Eight days after the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis, pastor and theologian Greg Boyd responded to John Piper’s blog post on the subject, which Piper wrote the same evening as the disaster. I don’t know whether Boyd self-identifies as an Arminian; I know that some of his critics have identified him as such. But for some of these critics, unfortunately, “Arminian” has come to mean “non-Calvinist Protestant,” rather than an adherent to a robust Christian theological tradition.
One thing I know for sure is that Boyd is an “open theist.” This means that from Boyd’s perspective, God has limited himself to operating within our current time. Therefore, the future is unknown and unknowable to him: God can only know what might happen at any moment. I wrote the following in my original post in this series:
Does this mean that God is less than omniscient? Does God not know everything, as Christian theology has always maintained? Not all, the open theist would say. God does know everything—at least everything there is to be known—all knowable facts. Since the future hasn’t happened yet, however, any future event is not a knowable fact. Therefore, that God doesn’t know the future doesn’t compromise his omniscience.
Therefore, when bridges collapse and people die, this surprises God as much as everyone else. The open-theist apologist would then say, “Of course God hates this evil and suffering, but what could he do about it? His hands are tied!” [Or maybe I should say, “He’s tied his hands!” assuming God has limited himself to our time.]
Of course, this raises a question: Why is God, who knows all facts—including whether or not a bridge is properly designed, the tensile strength holding a bridge together, and the the external forces working against it—unable to anticipate the collapse of a bridge?
Or if God can anticipate a bridge’s collapse—not even by knowing the future but by knowing all pertinent facts about the bridge—yet does nothing to prevent it, how does open theism solve the problem for which it was apparently made to order?
My point above is this: as a defense of God’s goodness, open theism, in addition to being heterodox, is a non-starter. Even if God doesn’t know the future for certain, he would be better able to at least predict the future, based on his perfect comprehension of all contingent events happening at any given moment, such that he could still intervene to prevent disaster from striking—assuming he wants to. And I don’t think Boyd denies that God could miraculously intervene once disaster strikes. Therefore, if God—who has perfect knowledge of all contingent events at every moment and the power to work miracles—doesn’t want to stop a disaster, we still have to ask why.
And we’re right back where we started: Why does God allow evil and suffering? What would be Boyd’s defense of God’s goodness in this case?
One thing is for sure: He did not like John Piper’s blog post on the 35W bridge disaster. In this post, I want to begin analyzing what Boyd wrote.
Boyd begins by summarizing Piper’s post (not referring to Piper by name—why? They were in the same city! Everyone knew whom he was talking about!), concluding his summary with the following:
This pastor interprets Jesus to be saying that “everyone deserves to die,” for “all of us have sinned against God.” And this, he insists, is “the meaning of the collapse of this bridge…”
What is more, this pastor argues that catastrophes like this one are God’s “most merciful message,” since they mean there’s “still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction.” For this reason, the message of the collapsed bridge is “the most precious message in the world.”
This is a perfectly fair summary of Piper’s interpretation of Luke 13:1-5. (As I said earlier in this series, I agree with Piper’s interpretation as well.) But he goes on to say that Piper’s teaching “honestly concerns [him]”:
First, his interpretation of Luke 13:1-5 assumes that God was somehow involved in Pilate’s massacre and the falling tower of Siloam. He thinks Jesus was teaching that the ultimate reason the Galileans were massacred and the tower fell on people was because “everyone deserves to die,” and Jesus was simply saying to his audience; “You’re as guilty as they are, and you’ll die too if you don’t repent.”
I would agree with Boyd that, apart from the rest of scripture, Luke 13:1-5 neither implies that God was involved nor uninvolved in these tragedies. But the question of what this passage “assumes” is different: If we believe that Jesus assumes that the Bible is a truthful record of God’s revelation to us, then it’s fair to say that Luke 13:1-5 assumes that God was “somehow” involved.
Was God “somehow” involved in the tragic events that befell Joseph in the final story arc of Genesis? Of course! Although God’s involvement wasn’t apparent until Joseph’s retrospective theological reflection on those events in Genesis 50:20: “As for you [Joseph’s brothers], you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
Was God “somehow” involved in the tragic events that befell Job? Of course! Satan initiates these events, but only with God’s explicit permission. I emphasize this fact because Boyd appeals to the freedom and power that demonic forces have to work evil in the world. Indeed, these forces are free, and they do have power. It is likely, given the constrained amount of power that God allows Satan to have in this world, that these evil forces played an important role in the bridge’s collapse. By all means!
But given the precedent of Job 1 and 2, Satan doesn’t work this evil without God’s permission.
In the New Testament, we see this same dynamic at work in Paul’s discussion of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12: the thorn was both a “messenger from Satan” sent to torment Paul and a gift from God to keep Paul from “becoming conceited” (v. 7). So it’s not either God or Satan; it’s both/and. Satan can do nothing apart from God’s providential permission.
For a theologian of Boyd’s stature, this should be baby talk. He should know—as classic Christian theology has always maintained—that God sustains everything into existence at every moment. No creature, no matter how free, lives independently of God. So God is necessarily involved in everything that (even) free creatures do. But even more, the Bible promises that God is working through “all things” for the sake of his children and his redemptive purposes (Romans 8:28).
Tim Keller, perhaps quoting someone else, called God “the great Alchemist”: only God has the power to transform evil into good. If he can transform the worst evil the world has ever seen (the cross of his Son Jesus) into the greatest good the world has ever seen (the salvation of all who believe in Christ), then he can surely transform all lesser evils, including the 35W bridge disaster.
Let’s look at the next sentence in Boyd’s post:
He thinks Jesus was teaching that the ultimate reason the Galileans were massacred and the tower fell on people was because “everyone deserves to die,” and Jesus was simply saying to his audience; “You’re as guilty as they are, and you’ll die too if you don’t repent.”
Here Boyd gets off track: He conflates God’s “message” embedded within a tragedy with the “ultimate reason” for the tragedy itself. They’re not identical, unless God’s sole purpose in allowing a tragedy is to communicate a message. In the case of the 35W bridge tragedy, we can infer that Piper believes that God let the bridge fall for many reasons, only one of which was to communicate a message about repentance:
Talitha said, “Maybe he let it fall because he wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.” “Yes, Talitha,” I said, “I am sure that is one of the reasons God let the bridge fall.”
“I am sure that is one of the reasons.”
Given these words, it’s clear Piper distinguishes “reasons” for a tragedy from the “message” communicated through it, and that he believes that there are many reasons. Even if God were communicating only one message through the 35W disaster, he’s still allowing it for many reasons.
In fact, if you read on five more verses, you come upon another catastrophe Jesus confronted: a woman who had been deformed for 18 years. Rather than assuming that God was somehow involved in this deformity, Jesus says this woman was bound by Satan (13:16). He then manifested God’s will by healing her.
See my words above about Job and Paul, both of whom suffered physical illnesses in which God is explicitly involved, alongside Satan. He continues:
This is what we find throughout the Gospels. They 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.
Even this isn’t true. What about the healing of the man born blind in John 9? Here are verses 1-3:
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.
Clearly, the gospels do not “uniformly” identify infirmities as being “directly or indirectly” the result of Satan’s “oppressive activity” rather than God’s activity—since this man was born blind so that “the works of God might be displayed in him.” Surely Boyd wouldn’t argue that Satan wanted God’s works to be displayed in the blind man! While these verses don’t rule out that Satan’s oppressive power is also at work, Jesus himself doesn’t go that far: we only know that God is the ultimate cause of the man’s blindness. Either way, Boyd has misrepresented the gospels.
I’ll continue to look at the Boyd post next time.