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Are God and chance compatible?

It has long been the unquestioned assumption of many religious believers that the God who created the world also acts in it. Until recent scientific discoveries, few challenged the idea of how exactly God interacts with the world. With the introduction of Newtonian science and quantum theory, we now know much more about how the world works, and the mode of God’s action has become a serious question for believers.

Many may believe God and chance must be seen as mutually exclusive. It is not uncommon to hear that “ascribing anything to ‘chance’ rules out God’s action.” This does not mean, of course, that believers constitute a homogeneous group whose views can be neatly summarized. There is a good deal of variety in their thinking, which has surrounded this topic in the past and there is a considerable overlap. Some very ancient views persist to this day, and new theological arguments have emerged to explain how God interacts in a world in which chance seems to exist. Nevertheless, it is possible to roughly trace a progression by which believers have struggled to accept the existence of both God and chance.

The first challenge occurred with the rise of Newtonian science. This made it appear that the world was a lawful place in which things happened in a predictable way. Rocks fell back to the ground when raised and the heavens changed in a predictable way – not at the whim of fate or fortune. It was certainly true that many things appeared to happen outside this regular regime and hence ideas of magic, luck and such things continued to thrive.

At this point, believers faced a fork in the road. The first fork provided no challenge to orthodoxy. It supposed that God acted alongside the laws of nature. This posed no problem to the believer because a God who had created and maintained the world could surely modify it by special acts as circumstances required. The second fork became what is called deism. This gave priority to regularity and supposed that the world was, indeed, a grand machine with which God did not or chose not to interfere.

One has to question: does that leave any space for God to act? How then, can he exert any influence on it at all? How can evil exist in a world created by an all loving God?

The second challenge to the Christian conception of God came when science moved into the world of very small things at the quantum level. It then became possible to account for what happened on the macro scale by referring to minute and apparently random happenings on a scale so small that it defied imagination. If our appearance on the scene was an accident, then God appeared to have been squeezed out, leaving the field to chance. Chance seemed to set God in opposition to nature. Faced with this dilemma, Christians, in particular, have taken three lines of argument.

One was to maintain the traditional line by arguing that God is, indeed, in control of everything – including quantum events. That means that he directs the path of every single sub-atomic particle with a view to achieving his will. This is obviously a gargantuan task involving trillions upon trillions of events. However, if God is viewed as being far larger and more complex that we can imagine – as he is in this context – this task seems feasible. From this traditional Christian viewpoint, the fact that many happenings are apparently contrary to the intention of God poses no problem. This issue can be circumnavigated by the idea that the appearances can be misleading. If we were only able to see things from God’s perspective, on a grand scale, things might look different. Short term problems can vanish when seen through God’s eye, from a broad enough perspective.

A second approach to addressing the theological dilemma of God and chance is to accept most of the scientific picture of the world, and suppose that God acts in a sophisticated way, by only directly changing certain critical events. Thus, for example, he might have kept evolution on course by intervening only at the crucial points necessary to ensure that humans appeared as the end-product.

A third approach is to take the evidence of science at face-value and accept that chance is not apparent but real. This obviously means that God created the world as we find it, and evil and suffering are an integral part of it. One has to question: does that leave any space for God to act? How then can he exert any influence on it at all? How can evil exist in a world created by an all loving God? The obvious, and perhaps the only, answer is through people – either individually or collectively. This view gives to humans a key role, assuming that they are not deterministic robots but agents in the creative process. Agents in the creative process have the option to choose between good and evil; good being God, and evil which can be viewed be the absence of God, as some scholars have argued.

As mentioned in a previous article, unpredictability is an all-pervasive part of life, and it contributes much to the excitement and interest of living. From games of chance, where the outcomes depend on the throw of a die or the shuffling of a pack of cards, to the choice of ends in a football match, chance contributes much to the richness and enjoyment of life. This may well be a mimicking of God’s ongoing creative activity on the cosmic scale.

Featured image credit: “Tiffany Education” by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Tiffany Studios. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. carol

    God, as omniscient and omnipotent, created everything, including what we experience as chance. What we call chance arises from our lack of omniscience. We do not know everything, so we do not know what will happen in the future. God does not have this limitation. God started and is aware of all events and all outcomes. Because of this, God is not like a helpless onlooker watching a set of dominoes fall in a predetermined path. God built the path and knows where it is going. People have free will and may pray for God’s intervention, and God may or may not intervene. Suppose a woman prays a flood will subside and not destroy her home. The home may or may not be saved. The critical point of understanding is that God always knew the flood would occur and that the woman would pray for help. The woman experiences this uncertainty as chance because unlike God, she is not omniscient. To suggest that God is limited by chance occurrences is like saying a novelist could lose control of a plot because unforeseen events derailed the author’s original intentions.

  2. Eric T

    I can’t see why the existence of chance should be incompatible with the existence of gods such as, say, Kali or Loki.

  3. Gerry Dorrian

    A bigger challenge to faith was the philosopher David Hume’s view (admittedly based on Newton’s thoughts) that the future has no obligation to resemble the past, a direct challenge to causality. A corollary was that there is no self, what we think of as such being marely a stream of images delivered to the mind by the senses. The assault on the existence of the self still continues, particularly through the fragmentation of the ego into diverse identities demanded by diversity theory.

  4. George

    Chance is the only god. Anyone else is imaginary.

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