Was the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas a “good” event?

damage from the explosion in West, Texas

April 18 was a very sad day in West, Texas. A fire at the fertilizer plant resulted in an explosion that destroyed the plant, killed some 15 people, wounded over 100, destroyed some homes, damaged a church, and brought pain and trouble into the lives of many people. By anyone’s definition, it was a tragedy but, unlike the bombing at the Boston marathon, this tragedy came about through no malicious intent by any human being. But people naturally wonder, what was God’s role in the event?

Roger Olson’s perception of how a believer in meticulous providence should respond to tragedy

Roger OlsonOn April 19, Roger Olson asked where God was when the plant exploded, so that he could explain once again why he thinks that an indeterminist/ relational account of the situation is much better than a determinist/meticulous providence account. Roger writes:

If what many Christians believe about God is true, then the West, Texas disaster (like every disaster) as actually good – “designed, ordained and governed by God” necessarily means “good” in a Christian worldview. Something God designs, ordains and governs (the key is “designs”) has to be good in the larger scheme of things. . . .

God didn’t just know it was going to happen and didn’t just permit it; God planned it and wanted it to happen (even if he regretted its necessity) and directly or indirectly caused it. Many would say God didn’t cause it because they appeal to secondary causes, but if one asks about it’s ultimate cause they will explain that God is the ultimate cause of whatever happens. . . .

IF meticulous providence is true (viz., that God designs, ordains and governs whatever happens), then God was orchestrating it and rendering it certain (necessary) for a good purpose. (Or, for the nominalist/voluntarist, it’s “good” just  because God designed, ordained and governed it.)

Roger proposes that,

It’s easier to believe that when it’s not your town, or your race, or your family it happens to. But I’ve also noticed that few, if any, of those who believe that actually follow through with that belief. Instead of celebrating what happened because God designed it, ordained it and governed it they express grief and sorrow and regret over it (especially when it happens to someone they know and love or their own town or family or whatever).

Roger thinks that this expression of grief, sorrow and regret when tragedies occur is inconsistent in believers in meticulous providence, it is a practice that does not cohere with their theology. Instead, he says,

 If I were a believer in meticulous providence, divine determinism (and still a Christian) I would feel duty-bound to thank God for whatever happens. I might feel great grief and sorrow, but I would follow through the logic of what I believe and say, publicly, that “This is from God and therefore good and I thank and praise him for it.”

By contrast, Roger offers an answer from a relational theological perspective.

 So where does a believer in relational sovereignty think God was when the fertilizer plant exploded? Many will simply say “We can’t know–unless God gives a revelation explaining his ‘place’ in it EXCEPT that God was and is there among the suffering offering grace, comfort, strength, pardon, hope.”

My perception of the response to tragedy that belief in God’s meticulous providence should stimulate

I found Roger’s post troubling because of the way it misconstrues the way that a believer in meticulous providence should respond to tragedy, but I was inclined to let it go, as one more example of how difficult it is for us to get inside another person’s perspective and to work out its implications authentically.  As time went on, however, I found myself pondering just how meticulous providence should inform our responses. I come to quite a different answer from Roger, so I figured I would share it for others to consider too.

I start where Roger does, with the conviction that God is good. Indeed, as Jesus told the rich ruler, only God is intrinsically good (Lk 18:19); any good found in others derives from God. I also agree with Roger that we should understand God’s goodness in realist not nominalist terms. Things are not good simply because God says so, they are good because they cohere with God’s own nature, as the one by whose eternal goodness the “good” is defined. God can only do what is good, because he must be consistent with his own nature. That is an aspect of God’s faithfulness.

Unlike Roger, however, I believe that God is meticulously in control of all that occurs. God chose to actualize this particular world from among all the possible worlds which he could have actualized. So, everything that happens in created history comes about by the will of God’s eternal purpose, including all the sinful deeds of God’s creatures who are morally responsible for their actions, and all the tragedies that human sin and frailty bring about, and all the tragedies that come about without any human agency. This need not be the “best possible world,” a concept I consider incoherent, but it must certainly be a good world, even though evil acts are part of the way in which the ultimate good that God purposed is achieved. Joseph described this dynamic well, to his brothers, in Egypt. What they had intended for evil, God had intended for good (Gen 50:20; cf., 45:4-15).  Joseph was blessed with understanding of what God was doing in that situation, but we are rarely given such perspective, so we simply have to live in faith based upon the character of God, and in confidence that God never lets things get out of his control.

Roger is correct in his assessment that, from a Calvinist (meticulous providence) perspective, God must remain good in all that he plans and does, and so there is a very important sense in which the explosion at the fertilizer plant was good. It was good because it was an integral part of God’s eternal purpose for the world he created, together with all its people and every event in its history. God’s moral goodness was not compromised by that tragedy, because God did no injustice to any individual. This does not mean that the people harmed by the tragedy “deserved” what happened, in the sense that they were more wicked than others and were being personally judged by God. We can’t rule out the possibility that judgment was implemented in someone’s case, but we lack the knowledge to say so specifically. Good people, “innocent” people, were hurt. It is not yet known how the fire and the explosion came about. Perhaps it was the result of someone’s negligence, but there is no indication that it was intentional. If there was negligence, it does not appear to have been malicious. Mistakes may have been made which contributed to the disastrous outcome, but they may have been made by people with a clear conscience before God. There may even have been incompetence, but this is not sin, so long as people were doing the best they could to fulfill the responsibilities of their roles in the company.

Since the fall of humankind, God has not only refrained from promising that everything will go well for people who act with a good conscience, he has warned us that the whole of creation has been negatively affected by human sin, and life in this world will be difficult for everyone, women and men alike. Tragedies like this one will certainly grieve us, but they cannot surprise us. We know that because we live in a fallen world, among sinful people, and we are sinful ourselves. Things are not the way they are supposed to be, and not the way they will be when God restores his creation, perfectly sanctifies his people, removes all evil doers from his new earth, and brings about shalom, the well being of all his creatures who live at peace with him. It is precisely because we know God to be good, omnipotent and trustworthy, that we can live with firm hope that things will eventually be perfect. In the meantime, however, the effects of sin are everywhere, both within us and without. This is not because God is not good, but because we, his morally responsible creatures, are not. God’s justice is not yet established, though we pray regularly that his kingdom will come and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Given these realities (that God is good and all powerful, fulfilling his good purposes in and through all the events of created history; that we are sinners living in a fallen world, where the pain and suffering brought about by that condition are experienced both by those who are in conscious rebellion against God and those who are righteous through union with Christ), how should we respond to tragedies when they occur. Roger thinks that, if this is our theological perspective, we should thank God for whatever happens. Even if we feel grief at our losses or the pain and suffering of others, we should say: “This is from God and therefore good and I thank and praise him for it.”

At this point, I think Roger is definitely wrong. He has failed to grasp the full range of truth that Calvinists confess. God’s Spirit gave us psalms of lament for occasions like this. There are times when we should be righteously angry, or when tears of grief and pain are completely appropriate. Certainly, we should always have an overarching gratitude to God for his goodness, a confidence in his control of the situation that keeps us from total despair, and a hope that some day God will put to right all that is now wrong in his creation. Our goal in faith is that we never be without the joy of the Lord, even as we weep. We hear the voice of the Lord through Paul: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing; give thanks in all things,” and we know that “this is the will of God in Christ Jesus” for us (1 Thess 5:16-18). But this does not mean that we should pronounce every particular of the circumstances of life “good” because it is part of God’s eternal purpose, even when specific evils have been deliberately allowed by God, within his overall good and perfect plan. On the contrary, from God’s Word and Spirit, we seek to be discerning with regard to moral good and evil, so that we can respond appropriately. We should seek to reflect God’s own attitude to the circumstances of our lives. God is righteously angry with sin, and we should be too. He feels sorrow as he observes the suffering of righteous people who are victims of injustice or the evil intent of others, and we should feel that sorrow too. God himself does not declare everything that happens in the world “good,” and he hates much of it, and we should do so. Of course, we need to be aware that we are at peril of sinning when we are angry about evil, particularly when we are personally affected by others’ evil deeds.

Roger is correct that the overall framework of our attitude should be gratitude to God who is good, but this does not entail a blind ignorance of the difference between good and evil. Precisely because we know that the shalom of God’s creation is disrupted by sin, we are prepared to condemn sin and to grieve the suffering that results from it, even when the sinful source of the difficulties of our lives is not identifiable in the proximate actors in a situation. With the souls under the altar, we too can cry loudly: “Sovereign Lord, holy and true; how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Rev 6:10). Even as we do so, however, we can rejoice that the world is not in the mess we now experience because God chose to let libertarianly free creatures decide most of the details of world history. We are not helpless victims of the whims of other creatures, we are in God’s hands.

We are not able to explain God’s purpose for each particular event of human history, but we need not live in the fear that relational theology might foster, where God is believed to be doing his best to keep these tragedies from happening, but losing many of the battles he fights, and that he is as sorry about it as we are, but has chosen not to intervene, except in very rare instances,  because of the freedom he has given to angels and humans.

There is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccl 3:4). May God help us to discern what “time” it is now, and to weep about what gives him grief, but to rejoice about what gives him joy. May God also make us instruments of his peace, comforting the afflicted and rejoicing with those who rejoice, doing everything we do unto the Lord and for his glory. And may he give us the deep seated peace and joy and thankfulness that are the fruit of his Spirit, in the midst of the trials and troubles of our lives in this fallen world.

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3 Responses to Was the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas a “good” event?

  1. Jason says:

    Dr. Tiessen, would this post change much if we focused on God’s providence as it related to the Boston Marathon bombings? Of course the Calvinist would say that the Boston bombers are responsible for their actions, before men and God. But would anything else change in this post as it relates to God and the problem of evil (whether natural disasters or evil perpetuated by humanity)? Thank you for your time, and efforts. – Jason

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Jason, you ask a good question. The framework from which I addressed what may have been an “accident” in Texas would also apply in cases where tragedy occurs through the malicious intent of people who are either violating their own consciences or whose moral understanding has been terribly warped. But had I written the post with the Boston Marathon bombers in view, the details of my assessment would have varied considerably. What would need to be added to the picture would be specific attention to God’s goodness even when he chooses not to intervene when sinners harm others, though he does on some occasions. In tragedies like that one, people frequently speak of circumstances which kept them from being harmed and they thank God for this, if they are people of faith. Our response to their situation will obviously be different than to the situation of those who suffered in the set of circumstances God chose to actualize from among the many possible worlds he contemplated in choosing this particular world history. Of course, there will be many things hidden from us, but the framework of the sovereignty of God working out his good purposes needs to be affirmed, without disallowing the lament of evil deeds and the suffering that they inflict upon others. Moral evil must not be relativized or justified but it should not lead us to doubt God’s goodness or power, even while we long for the day when God’s reign will be perfectly established in the new earth, and all rebellion and suffering will come to an end.

  2. Jim Fox says:

    I find myself mostly in agreement with your statement. But this seems to me to be a “head-scratcher.” You said: “This need not be the “best possible world,” a concept I consider incoherent …”
    I am puzzled, because I see nothing incoherent about it. Maybe you could explain?
    Thanks…………..

    Jim

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