8 March 2012

The Tornadoes, John Piper and God's Judgment

I was attending a conference in the US last week when a series of tornadoes wreaked havoc and killed around 40 people in the Midwest. These included an entire family in Indiana, including a 15-month old baby girl who was initially found alive having been blown several hundred yards from her destroyed home, but who has since died.

Unfortunately we've become used to Christians invoking God's name and declaring every such tragic event divine judgment, whether the 2004 Christmas tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the 2011 US tornadoes, or whatever. And true to form, last week's tornadoes have proved too much to resist for those convinced they know God's mind and dare speak on His behalf. Perhaps the greatest surprise this time round, though, is a noted figure like John Piper going down this route, to the surprise of various US Christian commentators. However softer the language might be compared with previous statements by Christian leaders, and while Piper notes several of the objections below (though fails to answer them), his view echoes similar declarations: the tornadoes were caused by God and the reason was divine judgment.

I've commented on this kind of thing several times and detailing the objections to such a view is getting somewhat repetitive. But let's rehearse them again anyway. 1) How do we know it was God who caused the tornadoes? 2) How do we know they were acts of God's judgment? 3) Who are we to speak on God's behalf and make such claims? 4) Why was judgment forthcoming, and how do we know? (It seems we could pluck anything from the air and say this is why God did it.) 5) If it is God's judgment upon the nation for some or other reason, why are people in rural backwaters being judged and punished rather than the nation's policymakers ? 6) Why, in so many cases, do followers of Jesus die in instances that are deemed God's judgment upon the wicked? 7) If such events are God's judgment upon America, why are much more wicked nations not suffering a similar fate? 8) How is it possible for people to claim it is God's judgment but for different (even opposing) reasons? It demonstrates just how hopelessly postmodern such arguments have become.

If you can think of any others I missed I'd be grateful to hear them.


David Williams said...

I believe that Mr Piper has at least some history of this sort of comment as I am sure, if memory serves me correctly, he made similar comments after 9/11. This idea that every natural or manmade disaster may be viewed as God’s will, and not just in a permissible sense, and therefore constitutes His judgement can be very difficult to deal with particularly at a time of deep crisis. The proposal that God reached down his hand and ‘drag[ged] his finger across rural America’ is very bold indeed and perhaps this sense of claimed certainty as to the will of God here is what throws the comments into stark relief. It seems to me that without such an overwhelming level of certainty, it may be wise to say nothing in the midst of such calamity and despair.

Without wishing to stir up something of a hornet’s nest I do wonder though if perhaps Mr Piper’s statement here may have been formed by some of his strong Calvinistic determinist beliefs. In chapter 16 of his first book of Institutes, John Calvin refers to there being ‘no such thing as fortune or chance’ later stating that ‘no wind ever arises except by God’s demands’. By this reasoning then, not only did God foresee the tornadoes but he must therefore have also commissioned and sent them. Indeed this may be no more than what a conservative Calvinist may state, without drawing too many conclusions; yet Mr Piper’s certainty that this constitutes judgement is certainly a few steps further along the road.

Personally, when I hear of such natural calamities I am inclined to think along the lines of Romans 8 – that the whole of creation is subject to frustration and awaits its liberation from bondage; thus we have a reminder of the ‘not quite yet’ nature of the kingdom to come. Of course it would be daft to rule out the possibility that God may send judgement upon a city, region or nation via a natural disaster but I wonder if what we have here is more a statement derived from Mr Piper’s theological convictions rather than some explicit revelation he may claim to have received – if so, it is rather unpleasant.

Philip said...

I agree very much with DW's last para. Romans 8 is the key explanatory text, though it is worth saying that the frustration and commotion described is very much a funciton of God's judgment. In judgment God sent the world into this tailspin, and so to link any particular disaster with any particular human action being judged would be wrong, but as a general statement, it's quite right.

Philip said...

Re my last comment, I'd sum up by saying that Piper was saying in colourful language just orthodox reformed theology. No?

Also, I'm curious why we can't that we know the mind of God when it comes to natural disasters, but when it comes to other phenomena we can?

To demonstrate with a real example, I might rephrase your points as follows: 1) How do we know it was God who established the State of Israel? 2) How do we know it was an act of God's favour? 3) Who are we to speak on God's behalf and make such claims? etc., etc.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Hi Phil, welcome back (we've missed you). Thanks for your comments.

Further to the second comment, a case can be made (whether you agree with it or not) that God's restoration of national Israel represents a key eschatological aspect of the canonical narrative. Of course whether the parousia is imminent or not is open to debate (see http://www.calvinlsmith.com/2009/12/beware-overly-dogmatic-interpretation.html).

That's a far cry from Piper et al (I disagree that this speaking on God's behalf is a Reformed tendency, we all seem to do it) pointing to specific instances and claiming to know this is God in action. Hope this helps.

Philip said...

Calvin, thanks for your kind words.

I think a case can also be made for saying that natural disasters also represent a key eschatalogical aspect of canonical narrative. For example, see Mark 13.

However, my reading of Piper's words were not that he was trying to isolate the tornadoes as a specific instance of God's judgment for any particular human act, rather that he was making the general point that this is a result and facet of God's active judgment on the world. Which is supported by Romans, as DW points out.

But we may just have different readings of what he said.