Did God cause the earthquake in Japan?
Reformed theologian John Piper says yes. But emergent church pastor Brian McLaren isn't satisfied with the simple answer, especially as it paints God as heartless or inept.
McLaren, who isn't a fan of black and white theology, issued a response on Wednesday to Piper's blog post on the March 11 quake and tsunami that killed at least 9,000 people.
All in all, McLaren says if his "only option for Christian faith required me to be satisfied with the explanations given by Piper, I would be driven away," he wrote in a commentary featured in The Other Journal.
Piper, one of the most influential evangelical pastors in the country, shared his thoughts on the devastation in Japan and the matter of suffering in the world in his blog last week. He noted that after empathy and aid, what people want is answers.
And in McLaren's view, Piper provided it – a "clean and clear theodicy," or a defense of God's goodness and omnipotence amid the existence of evil and suffering.
"Piper provides exactly what he believes is wanted – answers: clear, direct, and free of nuance."
Piper wrote in his blog: "No earthquakes in the Bible are attributed to Satan. ... Earthquakes are ultimately from God. Nature does not have a will of its own. And God owes Satan no freedom. What havoc demons wreak, they wreak with God’s permission. And God has reasons for what he permits. His permissions are purposes."
We don't know all ("hundreds of thousands") the purposes for the calamity in Japan and won't know until the end of age, Piper says. But there are possible purposes revealed in the Bible. Piper lists:
•"The end-time earthquakes" are meant as calls to unbelievers to repentance and as a wake-up call to the world that Jesus Christ is coming and God's kingdom will soon be born;
•"God's unilateral taking of thousands of lives is a loud declaration that 'The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away' (Job 1:21)" – in other words, life is a loan from God;
•The powerful earthquake reveals the "fearful magnificence of God" – "most of the world does not fear the Lord and therefore lacks saving wisdom;"
•When the earth shakes, there is a sense that there is no place to flee. Where do you turn? To God.
For those seeking "simple answers" and who are "of a certain theological bent," McLaren has no doubt that what Piper presented will satisfy them.
But McLaren doesn't agree with such simplicity, particularly when it comes to the matter of evil and suffering.
"Dr. Piper inhabits a religious universe where it must be deeply satisfying to respond to catastrophes in the way he has, for he has done so on a number of occasions," he wrote. "I doubt he, or many like him, will ever change course because this kind of explanation, for them, is fidelity – to their way of reading the Bible, to their understanding of God, to their tradition of strict Calvinism. To propose another way of thinking about the issues must seem like proposing infidelity."
McLaren, who recently authored Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, believes even the best answers to the problem of pain are "terribly unsatisfying."
"[T]hey work better in a classroom than in a hospital room, beneath a pile of earthquake rubble, or at a crime scene," he wrote in his book. "They provide only cold comfort to a person in agony, and often, as they solve one intellectual quandary, they create twenty-two more."
Often labeled as controversial and unbiblical, McLaren has been more interested in conversations about life's questions and theological matters than in answers. He avoids using "Q&A" on his blog when responding to questions from readers. He instead uses "Q&R" (response).
While he continues to ask questions as a Christian, he recognizes that those questions are largely answered for most evangelical Christians.
"If one were to ask, 'What is God’s relationship with the universe?' the only answer from Piper and his colleagues would be 'Sovereignty,' and sovereignty would mean absolute, unilateral control," he points out.
"That, I think, is not the only option for a faithful believer in God."
McLaren argues that "it is better to say" that God's sovereignty is not totalitarian.
"God isn’t the kind of king interested in absolute control. God wouldn’t create that kind of relationship with the universe because God isn’t that kind of God," he contends. "Instead, God creates space and time for a universe to be, to become, to unfold in its own story, its own evolution. God’s kingship is God’s absolute commitment to be with us, whatever happens, always working to bring good from evil, healing from suffering, reconciliation from conflict, and hope from despair."
"The kingdom or sovereignty of God that Jesus proclaims ... doesn’t come with the power of unilateral control but with a radically different kind of power: the gentle power (Paul dares call it 'weakness') of love."
The God McLaren sees imaged in Jesus is an unarmed man with courage and kindness, who washes the feet of his subjects, and whose power is revealed not by killing and conquering but by suffering and dying and rising again.
"I think it is fair to suggest that Dr. Piper sees Jesus’s suffering on the cross in the same light he sees the suffering of the Japanese in the wake of their triple catastrophe: God has inflicted this suffering and so we must accept it as God’s will and that trust God had a good reason for choosing to do it this way," McLaren notes.
"Like Dr. Piper, I see a certain commonality between Christ on the cross and the people suffering in Japan. But it is not that God is unilaterally taking life in both cases: it is that God, incarnated in Jesus, is present in the suffering and evil of life, feeling our pain, weeping with us in solidarity, sharing our losses and bearing our scars, moving with and in us to provide empathy and aid and much, much more. That is not an answer in the sense of an explanation, I suppose, but it is something precious: it’s the kingdom that cannot be shaken."
With thousands still missing in the aftermath of the Japan quake and the country's nuclear crisis still unresolved, both pastors are calling for action and love on the part of Christians.
Piper is urging Christians to help relieve suffering in Japan and to extend empathy and aid to all, including enemies.
He is also calling on believers to help provide relief from eternal suffering, encouraging them to "step forward with extraordinary, sacrificial love to show more clearly the mercy of Christ who laid down his life in the midst of the Father's judgment. The suffering and death of Jesus Christ for the sin of the world is the one place where empathy, aid, and answers meet. He invites everyone to come for all three."