Piper: Physical Horrors + Moral Evil

Yesterday may family spent the day at the new Civil War museum and driving through various battlefields in Gettysburg. It was an excellent opportunity to reflect on the war and especially the role these rocky battlefields (like Little Round Top) played in the outcome. It was a sobering reminder of the 620,000 young men and boys that died in the war and of haunting sounds that once filled this little town as thousands of men groaned from the pain of battle.

Leaving the battlefields left a sorrow in the heart and a residual question in the mind—what is the eternal purpose of wars like this one?

As we drove from battlefield to battlefield viewing thousands of memorials littered all over what is, in my mind, the worlds largest cemetery, the words of John Piper in his second and final message at the Resolved conference in Palm Springs were ever-present.

In his message on Monday evening—The Triumph of the Gospel in the New Heavens and the New Earth—Dr. Piper said the following:

Every human has died. Animals suffer. Rivers overflow an inundate hundreds of city bocks in Cedar Rapids. Avalanches bury skiers. Tornados suck the life out of little Boy Scouts. Tsunamis kill 250,000 in a night. Philippine ferries capsize killing 800 people in a moment. AIDs, malaria, cancer, and heart disease kill millions. A monster tornado rip through cities. Droughts and famines bring people to the brink, and over the brink, of starvation. Freak accidents happen in ways you would not want to describe. Little babies are born with no eyes, six legs, horrible deformities. That is because of ONE SIN! The universe was subjected to futility and corruption in hope (Romans 8:20).

This is very important for you to answer: Why did God subject the natural order to such horrific realities when nature did nothing wrong? Souls did something wrong. Adam and Eve’s volition did something wrong. The earth didn’t do anything wrong. Why is the earth bursting with volcanoes and earthquakes? Animals didn’t do anything wrong. What’s the deal with this universal subjection to corruption, when one man and one woman sinned one time, and the whole natural order goes wrong? Disorder everywhere in the most horrible ways, a kaleidoscope of suffering in this world, century after century.

Here is my answer—and I don’t know any other possible answer biblically—God put the natural world under a curse so that physical horrors would become vivid pictures of the horror of moral evil.

Cancer, tuberculosis, malformations, floods, and car accidents happen so that we would get some dim idea of the outrage of moral evil flowing from our hearts. Why did he do it that way? Ask yourself an honest question: How intensely outraged are you over your belittling of God compared to the engagement of your emotion when your child is hurt, or your leg is cut off, or you lose your job, or some physical thing happens? Everything in you rises to say, “No!”

How often does your heart say “No!” with the same emotional engagement at your own sin? Not very often. Therefore, what God says, “Alright, I know that about fallen man, therefore I will display the horror of his sin in a way that he can feel.” That’s why Jesus, when the tower fell on the 18, said simply “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” The point of the falling of the tower and killing of 18 people was your moral evil (Luke 13:4). That was the point.

All physical evil has one point—sin is like that morally, we don’t have the wherewithal to feel it appropriately, therefore were going to get some help from the physical order. That’s the point of the world we live in, it’s pointing to the horror of moral evil. O, that we would see and feel how repugnant and offensive and abominable it is to prefer anything to God—and we do it everyday.

Adam and Eve brought the universe into this present horrific condition by preferring their own way and fruit to God. All the physical evil the universe is not as bad as that one act of treason. …

The ultimate reason that there is a new heavens and a new earth is not that there might be new bodies for saints. That’s true. That’s just one of the reasons. The reason there is a new heaven and a new earth is because when God conceived of a universe of material things he conceived of everything: It will be created perfect. It will, by my decree, fall. I will labor patiently for thousands of years with a people recalcitrant showing the depth of human sin and I will at the center and apex of my purpose, send my Son to bear my wrath on my people. And then I will gather a people who believe in him for myself. And then I will return and I will cast all of the unbelievers into hell, which will demonstrate the infinite worth of my glory and the infinite value of my Son’s sacrifice, which they have rejected. And I will renew the earth and I will make my people so beautiful and then tailor this universe for them with this purpose—that when my Son is lifted up with his wounds, they will sing the song of the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world in the mind of God who planned it all.

Therefore, be it resolved: We will endure any suffering. We will endure any assault, any slander, any reviling, any disease, precisely because we have a great reward in heaven, namely, Jesus Christ crucified.

-John Piper, sermon transcript, “The Triumph of the Gospel in the New Heavens and the New Earth” taken from the 11:20-19:20 and 44:09-47:00 markers. You can listen to the entire message delivered at the Resolved conference here ( June 16, 2008 ) and you can listen to an earlier version of this message delivered at the Gospel Coalition here ( May 24, 2007 ).

31 thoughts on “Piper: Physical Horrors + Moral Evil

  1. An excellent spiritual call to arms against the sinful, human nature within. The recent conversation surounding the review published in Christianity Today makes this all the more poignant.

    This kind of thinking reminds me of Pilgram’s and Faithful’s time in Vanity Fair in “Pligram’s Progress”. It also brings to mind Piper’s comments on the Queen Mary in “Don’t Waste Your Life”

  2. I like Piper, but I think he’s prying too closely into God’s counsels here. To say that God creates babies with no eyes “so that” we can know the horror of moral evil is too limiting on the Holy of of Israel. Is that why He did it? Are we to put God in a box like that?

    Far safer is to simply attribute brokenness to the fall; we ought not pretend to peer into God’s secret decrees. In ways that we cannot comprehend right now, God, through the death and triumph of His Son, will make all things right. That’s all we need to know.

    What we don’t need to do, is walk into a hospital and tell a young mother that her baby has no eyes because God wants to teach her a lesson.

    Evangelicalism suffers when it tries to erase the question marks. In many ways, I’m baffled by the presence of suffering…but I know that Judge of all the earth has done right, and He will do right.

    Nor does God scoff now at the attempts of humanity to alleviate suffering. If, following Piper, God makes babies with no eyes to teach us about sin, then it would follow that God resents the attempts of the scientific community to avoid such disasters.

    Piper needs to explain why God is for and not against Cancer research, why God is pleased with the attempts of humanity to alleviate the effects of the curse. Otherwise, Piper is being theologically naive.


  3. On top of this Tony, the chief discovery of moral evil is not in car accidents and floods, but on the Cross of Jesus Christ, where God’s righteousness is revealed and man’s sin unveiled for what it is. I understand my moral depravity ONLY in the wounds of the Crucified.


  4. Yes, but you FEEL the moral depravity when the flood waters sweep your home down the river. God has subjected the world in futility for us to feel the depths of our sin, a point Piper brings from Romans 8. I would recommend listening to the entire message and I think you will have a better context for your hospital comment above.

    Thanks for commenting!


  5. When I survey the wondrous cross on which my Savior died, I FEEL my moral depravity because I UNDERSTAND my moral depravity; when the flood waters come, I feel perplexed.

    Has Piper not read the book of Job? Does God explain himself to Job? Does God give any reasons for Job’s suffering? No, God simply says, I am God, and you are not. And that is enough.

    The whole point of the book of Job is that, with respect to suffering and evil, we are NOT permitted to peer into God’s counsels. He knows, and that is enough for us.

    Romans 8 does not tell us WHY God subjected creation to bondage. It simply tells us that God had a reason to do it. And the tone of this particular passage is not godly sorrow, but hope.

    Piper has proceeded to provide for us God’s reason, where Paul does not.

    It is enough to know that God has a reason: just like He says to Job.

  6. Moreover Tony, it needs to be repeated very clearly, especially on a blog like yours that seeks to boast in the Cross of Christ, that we don’t know or feel moral depravity by looking at ourselves or at nature. Moral Depravity is known only in and by the light of God’s righteousness, which is preeminently displayed in the Cross of Jesus Christ.

    Natural disaster will not convict a man of sin; only the preaching of the righteousness of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ can do that.

  7. The “in hope” of Romans 8 gets at the “why” question. There is a time when the futility will be lifted. That’s why comfort can be given a mother of a disfigured child (the specific example Dr Piper uses in the message).

    I’m not certain the NT is silent when it comes to asking the “why Christians suffer” question (see Col. 1:24, Phil. 1:29, 3:10).


  8. Tony, I appreciate your thoughts, but something tells me that if tomorrow you accidentally poisoned your two little children, you would feel an awful lot like Job, and it would be very difficult to make sense of the disaster.

    I doubt very much that your response to such a tragedy would be to bewail your sins. I think rather, in the sheer perplexity of the moment, you would cast yourself upon the Sovereign God who has promised to turn all our trials into gold.

    Blessings to you Tony, and may God deliver you and your family from evil, as He has taught us to pray each day.

  9. I like Piper too. But just like Tom, I question Piper’s laying all of the “horror” at the feet of God as a testimony to our own wickedness and depravity…all that based on our federal heads rebellion. But also like Piper,
    the depth of our radical falleness is testimony to the fact that sin as sin has far reaching consequences that, if we’re honest (and there’s the rub) is horrific just to think about. That’s enough to give us all pause to consider the devastation that has been perpetrated by that first sin and it’s legacy ever since. And it’s not enough for me persoanlly to take a look at the effects mentioned by Piper and then make application to myself. Rather, and once again in agreement with what Tom stated; “we don’t know or feel moral depravity by looking at ourselves or at nature. Moral Depravity is known only in and by the light of God’s righteousness, which is preeminently displayed in the Cross of Jesus Christ.” Amen & Amen!

  10. Tony,
    I think that all these comments, as well as Piper’s, reveal one thing: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” (Deut. 29:29 NASB)

    There’s much revealed, but much more not. We would be better occupied to focus on the truth the Lord enlightens us to, than to speculate on things “too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3).


  11. I agree, Linda. But Romans 8 and Luke 13 belong to us and are the passages Dr Piper clearly uses in his development of his topic. T

  12. Dear Tony,

    Thank you for being so willing to host this debate. As you may know, debate used to be the heart of soul of theological formation. Aquinas felt that one must be able to argue his opponent’s position more persuasively than his opponent could himself in order to arrive at the truth. Debate is a lost art.

    Now, when it comes to Piper’s exegesis, neither Luke 13 nor Romans 8 tells us that God engineers all physical calamity in order to illustrate the horrors of moral evil. They simply do not say that. In fact, Piper commits what we call a fallacy of logical structure. In this case, Piper’s argument falls into the category of non sequitur: his premises are irrelevant to the conclusion.

    Piper rightly points out in Luke 13 that Jesus uses an historical and calamitous event to illustrate the far-reaching consequences of moral depravity. But then Piper reaches the conclusion that ALL physical calamity is engineered by God as a pedagogical tool to instruct upon the extent of moral evil. The premise and the conclusion have no logical relationship.

    Indeed, elsewhere physical calamity is pointed out by Christ not to illustrate moral evil, but rather God’s glory: “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither has this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be manifest in him.” Jn 9:2-3

    We are safe, of course, to affirm that the destructiveness of evil entered creation upon humanity’s disobedience as a consequence of that disobedience. However, the manner in which physical calamity plays out within fallen creation is often a mystery, as Job experienced: it hits some far harder than others, and some it seems to pass by altogether.

    I have a dear friend in the Lord whose son was born with autism. When he was around 6 years old, the son began to walk irregularly. The doctors diagnosed him with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a death sentence. Last fall, at 17 years of age, he started to have breathing problems. His voice started to change. The doctors diagnosed him with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. The hospital was baffled, and said it broke the laws of how much a child should have to suffer.

    Now Tony, why is my friend’s son so hounded by evil, and your children so relatively healthy? Is it because this boy needs to learn the lesson of moral evil more thoroughly than your children? Would you like to approach my friend and tell him that his son has been so decimated because God is trying to teach him about his sin?

    Here is the mystery of suffering–the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Who can make sense of this? Certainly Piper can’t.

    This is not to cast aspersions on Piper. I admire him in many ways. But he’s wrong here.

    But God can explain the mystery of affliction, and God will, in due time.

    And may God continue to deliver us all from evil.

    You’re my brother Tony, and I love you in the Lord Jesus.


  13. Tom, I don’t understand why you’re pushing the context of Piper’s comments on Genesis 3 and Romans 8 into an individual case context. That’s not what Piper is stressing, that’s not what these texts are stressing, and if you listen to the message this teaching is presented within the context of a compassion and hopefulness for one particular retarded young boy AND within the context of eternal hopefulness in the new heavens and new earth. Earlier in the comments I stressed that readers take in the full context of this quote and I reiterate the importance.

    Ever thankful for your input and comments, my friend.


  14. Piper’s universal application necessarily implies individual cases…as you yourself admit: “one particular…young boy”.

    “Cancer, tuberculosis, malformations, floods, and car accidents happen so that we would get some dim idea of the outrage of moral evil flowing from our hearts.”

    If this is true, then my friend’s son was so blasted with evil because he needed to have a dim idea of the outrage of moral evil.

    My question to you, Tony, is why he needed to be so blasted but not your children?

    Piper’s comments are too simplistic, and, ultimately, as I have tried to point out, unbiblical. Nowhere does the Bible affirm what Piper has affirmed.

    And, thank God, Piper is not imbued with papal infallibility.

    All the best,

  15. Moreover Tony, we get far more than a “dim idea” of the outrage of moral evil when we gaze upon the Crucified Christ. Piper’s comments detract from the importance of the Cross.

  16. And I’m glad, Tony, that you can still call me “friend” in the midst of this disputation.

    I may think you and Piper are wrong, but I’ll still buy you a beer with a warm heart.

    Pax Christi,

  17. Cheers! … In the words of one theologian “one day we will cast aside this wretched faith.” We will one day no longer see dimly, but with our eyes. What a glorious day that will be to experience together, my friend!


  18. I’m a little late to all this but I see it as a masterful explanation of the orthodox view of the Fall. Piper isn’t stating anything new, as it’s all throughout the OT and Paul gives a glorious explanation of suffering ,etc.in Romans 8. Should we tell Paul, the inspired Apostle, not to write Romans as he is peering too far into God’s secret counsels? God forbid.

  19. James,

    No, Romans 8 is wonderful. Of course.

    My only point is that Paul does not affirm what Piper affirms, that every occurrence of cancer, tuberculosis, etc, happens because God wants to instruct in the horror of moral evil. Romans 8 simply does not say that. Paul affirms that creation was subjected to vanity by God’s reason–but Paul does not tell us what that reason is.

    The Bible tells us that physical calamity is the consequence of the sin of our first parents. The Bible does NOT tell us WHY, in the wake of the Fall, physical calamity hits some very hard and some not at all. Piper has proceeded to provide a WHY that the Bible does not provide. Piper will tell you why your neighbor’s child got cancer: so that the child and that family can know the extent of their moral sin. But, why, Piper, were the other neighbor’s untouched? Did they not need to know the extent of moral sin too?

    If only Piper had been there with poor old Job, he might have given Job the reason for his suffering that God did not provide.

    However, at the end of the day, Piper forces himself on the text. He pulls from Paul what Paul does not provide.

    All we can say, biblically, is that suffering is the result of the sin of our first parents, through the wisdom of God.
    Why pain hits the way it does is often a mystery. Why one neighbor goes through life unscathed while the other drinks the bitter cup to the dregs is a mystery. God has a reason. Paul does not tell us what that reason is.

    If anyone can show me where in Romans 8 Paul says what Piper affirms, then I’ll gladly agree with Piper. But my conscience is held captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.

  20. By the way brother Tony, I listened to the entire message…and it didn’t help.

  21. Selective hearing perhaps? :-) Unmistakable from the audio is a refutation of your presupposition that Piper’s explanation will lead to projected guilt on parents for their handicapped children. Not so, my friend.


  22. Dear Tony,

    If I recall correctly, I never mentioned “projected guilt”.

    My question, Tony, and I sound like a broken record now, is that, if every occurrence of cancer, etc. happens because God wants to teach upon the horror of moral evil, why the great disparity in pain and suffering? Why is your neighbor hit and not you?

    If Piper’s teaching is true, what does the disparity imply?

  23. None are excluded from feeling the weight of creation “groaning” under the consequence of the first sin. We all feel the weight of a fallen world, in different ways, but we all universally feel it.

  24. Thanks for your input, Tom, it’s always appreciated! I’ll close the discussion with a most sobering picture of the ways we feel the weight of the curse originating from the first sin. From Genesis 3 …

    14 The Lord God said to the serpent,

    “Because you have done this,
    cursed are you above all livestock
    and above all beasts of the field;
    on your belly you shall go,
    and dust you shall eat
    all the days of your life.

    15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
    he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.”

    16 To the woman he said,
    “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children.
    Your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”

    17 And to Adam he said,
    “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
    of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
    cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
    18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.

    19 By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
    till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
    for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”

  25. Tony,
    Thank you for always bringing things back to the Word. I really wish I could concede that this discussion is over, but I’ve been unable to ignore or shake a prompting in my heart to share…so may I do so with all grace. With 27 comments already, if you allow mine to remain, then you have incredible patience and long suffering. :-)

    Over the weekend, I prayerfully reread Genesis 3:17-19, Luke 13, Romans 8, and Piper’s May 24, 2007 transcript. First and foremost, the theme, conclusion, and even title of Piper’s message are bountifully and extremely hopeful with the encouraging message “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom 8:18) Amen and amen!!

    However, with extreme caution and humility, I still find one phrase of Dr. Piper’s that continues to strike my heart strings with extreme discord: Dr. Piper said, “My answer is that God put the natural world under a curse so that physical horrors would become vivid pictures of the horror of moral evil.”

    Exactly why this bothers me is unclear, because I too believe God cursed creation and that sin is utterably and inexplicably horrible. But I also believe that the entirety of Scripture address Dr. Piper’s previous list of “whys” quite sufficiently, without his additional leap or commentary. Genesis 3 and Romans 8 state that God subjected the whole of creation to corruption because of man’s sin. Period.

    I will always admire and deeply respect Dr. Piper; his books have blessed me, his teachings inspire me, and his passion for our Lord humbles me. Yet, this one point, I humbly and respectfully believe, is beyond the scope of revealed Scriptural knowledge. To quote another admirable teacher and writer, A.W. Tozer, from his book “Attributes of God”, on the wisdom of God:

    “Inspired writers insist that the whole of creation now groans and travails under the mighty shock of the Fall. They do not attempt to supply ‘sufficient reasons’; they assert that the “creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of Him who hath subjected the same in hope.” No effort here to justify the ways of God with men, just a simple declaration of fact. The being of God is its own defense.”
    Tozer continues further on:
    “Atonement too was accomplished with the same flawless skill that marks all of God’s acts. However little we understand it all, we know that Christ’s expiatory work perfectly reconciled God and men and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. Our concern is not to explain but to proclaim.”

    We know in part and we see dimly, yet one day we shall know fully as we have been fully known!

    Thank you, Tony, Tom and others, for your godly discourse and your service to the Lord. I count myself blessed to even be part and party to such honourable discussion, and will conclude with Psalm 131:

    “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
    my eyes are not raised too high;
    I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.
    But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.
    O Israel, hope in the Lord
    from this time forth and forevermore.”

  26. Good thoughts, Linda!

    I suspect this discussion is touching on matters of general revelation. When we experience blessing–say at the birth of a child–we experience the graciousness of God displayed in things interpret with a Godward perspective. Simultaneously, we may experience a difficult time in life. Is this merely part of living in a fallen world or is the experience specifically tied to God’s disciplinary action towards us? How do we make the distinction but through Spirit-led prayerfulness?

    In the same way, any assumed rational jumps from scripture here, from sin bringing about the fall to the natural evil seen today likewise is a matter of Godward interpretation deeply rooted in a Scriptural foundation (unless of course we can interpret the fall and groaning of creation apart from the introduction sin, which Scripture will not allow).

    Those in the reformed tradition have always watched the world carefully, listening to God’s voice (which explains why Jonathan Edwards kept an entire notebook on natural observations and wrote on spiders). Because God is in control of all things, creation speaks much general revelation. I hope this helps to some degree.


  27. Tony,
    Thanks for allowing me to share and, moreso, for ensuring this discussion and blog are always “seasoned with grace.”
    I have read a couple of Jonathan Edwards’ books, however, I may forego the one on spiders! :-)

    God Bless!!

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