Thursday, March 8, 2012

Thinking Theologically about Tornadoes: Pat Robertson, Roger Olson, and John Piper as Test Cases

Pat Robertson, it seems, just can’t help himself. In response to last week’s deadly tornado outbreak across the Midwest and parts of the South, the 81-year old televangelist placed the blame both on the foolhardiness of people who choose to live in tornado-prone areas (one might wonder why Robertson has chosen to live in a hurricane-prone area like Virginia Beach) and on their failure to pray sufficiently so as to coax God to intervene and prevent such storms.

At least it appears that Robertson has learned something from the critical response to his, frankly, ignorant attribution of the Haiti earthquake of January 2010 to the direct, punitive hand of God. Yet his recent comments don’t provide evidence of a corresponding increase in theological perspicacity on his part. Prayer, of course, is vital to the Christian life. Above all, it teaches us that we are totally dependent on the sovereign, gracious God for everything in life. But prayer does not provide us with a blank check for health and happiness. Nor does it guarantee deliverance from every trial or disaster that comes our way. One wonders if Robertson has ever heard of the apostle Paul, who pleaded three times for the Lord to remove an unspecified “thorn” in the “flesh” (2 Cor 12:8), to no avail (perhaps Robertson would say the apostle should have prayed more than three times?). Paul, no doubt, thought the removal of the “thorn” would greatly enhance his ministry, but the Lord had a different perspective: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Prayer is not, in other words, always answered the way we would like it to be. And it certainly doesn’t guarantee deliverance from physical disaster.

There was a time when I didn't take people like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell very seriously. After all, I came from a "respectable" evangelical background and hold graduate degrees in theology and biblical studies from a "respectable" evangelical academic institution. I still don't take these people seriously, as far as their ideas are concerned. But I greatly underestimated the damage they have done, and are continuing to do, to the cause of the Lord I serve. Indeed, in the public mind, “evangelicalism” is largely defined—much to my chagrin—by such theologically-unsophisticated culture warriors. At times I even despair of trying to disabuse people of this hitherto-mistaken impression.

Roger Olson, on the other hand, is no ignorant televangelist. He is a professor at Baylor University and one of evangelicalism’s most eloquent and prolific spokespersons. Today, in his blog, he criticized John Piper for supposedly claiming that last week’s tornadoes were not only foreordained by God, but foreordained as judgment for these particular communities and reminders of “their” need to repent. By way of contrast, Olson understands the events in the following fashion:
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).
The problems with Olson’s analysis, it seems to me, are two-fold. First, nowhere does Piper claim all that Olson says he does. On the one hand, Piper certainly does claim—admittedly in language different from what I would use—that God’s sovereign power and will lies behind the storms:
Why would God reach down his hand and drag his fierce fingers across rural America killing at least 38 people with 90 tornadoes in 12 states, and leaving some small towns with scarcely a building standing, including churches?
And again:
We do not ascribe such independent power to Mother Nature or to the devil. God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows. If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command.
Moreover, Piper does interpret “natural” disasters as reminders of the need for repentance—but as reminders, not to “them,” but to us“Every deadly wind in any town is a divine warning to every town.” That, I should add, is a major difference. Not only this, but nowhere does Piper claim that such events are specific judgments on specific communities for specific sins—and he certainly doesn’t do so in this instance.

The second problem with Olson’s analysis is what I consider to be his inadequate view of God’s sovereign control over such events. I agree with him that such events are prime evidence of the world’s present fallenness and “not-yetness” of creation’s ultimate redemption from bondage to decay, as per Romans 8. In that sense, I have no problem seeing such disasters as examples of God’s “absence,” at least in comparison to the new heavens and new earth, where God’s dwelling place will be with his people (Rev 21:3).

Nevertheless, Olson drives a thick theological wedge between God’s “foreseeing” or “permitting” events and his “determining” and “governing” them by a “meticulous providence.” As elsewhere, he denies the legitimacy of the common Calvinistic distinction between God’s sovereign permission of evil and his active causation of it. I will grant that Piper and others, such as R. C. Sproul, at times blur the distinction somewhat. Is it really helpful, for example, to label tornadoes “the fierce fingers of God?” Does God actively “give the command” for the tornado to devastate cities and take 41 lives? These statements are, I would maintain, true in a sense. Nothing takes place apart from the sovereign will of God, including "natural" disasters in which many "innocent" people lose their lives. Nevertheless, can we not legitimately make a distinction between what God actively brings about by the direct exercise of his sovereign power and those events which, despite being rendered certain to occur by his eternal, sovereign “decree,” are either brought about indirectly through secondary causes or are permitted to occur for reasons to which we, his creatures, are not privy? Professor Olson might not find this distinction compelling, or even coherent. I would maintain, however, that something like it is demanded by the biblical witness.

Olson is no Deist. Nor is he an Open Theist. He is an Arminian. Nevertheless, I wonder if he has really taken into consideration the implications of his belief in God’s omniscient foreknowledge. Did God know these tornadoes would occur? Olson, as I, would affirm that he did. Was God powerful enough to alter their course so they would affect less, or even no, lives? I’m sure Olson, like I, would affirm this as well. If these propositions are true, then the so-called “Calvinist dilemma” cannot be avoided. In some sense, whether one is a Calvinist or not, one must affirm that God, in his providence, allowed these tornadoes and their consequences to occur, while remaining both holy and good. One cannot simply hide behind Arminian theology to justify God.

Furthermore, a whole host of Scriptural passages must ultimately be explained by those who confess the Bible’s authority. I give you two:

“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11).

“For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).
God is sovereign over all things that happen in his creation. His eternal plan is all-encompassing, and the ultimate eventuation of what he has purposed is rendered certain by virtue of his decree and providential oversight of his creation. Therefore, I would assert that Piper et al. are right, even if the language they use could be interpreted in unnecessarily harsh ways. Moreover, Piper is exactly right to look at such events as wake-up calls, pointing spiritually insensitive people to their need to repent.  The key text is Luke 13:1-5:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, 'Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them--do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
Here Jesus responds to the popular idea that human suffering, whether at the hands of other people or due to "natural" causes, is the direct consequence of particular human sins and meted out in accordance with one's deserts (cf. Job's "comforters" Eliphaz [Job 4:7; 22:5] and Bildad [Job 8:20], not to mention the theologically tone-deaf question of Jesus' disciples in John 9:1-3). Our Lord’s response is instructive. Not only does he deny the popular inference, but he transforms the discussion into a warning about ultimate fates. We, as God's creatures, have no right to interpret tragedies befalling other people as indices of their moral inferiority. Indeed, we all are guilty sinners before God. Every breath we take is a token of God's forbearing grace in the face of prideful, moral rebellion against our maker. Hence Jesus gives the urgent call for all of us to make every effort to avoid "perishing" (apollumi)—the state of final, eschatological "loss" that renders the mere, tragic loss of one’s physical life trivial by comparison. To do that one must "repent" (metanoeō), that is, turn from self and sin to God through the crucified and resurrected Jesus, his Son.

How should we as Christians respond to such tragedies? First, we must once again come to terms with the ugly truth that events such as last week’s tornadoes will occur time and again until our Lord returns and the new heavens and new earth are established in their fullness. Wars, earthquakes, famines, and similar events are all elements to be expected during the present age as the “beginnings of the birth-pangs” (Matt 24:7-8, understanding Matt 24 to refer to the entire period of time from Easter to Christ’s Parousia, interpreted in light of the Jewish concept of the “Messianic Woes”). As such these events reinforce the truth that things are not as they ought to, and one day will, be, and thus should be urgent reminders of the necessity to repent. To put it another way, they are unwelcome reminders that, although the Christ event has already brought the future Kingdom of God present into the midst of the “present evil age,” this future reality has not yet been consummated (see Rev 21-22). Why particular things happen and history unfolds in precisely the manner it does are, as Martin Luther always pointed out, elements of the “secret things” in God's counsel to which we are not privy (Deut 29:29). We should instead concern ourselves with those things he has revealed and for which we are held morally responsible.

Second, and most importantly, we must realize that, as God has chosen to deal with evil by tackling it head-on and bearing its consequences in the person of his Son, so we who follow him must conform to this cruciform pattern and implement Jesus' victory through suffering love (see especially N.T. Wright's brilliant Evil and the Justice of God). This will involve, not merely personal holiness and virtue—important as they are—but also manifesting the priorities of God's kingdom in the public sphere, viz., “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with … God” (Micah 6:8). May God have mercy on us and on the heartbroken people throughout the Midwest and South in this time of trouble.

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