As you know, let me just tell you a little tiny bit about the story I’m doing. I know that you know some of it. I’m trying to ask the existential question: Why? Why do bad things happen to good Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, whatever, caught in the tsunami? And for this piece, I’ve been talking to a range of people, a Buddhist monk, a rabbi, simply because a lot of our listeners are Jewish, a Catholic, you, a Hindu. So what I’m trying to get is kind of a distinction, or get a sense for how different faith traditions answer the question, essentially the problem of evil. And my first question for you is just a general one. You’re a pastor. You have what, four-thousand people in your church?
Three thousand would be safer.
Oh, three thousand. Okay. When you arrived at church on Sunday morning, were people talking about this? What was the conversation like when people began to hear about the tsunami?
Yes, they were. And I made a point of talking about it myself. I’ve tried to do that every time something captivating happens, and there have been a lot of them in recent years. And so I just think it’s my job to try to give a biblical perspective for people, so everybody’s glued to their internet or glued to their television or radio, trying to get a perspective on how big it is, and then, what in the world are we going to say about it? And I think it’s my job to try to stand up in front of them the day after or the Sunday after and say, “Here’s a biblical perspective on it to get your feet on a rock.” So yes, they were, and I was.
And tell me what you told them.
I addressed the question that I had been reading in the newspapers, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, where people were saying there is no explanation, God has nothing to do with this. Answers that, in my judgment, were both unhelpful and unbiblical. And so I wanted to stress the sovereignty of God over all things, his control over all things, including the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and then spell out for them how that would fit, biblically, with a good God who gives hope. So I think the most helpful text that I probably used, and it’s the one I go back to again and again and again, especially with natural calamity, not human-caused calamity, is where Jesus tells the story in Luke 13 about the Tower of Siloam that fell. Somebody comes to him and says, “Okay, this tower fell and eighteen people were killed. What do you make of that?”
And Jesus’s response to that is really shocking. He says, “Do you think that all those people were any worse offenders than the rest of those in Jerusalem? I tell you no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2–5). Which just rocks you back on your heels and say, “Well, they didn’t thank you, ask to be accused at that moment. They were asking for help.” And Jesus says, “Look, the amazing thing is not that that tower fell on eighteen human beings, all of whom are sinners, but that it didn’t fall on you.”
This is my basic response. When I hear of a calamity like this, my deepest interpretation is God is calling John Piper to repent. God is breaking my heart. God is pointing out my sin. God is telling me, be amazed you weren’t under the wave. That’s the first emotional response you should have, is that you are breathing at this very moment. And so my biggest interpretation is, God is calling the world to repent.
And I pointed out to my people, I said, “Look, it is amazing to me that God is in the dock here, that we put God on trial every time something big happens. And I think what repentance would mean is that we stop making God a whipping boy, and blaming him for every pain, and not praising him for any pleasure. I think it would mean that we lament that he makes headlines only when people are mocking him for his power, and no headlines when ten thousand days of wrath are withheld.” And there are a lot of Bible verses that I was using to quote the fact that these kinds of horrendous calamities are not new. They’re all over the Bible. There’s the flood, and there’s the exodus where all the firstborn were killed, there’s the 185,000 of Sennacherib’s army killed in one night by the angel of the Lord.
This is not a new thing, that God oversees a world in which there is calamity like this. And if we’re shaken by everyone that comes along, we may as well just give up on the faith entirely. Because in the very ground of our faith, the very Scriptures we go to, these kinds of things are described, and they’re put into perspective that is hope-giving and God-exalting and Christ-centered. I want to put Christ, Jesus Christ, which is the center of my faith, at the center of this, because Christ came into the world to put on like a garment, all my pain. He came into the world to put on the tsunami of my personal life.
And as a pastor, I’m dealing with tsunamis every day. I just had two emails this morning, one about a little child who’s got a tumor, and another about an 18-year-old with cancer. Tsunamis are very personal for me because they happen one at a time in my life. And I want to put Jesus Christ right at the center because he came to put that on like a garment. I think he took it right into the grave, all my sin, all my pain, all the threats to my life. He took it into the grave when he died, he defeated sin and Satan and sabotage and sickness. He defeated it all there, and he came out of the grave triumphant. He reigns today over the world, and he’s going to make all wrongs right. And there is someone in the world who’s tasted what you’ve gone through, who’s killed it, who’s triumphed over it, who reigns, who’s willing to bless you, if you will just look to him and trust him. That’s the way I ended. I wanted to lift up Jesus Christ as the one who has triumphed over death and pain.
That was amazing. Well, let me ask you a couple of follow-ups. Was there anyone in your congregation who was personally affected by the tsunami, relatives, that kind of thing, that you know of?
Affected in the sense that we have people in Thailand, we have people in Sri Lanka, we have people in Indonesia, and therefore they are more close, and therefore more hurt. But no relatives, that I know of, were swept away.
Right, okay. Then let me ask you this about the emails you received this morning about the little girl and the 18-year-old. As you put them eloquently, your personal tsunamis, take either of those examples. What do you tell the parent or the 18-year-old who says, “Well, why me? Why us?”
Well, that happens virtually every week. So the people that come to me, that look to me, they know where I’m coming from. And so they want something solid. They don’t want mush; they don’t want poetry. They don’t want me to say, “Oh, there’s just a lot of mystery in the world and we don’t have a clue what’s going on.” They say, “Tell me a promise from the Bible that I can stand on.”
And let me preface this. You know you say, “What do you say?” Depending on where they are, you may not say anything, right? If it’s just so fresh, all you do is weep. The Bible says, “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
I got a phone call from one man, Rollin Erickson, not several years ago, whose son died on the operating table at 25, totally unexpected. He calls me, he said, “David’s dead.” And I ran to the hospital. And all we did, all we did for an hour, was hug. Right? Cry. So that’s a given to me. I’m a pastor first, and I hope my theology provides foundation.
Sooner or later, those parents, or that 18-year-old, are going to say, after the hug, after the tenderness, “Okay, pastor, that’s good. Thank you. Do you want to do some theology with me here, please? I need to understand what God is up to.” And I will say, “You know, the biblical promises, all things work together for good for those who love God.” And say, “God’s got a purpose in this and it is good.”
And I’ve heard that called banal and cheap and blasphemous in the press in the last week, such that my heart breaks. I have a double broken heart, one for all the people who were swept away, and all those who are left behind with pain, and those who are mocking the very truth that sustains my people. So I tell them, “Christ has walked through it before you. He will carry you through. He will never leave you. He will never forsake you. He was in control. Nothing happens by accident. The very God who was governing your life when that happened has the power to govern your life for the future.”
Maybe this would be the most helpful thing to say in regard to God’s sovereignty. If you strip God of his sovereignty, his absolute control over the world in calamity, you don’t have a sovereign God to offer people on the other end of calamity, which is their only hope for being able to survive the awful future that’s just been opened to them. And I think Jesus comes in, through, and after calamity and says, “I’m there. I offer my help. It is sovereign, it is good, it is wise, it is loving.”
So I don’t want to rescue God from his sovereignty by saying, “Well, he really didn’t have anything to do with this,” because if I do that, the one thing that’s going to help this 18-year-old adjust to thyroid cancer, or help this dad adjust to the tumor in his little 10-year-old boy, I’ve taken it away from them if I say, “Well, he’s really not in control here, and therefore he can’t be controlled in your future. And so you don’t really have a rock to stand on.” I don’t want to say that. I want to put a rock under their feet, even though there’s mystery in it.
If God is sovereign and controls every moment, does that mean that God sent that tsunami? If so, why? What’s the purpose?
Right, right. Well, first of all, let me affirm what you just said hypothetically. I do believe God is absolutely sovereign. And I don’t make it up out of my own head. I’m leaning on Scripture. Jesus said to his disciples who were being threatened with death, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 10:29). I think he was reaching for what would, today, be molecular. Significance, in other words. The smallest and most insignificant thing I can think of is that a little bird falls off a limb in the dark jungle when nobody’s watching. And he says, that never happens, apart from God. And of course, he could stand on water, and when the wave rose, he rebuked it and it stopped. And therefore, whether Satan or nature started that, Jesus standing on the water could have said, “Thus far and no further”, and he didn’t.
And since I don’t think Jesus does anything whimsically, therefore there’s design in it, and therefore I look for design. That’s what you’re asking. What’s the design? And my first answer is the one Jesus gave. It is a call to the world to wake up to our Godlessness, how cheap we treat God. We don’t love God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength, whether in America, or Sri Lanka, or Myanmar. We don’t love him with all of our hearts. “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). So in one sense, every calamity is judgment. And I want to add, every calamity is mercy. God is always mingling mercy and judgment. He’s always pointing towards hope and possibility, if we would repent and believe. And he’s always saying, “Nobody deserves life. I own life and all men are sinners.” And so there’s a loud statement here about, come, repent.
I will forgive. I’ve paid my son’s blood in order that I might wipe away sins of those who trust me. And here’s a couple of other things I think I would say, with regard to purpose. When the apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1, I think it’s 1 Corinthians 1:8–9, he said, “I was so unbearably crushed that I despaired of life itself.” Then he adds, “That was to make me rely on God, who raises the dead, and not on myself.” God is not into sparing people pain. He’s into bringing people to faith in him so, that his name is exalted and we learn where our joy can really be found. Not in the world, but in God himself. And he talks about his own pain and burden that he bears, and says, “This is working for me. An eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” So one of the things God is doing is pointing us to where true and lasting satisfaction in God can be found.
And I’d add one more thing, and the list is much longer than what I’m giving here. The compassion that ought to be, and remarkably is, flowing around the world is no small thing. And what I want to do is, undergird the compassion of human hearts. And I think compassion flows in, from, and to, pain. When everything’s going well in my life, I tend to be a pretty self-sufficient, self-satisfied person. You bring pain in my life, I discover that there is another way to live besides just for me. And we’re seeing that wakened around the world. And the remarkable thing is that, hope in the sovereign God, in pain, is, I think, the source of compassion.
I get that from the life of Jesus, where Hebrews 12:2, it says, “For the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the [pain].” So Jesus had a joy in a sovereign God who knew what he was doing in Jesus’s own crucifixion. He survived it, and he died, and he rose, with a view to that joy. And I would want to hold out to every single suffering person, God can take this thing, just like the cross of Jesus, and turn it for your everlasting good if you would look away from yourself and look to him.
A cynic would say, then, this is an evangelistic tool?
If they said it with a snide voice, I’d want to talk to them. The word “tool” sounds mechanical. But if you push me there, sure. The reason that’s good news is because there are about six billion people who need God very, very much for now and forever. And God would like them to see his glory, his power, his love, his justice, his holiness, his wisdom. I think one of the mistakes we make in these conversations, globally, talking about things, is that we only fasten onto one aspect of God, namely his love, when in fact the Bible is huge in saying, “You must understand the holiness of God, you must understand the justice of God, and the wrath of God.” And God desires to display the full range of his glory for the enjoyment of his creatures. We’re made to know and love and trust God in all of his attributes, not just some of them. So yes, it is among many other things, I think God’s doing 10,000 things and not just one, he is awakening the world to the centrality of his own importance and the importance of his son in their lives.
For the person who is grieving, I went to talk to this Buddhist monk yesterday, and everyone that comes to their temple or congregation has lost either friends or entire families because they’re all from Sri Lanka. And so, five hundred families were affected, and for the person whose little two-year-old niece was lost, I’m trying to figure out where the comfort is, in one sense. I mean, is it partially a mystery that you say, “All things work together for good to those who love God”? Is it just that we can’t quite see what those are right now in the moment, but eventually we will? Is that part of the comfort?
Yes, I would like to respond to two things. One, with regard to children. I know that’s a huge issue, and I’d love to say something about that. But let me just address what you said about mystery. Absolutely. Absolutely. And the most important biblical passage, for me, is Romans 11:33:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. (Romans 11:33–36)
So yes, mystery abounds. I wouldn’t begin to exhaust what God is up to in any tragedy. I’m just saying the Bible gives us some pointers that can function as a rock. And his sovereignty is one, his mercy is one, and Christ bearing our sins and triumphing over death is one. So I agree entirely. I don’t want to come across as if I’ve got God in my back pocket here. I’ve got this thing figured out. That’s the stuff that’s being mocked in every article I read. And the sad thing is, it’s mocked and then nothing really is offered in its place. So I don’t want to come across as cheap or frivolous or trite or superficial.
There are profound things going on here, and I would say God has six billion billion purposes in what he’s doing. Every single person on planet Earth is talking about this. That changes everything. It’s like you drop a rock in a pond, the ripple effect goes everywhere. And so who in the world could begin to fathom the upshot of all the programs like this one, and newspaper articles, and deaths and suffering that everybody’s experiencing, and thinking about death, and thinking about God? Oh my, yes, mystery abounds here, and I don’t know the thousandth part of what God is up to.
You mentioned this 2-year-old. That’s the most painful thing, isn’t it? I hear the number of orphans is staggering, and of course, you see a little body pressed against a fence, and then you say, hmm. And as I’ve struggled with that over the years, because again, I’m talking personal tsunamis make me cry more than global ones, because statistics don’t make me cry, people do. And I’ve buried a lot of babies and walked through a lot of deaths and losses. And I take heart — this is my view, and not everybody shares it — from a passage in Romans 1 where Paul is talking about the accountability of people who don’t know Christ. And he says that the things that can be known about God are revealed in creation; therefore, they are without excuse.
Now, I draw from that logic an implication, namely that if you don’t have a brain that can construe natural or special revelation, that is revelation in the Bible about God or revelation in nature about God, you’re just a little two-year-old and your brain can’t construe, meaning it can’t draw inferences that it will be able to draw later, then God seems, in that sentence, to say that the baby does have an excuse and therefore God’s principles of judgment, I think, mean that we can’t infer that every baby lost is lost. And that God will, somehow in ways that I can’t understand, see to it that right is done by those children who were lost, who didn’t yet grow up and rebel against God explicitly. So that’s one thing I would say to Hindu, Buddhist, or any other religion, that this little child, I will not say has been lost for eternity.
One of the interesting dilemmas, I think, for people — and if you think about three attributes, I think, pretty universal among monotheistic religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, you think of God as omnipotent, God is omniscient, and God is good. And where people stumble is, if God knows about this and could stop it, why would a good God allow it to happen? You’ve kind of answered that question, but I wanted to ask it directly.
What was left out of that list is justice, holiness, and truth. Yes, omnipotent, yes, omniscient, yes, good/loving/gracious, but also just and holy. And when a creature rebels against a holy God, justice dictates punishment or judgment. Since God is gracious and loving, he penetrates that judgment with his own son. He did not spare his son but gave him up for us all so that he himself puts forward Jesus Christ as a way by which he can absorb his own wrath, which justly falls upon the world and every creature in it for rebelling against him. And therefore, everyone who looks to Christ will be spared that judgment. So I understand God’s judgment as not a compromise of his goodness but, in fact, what most deeply underlies his goodness. If God were to forsake his justice, if he were to forsake his holiness, he wouldn’t have anything worth worshiping to offer the person in his goodness. I think God’s goodness is essentially his offering us freely himself to enjoy forever and ever. And what’s enjoyable about God is the full range of who he really is, not just his goodness.
Just to follow up, I could see a lot of people accepting that on kind of a large scale, that mankind has sinned and therefore there is this wrath or holiness. Where people might stumble is the notion that, say, there is a Christian missionary over there in Sumatra, and that person, who would be saved according to Christian theology, that that person, that individual is slain too.
Absolutely. Absolutely. And it happened. I mean, whole Christian churches were swept away. One in Tamil Nadu, the only person left was the organist. That was one email I got. I assume it’s true. Another one in Sumatra. So you’re absolutely right. And of course, that takes no biblical person off guard because Paul, in the most hope-giving chapter in the Bible, in Romans 8, says,
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:35–37)
And the two words in there that jump out is famine and nakedness. You say, “Well, sword, that means somebody killed you,” and so evil’s involved. But what about famine and nakedness, where Christians themselves are being swept away?
Earlier in that chapter, Romans 8:23, it says, “[Even] we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” So the Bible’s crystal clear. Judgment falls on the universe on the world because of sin. Romans 5, “Sin came into the world . . . and death [by] sin” (Romans 5:12). And it’s real clear, that’s my sin. I’m going to die. I am still under that kind of judgment. The difference is the sting has been removed for those who trust in Christ, and death becomes a door to paradise. My salvation doesn’t remove me from suffering of any kind except the torment of not being forgiven and the final torment of hell.
I’m going to go through death, I’m going to get cancer, I’m going to get arthritis. My eyes are already going, my ears are already going at age 58. And so I don’t expect anybody who is saved by faith in Jesus Christ to be spared a tsunami. I expect churches to be swept away. And the hope there is, what can separate us from the love of Christ? Nothing. Neither death nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor anything in all creation. Paul’s climactic statement in Romans is, “You will walk through hell, and you will be saved in the end.” And he’s talking to Christians.
I think these are the hardest questions that anyone can ask, actually. I’m so glad to have you on the other end answering them for me. Let me ask you a John Sanders question. His faith was very much shaped by a question or something that someone said to him after his brother was killed when he was a teenager. And something like God is sovereign, or something like that. And he said, “You mean God intended to kill my brother?”
And no, that kind of personal thing is what shapes a lot of people’s theology. And I fear, in his case, and I could name several others, those personal stories have warped their exegesis. And it grieves me because I think, perhaps a more sensitive pastor could have walked him through the truth in a more sensitive way. But here’s another alternative. I don’t know if you remember the story of the five missionaries who were killed in Ecuador. It’s a very famous story, back in 1956. Well, one of those men, Nate Saint, had a son named Steve. Steve’s about my age now. He’s in his mid-fifties. And he wrote an article for CT, you could probably find it, in which he had done some subsequent research and found out that it was absolutely extraordinary that the spearing of those five missionaries happened in Ecuador because it was so unlikely that it would happen.
And he had this sentence. And I got on the phone and told my assistant, track this down. I want to know if he really said this or if this is a misprint. He said, “From all my research, from all I can tell, this event could not have happened apart from the intervention of God.” And I said, “Surely, he said that upside down.” He said that backward. He really didn’t mean that. Surely he meant this wouldn’t have happened if God had intervened. But he said, “This couldn’t have happened if God had not intervened. It was so unlikely.”
And I wrote him, I said, “My paraphrase of that is, ‘God killed my Father.’ Is that an accurate paraphrase?” Which is John Sanders’ statement: “You’re saying God intended?” And he wrote back and said, “Yes, that’s what I believe.” I called him, I’ve invited him to come to a conference here next October called “Suffering and the Sovereignty of God” down at the Minneapolis Auditorium, where we hope three thousand people will come, and Joni Eareckson Tada will come. You know who she is, probably. She’s written incredibly wise things about this. And he’ll come from the mission’s perspective. I’m trying to get an African-American to come and talk about the pain of slavery.
And so all that to say, I know that has happened to people who have been dealt with in ways... And their own personal struggles have led them to a view. I just think we need to go back to the Bible and not let our personal struggles dictate. Because if I wanted to choose my example, I would choose Steve Saint, whose struggles led him in a totally different direction, on the ground of the same kind of tragedy.
Interesting. A lot of people say, like this Jewish rabbi who’s a Reformed Jew, so he’s quite liberal, said, “I do not believe that God could have stopped the wave. I will not charge God with that crime.” That’s how he put it. Because of the notion of omnipotence. You believe that God could have stopped the wave because He’s able to do anything. Let me ask you this, why didn’t he?
My response is that a rabbi who says God could not have stopped it, probably doesn’t believe in God, at least the God he believes in is so different from the God of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, that I doubt that he has anything very hopeful, from a God standpoint, to offer people. When God does not stop the wave, he is allowing, and in that sense, causing a catastrophe, which is meant, according to Jesus in Luke 13:1–5 is a radical, profound, painful call to repentance for the whole world to get on their faces and repent of our self-reliance and our God belittling neglect of worship and obedience. And so there is a mingling of judgment intended, and mercy intended, and in ways that I can’t begin to fathom the fullness of, because God is always doing more than we know he’s doing.
That’s why the Bible speaks in terms of how inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways. And it grieves me to read in the Wall Street Journal when a Christian theologian says, “Christians have no license to speak of God’s inscrutable counsels”. Well, I don’t know who he is to give out licenses, but the Bible does, in fact, use that very phrase, how inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways. And so it gives us some things to hold onto, but it doesn’t exhaust. We are not God. In fact, I think one of the saddest things, at times like this, is that it shows how rebellious we really are in the discussion of these things, because we begin to talk as though, I’ve got to have an answer from God or frankly, I’m not going to let him be God.
This is great. Let me ask you, is there anything else that you think I need to think about when it comes to the tsunami? Anything we haven’t covered?
Well, yeah. There’s one piece that hasn’t been put in, and maybe nobody believes it enough to put it in, but the open theists, John Sanders, Greg Boyd, Clark Pinnock — they’re going to put Satan behind this. And we haven’t mentioned Satan. I read, I mean since this happened, I’ve got Greg Boyd looking over my shoulder here, who’s very competent. I know him; he’s right here in town with me. If you want a good open theist perspective, call Greg Boyd; he’ll give you the other side. He’s looking over my shoulder, and I am reading in his book about Satan and the problem of evil, about how Satan and supernatural powers over against God are behind the natural catastrophes in the world. And over against that, I just want to affirm that God is triumphant over Satan. And I go to the book of Job where Satan comes to God and says, “Give me Job, your favorite servant, and I’ll make him curse you.”
And God gives him permission. He goes out, and his ten kids are killed. And then in the next chapter it says, Satan afflicts him with boils from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. And every time, Job responds, both times. First time he says, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). And the Bible comments, he did not sin with his lips. And in the next chapter, his wife says, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). And Job says, “Shall we receive good from [the hand of] God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). So in both cases, Job chalks up his boils and his dead kids to God. And you get to the end of the book where the inspired writer, not just a mistaken theologian writing in the book, he’s got these friends who get everything wrong, but at the end of the book, you’ve got the inspired writer saying that his brothers and sisters comforted him for all the evil that the Lord brought upon him.
The point of the book of Job is yes, there’s a Satan. Yes, he’s horrible. Yes, he beats us up. Yes, he causes all kinds of evil and pain in the world, but he can’t do anything apart from the sovereign permission of God. He’s a lackey. He’s on the leash. God doesn’t let him do anything. I was just thinking this morning, at the same situation with Peter, I don’t know if you remember that story, where Jesus says to Peter, “You’re going to deny me three times.” And in Luke 22 it says, “Satan [has asked] to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32). Not if you return. So God’s orchestrating that whole thing. He’s letting Satan at Peter, and Peter’s going to go down, but his faith is not going to fail. He’s going to weep and repent and come back, and God’s going to use that fall.
And so the one thing we haven’t said is, there’s a Satan out there. And for all I know, Satan may have caused it, I don’t know. But God could have stopped him. And once the wave was rolling, Jesus could have stood on the waves, just like he did in Mark 4 and say, “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39). And that wave would’ve flattened like a pancake at the word of almighty Jesus. And he didn’t. And since I don’t think he’s whimsical, I think he had good, wise, loving, Christ-exalting, God-centered designs in it for the world.
Fascinating. This has been terrific. Thank you very much. I know it’s a long interview, and it’s mainly because I enjoyed it so much.