On God, Providence, and Natural Disasters

Guest Post by Steve Hays

1. Two recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida renewed perennial debates about the problem of natural evil. Calvinists and freewill theists give different answers. A friend asked me to comment on this old screed by Rachel Held Evans:
I rarely read RHE. Outrage is crack cocaine for folks like RHE. The moral satisfaction of waxing judgmental gives them a temporary high. They're addicted to indignation. They live for indignation. Because the high wears off, they are constantly on the lookout for something wax indignant about. 
In her post, RHE uses John Piper as a foil to attack Calvinism in general. She also uses the occasion as a pretext to launch into a gratuitous tirade against C. J. Mahaney. I say gratuitous because that has nothing to do with natural evil. 
In this post I'm not going to comment on the allegations against Mahaney, both because it's a red herring in relation to the primary topic of her post, and simply because I'm in no position to offer an informed opinion regarding his complicity, if any, in the scandal. 

2. Before discussing John Piper, I'll begin by stating my own position. I don't rely on Piper's formulations. 
i) Natural disasters like floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, epidemics, hurricanes, tsunamis, famine, wildfires, and volcanic eruptions are traditionally classified as natural evils. I think the conventional classification is something of a misnomer. So-called natural evils are actually natural goods. They help to restore or maintain the balance of nature. 
They are only "evil" if you happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. They are not intrinsically evil. Rather, the "evil" aspect of natural evils is a relation, when a natural evil happens to precipitate a humanitarian crisis.
ii) I don't think natural evils originate in the Fall. Rather, I think the Fall made humans liable to suffer natural evils. God's providential protection was withdrawn from sinners, thereby exposing them to natural harm. It was always a dangerous world, but the Fall made man vulnerable to natural evils.
iii) Sometimes natural evil represents divine judgment for sin. However, God's providential intentions are complex, often with a view to future developments, so Christians are rarely in a position to say that any particular natural evil represents divine judgment. Because the experience of natural evil is sometimes an example of God's retributive or remedial punishment, we should make allowance for that explanation as a possible interpretation, but we mustn't presume that to be the case. 
A natural disaster is judicial insofar as it is related to the curse, dating back to the fall, but it's not necessarily judicial in terms of divine punishment for a recent transgression. It's always grounded in divine judgment on a past event (Adam's sin), and it's sometimes punishment for something more recent (e.g. the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), but it's not necessarily punitive for something more recent. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There's the general basis for liability to natural evils (the Fall), and sometimes there's a specific basis in a specific transgression after the Fall.
iv) Even in the case of divine judgment, because humans are social creatures, divine judgment typically has a collective dimension. Due to the social fabric of human existence, it's rarely possible to punish an individual without that impacting related individuals. As a result, divine judgment may harm the innocent as well as the guilty. There's no presumption that divine judgment is punitive for everyone who suffers the consequences of divine judgement. 
Take Christ's parable of the wheat and the tares (Mt 13:24-30). This makes the point that the lives of the just and the unjust are intertwined, so that one can't uproot evil without uprooting good. 
Another example is the Babylonian Exile. Although that was divine punishment for national apostasy, there was a righteous remnant that went into exile along with the mass of faithless Jews, because their lives were inextricably connected with neighbors and relatives.
v) Sometimes a career criminal is ironically punished for a crime he didn't commit. But in a sense that compensates for all the crimes he got away with. In relation to natural evil, the situation of sinners is sometimes like that. There may be no direct correspondence between a particular sin and suffering natural evil, but in a sense it makes up for all the times we didn't get caught. 
vi) What happens in this life is not the ultimate frame of reference. We need to assess events in this life from the standpoint of the afterlife. 
3. Now I'm going to quote from a sermon by the notorious firebrand, Jonathan Edwards, to provide a classic example of how Calvinism views natural evil:
"O come hither, and behold the works of the Lord; what destruction he hath brought upon the earth!" Ps. 46:8.
Of all the judgments which the righteous God inflicts on sinners here, the most dreadful and destructive is an earthquake. This he has lately brought on our part of the earth, and thereby alarmed our fears, and bid us "prepare to meet our God!" The shocks which have been felt in divers places, since that which made this city tremble, may convince us that the danger is not over, and ought to keep us still in awe; seeing "his anger is not turned away, but his band is stretched out still." (Isa. 10:4.)
I am to show you that earthquakes are the works of the Lord, and He only bringeth this destruction upon the earth. Now, that God is himself the Author, and sin the moral cause, of earthquakes, (whatever the natural cause may be,) cannot be denied by any who believe the Scriptures; for these are they which testify of Him, that it is God" which removeth the mountains, and overturneth them in his anger; which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble." (Job 9:5, 6.) "He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth he toucheth the hills, and they smoke." (Ps. 104:32.) "The hills melted like wax at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth." (Ps. 97:5.) "The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt. Who can stand before his indignation, and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger His fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him." (Nahum 1:5, 6.)
Earthquakes are set forth by the inspired writers as God's proper judicial act, or the punishment of sin: Sin is the cause, earthquakes the effect, of his anger. So the Psalmist: "The earth trembled and quaked; the very foundations also of the hills shook, and were removed, because he was wroth" (Ps. 18:7.) So the Prophet Isaiah: "I will punish the world for their evil, -- and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible: -- Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shalt remove out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of host, and in the day of his fierce anger." (Isa. 13:11, 13.) And again. "Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty; and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down," (in the original, perverteth the face thereof,) "and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof. For the windows from on high are open, and the foundations of the earth do shake. The earth is utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly. The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it; and it shall fall and not rise again." (Isa. 24:1, 18-20.) "Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the God of Jacob." (Ps. 114:7.) "thou shalt be visited of the Lord of hosts with thunder, and with earthquake, and great noise." (Isa. 29:6.)
Nothing can be more express than these scripture testimonies, which determine both the cause and author of this terrible calamity. But reason, as well as faith, doth sufficiently assure us it must be the punishment of sin, and the effect of that curse which was brought upon the earth by the original transgression. Steadfastness must be no longer looked for in the world, since innocency is banished thence: But we cannot conceive that the universe would have been disturbed by these furious accidents during the state of original righteousness. Wherefore should God's anger have armed the elements against his faithful subjects Wherefore should he have overthrown all his works to destroy innocent men or why overwhelmed the inhabitants of the earth with the ruins thereof, if they had not been sinful why buried those in the bowels of the earth who were not to die Let us then conclude, both from Scripture and reason, that earthquakes are God's strange works of judgment -- the proper effect and punishment of sin. In these instances we may behold and see the works of the Lord, and how "terrible he is in his doings toward the children of me." (Ps. 66:5.)
This sermon confirms the worst suspicions of the freewill theist. His sermon epitomizes everything that's wrong with Calvinism. A harsh, heartless, pitiless theology. One could hardly draw a starker contrast to the loving and merciful God of freewill theism.
Except for one awkward little fact: I told a white lie when I introduced this text as a sermon by Jonathan Edwards. In truth, this is actually from a sermon by Charles Wesley ("The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes"):
Yes, that Charles Wesley. A paradigm Arminian. Author of so many beloved hymns, viz. "And Can It Be That I Should Gain?", "Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast", "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus", "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing", "Jesus Christ is Risen Today", "Jesus, Lover of My Soul", "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling", "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing".
So this represents a traditional Arminian view of divine providence in relation to natural evil. It shows you how far modern-day Arminians like Roger Olson have strayed from the classic outlook of their theological forebears. 
Not only did Charles Wesley preach a sermon on the topic, but he composed a whole series of hymns on earthquakes:
My point is not to evaluate or endorse the particulars of his position, but to document traditional Arminian theology in relation to humanitarian crises caused by natural disasters. 
4. Now I'd like to engage her comments about John Piper. Among other things, she says:
This is what John Piper does whenever there is a tornado…or earthquake…or shooting…or war.  While the world is still in shock, while we struggle to find the words to convey our grief and compassion and to weep with those who weep, he jumps in with an explanation, and it’s always the same: Bad things happen because God is angry. This is God’s judgment on undeserving, sinful people. Repent. We brought this on ourselves.
That’s because Piper and many in the fundamentalist neo-Reformed movement are working off of a perversion of the doctrine of total depravity that not only teaches that human beings are depraved—that is, that our humanity is marred by sin—but that this depravity renders the world’s men, women, and children into valueless objects of god’s wrath, worthy of nothing more than eternal torture, pain, violence, and abuse. Therefore, natural disasters (such as the recent tornado outbreak, the Asian tsunami of 2004, the Japanese earthquake, sickness, cancer, accidents) as well as evil perpetuated by others (the Sandy Hook shootings, the Boston bombings, the Holocaust, 9-11) are merely expressions of this god’s unending, unquenchable, and unpredictable wrath upon humankind.
When a bridge collapse killed several families in Minneapolis in 2007, Piper told his eleven-year-old daughter that God let the bridge fall so that people would fear him. When a tornado hit the city, he blamed it on the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America for its position on homosexuality. When asked about violent texts from the Old Testament, Piper proclaimed “it is right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.” 
Piper’s god is like an abusive father, filled with unpredictable rage. His family must walk on eggshells, afraid of suddenly enraging him. Should he be provoked, this god will lash out with deadly, earthquakes, tsunamis, violence and war.  When his family cries out in anguish, he reminds them that they deserve no better. They are despicable, rotten to the core, so even in their pain they are doing “better than they deserve.” The fact that any have been spared merely proves his “love.”
This theology is, in a word, abusive, for it blames the victim for whatever calamity, abuse, or tragedy she suffers and says it is deserved. 
According to this theology, the children who died in Oklahoma this week got what they “deserved.” The victims of the Boston bombing got what they “deserved.” The people caught in the Twin Towers on 9-11 got what the “deserved.” The victims of the Holocaust got what they “deserved.”
i) I lack in-depth knowledge of Piper's theology, so I can't offer an authoritative interpretation of what he means. In addition, I'm not really interested in exegeting Piper. He's not my spokesman. But since she's using him to represent Reformed theology, a few comments are in order:
ii) As I just documented, there's nothing distinctively Calvinistic about how Piper's reaction to natural evil. His position is understated compared to Charles Wesley. 
iii) Reading the links, some of Piper's statements aren ambiguous. It's possible that Piper attributes every natural disaster to divine judgment. But I don't see where Piper actually says that or implies that. Minimally, Piper seems to be saying natural disasters afford a sobering occasion to reflect on how often we take life for granted, on how precarious life is, on the need to be prepared to meet our Maker at any time and place. 
iv) I disagree with his assumption that the tornado which disrupted the annual convention of the ELCA was a divine warning. The problem with that inference is that natural disasters are generally so indiscriminate and apparently random. On the one hand, many devout believers are crushed by natural evils. On the other hand, many infidels escape natural evils. Against that backdrop, this particular incident seems to be coincidental. 
v) Regarding his statement that “it is right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases”–the word "slaughter" has the wrong connotations. That said, there's nothing distinctively Calvinistic about his position on the so-called "texts of terror" or "abhorrent commands". Piper venerates the OT as the word of God. That puts him in good company. The authors of the NT venerated the OT as the word of God. So did Jesus. Fact is, Christianity can't be true if the OT is false. 
5. RHE says:
Sin triggers in god a sudden outburst, a violent temper tantrum.
Actually, that's not the God of Reformed theology, but the God of open theism. A God who's shocked and angered by surprising turns of events. RHE should redirect her fire at Gregory Boyd. 
6. RHE says:
The great irony of Piper using the book of Job to support his theology is that the story of Job stands as an ancient indictment on those who would respond to tragedy by blaming the victim. 
i) Color me skeptical about whether that's an accurate characterization of Piper's position. 
ii) Regarding Job, here's what one commentator says:
To my knowledge, Walton is not a Calvinist. He might generously be classified as a theological moderate. On a related note, here's what a commentator says about Jas 1:13:
Within the framework of a a polytheistic religious system, the problems of theodicy are less severe…The biblical tradition, however, establishes humans in relationship with a single, personal, all-powerful God who is Master of the Universe and source of all that is. This relationship, furthermore, is portrayed in narrative and prophecy as intensely interactive, with–as James himself suggested–God intimately involved in the destiny of individual humans. L. T. Johnson, The Letter of James (Doubleday 1995), 203.
Johnson doesn't say that because he's a Calvinist. He's a Catholic priest who feels free to buck biblical authority. 
7. Reformed theology seems to be harsh in some respects. But so does the Bible. So does the world we inhabit. You can't assess Calvinism in isolation. You must compare it to the alternatives. The God of freewill theism (e.g. Arminianism, Molinism, open theism) has the might and foresight to prevent, halt, or deflect natural evils. He created the physical processes that produce natural disasters. That's a foreseeable consequence of his creative fiat. Even in freewill theism, natural disasters are ultimately caused by God. And God presumably intends the end-results of his own actions. These are not unplanned events. In open theism, human choices are unpredictable, but natural processes generally operate according to physical determinism. RHE simply evades the implicates of freewill theism. 
It's not as if freewill theists are committed to the uniformity of nature. They don't view the universe as a closed system. They pray for divine intercession in case of illness or impending natural disaster. 
In freewill theism, although God could preempt or divert natural disasters, or simply give people advance notice to evacuate, he refrains from intervening or even warning prospective victims because saving human lives from injury or destruction is not his first priority. See how that goes over in a funeral service for victims. 
Thu, 09/14/2017 - 15:42 -- john_hendryx

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