Thursday, September 08, 2005

Omnipotence & evil

Tony Campolo has weighed in on Katrina:


Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad answers. One such answer is that somehow all suffering is a part of God’s great plan. In the midst of agonies, someone is likely to quote from the Bible, telling us that if we would just be patient, we eventually would see "all things work together for the good, for those who love God, and are called according to His purposes." (Romans 8:28)


And why is Rom 8:28 a bad answer? It seems directly responsive to the question.

Whenever we talk about the will of God, we need to draw a distinction between the part in relation to the whole, and the means in relation to the end.

Does God will to kill people? Depends on what you mean.

He doesn’t will to kill them for the sake of killing them. But he does will to kill them for the furtherance of some higher end. And the reasons vary. He kills some people for the sake of justice (Gen 7; 19). He kills other people to spare them a greater injustice (Isa 57:1-2). He kills still others for the sake of the elect (Deut 7:1-8).


I don’t doubt that God can bring good out of tragedies, but the Bible is clear that God is not the author of evil! (James 1:15) Statements like that dishonor God, and are responsible for driving more people away from Christianity than all the arguments that atheistic philosophers could ever muster. When the floods swept into the Gulf Coast, God was the first one who wept.


I assume that this is a misquotation. He’s really thinking of Jas 1:13. It goes to show how sloppy he is that he doesn’t even get the verse right.

In any event, Jas 1:13 doesn’t say that God is not the author of evil. James does not employ that metaphor. As I’ve said elsewhere, that’s a highly ambiguous metaphor, with a lot of excess baggage behind it.

Campolo is importing a metaphor into the verse, then appealing to the verse to prove his point. This is fallacious.

Scripture doesn’t say that God weeps with us. Jesus weeps with us, for Jesus is God Incarnate, but weeping is a human attribute, not a divine attribute.

The notion of a weepy, chin-quivering deity has become popular in some Evangelical circles.

One of the popular charges leveled against Calvinism is that the God of Calvinism is not a God of love. He’s a God of power, but not a God of love.

That, however, is not where the distinction lies. Rather, what we have is a paradigm-shift from father-love to mother-love. This is nothing new. Roman Catholicism made that shift centuries ago when Mary became the center of gravity for popular Catholic piety.

In Bible times, the father was an authority-figure. A good father was a loving father, but he was no less a disciplinarian. An indulgent father was not a loving father. In that respect, Eli and David are cautionary role-models.

Mother-love is indispensable, but mother-love is not the standard paradigm of divine love in Scripture.

When I’m in pain I go to a doctor. I don’t need a doctor who can feel my pain. I don’t need a doctor who can break out the Kleenex and have a group cry-fest with me. What I need is a doctor who can administer a painkiller.

Surgeons do not perform operations on their own family members. They have too much of an emotional investment in the outcome. A surgeon needs a steady hand, not a bleeding heart.


There are still other religionists who take the opportunity to tell us that God is punishing America for its many sins… Furthermore, there are Christians who, in the weeks to come, can be counted on to thunder from their pulpits that Katrina is God’s wrath against the immorality of this nation, pointing out that New Orleans is the epitome of our national degradation and debauchery. To all of this I say, "Wrong."


There is nothing intrinsically wrong with relating some natural disasters to divine judgment. The flood, the plagues of Egypt the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as well as the destruction of Korah are cases in point.

What is wrong is the presumption that we can speak for God when God has not spoken.


The God revealed in Jesus did not come into the world "to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved." (John 3:17)


To cite Jn 3:17 and leave it at that is a half-truth, for the redeemer is also the judge (Jn 5:22; 9:39; cf. Mt 25:31ff.; Acts 17:31; 2 Thes 1:7-10; Rev 6:16).


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.


A Greek concept? Was Zeus omnipotent? No.

If Campolo is saying that God did not avert Katrina because he had not the power to do so, then this is an implicit denial of the many nature miracles in Scripture.

Indeed, a God who is unable to stop a hurricane is unable to make the world.


Personally, I contend that the best thing for us to do in the aftermath of Katrina is to remain silent, and not try to explain this tragedy.


Campolo would do well to heed his own advice. He is not remaining silent. He is attempting to explain the tragedy by a denial of divine omnipotence.

Campolo was right to say that there are a lot of bad answers to the problem of evil. And finite theism is one of the worst answers you can offer.


Instead of looking for God in the earthquake or the tsunami, in the roaring forest fires blazing in the western states, or in the mighty winds of Katrina, it would be best to seek out a quiet place and heed the promptings of God’s still small voice.


What would be best is to seek God’s voice in Scripture.


  1. Apparently God is weaker than we thought AND he doesn't speak clearly.

    the more Campolo talks about God, the more I think he's talking about himself.

  2. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to have a god like that, a god that makes mistakes, a god that isn't strong enough to protect me, a god that is learning alongside me... why bother praying? why bother seeking hiim? The only response I'll get is "don't worry, I love you" but there is great cause for worry because there seems to be nothing he can do to demonstrate that love!

    Wow, some people say the craziest things.

    Thanks for a good post.

  3. I agree that Campolo is not the only one who needs a theological education. Clearly Robinson is in the same boat.

    "Natures" don't weep, in the sense of abstact properties, but concrete, particularized natures do weep.

    Robinson is also equivocating over the meaning of "attribute," as if the noun, in the sense of a substance/attribute relation, were synonymous the verb, in the sense of predication.

    Notice, moreover, that I didn't frame my remark within a nature/person schema, so Robinson is imposing on me a framework I didn't use, then pretending to derive a difficulty due to the way he chose to recast the remark.

    There are, however, some fine seminaries I could recommend for his remedial education.

  4. Of what would God be a property-instance: of some generic property over and above God? An instance of some impersonal nature?

    God is not a concrete instance; rather, God is the examplar of every creaturely exemplum.

  5. To exist is not to be instantiated. To exist as a finite creature is to be instantiated. But God is not an instance of anything non-God.

    You're were the one who brought up the need for further education, not me. Now you're getting hot under the collar.