I came across this blog yesterday. The author has cancer and addresses the idea of where this cancer comes from. Obviously, he understands that out of control cell division is what his cancer is. But he loves Jesus and is addressing the idea that some have (that no one has put to him personally, thankfully) that God gave him this cancer. His objections center around the theology/writing of John Piper.
First off, let me say that cancer is horrible and terrible and passing on trite Christian “comfort” is gross. Please just weep with someone who weeps. Do not try to fix their cancer by explaining why it’s happening. Just… weep. It’s terrible and scary and infuriating. Do all of those things with them. It sounds like people have done that with Mr. Hunt, for which I’m very glad.
Now in my circles, this isn’t exactly the hippest confession, but I’m not the biggest Piper fan. He seems to be a lovely man who deeply loves Jesus. He is a better pastor than I ever will be. I have an enormous amount of respect for him. But I’m not a fanboy of his. The way he communicates grates against me at times. I think he’s over extreme in his response to some things. So I appreciate him, but I’ve not planted my flag in the John Piper Hill, willing to die on it.
Before I deal with the substance of Mr. Hunt’s piece, let me just say that I take very serious objection to the way he has expressed his anger over Piper and his theology. I get that it’s very easy and, in some circles, very fun to hate on John Piper. I even understand that Piper pushes buttons with some people and it makes them very mad. But there are certain ways that Christians should and should not talk to and about one another. This is an example of how Christians should not talk to one another:
“If you’ve heard this non-sense before, hear me when I say this as strongly as I can: this is not the gospel. This is blasphemy against the Spirit disguised as systematic theology. It’s blasphemy because there is no other word for describing the portrayal of God as a serial child rapist, unabashed murderer, unspeakable abuser, and creator of unimaginable evil.”
Maybe it’s because I like to read a lot of old dead guys and I like to read history books, but I have to stop when I read things like this and insist that words mean things. And words like “blasphemy” mean something. To specifically charge that John Piper’s theology (and he’s comfortable elsewhere to pain this as all Calvinists) is blasphemous against the Holy Spirit, the only Biblical “unforgivable sin” and a damnable offense, is so far out of bounds, I couldn’t believe I’d actually read it. I read it again and again and it was so, so painful to see. The author knows the Scriptural, theological context of that phrase “blasphemy against the Spirit.” He knows what he’s saying. And to say that over a difference in the justification of God in the face of evil (theodicy), even a very serious one, is fundamentally wrong. We’ve seen real heresy and blasphemy over the centuries. This is not that. We can disagree very stridently with one another and not reach for verbal-nuclear war. Push that button when it’s necessary. But it’s pretty much never necessary. I could rant more about this, but I won’t.
I think John Piper has made some really poor decisions in the way he’s communicated things in the past. His dismissive “Farewell, Rob Bell” tweet at the release of a book trailer for Love Wins was arrogant and preemptive considering the book hadn’t even released (though one has to say… Farewell, Rob Bell. Dude is way off in pseudo-spiritual la la land now). There’s other moments like this. But John Piper is standing in a theological and intellectual history that is thousands of years old. Yes, of course, he’s tied to John Calvin. But Calvin didn’t invent this view of history and Divine Providence. It’s way older than Calvin. Calvin actually quotes heavily from the Church Fathers to make precisely this point: “I’m not saying anything new here!” He was very sensitive to that charge from a Roman Church that wanted to insist that Protestants were making crap up. Calvin (and Luther and others) were saying, “No, YOU’RE making stuff up.” So “Calvinists” are really just members of a very significant stream of Christianity that has running since Jesus’ feet left the Earth.
And, look, this is a complicated subject for anyone, Christian or not. Evil, as Tim Keller says, is a problem for anyone to explain. For Christians, what part did God play or not play or is he able to play? The classic distillation of the problem is, “If God is entirely Good, then he must not be all powerful. If he is all powerful, he must not be all Good. Evil proves one of these two things.” And this isn’t a problem for just Calvinists (Hunt mentions this in his piece), but a problem for all Christians. Evil is also a problem for NON-Christians. How can you feel morally offended at evil in the world if evil is, basically, arbitrary. There are merely actions in the world, the strong using their strength or randomness making things happen. They’re not innately evil. But you FEEL like they are. How do you explain that feeling? Evil is a problem for everyone.
This is complicated for Reformed, Presbyterian people like me. For one, I have to say, I love Calvin. I think Hunt misreads Calvin, willfully or otherwise, elsewhere in his blog and I think it’s pretty common. Of course, he would just say that he’s reading him perfectly clearly and hates what he’s saying. Fair enough. We disagree. BLASPHEMER! (I kid.) Calvin is a very emotional, tender, pastoral writer who makes much of the Trinitarian God, especially the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. It’s more fun to pull quotes from context and not explain terms (like “decree”) and use him as a piñata, but whatever. But this is an emotionally difficult subject for the Calvinist. Descendants of Augustine and Calvin (and others) have to explain how human responsibility and the natural world gone wrong really have their own responsibility. Basically, God cannot be the author of evil. He cannot. So much ink has been spilled to maintain a strong view of God’s sovereignty (which we’ll come to in a second) and insist that humans have real causality and agency in the world. We’re responsible for our sin, not God. How does that work out? I don’t know. No idea. And I don’t think Scripture gives us many tools to resolve that tension.
Hunt wants to insist that this cancer had nothing to do with God. It only takes a few questions, though, to scratch away at those very lovely, emotional assertions about how God loves us and sacrifices for us and would never hurt us and could never will that, etc. Ok. God didn’t give you cancer (and I agree that that’s probably not the best way to describe things, strictly speaking). So what then? Did he know about it? Was he like, “Whoops! Where did that cancer come from?!” Is he able to heal you now? Did he know it was coming and he was unable to stop it? Hunt can cry blasphemy if he likes, but I’ll just assert that a God who does not know or cannot heal or stop cancer before it starts is, quite frankly, a weak conception of God. In fact, it defies classical definitions of the word “God.”
I think Scripture is full of views of God that very strongly lean on his sovereignty. I think that’s been the majority view of things for a long, long time. Jesus wasn’t surprised at Lazarus’ death. He knew about it. He let it happen. He, in that sense, willed that Lazarus would die. But he also wept at his death. Jesus proclaimed that a man born blind wasn’t born so out of chance, but that he would glorify God in his blindness. And then Jesus healed him. Job clearly paints a portrait of a God who can protect Job, but doesn’t. The Psalms are full of lamentations, banging on the door of heaven, screaming, “You could have stopped this. You knew it was coming. You did nothing. Why is it like this?!”(For more on this, please read all of this book.) The assumption being that God really did allow this, ordain it, and, in some sense, will it. That thrust is all over Scripture. All over. Evil is never God’s doing, but God makes room for it and weaves it into his plan. It’s scary and messy and confusing at times.
Can I give you the best example?
The Cross. The Cross was horrific evil done to God. Jesus, an innocent man, was tortured and crucified. All of the people in the story that plotted against him or bowed out in cowardice, the people that drove the nails and pierced his side and pointed and laughed, all of those people were really doing those things. It was terrible, terrible evil. And yet. And yet it was also very clearly God’s will. A hateful, terrible thing that is morally, objectively evil. It was God’s will. And yet inside that terrible thing, God was working unforeseen good. God hates evil. He will crush it, even if he seems to work with the evil intentions of others and the evil done to people in the natural world.
How does that work when terrible things happen to children? How does that work when villages are wiped out by tsunamis? I don’t know. It’s all very messy. The Bible doesn’t clear that up for us. It leaves things fuzzy and grey in the middle. The end is clear: God will glorify himself for our good. To see him for who he is is the best thing he could do for us. And he will do it. The beginning is clear to: evil is our choice, or the choice that we are victim of. How that narrative arc connects at every dot along the way, I’m not sure. But it’s not crazy to tell a brother or sister in Christ to not waste their cancer, to join in the big story of what God is doing in the world. Part of that is weeping before God and thrusting our cares on him, asking for him to make things right, knowing that he really can, even if he is not right now. Part of actually glorifying God is proclaiming his good kingship, his good government and asking for it to be brought in fullness when cancer ravages the body. It’s not stoically muttering, “It must be the will of the Lord” while chemo does it’s horrible job. We can rail against those horrible lines into the arteries and say things are out of sorts, while at the same time insisting, “Even in this evil, the will of God is at work.”
Evil is a terribly difficult thing. More and more, I find myself trying to teach my heart the words of the Heidelberg Catechism. I find them comforting and reassuring in the midst of real confusion about the evil I see in the world. Hopefully, one day, I’ll believe it all the way down to my marrow. I want to trust my good Father-King. He’ll have to keep showing me how.
Q. What do you believe when you say, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth”?
A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ the Son.
I trust God so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me in this sad world.
God is able to do this because he is almighty God, and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.
Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?
A. The almighty and ever present power of God by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
Q. How does the knowledge of God’s creation and providence help us?
A. We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing in creation will separate us from his love. For all creatures are so completely in God’s hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.