Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Reaction to Tragedies

Tony Campolo has a reputation for, among other things, his reactions to disasters and trajedies. Naturally, whenever a trajedy happens or a natural disaster occurs, you will hear talk about "Why did God let this happen?" Campolo is right in asserting that there are some very bad answers to this question, including statements like "God is punishing America" and others. But how does he respond?

There are three examples that I will point to of reactions by Campolo about disasters. The first is from an article written in 2006 shortly after hurrican Katrina pounded the Louisianna coast. Campolo says this:

Perhaps we would do well to listen to the likes of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who contends that God is not really as powerful as we have claimed. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures does it say that God is omnipotent. Kushner points out that omnipotence is a Greek philosophical concept, but it is not in his Bible. Instead, the Hebrew Bible contends that God is mighty. That means that God is a greater force in the universe than all the other forces combined.

In scripture we get the picture of a cosmic struggle going on between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. The good news is that, in the end, God will be victorious. That is why we can sing in the Hallelujah Chorus, "the kingdoms of this world [will] become the Kingdom of our Lord."

He also says that when the hurricane hit, that God was "the first one who wept."

Campolo would also argue that saying "all suffering is part of God's plan" is also wrong. He would argue that God is not the author of evil.

This takes us to the second example of Campolo's response to another trajedy. This response comes from Campolo's podcast where he is duiscussing the Virginia Tech shootings that happened earlier this year.

I say things that get incredible uproars because people don't think, and it's as simple as this: God is not in control of everything. I know that is going to sound like heresy because we love to say in the midst of everything that's going on "Oh, God's in control, God's in control, God's in control." Well that is absolutely absurd. God did not bring about Auschwitz. God does not bring about these horrible events on this planet. They are the doings of human beings in most instances.

May I say this: It is obvious that God is not in control by God's own choice. When God created Adam and Eve he gave them freedom. Now, you can't give your children freedom and still say you're in control of them....If you're a father or a mother and you say I'm going to give my children freedom to make their own decisions. Great, but when you do that have you not relenquished control over them? Have you not said "I am not going to be in a determining position in their lives"? I'm going to let them make their own mistakes. I'm going to let them screw up their own lives if they want to. I hope they do the right thing but I've done as much for them as I can and now it's time for them to stand on their own two feet so I'm going to give them their freedom." When you give freedom, you relenquish control. God gave the human race freedom. He had power. He relenquished that power. He gave to human beings the freedom to make decisions both negative and positive.

It's important that we recognize that this is essential, because God want something special from all of us. He wants us to love him. Love cannot be coerced. Love cannot take place when you're in a controlled situation....[God says] "I'm gving to each human being the freedom to love me or to reject me."...It is a decision that is made freely without coercion from God. That means that God is not in control of everything that happens.

If god was in control of everything, everybody would be saved, everybody would be a Christian. There we be no sin in the world if God was in control of everything. God has had to give up control in order to make us into free beings; creatures who are cpable of loving him in return and loving each other in return. What we do with that freedom has been horrendous, but it has also been glorius.

The final example I will share also comes from his podcast, and it is referring to the tsunami that hit off the coasts of the Soloman Islands. Here is his response:

One of the things I say that gets me into a great deal of trouble is the fact that, Christians particularly, are not ready to face up to the fact that when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden causing the fall...that it not only effected them and the destiny of the human race, but it's quite clear from scripture that all of nature was effected....Nature is fallen. It is not the phisical world that God has inteded for it to be. That is a basic Christian doctrine. And when we talk about salvation, we are talking about salvation not only for we ourselves, if you go to the eighth chapter of Romans, go ahead and read it startng with the 17th verse, not only we ourselves need salvation, but all of creation longs for restoration, longs for being saved from its present state. The fall of humanuty in Adam brought about horrors not only for the human race, but horrors for the whole natural world, the whole physical world. and so it will be that when all of humaity is saved and redeemed upon the second coming of Christ, so will the physical universe be delieverd from its present suffering.

Okay, so there is the information, given to you in context as best I can. How do we respond to this? Some have gone as far as to boldly call Campolo a heretic for his beliefs on this issue, which I think is absolutely rediculous. I will admit if you take a statement or two out of context, like "God is not in control...", it is a bit alarming. However, I think when you see his arguement in context it is much more orthodox than we would like to think at first.

There are several levels to this issue. The second example cited above is nothing more than the age old arguement between Calvinists and Armenians concerning the sovereignty of God versus human free will. If you believe that humans have free will, then Campolo makes a great arguement in the second example that God is not in control of everything.

Where he begins to push the envelope a bit more is when he begins to talk about natural disasters (weather) and creation. I'm not sure what he would say spicifically about this, whether God can and does control weather sometimes, or whether God is not in control of weather at all. Certainly we see in scripture God controlling weather, sending rain etc., so I doubt he would say God cannot control it. Regardless, it seems clear that Campolo believes that nature is fallen and that God is not directly responsible for the evils that come from natural disasters.

Okay, now here is my question: Why is that so contraversial? And, even if you disagree, is it enough to call him a heretic? Perhaps it is simply a discomfort we feel when we hear someone say that God is not in complete control. We want to know we are safe, defended, protected. In response I would say that we are forced to accept one uncomfortable believe: either God is in complete control and cause/allows things to happen, or he is not in complete control of everything. so, again I ask 2 questions: 1) What is so wrong with what Campolo is saying?, and 2) Where do you come down on this centuries old disagreement?

Someone asked where they can find more info about this stuff. Here are a couple links.
Tony Campolo's website
The link to find Campolo's podcast and sermons


Chip Burkitt said...

I like to think of creation as God's book. God is the author, and we are all characters in his story. Unlike human authors, however, God is able to actually interact with his characters.

Everyone knows that a good book requires conflict. God's book is no different. He gives his characters free will in respect to their interactions with him (which are part of the story), but as the author, he plots everything in the book. He makes everything happen and moves the story along.

God has written himself into the story in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus began a subversive movement called the church which was designed to pull characters from the devil's camp into God's camp. This plan has to take place within the structure of the story. God can't just make all the characters good without spoiling the story. The story is what glorifies him; he won't spoil it for anything.

So God is in control of the story, but his characters also resist him in the story. (Every author is familiar with the helplessness of absolute power.) God is ultimately responsible for the evil in the world, but he is not evil any more than Tolkein was evil for making Frodo suffer; Sauron was evil.

This is how I reconcile the absolute power of God with the reality of evil. Perhaps it doesn't work for everyone, and it's an imperfect analogy even for me, but it helps me make sense of things.

By the way, the movie Stranger Than Fiction, provides some insight into this whole point of view.

Tim said...

Nick, this is a great post! I really enjoy listening to Campolo even (especially?) when he says things that push the envelope a little or a lot. (That doesn't make him a heretic.) Didn't Jesus do that all the time? (Wasn't Jesus accused of being a heretic?)

Chip, I really like how you compared Stranger Than Fiction to this. I absolutely fell in love with that movie when I saw it a couple months ago, and after 3 viewings the same week, it became my all-time favorite movie simply for the depth of thinking in this very area that it caused me.

I think there is definitely truth in that God has to relinquish (just some?) control if He is going to give free will. That makes sense even if we don't want it to. But I also think we have to believe that God can and will take back control as He sees fit to show His love. How that manifests to our understanding/comprehension is another discussion altogether.

Good stuff. Nick -- could you post the links or references to the articles and podcasts that you refer to?

Nick said...

Thanks for the thoughts Tim and Chip.

Tim, I updated the post with some links to help you find the sources I referenced. The easiest way to find his podcast, of course, is just search iTunes, if that is what you use. But, the link is there.

Happy Thanksgiving all!

Tim Ellsworth said...


If you can explain to me how it's not heresy to say that God is not omnipotent or as powerful as we have claimed, I'd love to hear it.

This is going way beyond belief that "God is not directly responsible for the evils that come from natural disasters."

Campolo doesn't like the God of the Bible, so he tries to reinvent Him into something that he finds more acceptable. That is heresy, whether you think it's ridiculous or not.

Tim said...

Tim E, I think you missed the important context with Tony Campolo's quote: May I say this: It is obvious that God is not in control by God's own choice. (bolded by me for emphasis) I think Campolo makes a very strong argument with this. It is very consistent with the Creation narrative (where God has total control), the creation of humans and giving them the control to have dominion over the earth, and the narrative of the Fall (when man succumbed to the temptation to be like God).

I especially like how Campolo follows this up later in the quote Nick gave us: If God was in control of everything, everybody would be saved, everybody would be a Christian. There we be no sin in the world if God was in control of everything. I really don't know how this could be called heresy. It's pretty standard free-will based logic. Now if you are a Calvinist or Universalist I could see there would be disagreement. Personally, I happen to be find truth in the first two, and open to some elements of the third, but that's way off topic.

Just some thoughts...

Tim Ellsworth said...

Hi Tim,

So, the way I understand what you're saying, it's a case of "poor God": "Oh, I wish I could do something different, but those people just won't let me."

In other words, what Campolo is saying is that man is sovereign, and not God.

I don't know how this can not be heresy.

Nick said...

Thanks for your comments, guys.

Tim E., if we are accepting the definition of omnipotent as all powerful, that is, he has all power and is in control of everything, then like Campolo says, it is foolish to think that God is omnipotent. Obviously we have free will, as Tim said, by God's own choice, so he certainly does not have control over everything. You cannot have a God who is in control of everything AND still give humans free will.

Now, if you want to be Calvinist in this area, and claim that there is not really free will, but that God is all powerful, that is fine. It is certainly a valid, alternative view on this, but then it certainly doesn't follow that all people that disagree with that are heretics.

Notice what Campolo and I are NOT saying: that God is not powerful, that man is sovereign over God, that there is a being more powerful than God.

Sovereign is defined in the dictionary as "supreme in power, above all others". I have no problem will calling God sovereign if that is the definition (and Campolo would agree). By this definition, it does not mean that there are not things that are outside of God's power, only that he has the most power. No one would disagree that God is supreme by this definition.

Tim said...

No, not at all. I don't really know how you could take "poor God" from that. The key is by choice. Without that you might as well throw out Creation and the Fall because everything within those are by choice:

* By choice of God to create
* By choice of God to give free will
* By choice of man to follow the temptation of the talking serpent
* By choice of man to not follow God's command
* By choice of God to cast man out of the blessings of perfection

To extend this to the Cross, which Donald Miller portrays excellently in the book Searching For God Knows what and Nicole Nordeman relates in the song Crimson. (If you want to send me an email, I'll email you the song - it isn't that large - timmcgeary at gmail dot com.)

* By choice God sent His Son to show the world the way to God
* By choice Jesus followed God's will in his life and death
* By choice God sacrificed His Son to the ultimate and final sacrifice of sins
* By choice God raised Jesus from the death to show His ultimate power over death and sin
* By choice Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to lead his disciple, then and now
* By choice we decide to follow Jesus and God and seek to return to a relationship of perfection that God first created in the beginning.
* By choice God continues to love us through mercy and salvation despite our continued sinfulness
* By choice we must, in all things and at all time, give thanks for God's eternal love.

I don't think Campolo misrepresents God's power whatsoever. He would completely agree with Paul that nothing can keep us from the love of God; nothing above or below, supernatural or earthly, kingdoms or rulers, etc, etc. But that doesn't mean that God hasn't by choice given up certain control so that His love, as He by choice seeks us out, can be even more desired by us by choice.

(Did I beat the horse of "by choice" too much?)

Tim Ellsworth said...

If man can make a choice that God is helpless to do anything about, how is that anything but man being sovereign over God? It's man calling the shots, not God.

Again, based on what you guys and Campolo are saying, what we're left with is a picture of God sitting in heaven, wringing his hands, saying "Oh, dear. I wish I could do something about what those people are doing. But alas, they just won't do what I want, and I wish I had the power to get them to." That's not a biblical picture of God, nor is it a God who is worthy of our worship.

"The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes." (Proverbs 21:1)

How do you explain this passage if you believe that the actions of people are outside of God's power?

As for free will, I'd argue that Adam and Eve were the only human beings with free will. After the fall, our wills were enslaved to sin. We cannot "choose" to follow God apart from his intervention. Left to our own devices, we will always choose to reject God.

I don't think you guys fully understand the concept of God's sovereignty. If God doesn't have control over everything, then he's not God.

Nick said...

Tim, the problem is that that is just an extremely narrow view.

Okay, you have said you don't think humans have free will (anymore), so you are a Calvinist in that area. fine, but is it correct to call all non Calvinists heretics? That is a strong word, kind of like the church form of Nazi. I would be very careful where and how you use that.

If man can make a choice that God is helpless to do anything about, how is that anything but man being sovereign over God? It's man calling the shots, not God.

Because you apparently don't know what sovereign means, because you are using the term incorrectly, based on the definition I gave from the dictionary. As I said, soveriegn means supreme in power, above all others, having the most power. It does not follow saying that if anybody else has power, like a man, that God is no longer sovereign (unless you are using a different meaning of sovereign, using it to mean God is on cotrol of absolutely everything). It would be like if a being had a million "power points". (I know this is dorky, just roll with the analogy). If someone else had one "power point", and that was the next closest being in power, we would say that the first being was sovereign, because it certainly has the most power. giving ANY power to anything else does not take away the fact that the first being is sovereign.

As far as that scripture verse is concerned, I don't see it as a problem at all. We must interpret scripture in light of all other scripture. There are certainly things that God does exercise complete control over, and we see many verses througout scripture that communicate that idea. But, we also see examples of God leaving decisions up to his people, and giving them control.

"I have set before you blessings and curses. Choose life, that you might live." Deut 30:19

We also do see God becoming sad and grieved by the choices of man, and he never violates their free will. A few examples are before the flood, God was grieved that he made man, he gets both sad and angry at the stiffed-necked Israelites as well as the Pharisees. A person cannot grieve, frustrate, or resist you if you exercise exhaustive control over that person.

I'm sorry that you don't feel that this God is worthy of worship, but it seems this is the most accurate picture of God in scripture: A loving God who is soveriegn, but has given free will to his children, that they might love him back (or it is no love at all), who is grieved and saddened at the chioces they make against him and the pain their choics cause.

j razz said...

I read the article above with Compolo's comments. I would like to see his biblical basis for what he is teaching.

Scripture is the ultimate authority. Everybody has their opinions about scripture, but if Compolo does not have a firm foundation of scripture beneath his feet, his argument will surely fail... and I hope that we are all discerning enough to really take his statements and apply them to the standard of scripture to see if they stand or if they fall.

I believe for Campolo to make his argument, he would have to explain away Job, Habbakuk, the statements of Paul while imprisoned as stated in the book of Acts, as well as every time God used foreign nations inflict judgement upon the Israelites.

What is more, he would have to explain away the salvation account of Paul and amongst other things, the subjection of everything unto God.

I would like to see Compolo explain away the proofs of John Owen in "The Death of Death in the Death of Christ".

j razz

Tim Ellsworth said...

I'm not calling all non-Calvinists heretics. I'm calling Campolo a heretic because he rejects the omnipotence of God -- a concept well established in Scripture and embraced by orthodox Christianity for 2,000 years. If he thinks God doesn't have the power to stop things like Hurricane Katrina, which is what he is obviously suggesting, then he has a heretical view of God.

Nick said...

Tim, fair enough.

But again, let's talk about what omnipotence means and if it is true. I think I have shown how it is not. You seem willing to bring up your own objections, which I respond to, but you dont seem willing to respond to the objections that Tim and I bring up.

Tim Ellsworth said...


I'm not sure what you think I've been doing all along.

Here's it in a nutshell. You and Tim say that you agree with Campolo that God is not omnipotent because God has chosen to give up some of his power to human beings. I think you're wrong on that, and I think it's a serious error, but I don't think it's heresy. But we've already been over it and there's no sense in rehashing it.

But Campolo obviously goes beyond the idea of God giving up some of his power to people, and goes so far as to suggest that God doesn't have control over nature. The quote about Katrina says it all. This is heresy, because he's not talking about power that God willingly gives up, but power that God never had to begin with.

You and Tim seem to think that I'm interpreting Campolo wrong, but I simply don't see how that's the case, given what he says about natural disasters.

I'm done for a while. Got meetings, lunch, and more meetings, so I may be done permanently. Thanks for the discussion.

Tim said...

Tim E, I appreciate this fascinating discussion, and I don't want to take over Nick's blog, so hopefully I can keep this short.

I still feel that you are reading something else into what I wrote than what I actually wrote. I never said that God is helpless. I never said that man can make a choice that God is helpless. I never said that man is sovereign over God.

There's nothing in my comments that would dispute Proverbs 21:1 as you quoted, but your only quoting part of the point. The next verse says All a man's ways seem right to him, but the LORD weighs the heart. So God weighs on our hearts, but that doesn't mean God moves us like pawns in a chess match.

The sovereignty of God is also proven by the very actions of God in Creation and the Cross, as I listed earlier. God is the One who created the relationship with man, and the one who defined the terms of that relationship both before and after the Fall.

I think you have to see that Campolo is saying that God made a choice to give man certain controls. It is the foundation of the entire story of God's love for the world (Genesis 1:26-28) that God gave the world to man's rule.

It is also important to see that our lack of faith can impede Jesus/God, too, as shown in Mark 6, specifically verses 5-6: He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6And he was amazed at their lack of faith.

Was Jesus out of control? No, not at all. He was still Jesus. But clearly there is connection between fallen man who choices against God and the ability of Jesus to show the miraculous signs of God.

God can do whatever He wants to do. He gives and takes away. He can save anyone or no one. (What a blessing to us that He has not chosen to save no one!) But to say that God did not choose to give some control to man over man's life and man's world is to reject the very foundation of the Bible.

God didn't give away His Sovereignty. He didn't give away power. He was grieved He created man, and his heart was pained so he chose to destroy the earth and start over. (Genesis 6) Seems pretty sovereign to me. But He gave the same power to have dominion over the creation to Noah and his descendants as He did to the original humans. In fact, He gave more because now they could eat animals and not just the green plants.

That cycle of man getting out of line and God correcting them continues for millennia until the ultimate sovereign act and blessing of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

So in summary, God has the power to control anything and everything that He chooses to control. Whether He uses that power is His and His alone. Only He knows the reasons of His choosing. But He also has given us free will and with that is the responsibility and certain powers over this world and the people of this world. That is just much a part of God's sovereignty as His power to control.

I hope that helps.

Nick said...

Tim E,

Thank You! That is what I wanted you to do...you made yourself perfectly clear.

2 things:

First, the main thrust of my article was about the statement "God is not in complete control" and how people tend to freak out about that. I addmitted that he begins to push the envelope when he talks about natural disasters being outside of God's control. I'm not saying that he is right or wrong, I just thought it was an interesting point to discuss. I certainly wouldn't call him a heretic for his thoughts.

Second, you say he's not talking about power that God willingly gives up, but power that God never had to begin with. I'm not sure this is what Campolo is saying. I think his point is that nature is fallen from our sin, and that has consequences. The same way that God doesn't usurp the punishment and consequences that come when we sin personally, he choose to not control natural disasters that are the result of a fallen nature.

anyway, you don't have to respond, just some other thoughts. Thanks for chatting with us.

Chip Burkitt said...

Sorry, guys. I have to side with Tim E. on this one. Hopefully, though, I can make the concept of God's omnipotence a little more palatable. The Bible does not just show God as powerful, but as omnipotent. Paul says that his will cannot be thwarted (Rom 9), and throughout the Old Testament he is shown to be without equal. It is not as if our freedom places us outside his control. On the contrary, he knows the end from the beginning and has made everything to serve the purpose of his glory. Here is a concise description of what I believe concerning God's sovereignty. His will is irresistible. He saves whomever he chooses to save by his great mercy and condemns those whom he does not choose to save.
Is God then evil because he does not extend saving grace to all? Of course not. All of us deserve his condemnation. How is it evil to save some of those who deserve condemnation? Since he chooses not to save all, it is because the purposes of his glory are best served by showing mercy toward some and wrath toward others. As I noted in my first comment above, no one thinks an author evil because he creates evil characters. In the same way, though God creates evil men and even allows them to flourish for a time, he himself is good.

Nick said...

Intersting, Chip. I didn't know that is where you came down on this issue.

I still stand in disagreement, but it is interesting to hear your side.

Tim said...

Chip, thanks for adding more to the conversation. I'm getting the distinct impression that I haven't been communicating my agreement that God is sovereign and all-powerful, yet that there are times He chooses not to use that. Maybe Nick can confirm or deny that he understood my points.

In my last post, I thought I was saying, just as you did, that God can choose to save anyone He desires. And I thought I also said that God is never out of control, as He can always take control back from those He gave power (like our charge to have dominion over what He has created).

Here's an weighty example I thought of: Global Warming.

If God has given humans control over the care and dominion of the earth, and we believe that while God can take that on for us but chooses not to, then we as Christians should be on the front lines of environment protection and trying to care for God's creation as we know He would desire us to do.

But if we, as Christians, believe that God has complete control over the earth and nothing we can do will impact it, then we should be on the front lines of opposing all this conservatism of the environment because Global Warming is not a result our human acts, but what we are seeing is just God's control over the environment and He won't let us all drown because God told Noah that there would never been another worldwide flood.

I've described God as having control in both situations, but which is more consistent with scripture?

I think the sovereignty of salvation is a little bit of a different topic. I think there is so much depth in that topic itself that we could be discussing that for years. Yes, there are elements consistent between the omnipotence of God inside and outside of salvation, but I still think they are two different topics.