John Piper’s fuzzy logic on natural disasters

John Piper is, by all accounts, an intelligent person, so I remain mystified by the lapses in logic he displays when blogging about natural disasters like  the recent fury of storms in the Midwest United States. As a theologian he’s certainly more legitimate than a Pat Robertson-type figure so I’m forced to take him seriously, and I can appreciate his particular view of divine sovereignty even though it strongly repels me. Personal disagreements with his theology notwithstanding, the sheer failure of rational thinking on this particular subject is what I really find offensive.

Now, Piper doesn’t shy away from the tough questions that his brand of Calvinism raises. This week he admirably took on the question of “Why”: Why, if God executes meticulous and total control over all states of affairs, did he choose to lay the hammer on the Midwest and not somewhere else? From the blog post:

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.

  • “The wind of the Lord, shall come, rising from the wilderness, and it shall strip Ephraim’s treasury of every precious thing” (Hosea 13:15).
  • The Lord turned the wind into a very strong west wind, which lifted the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea” (Exodus 10:19).
  • God appointed a scorching east wind” (Jonah 4:8).
  • God commanded and raised the stormy wind” (Psalm 107:25).

Via Desiring God


And two years ago, when a tornado ran through downtown Minneapolis:


Jesus Christ controls the wind, including all tornados.

Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? (Mark 4:41)

Via Desiring God

The obvious point to make here is that none of these scriptures really support the idea that God is the one directing these natural disasters to occur. If it’s supposed to be a deductive argument then Piper is missing some key premises that he doesn’t really explain. Clearly, moving from

1: God caused disaster X to happen in the past


Conclusion: God causes all disasters that ever happen anywhere

requires some logical maneuvering. On the face of it its ridiculous, like arguing that, since I started my car this morning, I am therefore responsible at all times for any car in the world starting.

Alternatively these verses may be meant to provide evidence for the idea that God controls all events that occur in the world, as a type of inductive argument. This really isn’t much better, and probably worse. If these verses attest to occurrences of God’s specific intervention in the world then they constitute exceedingly weak evidence to the idea that God’s control is total and absolute. As another example, pointing out that I know my multiplication tables up to the fours is very weak evidence for the idea that I can calculate any conceivable mathematical problem on the fly.

I know elsewhere that John Piper has explicated and defended his view of divine sovereignty,  so perhaps it is a principle assumed for the purposes of his writing. On the other hand, its pretty clear he thinks these verses support his view, since he clearly presents them in this fashion. But any reader, Calvinist, Open Theist or atheist, should find the logical reasoning  wanting at best.



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13 Replies to “John Piper’s fuzzy logic on natural disasters”

  1. Josh, I appreciate this criticism of Piper’s logic. But I think you need to consider the alternatives. Apart from those few cases where Scripture specifically tells us the cause, who would you suggest does cause natural disasters like tornadoes?

    Human beings? Surely not in general, even if there could be some small element of human responsibility in that deforestation or climate change might increase tornado frequency.

    Satan or demons? That suggestion would open up another theological Pandora’s Box.

    Or would you suggest that tornadoes just happen, uncaused, as natural events in the universe? But then I assume that you, as a Christian, accept that God created the universe (I am not talking about when!). That implies that he is responsible for what happens in it, just as an aeroplane manufacturer is responsible if a plane they built has a fault and crashes. Of course the plane company didn’t deliberately cause the crash, as a crude attempt to punish the passengers. Similarly we shouldn’t claim that God has deliberately caused a tornado, but he does bear responsibility for it.

    Actually I have some sympathy for Pat Robertson’s reported position. If you don’t want to suffer tornado damage, don’t live in a tornado prone area! But we all have to take various risks in our daily lives, such as each time we venture out on a road. The risk from tornadoes is one that people have (mostly) freely accepted as part of the price of living in, for example, America’s fertile heartlands.

  2. Hi Peter, I think there are some viable alternatives to Piper’s view. My own view is that stuff happens; God’s created a world that works in a certain way, and that way sometimes creates natural disasters in patterns that accord with the laws of nature. Hence, tornados occur in places where tornados tend to occur, same with hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions- no need to drag God into the mess.

    This is obviously a huge question of theodicy, creation and million other topics. But I don’t think that I’m forced to ‘blame’ God for setting things up a certain way. John Polkinghorne has a neat idea that God’s given the created order a measure of “freedom”; humans more so than other things, of course.

    1. Thanks, Josh. Your position isn’t really that different from mine. But I don’t think we can let God off the hook completely. Surely he could have designed a world where tornadoes don’t happen. He had good reasons, no doubt, for not doing that. But it was his decision, even if it was just one of giving freedom, whatever that means in this context, to the creation.

      1. I agree, there’s still a need for theodicy in our view. No one’s gotten God “off the hook” for it all yet, and I’m not sure we should. But its certainly nice to be able to say God’s not running things like a puppeteer 🙂

      2. Concerning natural disasters. I don’t think we know that for sure that a world without natural problems is possible. Maybe God could make a place without natural disasters but it wouldn’t work like this planet and apparently this is the way God wants it. Or maybe I should say he allows it.
        God’s nature has flourished for hundreds of millions of years and given rise to an amazing diversity of life, and given rise to God’s ultimate intention (in my opinion) man. Nature works very well, it can be difficult sometimes but Christ gave us the example of how to help our fellow man through the difficult times.
        Sorry if that is a little soapbox-y.

  3. “he could have designed a world where tornadoes don’t happen”

    That would have to be supported with some arguments.

    1. Let me nuance this a bit more. Maybe God could have fine tuned some physical laws so that tornadoes couldn’t happen, but presumably something else would be less ideal from his viewpoint. Maybe not. But, as theists who believe that God is almighty, we do know that he could intervene every time a tornado threatens human life, property etc to avert the danger. But he chooses not to do so. As Nate says, “apparently this is the way God wants it”. His priority is not to keep us humans safe in this world, nor for that matter to rapture us safely to heaven, but to bring us to maturity so that we can work with him to build his kingdom.

  4. Couple other quick thoughts.
    1. Man has changed and warped nature, we should expect consequences.
    2. I am reading a draft of Michael Heiser’s new book on the mythical background of the OT. And he believes in his reading that the OT shows that God tamed creation but only made it perfect in Eden, only with God is it perfect. The rest of the planet is good and is tame enough for man, but not always safe. At least that is how I read it. I am really not that bright and probably butchered his intent.

  5. Hebrews 2:8
    …Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.
    The writer of Hebrews says that He controls everything even though it doesn’t look like it (tornadoes etc..)

    1. Hi Steve, that’s certainly one way to interpret this verse. My own thought is that there’s some equivocation going on between the verse’s use of ‘control’ and your own; keeping with the free-will theist tradition I ascribe to, I think I can affirm that God is in control of everything without pulling every string. I imagine you disagree, of course.

    2. I’m sure you have misunderstood this verse. The “he” here is God, but the “him” and “his” (not “himself” and “his own”) refer back to “man” and “son of man” in verse 6 (ESV). This is made more clear in the new NIV, which has “In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them.” It is also clear in the psalm which is being quoted and explained.

      Also you have ignored the “not yet”. In the present age this is not true, the author recognises (because he or she too sees natural disasters), but it will be true when Jesus’ work is finished.

      So this verse is teaching not that everything is now under God’s control, but that in the kingdom of God everything will be under human control.

  6. I think the words everything and nothing in this verse doesn’t allow for us to say he actually means some things. I also think of verses like Daniel 2:21 He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding;
    Even President Obama was set up by God even though humans voted for him.

    1. I’ve read your first sentence several times Steve and I’m afraid I can’t understand what you’re trying to say. As for your supporting text, you’re making the same error that John Piper does: the verse doesn’t explicitly prove your point. To say God does *some* thing isn’t the same thing as claiming he is behind *all* things. Alternatively, if its supposed to provide evidence then it is very weak evidence, since near-infinite proofs of God’s control over individual instances would be required to accumulate an argument that he controls all instances. The verse either fails as an proof for God’s meticulous control or it constitutes very weak evidence towards that end.

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