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Bart Campolo and the Limits of God's Grace

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William Crawley | 15:17 UK time, Sunday, 1 July 2007

BartCampolo.jpgSince the bishop of Carlisle now has us talking about whether God sends storms as a judgment for sin, now is probably a good time to mention the storm that is currently engulfing the American evangelical activist Bart Campolo (pictured). It all began with an article published last October in The Journal of Student Ministries -- an article (or the "Barticle" as it's now become known) which some Evangelicals in the United States say is "heretical".

Bart Campolo is a keynote speaker at this year's Summer Madness festival at the King's Hall in Belfast, which ends tomorrow, and came into the Sunday Sequence studios today to talk about the controversy ("listen again).

You can read "The Limits of God's Grace" here and Bart Campolo's attempt to quell the storm of protest following its publication here.

Christianity Today writer Collin Hansen has written that Campolo is an evangelical equivalent of Ivan Karamazov, the rationalist atheist in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Hansen writes:

Campolo explains that he reached these views while processing the rape of a 9-year-old girl, whose Sunday school teacher said God must have allowed it for a reason. Again, the parallels with Ivan Karamazov stand out. Ivan denounces God, whose justice he refuses to trust. "And if the sufferings of children go to well the sum of sufferings that was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price." Campolo likewise favors his conscience over the biblical view of justice. "I am well aware that I don't get to decide who God is. What I do get to decide, however, is to whom I pledge my allegiance. I am a free agent, after all, and I have standards for my God, the first of which is this: I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am."

So what is Bart Campolo actually saying? I asked him this morning, "Why didn't God intervene and stop the appalling gang rape of the nine year-old girl? What answer do you give her when she asks?"

He told me, "If God pre-ordained that rape, I hate him, and I won't worship him. If God stood by and allowed it, I want nothing to do with him." The explanation he appears to have arrived at is this: God loves the nine year old completely and (he writes) "the suffering of that poor little girl—evil’s doing—will somehow be redeemed, and she herself will be healed as part of the complete redemption and absolute healing that is to come for all of us". But God is unable or unwilling to force his way into people's lives; and sometimes God's will is thwarted in our world."

All of which adds up to an extremely difficult series of questions for many evangelicals to even countenance. If God's mercy wins out in the end -- here, there and everywhere -- doesn't that mean that everyone is eventually saved?

Universal salvation as the ultimate gift of a God whose power is temporarily limited in this world, and whose character is only partially revealed in a sacred text whose meaning is re-negotiated by every generation: these are claims that will not seem outrageous to many contemporary theologians. Some (though not all) within the evangelical community of faith may cry theological foul play and get angry with Campolo for raising these discomfitting questions, but that nine year-old girl deserves an answer, doesn't she?


  • 1.
  • At 06:47 PM on 01 Jul 2007,
  • helenanne smith wrote:

I am so glad that someone is asking these questions. Bart Campolo is no Ivan Karamazov. I heard the interview today and he is one of the most loving christians i've ever heard talking in northern ireland. That article in Christianity Today just misses the point. Ivan ends up an atheist but campolo ends up calling people to believe that God is more loving than they ever thought possible. I wish we had more of this kind of thoughtful christianity in northern ireland.

  • 2.
  • At 07:10 PM on 01 Jul 2007,
  • Richard, London wrote:

I respect Bart a lot. Enjoyed the interview even though he wandered around quite a bit. He's a decent, genuine person with an obvious love for people.

Question, though. What's the difference between the answer he gives to this young girl's situation and the answer given (in effect) by atheists?

He's essentially saying there is a God but God can't help you.

  • 3.
  • At 08:01 PM on 01 Jul 2007,
  • Alison Jay wrote:

Important questions Bart's asking. Really impressed by him today. I don't necessarily agree with his answer but im just pleased that there are pastors like him out there doing some hard mental work on this stuff. I went to a church where you got looked at sideways if you asked why the services were always at 7pm. Try asking a deep question about God!

  • 4.
  • At 08:19 PM on 01 Jul 2007,
  • Darwinius wrote:

The more he talked the more he got himself in trouble. The evangelicals will take him out for a walk. Thats so sad but true. They don't do subtle questions or complex answers and Bart C is into subtlety and complexity. Post-evangelical might be a better word to describe him. Or maybe Christian. Thinking Christian. Or a Christian who thinks too much for his own good! I know exactly where he's coming from. Hold it together Bart, you've more friends than you realise.

  • 5.
  • At 01:27 PM on 02 Jul 2007,
  • pb wrote:

I think Bart is using Dawkins' tactic of tarring all "evangelicals" with the same brush, ie they will brim over with indignation if you ask the "wrong" question.

Alastair McGarth totally disarmed Dawkins for stereotyping Christians this way.

None of the Christians I know would have a problem with such questions but it is a dramatic stawman argument.

However, I wonder if Bart ever asked his dad's views on the matter?

He came across to me as an ordinary bloke who has an overconfident view of his own understanding ie he actually seems to believe he is in a completely valid position to judge God. In reality very few people would even be fit to judge an average Magistrates Court case.

My main reaction was;- well Bart, it is quite easy for you to call down the wrath of God on what YOU define as sin (remember Christ rebuked two of his disciples for this) but how quick would he be to call for God's supernatural intervention when Bart himself sins?

What would he like God to do when he burns with hate, unforgiveness, lust or pride? How would he like God to intervene? Where would he draw the line for sins God should stop and should not stop? And yhy should God listen to Bart Campolo in managing the universe?

Throughout the bible God's faithful followers have been at the forefront of suffering for what is right, God himself leading the way on the cross.

So there were maybe millions of acts of violence and sexual abuse going on around the world when this little girl was gang-raped.

From a biblical world view God already wiped out mankind for being consumed with violence, during the flood. And the bible is clear this will be the situation again when Christ returns to deal with the situation again. You can read what God is doing during this countdown in the book of Revelation; it is a mixture of natural disaster type judgements as a wake up call for mankind to repent.

From man's perspective God might be "standing by and doing nothing" but God is actively striving to have mankind repent.

Bart has lost the focus that the blame for all that is wrong lies first and foremost with man for his willful sin. Read it again if you think it is not important. It is THE key.

God has given us the solution to all this evil in the cross and that is the only permenant cure to this type of crime. People who reject this are denying the sin in their own hearts and defending sin in the world which is the root of the problem.

And while part of God's character may want to close the door to heaven now, another part is patiently calling on rapists muggers and "ordinary" sinners like me to turn our lives around and over to him.


PS How many "lucky escapes" have each of us had in life and never attributed them to God's intervention?
God can't really win can he?

  • 6.
  • At 03:02 PM on 02 Jul 2007,
  • Ladzlo wrote:

I confess I lost the will to live somewhere during pb's comments. Not that I disagree with him, I just can't follow hos argument - he doesn't link thougts coherently. Ah well.

Can we ry to discuss what Bart has said intelligently?

Why not suggest some answers to the tragedy in the story of the young girl who was raped? Where was God? Why didn't he do something to stop the rape? Does it make any sense to speak about an interventionist God anymore? These are difficult questions and we need to ask them.

  • 7.
  • At 04:11 PM on 02 Jul 2007,
  • pb wrote:


another explanation might be that you are not up to following the arguments and that you need to do some homework!

In fact, perhaps that underlies the whole question; Bart and the people he represents are so detached from what a biblical worldview is that they cant begin to grasp it, perhaps?


I agree with Bart. But when he says, "I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am," what I think he's actually saying is that he doesn't believe in a God who is not supremely compassionate. Or, to throw the sentence the other way around, his belief is that God is supremely compassionate, and therefore incompatible with what his Sunday School teacher suggested about God.

  • 9.
  • At 11:02 PM on 02 Jul 2007,
  • kensei wrote:

I'm Catholic rather than an evangelical, but these questions arise for all Christians.

"Who is more wicked than he who feels compassion at the Divine Judgment? "
The Inferno

All sin is a rebellion against God's will. Campolo picks a particularly horrific example, but it is one attuned to speak to very human emotions. Is it really worse than the hundreds of thousands who have died in Iraq? Or any number of bad things that happens everyday?

If God intervened to stop every tragedy, then we would have no free will. As Christians we must have faith that everything act will eventually come to fulfill God's plan, and ultimately God will judge and will judge justly. I believe in a God that hears and answers prayer and suffering, but that the answer is not one that will we necessarily agree with or understand. But ultimately we must accept it. That is the essence of faith.

"And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God."

Campolo also misses out another aspect of God's compassion. If the crime is so horrific that god should not tolerate it, then the sinner must be so bad as to be beyond redemption. But even the rapist in his example may repent and seek forgiveness, and ultimately gain eternal reward rather than punishment. To most people, this is beyond understanding, or the limits of our compassion. But that is the awesome compassion and forgiveness of God. Denying people that forgiveness is in itself a sin and a subtle trap.

  • 10.
  • At 11:58 PM on 02 Jul 2007,
  • jboy wrote:

That was a good question William when you asked Bart "Have you an answer for it" and his answer "i am working on it" was well not a very good one.

There are a lot of hard questions out there for our christian faith
with I believe no real answers to satisfy everyone
But a lot of us believe that God sent his son to die for us all
that must say "yes God cares a lot for us" to have done something like that.AND if we are Repulsed at the rape of an 9 year old girl I can not start to imagine how Repulsed God was and is.

  • 11.
  • At 12:27 AM on 03 Jul 2007,
  • Jane Grey wrote:

PB, you're last reply there to Ladzlo was very rude, patronising and insulting. You basically called him "stupid". Is that what you mean by "the biblical worldview"? If Jesus did die for you, why don't you be kind to other people?

  • 12.
  • At 12:36 AM on 03 Jul 2007,
  • freddie wrote:

Kensei, a very interesting comment. Beautifully put and very thoughtful. This is not an easy topic, and I am very grateful that W+T is hosting a discussion about it. Some see this as an "anti-Christian" post; I don't understand that criticism. This is exactly the sort of question intelligent christians need to discuss and debate. I'm glad this site exists for that reason.

  • 13.
  • At 12:52 AM on 03 Jul 2007,
  • sam.scott wrote:

I didnt think bart came across as ordinary and unthinking as pb says. I looked up his profile and apparently he's a graduate from an ivy league american university. i think the guy has a good head on him and came across as someone prepared to ask questions rather than mouth slogans. i liked him. if he worked in belfast i might even go to his church.

  • 14.
  • At 09:39 AM on 03 Jul 2007,
  • pb wrote:


Funny how you only saw my "patronising" attitude and not Ladzlos patronising attitude to me in the first instance!!!


If you want to look at the life of Christ you will see that those people who took him head on were always sent away in little pieces.

In contrast anyone who came to him in humility and sincereity was treated with compassion.

If you look at my post again the second part was not a statement about anyone's learning but a challenging question.

Have you double standards Jane, is Bart allowed to ask provocative questions but I am not?

I concur with everything Kensei has said on the matter.

BTW In the book of genesis a young lad was beaten upsavagely by a gang, thrown into a pit and then sold to slave traders who took him to a foriegn land and sold him. Should God have intervened here to stop this brutal event Bart?

Well if he had, Joseph would not have because prime minister of Egypt and would not have been in a position to save Israel during a famine, as he did.

Joseph said to his brothers of the ordeal they put him through: "You meant it for evil but God meant it for good".

My point is that I think we should pause and remember we are but dust before go putting God in trial for man's evil in the world.


  • 15.
  • At 10:00 AM on 03 Jul 2007,
  • L wrote:

If God allowed the rape does that have to make him horribly evil? Life in the truest sense of the word is not an absence of suffering. Life is nothing less than the heart's knowing of Jesus (really knowing). Jesus came that i might have this life to the full. Without suffering i would not have known the fullness of this life in the ways that i do. i dont hate the God who allowed suffering because in it he has given me more than he would have given me had he prevented abuse and accidents. He has given me a deeper taste of himself. This is not a sick enjoyment of evil or suffering, but a deeper life that somehow makes me more alive without diminishing the reality of suffering or it's pain. Infact it demands me to feel the depth of its wounds. God's agenda is to give me life, himself. I do not hate him for this even if he brings it through suffering.

  • 16.
  • At 08:10 PM on 03 Jul 2007,
  • sam.scott wrote:

Pb, fair's fair. You're the guy who boasts at being a christian mate. So you should show ur faith in the way you DON'T patronise people and AREN'T rude and aggressive to people like Ladslo. And now you say you can look to Jesus as a model for your rude behaviour because he tended to send people away from him in little pieces? You're a lunatic.

  • 17.
  • At 09:51 AM on 04 Jul 2007,
  • pb wrote:



Jesus Christ took no prisoners in those people who attacked him in debate.

Why do you expect a higher standard of me than from Ladzlo, when he patronises me or from Campolo for asking provocative questions?

Why is it acceptable for Bart to ask if God is competent in his job yet it is "rude" for me to ask if Bart and co are competent in judging him?

Gravy with those double standards, sir?


PS I never "boast" about being a Christian; I'm not ashamed of it, dont hide it; I dont see it as a personal accomplishment, more of a personal challenge. And I never shirk from admitting I struggle living up to it either.

  • 18.
  • At 09:47 PM on 07 Jul 2007,
  • V. Stevenson wrote:

I was very interested to hear what Bart Compolo had to say.
A few years ago a very very respected christian in Bangor co. Down was convicted of sex abuse offences against young boys. I was one of his victims. I have asked many christians, and many christian leaders, how can God allow a man to do such awful things, and yet use the same man to advance his kingdom? I have never been given an answer.
There are many men in the ordained ministry today, and a vast number of people would say they became christians through this mans influence in their lives. Yet while he was doing this work, he abuses young boys and ruined their lives.

Like Mr Compolo this is not a God I would want to know or love. If the church cannot or will not answer this, there is no point to any other part of its message.

  • 19.
  • At 10:35 PM on 07 Jul 2007,
  • Margaret M-holywood wrote:

To ... V Stevenson,

Thank you so much for telling your story. You ask the right questions. I don't know how those traditional views make sense of your situation.

I suppose it's possible that God can use broken people who are capable of great evil. That's the argument I've heard. I don't like the idea of God "using" people. God relates to people. It's not easy to explain any of this.

Can I ask how you are today? Are you still involved in the church at all? What answers have you found most helpful?

  • 20.
  • At 11:24 PM on 07 Jul 2007,
  • V. Stevenson wrote:

To-Margaret M-holywood

Thank you for your response.

I do not really want to talk about me, but more about the issue raised by Mr Crawley with Bart Campolo. I was telling my story just as an example. But I will say that I am not involved with a church, I am sorry to say that I have not been given any answers at all, the whole question is one the church seems to want to avoid. As for how I am today-I would find it very hard to believe in God-any God that would want to allow or use such a man as I described to further his kingdom-would have to be very sick.

What is more important than myself is the fact that many boys (now grown men) have had their lives
ruined by this servant of God. I have yet hear an explanation from any church, nor have I heard the word sorry from any church, yet this was a very important very well known christian. I am sorry but I cannot accept that a God of love can use people who are capable of great evil to advance his kingdom even if this means the same people he is using abuses boys. I just cannot believe that a God of love could be like that.
Mr Campolos answer was that he makes sense of it all by thinking that sometimes somebody thwarts Gods will, and that is why these things happen. However I am not talking about just "somebody", I am pointing out the fact that the best known christian in Bangor did this, the church cannot have it both ways,

I am sorry if I sound harsh

But I do thank you for your concern

  • 21.
  • At 01:14 AM on 25 Jul 2007,
  • pb wrote:

V Stevenson

I hope you dont mind me joining in this discusion, if you are still listening.

I am very sorry to hear of what has happened to you, I cant begin to imagine your hurt.

Perhaps with the person that abused you their work was begun in God but that God left it altogether when he began abusing.

In a parable of the sheep and goats, the goats are condemned for claiming to have been working for God when in fact God had nothing to do with it.

I think it is perfectly feasible to work for a Christian organisation and yet not be operating in God's will at all.

AW Tozer wrote of many men who went to the mission field but had never been called!

James said all our work would be tested by fire to see what it was made of and that some work would be totally consumed!

Despite all that has happened I urge you not to blame God for what has been done in his name.

I hope and pray you can be restored and healed over your experience.


  • 22.
  • At 12:52 AM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Rob wrote:

It seems that the cross is what is being argued. Does God suffer? Who finally has the last word?
I gave up my evangelicalism (at least the US variety) in order to remain a christian. It was issues like these that bothered my conscience.

  • 23.
  • At 04:44 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Jason NYU wrote:


Really interested in what you said there about giving up your evangelicalism. Can you explain the story more fully here? Thanks.

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