Nothing happens outside of God’s providence

February 11, 2014

In the comments section of my provocatively titled blog post a couple of weeks ago, “God cares who wins the Super Bowl,” my friend and fellow Methodist Geoff disagreed with me—at least in part. He wrote:

On the other hand, I whole-heartedly disagree with William Craig’s idea of providence as that which “rules all of life, even down to the smallest details. Nothing happens without either God’s direct will or at least his permission of that event.” This, in my mind and reasoning, goes the opposite direction of deism, reducing God to nothing more than puppeteer and trampling over any conception of free will (something as a Arminian-Wesleyan I have trouble swallowing). If this is pushed to the radical extreme, it gets into “God caused tragedy X because Y” territory.

I understand where he’s coming from: we Wesleyans are so keen to defend human free will against all deterministic threats that we tend to mistake even good things—like the biblical doctrine of God’s providence—for such threats. And we react. It’s as if we have a spiritual autoimmune disorder. (Sorry, I watched way too much House.)

Geoff writes: “If this is pushed to the radical extreme, it gets into ‘God caused tragedy X because Y’ territory.” If you’ve read any of my reflections on Tim Keller’s latest book, you may have noticed that I’ve emphasized two points: First, there’s an important difference between God’s allowing something to happen and causing something to happen. He allows human beings to make free choices, for example, even when those choices cause great harm.

What’s God’s alternative? A world without human free will is a world in which love is impossible. God wanted his image-bearers to love, even though the price of love was sin and evil. To God’s infinite credit—praise God!—he paid this price in full with his own life on the cross.

I’ve also said that while the difference between “causing” and “allowing” is important, it doesn’t let God off the hook for evil. Every time something evil happens in our world, God chooses to allow it to happen. God could always intervene to stop it. In fact, at any moment in which an evil event is happening, there are likely people praying that God would intervene to stop it, and he doesn’t.

What are we to make of God’s decision not to intervene?

And here is the second point I’ve emphasized throughout my posts on Keller’s book: Unless we believe that God makes arbitrary decisions, we must believe that God has good reasons for allowing some tragic or evil event to occur, even if we have no idea what those reasons are. Moreover, it stands to reason that we can’t know all or most or even a tiny fraction of the reasons. Remember Keller’s analogy using the “butterfly effect”?

With this in mind, I don’t find the following illustration from Geoff persuasive:

So, theoretical case. Rain waters spend centuries beating against a cliff face, loosing a boulder through erosion. Gravity pulls on that boulder over time, and eventually the combination of the two sends the boulder plummeting towards the earth and strikes a person, who dies. Total random accident from a human perspective. Now, the view of providence above says that God caused or allowed this to happen because of reasons we don’t know. Omniscience says God would know that rock would fall and kill that person. Ominpotence suggests God could have just stopped that rock in midair if God wanted to. What if God’s reason for not stopping the rock is that it fell simply because of the laws of physics that God set up in the first place? In other words, God’s purpose in that moment is for the universe to be the universe.

My first objection to Geoff’s illustration has to do with the butterfly effect. If God is going to be “hands-off” about one boulder falling on someone, is God also going to be hands-off about the many consequences of this event? As I wrote in my reply back to him,

That person who gets struck by the boulder doesn’t get struck by the boulder in a vacuum. Like the famous butterfly effect, who can imagine (except God) the nearly infinite sequence of cause and effect this one event triggers? It’s so much more than God letting one boulder fall. Even limiting the scope of this thought experiment to the effects it has on the lives of this person’s immediate family and friends, for example, imagine how significant this one person’s death might be. When does God’s providential care kick in? At what point does God intervene to do something other than merely let the laws of physics run their course?

In other words, if God has any providential role in our world, it’s hard to see how he can let even one event—like a boulder falling on someone’s head—occur outside of his providence.

One problem with people like John Piper or Pat Robertson telling the world why God allowed some horrible event to happen is not only that it’s pastorally unhelpful in that moment, it also shows a lack of humility: How can we possibly know why God allowed this or that to happen—why he granted this petition but not that one? We see through a glass darkly. Isn’t it enough, instead, to simply assert, when the time is right, that God is in control, that he is enfolding even tragic or evil events into his good purposes, and that he is always transforming tragedy and evil into good.

Given that God transformed the greatest evil imaginable—the crucifixion of his Son—into the greatest good imaginable—the redemption of this sinful world—no lesser evil in our world is any match for God.

My second problem with Geoff’s illustration is that it overlooks the fact that God can have more than one purpose in allowing that boulder to fall. Yes, by all means, one of God’s purposes in that moment is to let “the universe be the universe”—to let the laws of physics run their course. God usually “lets the universe be the universe,” doesn’t he? Otherwise, miracles would happen all the time! “Letting the universe be the universe” says nothing about God’s providence.

For example, God could have fashioned the world in such a way that an unnoticed pebble in the man’s path would have tripped him up before he reached the spot at which the boulder hit the ground, thus saving him from being crushed. In either case, whether the man lived or died, God would be “letting the universe be the universe,” all the while respecting the man’s free will, except in one case the man’s life would be saved. Saving his life would be no miracle—the laws of physics weren’t countermanded, after all—yet we can say that God’s providence saved it.

But make no mistake: even if the man were crushed, his death would not happen outside of God’s providence—even though God didn’t directly cause that boulder to fall; God was merely “letting the universe be the universe.” Nevertheless, because of providence, the man’s death would serve God’s good purposes.

As C.S. Lewis argues in an appendix of his book Miracles, God’s providence is at work in every event. (I’ll have to say more about Lewis’s argument in a later post.)

So, getting back to my original point: the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl because of God’s providence. And the Denver Broncos lost because of providence.

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