Saturday, August 18, 2007

What Do You Think About God When Calamity Strikes?

Denny Burk posted a link to Greg Boyd's response to John Piper's reflections on the Minneapolis bridge collapse. I've read both pieces now. And as Burk points out, though Boyd says he is "concerned" with Piper's viewpoint, the two theological positions actually couldn't be farther apart.

Piper, reflecting on Luke 13:1-9 and the bridge collapse, had this to say:

1. In the face of calamity, many people believe that those who perish or experience these things deserved to die or suffer. Jesus doesn't say that, but says that everyone deserves to die.

2. We all deserve to die because we all are sinners and sin. The outrage of sin is 10,000 times the outrage of the collapsed bridge.

3. That anyone is alive and breathing is evidence of the great mercy of God who causes it to rain on the just and unjust alike. The church desperately needs to teach this view of reality so that people are appropriately prepared for calamity.

4. "The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live."

5. Calamities should be occasions for praise, not for blaming God. In accord with His wisdom and goodness, God allows such tragedies that people might reverence Him and turn to Him.

6. Nothing shall separate God's people from His love even as they go through the waters, the persecutions, famines, diseases, etc. (Rom. 8:35-38). He is with His people in the midst of tragedy (Is. 43:2). Though we die, we shall live forever in Christ (John 11:20).

In response, Boyd offered four points:

1. The Gospels "uniformly identify infirmities (sickness, disease, deformities, disabilities) as being directly or indirectly the result not of God’s punishing activity, but of Satan’s oppressive activity. So it is that Peter summarized Jesus’ ministry by saying he was anointed “with the Holy Spirit and power” and “went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil” (Ac 10:38). Boyd rejects the premise that catastrophes are God's "punishing activity" in the world.

2. Second, Boyd sees the sacrifice of Christ as sufficient for turning away God's punishment through catastrophe. The cross ushers in an economy where God has the right to punish by catastrophe but doesn't because Christ's death for sin was sufficient for the whole world (1 John 2:2).

3. The model of God bringing judgment through calamity is Old Testament, and even in those cases there was teaching before the calamity. Something like the bridge collapse doesn't fit even the OT pattern because there was not ample warning, teaching, and time for repentance before the tragedy. "I can make my point this way. How many non-believers in Minneapolis do you think interpreted the bridge collapse as an expression of God’s wrath? And of these, how many were moved to turn to God out of fear? I’m thinking it's probably close to zero. If God was trying to get people to fear him, it simply didn’t work. But it did cost a number of lives and inflicted misery and sorrow on many more. It was a harsh spanking without any helpful instruction, and thus was unhelpful while being costly. Is this the way the God revealed in Jesus Christ operates?"

4. People and angels are morally free agents. You don't need to blame God if you understand that people and demonic powers act against God's will and priorities. There's plenty of blame to spread, but you don't need to blame God. But, "if angels and people don’t have free will that can go against God’s will, then it’s no longer adequate to say God “allowed” a bridge to fall. You have to say God “caused” the bridge to fall. Other agents may have been instrumental in bringing about the collapse of the bridge, but they only did what God’s sovereign plan decreed they do. So one is fudging words to say God “allowed” the bridge to fall and that God is not to blame for the bridge falling."

Denny's summary of the differences between the two men and his critique of Boyd is succinct and helpful. Read that and you'll know what I think as well.

This is a couple weeks old, so why am I bringing it up now?

Right now, the Cayman Islands are preparing for what could be a category-5 hurricane, Dean. Men are at my house boarding up windows and securing the place.

The image below shows the predicted track of the storm (red dots), the location of the Cayman Islands (green dot), and the storms closest point to the islands (yellow dot). Hurricane storm paths are notoriously unpredictable, but around midnight on Sunday the storm is currently predicted to be about 23 miles off our coast. Which means we'll be in hurricane force winds for several hours at that range.
The last storm of this magnitude, Hurricane Ivan (Sept. 11, 2004), essentially destroyed the island. Understandably, people here are filled with fear and questions.

It's clear to me that when moments like the Minneapolis bridge collapse happen, or category 5 hurricanes come your way, you need to have a rock-ribbed theology featuring the massive and awesome God of the Bible, the God who created the worlds with a word and His Son who rebuked the winds with a word. The same God who rules even over the evil causes of Satan and his minions, and the feeble efforts of men to thwart Him. The Bible's picture of God is that nothing is beyond his control, not even the places where we live (Acts 17:24-26). And "God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27).

Seems to me that Piper's post is an elaborate statement of Acts 17:27.

Boyd asks, "Where are God's warnings?" I'm left wondering what Pastor Boyd is preaching Sunday to Sunday. Are we not to be watchmen signaling the dangers from the pulpits across the world? And has not the Lord written in the creation itself and on the conscience of all men indicators and warnings that He exists and He is to be worshipped? (Rom. 1:18-32, for example). "So that men are without excuse."

I have the task tomorrow morning, the privilege really, of telling people tomorrow morning how they should think about their lives right now. And it won't be much of a stretch, by God's grace, because we'll be meditating on what we've been meditating on for the entire year of my service here.

God is big, very big. God is glorious and awesome, far more powerful than hurricanes. Life is precious, preciously short. It's short because we are sinners and we sin. Against that sin and sinners, the big, glorious, and awesome God pledges eternal wrath. We won't escape that wrath to come unless we turn from sin to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is the exact representation of God's being and the radiance of His glory, who died to atone for the sins of His people, and through whom believers live eternally. Now, repent and believe and be saved. Flee the allurements of this world with its vain philosophy and purchase the Pearl of Great Price, the Prince of Peace, and set your affections on Christ who rules at the Father's right hand.

Tomorrow, I suspect my task will perhaps be easier than it has been to this point. Men who all their lives have been held in bondage to fear of death will be looking squarely at that fear and the reality of death. I can "protect" God's reputation by saying it's not really His fault; men and fallen angels messed up the world. That's true, but only partially true.

God still rules. I can tell the people that the way men messed the world up through sin provoked God to wrath; the disasters of the world are really only one aspect of the outworking of His holy judgment, and not even the infinite outworking. Though God is not in the hurricane, listen for His voice. Listen for His call to repent. And that's the good news to the lost among us tomorrow.

The even better news to the found is God has not purchased your life with the precious blood of His Son in order to waste it! Whether we perish or survive in this hurricane, God will eternally be glorified. Christ has conquered death and the grave, and He will raise us up victorious. Now let goods and kindred go, this moral life also. There is a far superior one awaiting.


ajcarter said...

Our prayers are with you. I have been praying for our brothers and sisters in St. Lucia and Martinique and will hold you up in prayer as well.

FellowElder said...

Thanks brother. We appreciate it.

Chris said...

Just now I spent time on my knees praying for you, your church, and Grand Cayman.

I also made a note to pray for you and your flock during church tomorrow. Assure your people of our prayers.

Please keep us posted through your blog.

pastor lance said...

yo fellowelder.

we too in philly will pray for God's protection and special grace. i'll also pray that the Lord will bless your preaching concerning the certain storm of God's judgment that no one apart from Christ will escape.

The Lord's Peace
pastor lance

David said...


I am praying for all of you.

David Rosati

Always Giving Thanks said...

My thoughts and prayers are with you and yours for safe passage through the storm. Indeed, God does not give life for it to be wasted. We give thanks for his grace, mercy AND judgment, however it comes. Be safe and seek high ground. That's what it's there for. :-)

wwdunc said...


I just prayed for you, Kristie, your children, and all the people of that region, and I will continue to pray.

Psalm 148:7-8
"Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word!"

Psalm 107:25, 28-29
"For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed."

Grace to you and peace, my brother.


Josh Manley said...


This is a precious post. I am grateful for the grace God has worked in your heart and the ways you are using your gifts so well for the great King's kingdom. Jenny and I will pray for you, your family, and the saints there. Thanks for your faithfulness.


Josh Manley

Ligon Duncan said...


Thanks for this post. Timely words. The saints at First Presbyterian will be praying for you and the saints at FBC Grand Cayman - specifically during the pastoral prayers tomorrow (Lord's Day, August 19, 2007).

As Piper says: "Life is short. Hell is real. Eternity is long."

Your friend and brother,


Alex S. Leung said...

I am a new student at SBTS and just read Boyd's post, along with yours. I have also read Boyd's chapter in "The Nature of Atonement", and in light of all of life catastrophes -- I am happy that men like you and Pastor John have given me good biblical discernment to think through the bad things that happen in life.

May our Sovereign Lord be glorified. Praying for you and your church..
-Alex S. Leung

Mike Waters said...

I pray for your safety for so many reasons, but foremost so that you can point others to Christ should this storm inflict any harm where you are.

Mike Gilbart-Smith said...

Your brothers and sisters at Capitol Hill Baptist will be praying for you in the pastoral prayers this morning. I will be praying that the Holy Spirit would use the threat of danger to open peoples eyes to the security that is found only in Christ. I pray that there would be people in church this morning who do not know Jesus, but know they need help beyond themselves.
We shall also pray for your safety, that the Lord might preserve your witness to the gospel in Grand Cayman.

Your brother,


LouLove said...

Hey Thabiti:
I got news of your post from Benny, the Brother that handled the audio recording during the conference. The members of New Life prayed for your family and FBC and we will continue to do so.

It was challenging and sobering post.

Thank you my Brother

karin said...

As far north as Edmonton, Canada we are praying for you! Just read your blog this past week and am so blessed by it. May the Lord keep you safe.