permitting it but actively willing it and rendering it certain (and I demonstrate in Against Calvinism this is the traditional Calvinist view and I am confident it is Piper’s as well), then the holocaust and the kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of an innocent two year old child are also “from God” in that sense.

IF that’s true, then, I ask, why ever be upset about such things? Why react emotionally or with righteous indignation as if something happened that shouldn’t have happened? After all, God’s ultimate purpose in everything is his glory. (I demonstrate that that also is the traditional Calvinist view and I have asked many Calvinists if it’s their view and the answer has always been yes.) So, one who believes that has to say that the holocaust and the kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of a two year old child glorify God. Then why object to them? Why oppose them? Why blame the perpetrators? Why try to prevent them?

This is the supreme Calvinist conundrum. Yes, every theology has its soft spots where appeal to mystery is necessary. But this is more than a “soft spot.” This is a true conundrum because Scripture directs us to be righteously indignant about certain things and to oppose them and to blame the perpetrators as if they are responsible for them. And we cannot help it. We all operate daily AS IF horrible events such as these were NOT from God for his glory even if we say, when pushed, they are.

In other words, while divine determinism (including strict Calvinism) may be able to appeal to a few verses in the Bible and while it may be touted in an ivory tower or from a nice, clean pulpit in a nice, clean sanctuary or over the internet, it is literally impossible to live consistently.


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  • CGC

    Hi Roger,
    Consistency is something we all stuggle with and maybe its a good thing that Calvinists are not consistent or follow the logic all the way to the end. I have never met a Calvnist who says God desired or directed events like the holocaust or human evil in the world.

    I will say I am reading an intersting book by Dinesh D’Souza that takes an interesting approach to these issues in his book “God Forsaken.” Dinesh speaks of God’s natural laws under God’s permissive will and not as direct divine actions per se (although God I’m sure could do that any time God wished).

    I have a Calvinist friend who told me that if God’s divine hand or divine action is not directly involved, then we are going to deism route. What would be your response to such a question?

    Thanks Roger. I always appreciate your insights.

    • rogereolson

      I think such statements (as your Calvinist friend made) are simplistic and even childish. Were the early church fathers deists? They certainly weren’t Calvinists! Was Wesley a deist? Hardly. There are many positions between divine determinism and deism and most Christians throughout the centuries have landed somewhere between them. They are the two extreme ends of the spectrum of God’s sovereignty (or lack of it). He needs to read Arminius’ view of providence–or my Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities where I explain it. Arminius believed in divine concurrence: nothing can happen without God’s permission and cooperation because creatures have no absolute autonomy. This is subtle, and some Arminians will be uncomfortable with it, but I would call it the classical Arminian position. I discuss it at length in Arminian Theology.

  • A few years ago I was part of a “mother’s online discussion group.” This topic came up. One woman asked – very seriously – “Why should we foster or adopt children? Even if they are being abused or neglected, this is obviously God’s will for their lives, to glorify Himself and do His work in their lives to make them into the people they are supposed to be.” She even allowed that their death due to such things would be “God’s will,” so why should we intervene.

    I saw her statement as the perfect example of the logical conclusion of the hyper-Calvinist view of the sovereignty of God. Start with this train of thought, and you MUST carry it out to the full, logical completion. Otherwise, your thought/belief/doctrine can’t stand.

    I must say, however, that I’ve seen the same reaction from the non-Calvinist side: “The world is getting worse, God is going to destroy everything, why do anything?” I even heard that argument following the massive earthquake in Haiti (from non-Calvinists.) “God is obviously punishing these people. Why should we send help? It’s sad, yes, but that’s what they get for rejecting God. We’re better off to let them suffer and learn their lessons. If God is against them, we can’t help them.”

    I simply have to shake my head at these viewpoints, and conclude that these people (individuals and groups) don’t really know who God is at his core. For some, it is wrong knowledge, for some, it is a lack of knowledge. They don’t know His character. Is He love and loving, or is He wrath, seeking to destroy?

    What we think about His character matters so much.

    • rogereolson

      We have to give Piper credit for not drawing such conclusions from his doctrine of God’s sovereignty. He called on Christians to aid the victims of the tornadoes by giving to Samaritan’s Purse, an organization aiding the victims. However, I do worry that some, perhaps many, impressionable, not very mature young followers of his and other strict Calvinists will draw the conclusion that Piper does not (with respect to not aiding victims).

  • holdon

    Luke 13 certainly does not mean that God made the tower fall on those who perished. There is no trace of that.

    It is a very old story that God gets the blame for the bad stuff that happens. Adam basically told God: the woman YOU gave me made me sin.

    In that respect Piper and the determinists have the same reasoning: God is the ultimate cause of all evil in this world and that is fundamentally a dishonor to His name.

    Of course God can (and does) send calamities for various reasons. But that doesn’t mean that a. we know those reasons and b. that all calamities are positively sent by God.
    But people should always repent and turn to God, especially when disasters prompt them to do so more earnestly.

  • icthusiast

    A couple of points:

    Piper does seem to say that these events are a call to repentance rather than God’s specific judgement on those directly effected. Either way, however, such a demonstration of destructive power is an implied threat of judgement. Further, if one is prepared to say the victims ‘deserved’ this terror, then that sounds almost indistinguishable from judgement, to me. If one is not prepared to say that those effected ‘deserved’ this terror, then that would seem to imply that God’s act was unjust. I suspect that those who see such events as directly from God’s hand would say that we all ‘deserve’ to have this kind of event (or some equivalent) visited upon us, but it doesn’t play too well in the media to say so.

    QUOTE: “If everything without exception is from God, planned, designed and governed by God for a reason such that God is not merely permitting it but actively willing it and rendering it certain,… then the holocaust and the kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of an innocent two year old child are also “from God” in that sense.”

    And let’s not forget that, according to a consistently held view of ‘meticulous sovereignty’, repentance (who will repent, who won’t repent and, importantly, why) is also completely determined and rendered certain by God. I suggest that God’s visible means for calling forth repentance could just as easily be an overwhelming demonstration of his grace, rather than of his destructive power.

    What kind of God is glorified more by a demonstration of destructive power than he is by a demonstration of overwhelming grace?

  • I’ve not read Piper much but what I hear in Scripture is that the world as it is, with its disasters, is God’s judgment. We’re living in a world that’s under judgment, else we would be in Eden. When tragedies happen they are reminders that we’re not in Eden; we’re living in a world still under the conditions of judgment.

    The fallenness of this world is more than an impersonal process. If this is true (that there is a personal God who has rendered judgment upon humanity in giving us this world instead of another possible world–i.e., Eden), then in some sense God is behind this world being the way it is (as the form of his judgment upon humanity). And if that is so, then in some sense he is behind everything that happens.

    Disasters point to more than our finitude for finitude is not the form of God’s judgment (we will remain finite beings forever). Disharmony bringing forth suffering seems to be the form of God’s judgment. Renewed harmony (reconciliation) is the form of God’s deliverance and will be fully manifested in the new heavens and new earth.

    • rogereolson

      The problem is what is meant by “in some sense.” I tried to explain that. It seems to me that any other view than the one I outlined (God’s withdrawal resulting in the not-yetness of the kingdom) leads inexorably to the kinds of things Piper said.

  • Bev Mitchell

    How can one add to this? In scientific investigations, when an experimenter runs into a seeming dead end, the question being asked is routinely called into question. “Maybe we are barking up the wrong tree” is a possibility never far from the investigator’s mind, because, when operating at the edge of knowledge, our questions are, almost always, at least a little bit “off”. It is a truism in the history of science that the most celebrated practioners are those who, somehow, just know how to ask the right questions. The answers still never come easily, but, the correct answer is simply unattainable in the absence of the right question. 

    After 400 years, and counting,  it looks to this experimental biologist that the seemingly eternal head butting between Calvinists and Arminians must be strongly related to some problem with the questions being asked. Is it possible that both groups are wrong in important ways? Do they need new questions to debate? Is it be possible for the two sides to agree on some better questions? Is it possible that the C vs A debate will continue eternally while Christian theology moves on to better things?Should we look to others who are beginning to ask better questions? Are debates and winning them temptations just too large to resist? I’ll stop here for I have started asking questions that I may already know the answer to, and would never want to be mistaken for a lawyer.

  • Andy

    Exactly: Calvinism might work as a tight static framework, but it doesn’t work in the day-to-day world with dynamic people, at least not among the broken hurting people I encounter (and aren’t we all broken to some extent?).

    How are we going to live in this broken world? What is our part? Even if the future is exhaustively determined, surely if would be best to live as if it were not true. [that last line is not strictly my own and would require a source in a more formal setting.]

    Thanks for these thoughts and helping many of us feel less alone.

  • Greg

    If God, according to Calvinism, arbitrarily selects some for eternal torment & destruction, why wouldn’t He do the same temporally through tornadoes and other natural disasters? Are you sure Piper thinks there was a reason?

    • rogereolson

      I have never yet met a Calvinist who will admit he or she believes God is arbitrary. They always say God has a reason for everything he does, but we are incapable of grasping that reason in many cases (e.g., why God elects one and not another). My argument all along has been that there are really only two options. Either God sees something in a person or town that causes him to select him/it for salvation or destruction OR he is arbitrary. I don’t see any alternative. Surely Piper doesn’t believe God closed his eyes and dragged his fierce fingers across any old landscape at random. If he does, then that seems to me a worse picture of God than any Piper criticizes.

      • A. Rose

        I agree that the charge of divine arbitrariness is a difficult one to answer for Calvinism. Recently, however, I’ve been wondering whether Arminiasm doesn’t leave God open to similar charges. If we rule out universalism, then we’re left with a situation where some people are saved while others aren’t. Even if we reject predestination, it remains the case that some people seem to be given better and/or more opportunities to accept God’s gift of grace. Some grow up in Christian families, or receive powerful spiritual experiences from God, or witness miracles; others live entire lives without ever hearing anything at all of the gospel. How can this difference in experience of grace be accounted for without concluding that God is arbitrary? I see little way out other than expanding the boundaries of traditional soteriology (in the direction of inclusivism or post-mortem reconciliation)

        • rogereolson

          Of course, those are attractive options for many people. John Wesley believed that God assures opportunity for salvation for every person. For him, God is an equal opportunity savior. Other Arminians (and non-Calvinists who are not Arminians) say that the lack of equal opportunity is evidence of God’s withdrawal because of humanity’s sinfulness. And/or he has decided to leave the matter in the hands of his people which is why missions and evangelism are so important. I think Scripture is clear that if a person dies condemned it is either because he or she rejected the light God provided to him or her and/or because God’s people failed to take the gospel to that person.

  • Kyle Carney

    I agree with your conclusions about Piper’s statement in general. If I were to guess (this is me totally speculating and guessing, so I don’t actually put this on Piper), perhaps Piper was thinking in terms of a Christian truism and thought of this event as an opportunity to put the thought of God’s action behind the scenes, in permissive governing, into the thoughts of people. I agree with your conclusions because I think Piper should realize the implications he is making in statements calling for repentance of people in a particular area afflicted with disaster.

    I see Jesus’s statements as different; Jesus’ statement actually, to me, explains the tower of Siloam as God’s providential governing of individuals while at the same time rebuking conclusions about individuals having certain sins that were judged by this or that disaster. So, for me, Jesus’ statement could be used in either an Arminian or Calvinist paradigm showing us the mysterious work and wisdom of God while rebuking any conclusions we might have that those people had a particular sin that brought this about. In other words, Jesus’ statement does point us (ourselves, introspection of individuals and communities) to repentance at these occasions, but only in reminding us that we are all sinful and in a fallen world.

    I think you probably agree with much of this conclusion in general. I just think Calvinists can also say this. Where I think they have the conondrum is in the “why.” I differ with Calvinists as an Arminian in that they would not say that these disasters are ultimately a result of the fall, but they would say these disasters are God’s ultimate will in the sense that they were in his mind before time began as much as anything else was in his mind. I think good Calvinists try to make distinctions to guard against this, but often I think Calvinists like Piper, especially, say things that breach any of these distinctions. Many of my friends who are Calvinists, because they listen to Piper so much, would have a difficult time describing to me how the actions of violent dictators are less a result of God’s grace than our salvation. Piper tweeted back on Dec 28th 2011, “The beast was allowed to make war on the saints and conquer them. Rev 13:7 Where is God in our defeats? Reigning by allowing.” I think there is a small difference that “monergists” make in trying to keep themselves separate from our idea of concurrence. I think we agree that sin, evil, and disaster allowed and sometimes even used is ultimately done wisely by God although we cannot comprehend it most of the time. However, I think the supra-lapsarian Calvinist conundrum is how they can ever use the word “allow” or ever really say disaster is a response to sin. Still, as I already said, I agree with you that Piper should be aware of the implications public statements right after a disaster – that this posture takes more a form of the Jews saying “for whose sin did this happen?” rather than the position of Jesus saying something like God holds all our lives in his hands and it’s not about his/her sin vs mine/our sin.

    • rogereolson

      The clue to the radical difference between my view and Piper’s is his use of the phrase “God’s fierce fingers.” I don’t know how he can claim to know that UNLESS he is simply drawing on his divine determinism. However, IF he did not think the tornadoes were God’s judgment on those particular towns why would he say God’s “fierce” fingers. That’s what I was relying on in drawing the conclusion that he does probably think the tornado outbreak was God’s judgment even though he doesn’t explicitly say so.

  • Surely consistent Calvinism implies that God does certain things arbitrarily, or at least for reasons entirely inaccessible to us humans. At least, he chooses some people for salvation, and implicitly others for damnation, before the foundation of the world and entirely independent of anything they may have done. I agree with most of your objections to this picture, but it is surely what John Piper believes. So if a Calvinist believes he does this arbitrarily, it surely makes more sense to believe that he chooses arbitrarily which places to destroy with tornadoes, rather than to suggest that they are specific responses to human evil works. Indeed I wonder if in Calvinism there is any judgment for individual’s sins, not just on original sin.

    • rogereolson

      I have never met a Calvinist who would admit that God’s selection of certain people to save and others to damn is arbitrary. Jonathan Edwards admitted it, but I haven’t found any contemporary Calvinist who will admit it. I think that is one of those things they know, if they admitted it, would turn many people away from Calvinism. Even most of the most hardened divine determinists cannot bring themselves to picture God as like the TV reporter who throws darts at a map or drops open a phone book and points (and then goes to the place or person to get a story).

      • PLTK

        That one always leaves me wondering… if it isn’t arbitrary, how can it not be dependent upon some quality of the person chosen or not chosen? Leaving it up to some rational of God that we don’t understand just fails to satisfy me. If there is a rationale, then it must be dependent upon some personal characteristics. So if it isn’t something I do, is it something I am? E.g., God needs another white woman with a somewhat introverted personality to make his kingdom more filled with glory?

        If not arbitrary, then Calvinism seems to require me to give up a bit too much of the God given reasoning with which humans have been endowed.

        • holdon

          Nobody, not even God, can choose (elect) out of equals.
          Election cannot be arbitrary but must be based on qualities of the elected object.
          Take a box with 100 perfectly equal balls (size, color, texture, etc.). You cannot use the word “choose” (or elect) when you pick one or some of them.

          The word “choose” (elect) in the bible as in our languages has its basis in certain outstanding qualities that make a difference. David chose himself 5 stones (selected those that would fit his purpose to fell Goliath). That is the meaning of “election” throughout both OT and NT. Therefore the bible speaks of “”choice-silver”, “choice-men”, etc. to express the exquisiteness. Same when Peter (1 Pet 2:9) calls christian believers a “choice-race” or better: a “choice-kind” = a kind of people with exquisite characteristics.

          By the way, “election unto salvation” is just theology but a thought foreign to the Scriptures. There we see that some “elect” do perish and some “non-elect” are saved.

      • lamb

        There might also be a bit of ego there behind the certainty that God’s selection is not arbitrary. After all, the ones affirming that it’s not arbitrary are the ones who have been chosen. Who would want to think that God chose them arbitrarily? Wouldn’t someone much prefer to believe that God chose them on purpose? And might a bit of self-righteousness and “I do deserve this after all” lurk far down in the heart?

        • rogereolson

          I would dismiss that as ad hominem argumentation (which it may be), but it seems fair in view of the fact that Calvinists keep insisting that Arminians believe we contribute meritoriously to our salvation. Actually, neither is true. Most Calvinists do not believe they are “better” than the non-elect. The problem is, logically, there’s no third alternative to divine arbitrariness and something about the elect that makes them better than the non-elect. It’s one or the other. There’s no conceivable alternative.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Why bad, awful, frightful, heartbreaking, sometimes soul-destroying things happen will not be explained by two groups studying different parts of a mechanical camel while a rogue elephant (dragon?) roams free in the room, and all try to look the other way!

    Evil exists. According to Scripture it has something to do with rebellion in heaven and, if the snake in Genesis represents evil, it existed before our species came on the scene. Also, according to Scripture, chaos existed before the present universe was brought into being by a loving God. If chaos is another representation of evil, the creation of the universe can be seen as a loving God acting directly in the face of evil to make something good. Evil (the devil for those who have read this far) is dead against (pun intended) any form of order, goodness, light – in short, against creation of any kind. He resists it with all available power.

    We can conceive of no mechanisms to explain this part if revelation, so we move on to other points where we can erect mechanistic explanations to haggle over. Meanwhile, the God of love shows he can win, through love, by creating. He shows he can win in the long, tortured story of Israel, but, in that same story, as in the creation story, he declares this battle will be fought by empowering human beings through love and grace. The victory is never in doubt, the effective response of God’s chosen partners is. 

    In another act of creation, God becomes a creature like us. Easy to say, but think about it! If we are looking for a centre from which we can all agree to begin our journey, surely there can be no better one. The all powerful, soverign creator of the world becomes a human being! Our insistence on explaining things mechanistically should be brought up short here (but don’t bet against the power of pride).  But, there is more creation to come in the story. This unique God-man turns out to be so human that he can suffer death – and so holy and all-powerful that he can rise again, in a glorified body, no less. Matter and energy in a new form? – let’s not tempt the mechanists. This is clearly another act of God’s creative love – another new creation. Paul tells us that this time, the perfect One has been put into action, and victory over evil has been/will be accomplished through Him.

    But wait! More new creatures! We are told, through Scripture and the Holy Spirit, in many ways, that if we allow the Spirit to move the centre of our being from somewhere inside us to Christ, and allow Christ to be in us, we too can become new creatures! We are also told that God has looked after all of the details necessary to bring this about (foot shuffling from mechanists corner).  Furthermore, we are told that this is the only way we can hope to overcome evil (yes, he’s still there, big as an elephant). On our own, we are as helpless against evil as were Adam and Eve. We are incomplete. We weren’t made perfect, we were made incomplete, without the love of God in us. This is not because God forgot an important part in our makeup, it is because creation is still in progress. Christ is the missing part and, before the incarnation and the resurection, he was not available to us in the way he now is.

    We commonly use the very true saying, “God isn’t finished with me yet.” But, according to Scripture, we should say, with equal conviction, “God isn’t finished with creation yet, he isn’t finished with the world yet”. The new heaven and the new earth are coming, God has all the resources he needs to make it exactly the way he wants it to be. However, he has chosen to work through us, and we can participate best by letting Christ live in us through the power of the Holy Spirit – just like Jesus did. As always, the only thing in doubt is our response. Our poor responses to date, delay the coming of the Kingdom, the new heaven and earth.

    Back to the elephant. Blame his rebellious spirit for his resisting every creative action Almighty God has ever taken. All these creative acts of a loving God recorded in Scripture, and now in the life of the Church, are made directly in the face of this evil rebellion. “We wrestle not against flesh and blood….” God dosen’t either! When Christians refuse to accept, or downplay/ignore the clear scriptural teaching about spiritual warfare, we miss far to many pieces of the puzzle. When we do grudgingly accept this view, we then often get caught up in additional mechanistic arguments about how an all-powerful God could let evil have such a run. Rebellion is a possibility in the universe our loving God decided to create. It appears to have existed before the creation of the universe. It has been set against all creative acts of God, including the creative acts he wants to perform in our own lives. The mechanism/explanation for this is probably way beyond our understanding. 

    In an earlier post, I suggested that in our long-standing theological confrontations, asking wrong questions may underlie many of our conflicts. Here is a theological question that may yield better results. Why creation?

    • rogereolson

      So far as I have been able to detect, there are only two Christian theological answers to “Why creation?” But they may be the starting points for the divergence that follows. Jonathan Edwards posited that creation is solely for God’s glory. (He was not the first to say it, of course, but he wrote an entire treatise on it!) John Wesley, on the other hand, posited that creation is the expression of God’s love, the overflowing of his love. In other words, God’s primary motive for creation is grace. The second view, Wesley’s, can absorb the first one. The first one, Edward’s, has trouble absorbing the second one. God is glorified by his love expressed and accepted and returned. As Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

      • Bev Mitchell

        This is very helpful. In addition, we could also understand Scripture to be revealing that God creates and continues to create because he is demonstrating that chaos, disorder, darkness, nothingness will not have the final word. These forces are personified in Scripture, as God is personified, probably because we have a better chance of grasping it when presented that way. If this reason for creation is true, the idea that God’s creatures, especially his image bearers, are enlisted in this battle against primeval resistance to anything good or lovely follows quite easily. Also easy to see are the ideas that all of creation is a work in progress, it proceeds against fierce resistance, we came in part way through the symphony and are asked to join in, but we can only be really effective if we allow God to give us an instrument and teach us how to play it. Because God is God, The symphony will be a resounding success, but its length depends, in part, on our willingness to cooperate with God rather than to stay with the resistance.

  • Peter

    After the December 26, 2004 tsunami, amidst many and varied attempts at explanation, only one really satisfied me (if I remember correctly, it was from N.T.Wright): “A tectonic plate’s gotta do what a tectonic plate’s gotta do.” I know that lots of questions remain after that, but isn’t that the point?

    • rogereolson

      I suspect Wright had more to say about it than that. Taken by itself, such an explanation is not explicitly Christian. Inquiring minds want to know why God allowed it to happen. The best explanation, which doesn’t even attempt an exhaustive explanation as if we can read God’s mind, is The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart.

  • Norman

    I would challenge that we don’t live in a broken world anymore but reside in an unpredictable natural world as it always has been and will continue to be. A broken and fallen world biblically is framed in the context of covenant life from the beginning of humanities interaction with the Living God. Pauline theology and the NT conclusions support the idea that Christ has repaired what was broken in this world and that was the ineptness of legalism to bring consistency to our covenant relationship with YHWH. Once Legalism was shown the door Life through the Spirit is to flourish as our guide to walking with God. Romans 8.

    The language of the bible is framed in symbols and typology that infer that the difficulties and uncertainties of this natural world are to be endured through a spiritual relationship with God focused upon the principles established by and through Jesus Christ. That spiritual life has been fully established for our benefit and the world’s acceptance.

    Eternal life beyond post mortem existence is another story with which we simply anticipate through our Faith in the Living God of a better existence. I trust God to provide that arena as soon as my soul departs from this clay pot that I have been provided with now.

    Calvinism contradicts the scriptures in so many ways that it doesn’t deserve our second thoughts.

    • rogereolson

      I’m not sure exactly what you’re getting at about this not being a fallen world, under a curse (as I said). What about Romans 8:18-25?

      • Norman


        You know as well as anyone that it’s all about the context of scriptures. I made it plain that the fallenness was not in regard to a physical world but in regard to an Old Covenant worlds falleness regarding the problem of Law verses Grace. That’s completely the context of Romans 5-8 and it’s not about changing horses in mid-stream in Romans 8 to a physical creation that is in need of redemption. Physical creation is used in an iconic and typological fashion to represent Jewish concepts of spiritual issues (See Hebrews 9). Creation groaning is about the plight of humanity that suffered spiritual falleness when first placed in the Garden and continued from Adam through Israel to their present Day as Rom 5-7 lays out explicitly. The scene of restoration of Rom 8 and its redemption has nothing at all to do with physical restoration of planet earth but spiritual restoration of covenant life gone astray. They (first century Christians) were looking forward to the completion of Christ works which would soon be signified by the judgment Christ and the prophets proclaimed and were fulfilled against the 2Temple as it was earlier against the 1st Temple. So many times IMO we fall into the cracks of Hebrew symbols and typologies because it’s the easy thing for us modern readers to default to instead of looking under the symbolic hood of the literature.

        That gets us back to the main point I was making that the natural world was essentially “natural” and has always been so and will continue. I’m not buying the postmillennial appropriation of Heaven on Earth that some espouse by jumping back and forth between a literal and symbolic reading. Heaven on Earth is Christ from above come down and dwelling with us through the Holy Spirit in the here and now. What remains post mortem is up for conjecture except for the promise of eternal life. We take believers entirely off track when we start appropriating symbolic literature out of its historic Jewish contest. I realize it’s the easy thing for a preacher or theologian to do but that doesn’t make it right IMHO.

        • rogereolson

          It isn’t just postmillennialists who believe in a renewed physical creation. So do many amillennialists and premillennialists. I’m sticking with orthodoxy on this one, too. It is this world God intends to save. We’re not just going to take our gnostic flights into spiritual realms above never to return to this world. God loves his physical creation and plans to restore it to what it was intended to me and more.

  • J.E. Edwards

    “Arminius believed in divine concurrence: nothing can happen without God’s permission and cooperation because creatures have no absolute autonomy.” This is a quote from an earlier answer you gave. I don’t know very many people (either Aminian, Calvinist or whatever) that would disagree with this statement. Question: Why would God permit anything He didn’t providentially have purpose or meaning? That would seem arbitrary, wouldn’t it?
    Why would you say this? “And surely Piper himself has some idea why God chose that particular landscape to destroy at that particular time in that specific way.” Why would you make that assumption about another brother? Have you ever heard John Piper say exactly without equivocation what God is up to and what exactly God is judging in these disasters? There is no reason to speak with such extremes, even if you are dealing with things he said in the past, that wasn’t how it was handled on this occasion. Your argument guts Piper’s post of it’s heart by not referring to it as a whole and only picking out a phrase to make a point. You could not have painted it in a worse way. I wonder what kind of article you would have written about these terrible disasters. What would you say to turn people to find their comfort in Jesus? Where would you have people turn? You would have people to believe Calvinism has no heart. You have labored hard to do it. Even in your book “Against Calvinism” you use obscure bloggers to make your point and don’t even quote C.H. Spurgeon.(?) You want people to love “the Arminianism of the heart” and yet I have yet to see you represent the Calvinism of the heart.
    Ultimately, this isn’t an Arminian/Calvinist debate. There are too many people who don’t even know what those words mean, yet they believe somewhat in one of these 2 ways. Why? Because the Scripture says both. We don’t get to pick the one we like. You see it’s we fallen humans that are the arbitrary ones, isn’t it? It is us who tell God what He can and can’t do (or the “humbler” what God wouldn’t or won’t do). We do it all the time. Let’s let God be God and every man a liar. We should be waaaay more suspicious of ourselves than we are, and anytime we tip the scale in our favor…it’s a good indicator we aren’t letting God be God.

    • rogereolson

      Are you suggesting that Piper doesn’t necessarily have some idea why God chose that particular landscape to destroy with his “fierce fingers?” Well, maybe not. But I’m confident he thinks God knows why. Am I just picking out a phrase to make a point? I don’t think so. By beginning with mention of God’s “fierce fingers” he colors everything else he wrote in that blog post as God’s judgment. Why do you think he said “fierce” instead of just “fingers?” I can’t think of any reason other than he pictures the situation as God’s judgment. What else could “fierce” mean in that context?

      • Robert

        Hello Roger,

        “Are you suggesting that Piper doesn’t necessarily have some idea why God chose that particular landscape to destroy with his “fierce fingers?”

        Piper’s words suggest that God was acting in judgement by means of the tornadoes.

        “Well, maybe not. But I’m confident he thinks God knows why. Am I just picking out a phrase to make a point? I don’t think so. By beginning with mention of God’s “fierce fingers” he colors everything else he wrote in that blog post as God’s judgment.”

        “Fierce fingers” rather than just “fingers” suggests judgment.

        “Why do you think he said “fierce” instead of just “fingers?”

        No answer to that question will be forthcoming from those attempting to justify and rationalize Piper’s statements.

        “I can’t think of any reason other than he pictures the situation as God’s judgment. What else could “fierce” mean in that context?”

        I have a question.

        If God was judging those people for their sins by means of those tornadoes (as Piper clearly believes and openly affirmed with his words):

        Then what was the sin for which those people were being judged????


  • Luke Allison

    Dr. Olson,

    Have you ever been exposed to the “warfare worldview” (Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy) that Greg Boyd and others teach? I grew up in a Word of Faith environment, so I was exposed to a lot of notions of “spiritual warfare” that were somewhat mythological.
    Boyd has written two scholarly works on the subject (God at War, Satan and the Problem of Evil) suggesting that a traditional theistic understanding of God as transcendent and omnipotent in an “all-controlling” sense deviates significantly from the worldview of the NT authors. His suggestion is that the cosmos is a battleground, and God’s people are called into this battle and given significant responsibility to fight. His primary argument involves Zosia, a young girl who has tortured and killed during the Holocaust. The premise goes, if God was in any way involved in the mutilation and violation of a little girl, then what difference is there between God and Ba’al, Molech, Satan, Cthulhu (threw that one in there), etc.

    Interesting stuff. Piper’s asking all the wrong questions to begin with. Calvinism has no room for Satan whatsoever, so all questions start with God and end with God. The thought that we could ask otherwise is completely foreign to traditional Theism’s understanding of the world.

    • rogereolson

      I know Greg Boyd very well. We taught together for several years and had many lengthy conversations before and while he was writing those book. (I wonder if he’ll ever finish the trilogy?) Ovearall I agree with his interpretation of the worldview of the Bible. I’m not an open theist, however. On the other hand, I don’t consider it heresy or even serious error (when it is correctly understood).

      • Luke Allison

        Dr. Olson,

        I’ve heard via his blog that the third book will most likely be available next spring. That’s a long time, but I guess in the grand scheme it’s been something like ten years since the last one came out, so….

        Did you teach at Bethel? I attend a small seminary that Paul Eddy freelance teaches at, so I have some good exposure to both a “covenant framework” of God’s love and a “warfare worldview” of the Biblical narrative.

        Thanks for everything you do. You’re training many people to think and reason with this blog.

  • John Inglis

    It also seems inconsistent and incongruous for a Calvinist like Piper to suggest that anyone needs judgment to remind them of their mortality and need for God. Because no event can draw people toward salvation, all such tragedies are pointless. No tragedy (within in a Calvinist viewpoint) will do anything for anyone’s turning to God. Only God, God alone, can do anything to draw someone to Him, and that drawing is by the Spirit who first regenerates the “dead” person.

    Consequently, all tragedy is pointless in relation to salvation (from a Calvinist perspective).

  • John Inglis

    David Hart has a great article at First Things, written after the southeast asia earthquake and tsunami (see http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2008/05/tsunami-and-theodicy).

    I provide below a excerpt that is very pertinent to a critique of the Calvinist (and Piperian) view of such calamities (including the recent tornadoes):

    “But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of — but entirely by way of — every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.

    I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

    As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. “

    • rogereolson


  • Trent

    This is a very short-sighted, narrow, man-centric, and “heady” view of God. The author takes a man-centered interpretation (God did this because…) and is seeking to extrapolate the Gospel out of it. The Gospel should define our world view, not the other way around. It seems as if the author is trying to debase Christianity altogether, reducing it to a simple God hitting people with lightning bolts if they step out of line.

    The second biggest gaffe by the author is the neglect to point out that both the Arminianistic and Calvinistic perspectives are CHRISTIAN perspectives; rather, choosing to drive a wedge deeper among brothers and sisters. I have experienced and studied both points of view and found that, in light of a Grace-filled gospel, created and backed by a loving Saviour, you can’t help but see Grace oozing out of every pore of the Calvinistic perspective. That is not to say that Grace does not exist in abundance within the Arminianistic point of view.

    The universal and most fundamental foundational truth of the Gospel is that it starts and ends with Christ – man is, without exception (no additions or subtractions), unable to save him/herself from sin. The Calvinistic view is certainly more in line with that basic and foundational Christian doctrine. Again, that is not to say that Arminianism doesn’t include that doctrine within its point of view. However, I see the Calvinistic method as straying much less from it.

    Each human’s perspective is based in a world filled with other sinful humans. You cannot expect to come to any sort of foundational Grace-oriented, Gospel-based, theological conclusion by arguing man-centric perspectives. Allow the Gospel to determine your theology rather than your perspective to define your beliefs.

    • rogereolson

      Grace oozes out of every pore of Calvinism? Ask the non-elect about that.

    • John Inglis

      “Calvinistic view is certainly more in line with that basic and foundational Christian doctrine. “–I suppose it is if one starts with Calvinism as one’s basick foundational Christian doctrine. But it’s not if one starts with the basic and foundational doctrine as understood by over 90% of the world’s Christians both past and present (Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostals, most baptists, anabaptists, etc.). And it’s not if one starts with the basic and foundational doctrine of Christianity at any time prior to 400 A.D. And, arguably, it’s not if one just starts with reading the Bible in a contemporary translation in any language of a culturally western nation.


      • John Inglis

        One of my points being that one only gets to Calvinism if one starts with certain presuppositions, and those presuppositions are derived from and grow naturally out of a particular culture (intellectual as well as social (etc.) culture). That culture lived at the time of Calvin, but is not around now (which is why reading a modern translation in a modern western culture will not lead naturally to a Calvinist viewpoint, and why no early Christian culture arrived at those viewpoints either).

        • rogereolson

          But what about Augustine? He seemed to hold a view of God’s sovereignty very much like Calvin’s but without limited atonement.

          • John Inglis

            Yes, true. I was trying to say that we are always a product of our times and that there is no such thing as a basic, objective, “natural”, context free reading and interpretation of scripture that leads one to a single, true, obvious interpretation.

            Yes, Augustine lived in a very different context than Calvin and yet derived similar theological propositions. I would have to read further to determine if there were any similarities in their intellectual and cultural contexts that would have created a fertile seedbed for such theologies (extremely predestinational). Prima facie it would seem that there was something significantly different about Augustine’s time as compared to the first 400 years of Christianity were such extreme ideas did not flourish.

          • rogereolson

            Yes, there was. Constantinianism.

  • J.R.

    Just curious Dr. Olson, what would your response be to someone suffering through a natural disaster? If I understand you correctly (I could be wrong here) it is due to fallen creation?

    Is God sovereign in a fallen creation? Or is He sovereign and without desire to Reign in things such as natural disasters?

    Maybe if your explanation was flushed out more it would make sense but on the surface it almost sounds as if God is neutral without desire one way or the other.

    Please don’t take this as wanting to start an argument. I’m someone seeking answers and dealing with the grief of losing a sister to suicide.

    Thank you

    • rogereolson

      I hope you meant “fleshed out more” rather than “flushed out more!” 🙂 I strongly recommend Greg Boyd’s book Is God to Blame? (His open theism isn’t a major point there.) If you want something even meatier I recommend E. Frank Tupper’s A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God. It isn’t that God is neutral; it is that this world is in a war. God’s absolute sovereignty is right now de jure, not de facto (for reasons he has not revealed to us). Someday, we are promised, God’s perfect will will be done on earth as in heaven. Right now, for whatever reason, that’s not the case (which is why Jesus told his disciples to pray for it).

  • Tim Johnson

    You offer two alternatives within Piper’s presumed worldview:
    1 God is Condemnatory
    2 God is Capricious
    and then question if there is a third alternative. For the sake of completeness and not to pick nits, it seems to me there is a third alternative that could be consistant with Calvinism, though perhaps not evidenced in Piper’s writing.
    3 God is Constructive
    One might ask, could the end of God’s intentional actions be not regarding the temporal fate of those directly struck by meteorological or techtonic disaster, but rather those of us who remain? Is God not glorified when Christians, out of love and compassion bring comfort and aid to the victims? Do we, in response to disaster, seek stronger building methods and materials, better warning systems, etc?
    Granted, this still does not provide an answer to why God would choose this method, nor how the math works out with respect to the malevolence of man.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t see how that answers the question why God chose THOSE particular towns for that purpose and not some others. It still seems arbitrary if it had nothing to do with judging them.

      • Tim Johnson

        I hesitate to attempt to speak for God (there are far too many people who hold no such reticence) and I have no desire to speak for John Piper, whose logic (?) regarding the two wills of God baffles me. I do not hold any theodicy to be wholly satisfactory.
        With that in mind, you asked “I can’t think of a third option that doesn’t fit within one of the first two. Can you?” and I posited a third which is neither judgmental nor arbitrary. A knife in the hands of an assassin, an infant, or a surgeon may have similar effect, but its use would be subject to very different judgment. What I am offering here is a sort of “greater good” argument. If we hold that God has a longer and wider view than my temporal comfort and/or safety, then I can more readily accept the idea that He permits harm to come to me.
        As an Arminian, I believe that even God’s judgment is intended for my good, so in that sense, option 1 is a subset of option 3. I’m not sure the Calvinist can/will say the same.

        • rogereolson

          Well, I agree with that! I was asking of Calvinists–whether any of them can think of a third option.

  • Steve Dal

    Gotta say, Piper and many others like him end up in this place where everything must have a reason. They appear to me to be paranoid. This is ofcourse just a derivative of a base that says that God is a predeterminist and therefore everything is ‘from God’ and not only that but IS God. Hence the 9/11 thing. There are so many holes in this argument both scripturally and existentially that it is hard for me these days to muster a groan. My thoughts these days is that Piper’s ministry is devoid of any interesting discussion. He seems to me to not have the theological depth to either argue at length without bizarre Biblical and Theological contortions (a trait that many like him have) nor to escape his ‘audience’ which is also a fascinating aspect to many of these people’s ministries. Namely, a kind of entrapment where the audience makes its demands. I have seen much of this. Religious people paint themselves into theological corners and then are trapped by the miriad of sycophants that follow them around. Not to mention contracts to write books. You know it is possible that there is no ‘reason’ that tornadoes ripped through these towns other than the normal weather related patterns that develop this time of year. Did God have a ‘reason’ in Job. At the end of the day it looks to me like thoelogical quibbling.