By Roger Olson
Yesterday, Monday, Feb. 25, former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop died at his home in New Hampshire. He was 96.
Anyone who paid attention to public controversies knew of him in the 1980s as a rock-ribbed conservative evangelical appointed by President Ronald Reagan — perhaps as a bone thrown to his evangelical supporters. At least that’s how some regarded his appointment.
He turned out to be a strong advocate for AIDS research in spite of his well-known moral opposition to homosexual behavior. He also led a public campaign against smoking. He did not turn out to be quite what conservatives hoped for — a strong public voice against homosexuality and abortion.
I knew of Koop before his appointment to public office. He was vaguely associated with Francis Schaeffer on some pro-life projects. Also, his 1976 book The Right to Live, The Right to Die was hailed as a major pro-life book by conservatives before his appointment.
Koop was a hero to those of us who considered ourselves part of the conservative Christian pro-life movement during the 1970s and early 1980s — before it was largely taken over by anti-abortion fanatics who would criminalize abortions for young rape and incest victims as well as banning some methods of birth control that prevented implantation of fertilized eggs.
When Koop came to speak at the college where I taught theology in the 1990s, I was excited to hear him in person. I had a vague hope of perhaps meeting him, but that dimmed when I saw the crowds that showed up to hear him. The auditorium was packed to the rafters.
He lived up to his reputation as a spell-binding public speaker. However, he didn’t talk about any of the expected subjects — respect for life, AIDS, homosexuality, smoking, etc. His subject was “God Killed My Son.”
Koop spoke that day for almost an hour about God’s sovereignty and his son’s death. According to Koop, God arranged his son’s tragic death in a mountain climbing accident so that it was immediate and painless. Most of his talk was about God’s sovereignty over all things: meticulous providence. His son was his case study.
According to Koop, whose pastor James Montgomery Boice was one of the most vocal advocates of high Calvinism among American evangelicals and one of my seminary professors, every event is foreordained and governed by God. That, he said, is the only thing that gave him comfort when his son died — that it was no accident. It was foreordained and rendered certain by God for a divine and good purpose.
As I listened, I wanted to stand and ask him (and would have asked him had there been a Q&A session afterwards) whether he would get the same comfort out of thinking God killed his son if his son’s death had not been immediate and painless. He made such a huge issue of that. After all, many sons’ (and daughters’) deaths are not immediate and painless.
A few years later, I stood in a hallway in a children’s wing of a hospital and heard a small child, probably no more than 2 or 3, screaming in agony in a room down the hall. There was no question about the source of the screaming — it could only be extreme pain. It went on and on the whole time I was visiting my daughter’s friend with her. I wanted to stop my ears from hearing it.
If Koop was right, that, too, was from God. If asked, would he tell the parents of that screaming child that her pain was foreordained and rendered certain by God for a good purpose?
I can’t say for sure that Koop’s son’s death wasn’t foreordained by God. Perhaps it was. Without a special revelation, I doubt we can know for sure. But I am confident that God did not foreordain and render certain that tiny girl’s pains. With Baptist theologian E. Frank Tupper (A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God) I believe God is not a “do anything, anytime, anywhere kind of God.”
In my opinion, the proper response to that little girl’s pain (other than medical intervention which I’m sure was being tried) was prayer, not explanation.
A few years after hearing Koop (whom I respected and admired even as I disagreed with him), I had the unique privilege of spending a fairly long time one-on-one with retired Fuller Seminary ethics professor Lewis Smedes. Smedes was not as famous as Koop, but he was known and still is remembered as one of the leading Christian ethicists. He was also a member of a Reformed church.
Smedes and I talked about Koop’s theology. He told me that when his son died, he stood beside the open grave and swore that he would never tell another person that God took their child. He wrote an article about God’s sovereignty that broke decisively with meticulous providence.
I explained open theism to Smedes, and he expressed strong sympathy with that view and said he would probably have to write an explanation to his synod about his theology as it deviated from what he believed when he was ordained. Smedes and I exchanged e-mails about open theism and his last one to me stated that he embraced that view (without embracing the label). He died soon after that.
One thing I find interesting is how some Christians find comfort in believing God kills people, including children, while others are repulsed by the idea. Equally devout, equally God-fearing, Jesus-loving, Bible-believing people like Koop and Smedes not only hold different beliefs but react so radically differently “from the gut,” so to speak, to children’s deaths. And, of course, they interpret Scripture differently. Which comes first, I wonder: The experience or the hermeneutic? Or are they ever really separate?
One thing I look forward to finding out is how many of the “young, restless, Reformed” generation will hold onto their strong belief in God’s absolute, meticulous sovereignty as they mature and experience life — including tragedies in their personal lives. I predict many of them will, like Smedes, change their beliefs.