Does the presence of randomness in the universe negatively impact God's running of the universe? Or put another way, does God have absolute control over everything that goes on in the universe? In the final analysis what is at stake in the question is nothing less than the Being of God. If one accepts that a principle of randomness exists in the universe, one must also accept that God does not control everything, for some things happen "randomly"; that is, they are events "lacking a regular plan, purpose, or pattern." God is likely as surprised by such events as we are. Randomness in the universe challenges one who believes in God to explain how s/he knows what events happen randomly and what events are planned and controlled by God. Failure to answer that question raises another: "Is God in control of anything?" And then for some the ultimate question will arise: "Is there a God, after all?" In this essay, however, I am only concerned with the issue of randomness in the universe.
Physical scientists recognize randomness in the behavior of light. Light can behave simultaneously as a particle and a wave. "This wave-particle duality is an unresolved dilemma of modern physics" (Young, 283). Another example of randomness is found in Darwin's views on natural selection and the survival of the fittest. His views are described as a theory, but only by those who have never read his Origin of the Species. The truth is randomness, chance, and fortune determine who or what survives in nature—or not. For example, the sudden disappearance of dinosaurs and similar creatures that inhabited earth from the Jurassic until the end of the Cretaceous period (200 to 66 million years ago)—and then became extinct. Chance and genes in part explain why I am a living octogenarian rather than a deceased septuagenarian, like many of my high school classmates.
Oddly enough we even find some Biblical authors acknowledging that chance and randomness play a part in everyday life. For example, one biblical author describes the Philistines devising a test to know whether a plague was caused by Yahweh, God of the Israelites (1 Samuel 6:1-9), or whether it had happened to them "by chance" (1 Samuel 6:9). In 2 Samuel 1:1-10 the biblical author notes that the death of Saul at the hands of a young Amalekite (2 Samuel 1:1-10) happened "by chance" (2 Samuel 1:6). In the law code attributed to Moses, the lawgiver describes how one should behave upon the chance finding of an occupied bird's nest (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). Koheleth (the "preacher") observes that the same fate eventually comes upon good and bad people alike (Ecclesiastes 9:2-12), for "time and chance happen to them all" (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Even Paul describes a happenstance sowing of one sort of seed or another (1 Corinthians 15:37). In a parable of Jesus (Luke 10:29-35) Luke describes the three specific travelers passing by a severely wounded man lying beside the road as chance occurrences (Luke 10:31). In all of these texts there is a tacit acceptance of the principle of randomness and chance in human life. Apparently not even some biblical authors assume God controls everything.
Even though Jesus claimed that the very hairs of our head are numbered (Matthew 10:30; Luke 12:7), we seem instinctively to know that some stuff happens randomly. Hence we make room for "luck" in our view of events, and describe some as good or bad "luck"—like accidents or misfortunes. Only the true believer describes the weather as an "act of God," as insurance companies describe floods, tornadoes, tsunamis, ice storms, and other catastrophes of nature. Accidents happen due to our carelessness or the carelessness of others. They cannot be predicted or guarded against; they are random and simply part of the natural order of things. Some conservative religious folk appeal to the permissive will of God to explain such phenomena:
Because God is sovereign, nothing happens that is outside his will. But there is a difference between what he causes and what he allows. By the permissive will of God things happen which God does not cause…
Such a response has always perplexed me, since it impugns God's character, and ultimately makes God responsible for all the bad and tragic experiences of our lives—at least that must be so in the view of James, who wrote:
Whoever knows to do good, yet does not do it, for him it is sin (James 4:17).
It works this way: God knows to do good; God can control what happens in the world; but God nevertheless allows bad things to happen.
It seems to me that standing idly by and allowing bad things to happen when one could have prevented them, whatever one's reasons for doing so, is ethically wrong.
How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Louise Young, ed., Exploring the Universe (2nd ed.; Oxford, 1971).