John Piper is one of America’s best known Calvinist theologians—but his 39-year-old son, Abraham, has been achieving viral fame on TikTok by promoting himself as an “exvangelical” and blasting the Bible as “absurd.”
In a recent video, Piper says:
Did you know that the Bible says it’s best to not have kids? . . . Listen to this delightful bit of existential dread from Ecclesiastes: “I declared that the dead who had already died are happier than the living who are still alive. . . . But better than both is the one who has never existed.” That’s the Bible that says that! Of the three states of being that are available to potential humans, God apparently thinks that their current state is the ideal one: nonexistence.
“It’s completely cool, obviously, to disagree with Ecclesiastes,” Piper says in closing. “But if you’re gonna say that it’s God’s literal words, well, they just told you it’s stupid to have babies.”
One problem with Piper’s objection is that he is using the word “Bible” as if it refers to a single book with God as its sole author. Some people mistakenly subscribe to a kind of “divine dictation theory,” which says the human authors were simply in a trance and wrote down the words God spoke to them. That wouldn’t make sense of passages like 1 Corinthians 1:16, where Paul says, “I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.” God knew whom Paul baptized, so this means Paul is sharing his own thoughts while being inspired by the Holy Spirit. That’s why the Second Vatican Council taught in Dei Verbum that “in composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which he wanted” (11).
But why did God use human authors to say it’s better to never be born?
Whenever we read something startling in the Bible, we should always seek the context of the passage in order to determine what the author meant. In this case, we must ask, “Why did the author of Ecclesiastes say this?” Here’s what he says before the verse Piper cites: “Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them!” A few verses later, he says of even the non-oppressed worker, “Yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches” (4:8).
One of the main themes of Ecclesiastes is that life without God is pointless. If you are oppressed, then there is no “light at the end of the tunnel.” Even if you live a decent life by human standards, no good we earn by working ever seems to be enough to satisfy us. Instead, our ultimate happiness can come only from God, which is why the author ends his book on this note: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14).
Piper tries to head off this charge by saying, “It’s only gonna take two holy seconds for someone to come along and tell me I’m taking this out of context. But you know what? It’s pretty clear, assuming you’re supposed to take the Bible literally.” This amounts to Piper saying, People will claim I’m taking this out of context, but I’m totally not doing that. It’s a defense unworthy of any response because its thoughtlessness is self-evident to anyone who hears it.
A more potent criticism would be to say the Bible contradicts itself when giving pieces of advice. For example, does wisdom make us happy? Proverbs 3:13 says it does, but Ecclesiastes 1:18 says it causes us sorrow.
When it comes to the wisdom literature of the Bible, or books like Proverbs, Psalms, Sirach, and Ecclesiastes, we must remember that we are dealing with poetry and prose, not technical instruction manuals. These books must be examined in light of their original context, their intended audiences, and the message each author was asserting through his text.
For example, one of the themes in the book of Proverbs is that happiness comes from wisdom, and the beginning of wisdom is a healthy respect for God—that is, fear of the Lord (1:7). The wise man will usually lead a happy life because he respects God’s will and does not give in to destructive habits like alcohol abuse, pride, and promiscuity.
One of the lessons of Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, is that as we become wiser, we stop being blissfully ignorant. We see more clearly both the positive and the negative aspects of life, as well as our own shortcomings. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue wisdom. It only means that the pursuit isn’t easy. When it comes to wise living, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are both true when each book is read in its appropriate context. As Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft writes:
Proverbs often seem to contradict each other when they do not, if they refer to different situations. They are not as universal as they seem, and two non-universal propositions do not contradict each other. “Out of sight, out of mind” is true of weak relationships, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is true of strong ones (Socratic Logic, 173).
In short, the wisdom literature is not a collection of universal axioms. It is a collection of prose that teaches us, through various themes and writing styles, how to find happiness by living as God intended. We’re not guaranteed happy lives, but by living holy lives, we can find meaning even in suffering. As my favorite verse in the Bible says, “accept whatever happens to you; in periods of humiliation be patient. For in fire gold is tested, and the chosen, in the crucible of humiliation. Trust in God, and he will help you; make your ways straight and hope in him” (Sir. 2:4-6, NAB).