Piper: When God Goes a-Slaughterin’February 10, 2012
– John Piper
I’ve checked and I’m sorry to report that Piper’s online merchandise catalogue does not yet have the above slogan available on T-shirts.
This probably shouldn’t surprise me, coming from the man who called the Japan earthquake a “great gift” from God. But somehow I’m still stunned. The above quotation comes from a Christian Post article that appeared this week in which Piper was asked, “Why was it right for God to slaughter women and children in the Old Testament? How can that ever be right?”
The word “slaughter” generally refers to indiscriminate killing. You might think that although God has the right to take a life, he would at least do so on a principled basis. Not according to Piper.
Piper maintains that a slaughtering God is a-okay because God gives us life and it’s basically his prerogative when and how to take it.
God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.
God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.
There is plenty that could be said about the idea that God wills every death. It’s one thing for God to will that great grandma should die peacefully in her sleep at the ripe old age of 90. It’s another thing for God to will the torture and murder of children at the hands of Syrian authorities. But in Piper’s world, God is behind it all, silently nodding his approval. [For more on that point, see Zack Hunt’s critique over at The American Jesus.]
At the heart of Piper’s justification of divine genocide is the notion of a God who is entitled to end a life any way he wants simply because he can.
If I were to drop dead right now, or a suicide bomber downstairs were to blow this building up and I were blown into smithereens, God would have done me no wrong. He does no wrong to anybody when he takes their life, whether at 2 weeks or at age 92.
God is not beholden to us at all. He doesn’t owe us anything.
One has to wonder what sort of relationship Piper envisions between God and his creations such that his treatment of them is explained by the maxim, “God doesn’t owe you anything.” God sounds an awful lot like a pre-teen boy who has just received his mail order Sea Monkey kit. He may enjoy his little creatures for a while. But when he gets tired of the little shrimp, he’ll flush them down the toilet. He might even pull a few legs off first. He brought them into this world and he can take them out. He doesn’t owe them anything.
As I’ve argued elsewhere (see Justin Taylor & Scarlett Johansson’s Liver), I do not agree that a God who creates sentient beings capable of feeling emotion and pain owes them nothing. But even if God did owe his creatures nothing, Piper has missed the point of the question. The question is not about God’s rights; it’s about his goodness.
Behind Piper’s logic is the assumption that an omnipotent creator is unconstrained in what he can do to his creations. But even an omnipotent creator will be constrained by his own character. And that is precisely why the genocidal passages of the OT are problematic. They are incongruent with the dominant biblical portrayal of the character of God. God is not a pubescent boy frying ants with a magnifying glass in the driveway. The Bible (especially the OT) repeatedly describes God as a loving father or devoted husband.
Imagine a man who works for a kind and generous employer. The man has three children at home and a very pregnant wife. Without this job, the man’s family would be destitute. His employer knows all of this. One day the man gets the call that his wife has gone into labor. He rushes into his boss’ office and informs the boss of the good news. Before he can leave to make his way to the hospital, the boss informs him that he is fired. “Why?” he asks. Now, is it any answer at all for the boss to reply, “Because I’m your boss. I hired you; I can fire you.” The employee knows that. He has always known that he worked at the pleasure of his employer. He isn’t questioning his boss’ right to fire him. He is asking why his employer, whom he knows to be a kind and loving man, would choose to exercise his authority in so brutal a fashion.
That is why it is perfectly legitimate to ask why a loving father-like God would order the slaughter of women and children. To defend the extermination of an entire people by pointing to God’s supreme authority over life is to demonstrate that you haven’t understood the weight of the question.
Even more problematic is the implicit justification that Piper offers for the OT genocide. He doesn’t simply stick to his guns and say, “Yes, God indiscriminately massacred every man, woman and child in the Promised Land, but that’s cool because he’s God and that’s his prerogative.” Perhaps demonstrating that even he recognizes the appeal to God’s sovereignty to be unsatisfying, Piper reminds us that God had a reason for this purge:
With Joshua there was a political, ethnic dimension, God was immediate king, and he uses this people as his instrument to accomplish his judgment in the world at that time. And God, it says, let the sins of the Amorites accumulate for 400 years so that they would be full (Genesis 15:16), and then sends his own people in as instruments of judgment.
So I would vindicate Joshua by saying that in that setting, with that relationship between God and his people, it was right for Joshua to do what God told him to do, which was to annihilate the people.
Any time an apologist goes to bat for the justifiability of the Canaanite genocide, they invariably tell us how wickedly evil the Canaanite people were. There are a variety of problems with this move (eg. the lack of moral culpability of babies, the evidence that Israel itself engaged in child sacrifice, the hypocrisy of killing babies to punish a people for killing babies), but Piper has a special problem of his own.
Piper cannot even blame the Canaanites for their wickedness because, in his theological paradigm, their wickedness is God’s doing as well. Consider Piper’s discussion of how temptation works in an article from his website entitled, “The Sovereignty of God and the Sin of the Believer”:
Given the natural condition of man apart from the Holy Spirit, he will yield to sin invariably; he is the slave of sin (Rom. 6:17,20; 8:3-8). Therefore every instance of turning from sin to righteousness is due to the irresistible work of God, who transforms the mind and heart so that the believer prefers righteousness over sin. I conclude, therefore, that no Christian determines ultimately whether he will overcome a temptation to sin. God determines that.
It follows that when a believer gives in to temptation, desiring sin more than God, it is because God has allowed sin or the flesh to gain the ascendancy for the moment. He does not cause the sin in the same way that he causes the obedience. The obedience he brings about by a positive influence of renewal because he delights in holiness for its own sake. Sin comes about in the believer’s life only by God’s permitting man’s natural tendencies to reassert themselves temporarily. And he does this not out of any delight in sin but out of a delight in the greater end which will be achieved.
Let me summarize. Man in his natural state is a slave to sin and cannot do otherwise. He escapes temptation only by the irresistible work of God. Sometimes God chooses to influence man irresistibly towards obedience. At other times he does not. The key point is this: it is entirely up to God whether man sins or obeys.
What, then, was going on in the 400 years that the sins of the Amorites were accumulating? In Piper’s view, God was deliberately withholding the grace that was necessary for them to avoid sinning. Like watching a toddler drown in a pool, God sat back, watched the Amorites flail their arms helplessly, and eventually stepped in to hold their heads under water as punishment for not being able to swim.
There is a superficial appeal in the teaching of neo-Reformed preachers like Piper and Driscoll. We are encouraged to delight in the tremendous unmerited grace extended to us when God chose to reach in and pluck us out of the pool. Sounds so good. Lucky us. Until you start asking those awkward questions about the plight of the other kids who were intentionally left to drown.