Friday, October 14, 2022

Luck and the Kingdom of God

The dictionary definition of luck is: "the seemingly chance happening of events that affect someone." What we dub "Luck" (whether good or bad) is our interpretation of life's randomness. The term "kingdom of God" is a mistranslation of the expression basileia tou theou (reign of God). Basileia is a word properly translated a "royal reign"; it describes the extent of kingly influence—in this case the effective reach of God's rule. Basileia does not describe a specific geographical territory, but rather refers to a king's influence over his subjects, those under his rule. Being in the kingdom of God is accepting God's rule over one's self.

I was surprised, then, to hear a Baptist preacher exclaim last week: "There ain't no Luck in the kingdom of God!" On the basis of the definitions above, his affirmation on its face would seem to be that chance happenings do not affect one who has accepted God's rule. The difficulty with the minister's statement is that all human beings (Christian and non-Christian) live in a world that is obviously under the control of Powers, natural, political, commercial, etc., that are obviously not under the influence of God's rule.1 Even Paul's disciple, the author of Ephesians seemed to recognize that hostile powers are indigenous to our cosmos:

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12, NRSV).

Christians do not yet live in a "territory" that is under God's control, but in a territory largely hostile to all human beings, even though some may already have accepted God's rule over themselves. This already/not yet ambiguity explains the Christian's present situation: the kingdom of God is a future reality (Rom 6:9; 15:24, 50; Gal 5:21), even though one may now be experiencing its benefits (Mark 1:15; Rom 14:17). In short, human beings live in a hostile world where surprisingly good things or depressingly bad things can unexpectedly happen to any of us. Even Christians might win the lottery.

            During the Hellenistic Period of Classical antiquity (323-33 BCE) there was a tendency for the Greeks and Romans to personify abstract concepts. They turned the concept of luck or fortune into the capricious Goddess, Tychē. Her existence was a recognition of their universal experience that one's fortunes (or luck) in life could never be controlled or predicted.2

From my perspective a belief in luck is simply a recognition of a natural law, something like gravity in the physical sciences. This law may be simply stated as follows: "the unexpected sometimes happens." The most carefully laid plans or intentions are always subject to this law. We describe it popularly from our perspective as good or bad luck, meaning that it was unexpected.

            The minister seemed to think that Christians are exempt from this natural law, but even certain writers of the New Testament seem cognizant of life's unexpected and sometimes turbulent ups and downs, particularly the downs—for example, Paul's life experiences as he described them.3 The author of First Peter cautioned the exiles in the "Dispersion" (1 Pet 1:1) "not to be surprised" at the unexpected "fiery trial" that had overtaken them (1 Pet 4:12). Stuff, both good and bad, happened to the early followers of Jesus as well. The universal cosmic law of the unexpected applies to all for whom the law of gravity applies. Apparently, not everything that happens is what God wants to happen.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019): "Natural Disasters, Acts of God, and the Bible," 26-28; "Chance, Luck, Randomness, and the Being of God," 28-30, "Does Anything Happen by Chance?," 30-33.

2Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd ed.; Eerdman's, 2003), 242.

3Here are only a few of the passages from his letters describing his own personal ups and downs in life, particularly the downs: Rom 8:18, 35-39; 1 Cor 4:11-13; 1 Cor 1:3-11; 11;23-27.


Anonymous said...

“The unexpected sometimes happens.” What a great description of luck! I think many Christians, particularly Evangelicals, have difficulty with the concept of luck because of the randomness of it. They look at verses such as Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love him…,” and Jer. 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord …,” which seemingly imply that there is an overall blueprint, a plan for each individual, and therefore, there must be a Planner. Ancient Greeks personified a similar idea in the Fates, so maybe it’s human nature to want to believe someone or something is in control.


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

What do you make of these verses and the experience of luck.

We know that all things (including good luck and bad luck?) work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he FOREKNEW he also PREDESTINED to be conformed to the image of his son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those he predestined he also CALLED; and those whom he called he also JUSTIFIED, and those whom he justified he also GLORIFIED (Romans 8:29-30). Compare Mark 13:26: Then the Son of Man will send out the angels and gather HIS ELECT from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

It sure sounds like the predestined and elect are the lucky ones. If only one had a choice!

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Gene: With respect to Romans 8:28 I think it is true that God (if God there be) wants the best for everyone. The problem is that bad things still happen to good people, even the people of God. In my experience most Christian folk think this verse affirms that whatever happens is God's will. I am reluctant to affirm that God manipulates things so that some receive good luck and others misfortune. In my view the universal law of this present cosmos is that "the unexpected sometimes happens." I do not think that God is responsible for every little thing that occurs. In any case we are the ones that describe our luck as good or bad. In long term what we in the short term describe as good or bad, turns out to be just the opposite.

Anonymous said...

I suppose the Calvinists tried rid themselves of luck in regard to one’s destiny, since they figured final destiny was planned from the beginning. It seems portions of the Bible had this view of the cosmos, as God having planned & in control of everything from the “get go” (for instance, Eph.1.4; 1 Peter 1.20; Col. 1.15-20, Job 7.1-3,14.5-6, Eccl. 3, especially v.11). That would seem to negate luck, except I reckon original “luck of the draw.” The use of omniscience and foreshadowing in narratives reinforces this in biblical narratives.

The Puritan Increase Mather in 1697 (“Man Knows Not His Time”) wrote, “... all is determined in Heaven before it comes to pass on earth.” No “luck” in that, just “decrees.” I bet it added a pessimism to the soteriology.

My view is that there are too many variables to account for why good or bad happens, why something is described as “good” or bad “luck.” It is like a leaf on the highest branch of a tall oak in a forest. No one can know from from looking at it exactly when, where, and even on what side the leaf will rest when it falls. There are too many factors which in turn are each controlled by other factors.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Charles Hedrick said...

Thanks Dennis!