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).
Good morning Charlie,
It depends on whether or not you believe human beings have what is called "free will." It appears that "God" does not have too much of a problem with humans being free to choose to do harm to one another. I could choose to harm anyone I wish- if I wanted to. Why am I free to make that choice? Or am I free to make that choice? In other words- is some entity pulling my strings and I don't realize it?
What you call randomness- I call free will. Question is, do we really have it or do we only think we do? Or put another way, how does God control the Universe and at the same time give human beings the choice to choose either "good" or "evil?"
Elizabeth, I am struck that the definition of "free will" is problematic. I can think of major decisions that I've made in my life, that I thought at the time of their making was the result of free will, only to find out through the accumulation of wisdom and maturity that the decision was captive to much ignorance, misdirection by others, and lack of maturity.
So I would say that humans do have free will, but it is severely limited, and therefore not so free. Free it seems is only ever an approximation. And some have more of it than others.
It's an interesting subject. My definition of "free" with regard to the human will implies being free from anyone else's direct control. Now does that mean my will is free from ignorance or immaturity? Certainly not... At least not all the time, I hope to think.
Here's another way to ask the question: Does God make our choices for us? If not, then who makes them? This is why I have problems with the whole "Original Sin" theory. Certain denominations say "Adam's sin tainted us all. Therefore we don't become sinners because we sin... We sin because we are born sinners."
Well, if I sin... If I choose to harm another human... If I choose something negative- am I doing so out of my own volition or am I doing it because I am "wired" that way? And if my "sin nature" compels me to do it- then how do I the freedom to say yes or no to the salvation Jesus supposedly offers to all sinners?
I know Charlie isn't speaking about sin but about the randomness in the natural order of things. So what would be the opposite of randomness? If human (and/or natural) events did not occur randomly- then how would they occur? What would that look like?
Good Morning Elizabeth,
I agree with you that human free will, if we actually are free to choose (see Gene's comments below and my post "Is Freedom an Illusion," May 31, 2013) may explain the positive and negative aspects of human behavior--to a point. But it really does not address such things as random bird poop on my shoulder, or other more egregious catastrophes in nature. Could you comment, for example, on how human free will can explain the destruction of a large part of Joplin Missouri by tornados?
Human will has nothing to do with weather, and I have no need to understand what controls weather patterns. I can't imagine what it would be like to take "randomness" out of daily weather... It would be strange to always know exactly when and where it will rain. That's a world I cannot imagine living in.
Are you talking about invisible forces? What invisible forces? I don't know what type of metaphysical beliefs or understandings you may hold, but I am familiar with "Law of Attraction." When something like Joplin happens- the event itself has no meaning. We assign the meaning to it ourselves. Usually the meaning involves blaming some mysterious invisible force that either allowed or made something happen which we deem unfair.
What do you think caused the tornado in Joplin??
I think there are likely two possibilities, 1. It was a natural even caused weather conditions that physical scientists do not completely understand (see "Is the Universe Just," March 19, 2015). In other words as far as can be understood today a chance event of nature. 2. Or perhaps it was caused by God having left the weather desk of the universe untended again (see "A Universe without God," May 24, 2014). In my view the former is more probable than the latter.
#1 should read: It was a random natural event caused by weather conditions that physical scientists do not completely understand.
Sorry about that.
No problem Charlie... I knew what you meant.
Since no one controls the weather- what is the purpose of stating "This tornado shouldn't have happened?" If certain weather should or shouldn't happen, then who's in charge of determining the correctness or incorrectness? Espeically when it affects people other than ourselves?
In other words, if something you don't prefer happens to another person- why would you be affected by it? Only things that happen to us personally can be validated or invalidated with a positive or negative meaning.
I prefer that the tornado in Joplin (or anywhere else) did not happen, but I won't invalidate or condemn it with a negative judgement.
Paul did not seem to have your hesitation to involve his God in both imperfection and perfection. e.g.:
"The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but BY THE WILL OF THE ONE WHO SUBJECTED IT, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain...we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;" (Rom 8:19-22; NRSV)
"For if God did not spare the natural branches (Israel)...GOD HAS THE POWER to graft them in again...a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved"...How unsearchable are his judgments and HOW INSCRUTABLE ARE HIS WAYS." (Romans 11; NRSV)
"Sin came into the world through one man...sin was indeed in the world before the law...Yet if it had not been for law I would not have known sin...should we say that the law is sin, by no means...the commandment is holy, and just and good...it was sin working death in me through what is good...the law is spiritual..." (Romans 6-7; NRSV. This passage ASSUMES THAT GOD AUTHORIZED LAW; but see, however, Gal 3:19 where law was "ordained through angels by a mediator").
Good Morning Gene,
You are correct, of course. But a deity that does bad things for ostensibly good reasons and yet requires his creatures to strive for perfection seems lacking in perfection his/herself.
Good morning Charlie,
Not to press the point too strongly, but isn't Paul simply saying that all things occur under God's watch. Who are humans to question his short term judgment or his long range wisdom? We assume too much by placing ourselves in judgment upon him.
But may I ask your reaction to taking another tact. Suppose that deity is not all powerful but self-limiting, by choice taking a "persuasion" approach to the human condition, perhaps a more morally defensible position than asserting his power without wiggle room for humans.
I site this quote from Ted Weeden, Sr. in your Faith Meets Reason book (p.91): "God both inclines and enables every aspect of creation. Although God possesses absolute power, God chooses not to wield it…God chooses to employ persuasion to lure creation toward self-fulfillment.”
Charlie, what would be an example of "the deity that does bad things?" Should the deity take exert more control and prevent bad things from happening in order to become a "good" deity? That's question number one.
Question two: If the deity is considered by you to be bad for allowing humans to choose between the "light" and the "dark" choices- then are you saying humans shouldn't be given any choice at all to make a dark (negative/evil) choice? Or are you saying that if they do make a dark choice, then the deity is obligated to intervene?
Good Morning Gene,
Discussing the character of God and trying to answer why God does what s/he does is like debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In other words, since we have no experience with God except in our heads, whatever evidence we come up with is clearly not objective but simply what we choose to believe. That said the idea that God is weak does seem to fit what we see about us, and Paul even uses the words: the weakness of God (2 Corinthians 12:9-10; 1 Corinthians 1:25). In my view God, if such there be, is clearly not in control of the world--for whatever reason that we shall never know.
Good Morning Elizabeth
From Springfield where we have icy roads.
We all build our understanding of God out of something. Here in the US it is usually out of the Bible, what others tell us, and our own minds. The problem with the Bible is that we must pick and choose what we want to use, for the usual understanding of God as good, kind, loving, caring, etc. is belied by many passages, particularly in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The most egregious incident I know in Hebrew Bible among so many is 1 Samuel 15 where God orders the annihilation of the Amalekites as a people--kill everyone s/he orders even including sucking infants, or in the terms of today kill all the newborns as well. The question becomes how does one fit such a description of God's behavior into any image of a God that one would want to honor.
With respect to free will: all human beings have free will--but only up to a point. Where that point falls is determined by one's acculturation, social engineering, genetics, history, etc., and that is simply the way it is. We do not all enjoy the same level of free will. We have what we have either because God allows what we have or in spite of the fact that there is no God there to grant it.
Well, the explanation I was always given with regard to the Amalekites is that under the "old" covenant, there was no mercy for sinners (ie. false idol worshippers) or some such notion. That God didn't really like the Old Covenant and replaced it with the New Covenant which gives sinners a chance to repent. That's what I was taught anyway- not saying I agree with it. It really amazes me as I look back on my Sunday school lesson how all of these incidents were so neatly and easily explained away.
Humans take a great deal of comfort and security in believing there's an invisible force or being that controls (or at the very least influences) all the thoughts & actions of natural and human events. Free will is a loaded term- I prefer using the term "ability." I do have the ability to make choices. No one does it for me. Whether those choices are freely made or not can be debated at great length, but in the final analysis no one is held accountable for my choices other than me.
Have you ever heard anyone speak or write about "creating your own reality" or the idea that reality really doesn't exist outside but inside your own consciousness?
Sorry I came across argumentative; that would be a win/lose mind set and in my heart I'm totally into education and clarification in my posts and responses.
I tend to be intense in person and maybe that comes across in my writing. I expect the same from the other guy as long as the motive is education and clarification.
I continue to really enjoy the thought provoking challenges of this blog site.
Good Morning Gene,
You have never come across to me as "argumentative." I find you to be fair, honest, but persistent (which is a good quality in my vocabulary).
Good Morning Elizabeth,
Yes, the idea that reality (what meets us out there) is what each individual perceives for himself/herself. And have even written a bit about it. See my blog "Romancing the Gospels" April 15, 2014. And "Realism in Western Narrative and the Gospel of Mark," Journal of Biblical Literature 126.2 (2007) 345-59. In this article I cite bibliography from sociologists who further describe this self-evident phenomenon.
Hi Charlie, looking out here at 2-3' of snow and higher drifts. Glad we had the foresight to purchase a new Toro blower last fall and have neighbors willing to use it.
You wrote: "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." That statement triggered some related thoughts:
1. Certain Hindu systems, e.g.,look upon the time/space world as illusion; God is therefore superfluous.
2. Tribal cultures of course, both ancient and modern, had and have no problem asking their god to wreak all kinds of evil on the enemy.
3. Even unlimited deity doesn't eliminate the problem of characteristics; for example, RC theology has tended to say that suffering and perfection are incompatible.
4. Ancient thinkers like Plato and Marcion of Sinope concluded that the High Good or the High God could not be associated with creating an imperfect world for which a demiurge was responsible.
5. Process philosophy thinks of deity as moving from primordial to consequent, as persuasion being a higher virtue than control. While deity influences everything that transpires, God does not know with any certainty just what the future holds in store.
Thank you for such a cogent post. People should read your comments very carefully! For at bottom you are pointing out that our view of God comes out of our own head, with a little bit of input from the religious tradition in which we were raised.
Thanks Charlie! I think it would be very interesting, say, to pick a number of folks randomly off the street and ask them to write down their thoughts about God, to see what "comes out of their own head," and then maybe expand the project across rural/urban groups and other subcultures. Could be a good project for a theology student. Maybe it's already been done!
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