“A man is on a long journey trying to escape from some villains who are out to get him. He gets to a wide open plain offering no place to hide and guaranteeing the faster villains will catch him. But then a ‘miracle’ fog hides everything, allowing him to escape. The character is able to communicate with a ‘higher power’ and learns the fog didn’t just ‘happen.’ The higher power knew of this need millennia ago and set the natural order of things so that the fog would be where it needed to be.”
This is a slight rewording of a comment made by a poster on an Internet message board. The poster was paraphrasing a science-fiction story he had read some years earlier. He went on to point out that this idea of God “setting the wheels in motion” really “resonated” with him. He was arguing that free will and determinism don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
On the surface, I suppose this sort of idea would resonate with just about anyone. It certainly resonated with me for a long time – well into my adulthood. It is a common and widely accepted idea within mainstream Christianity. It is the idea that “God is in control.”
The problem, for me, is that it does not hold up to scrutiny. In fact, it was through scrutinizing concepts like this that I eventually began to move away from a belief that God is, in fact, in control. It only takes a few minutes to see the inherent problems in this sort of theology. If, in the example above, God truly “set the wheels in motion” in order to make the fog appear at just the right time to save the character’s life, does that mean that when things do not go our way, God has set the wheels against us? Let me illustrate this point with a scenario.
At 8:07 a.m., a tractor-trailer driven by a driver who has been driving all night is going to run a red light at the corner of Main Street and Second Street. Unknowing, John Doe leaves his house at 8:00 a.m., as he does every morning. He pulls out of his street and makes his way through the neighborhood, which empties at the corner of Main and Second. About two minutes after leaving his house, but before getting out of his neighborhood, he realizes he forgot his lunch. He considers whether he should go back to get it. Tomorrow is payday, and he does not currently have any available cash, so he cannot go out to eat for lunch unless he charges his lunch. He does not want to do that, as his credit card is pretty full. Therefore, the only option is to either turn around and go back, or head on to work and just skip lunch. He chooses to go back. He turns around, heads back home, grabs his lunch, then leaves again. It is now 8:04. As he is turning out of his neighborhood at 8:07, his car is smashed by the tractor-trailer, and John Doe is paralyzed, doomed to live out the rest of his life as a paraplegic.
Now, you can see that there are several different ways this scenario could have turned out. John Doe could have left home the first time a minute early, therefore putting him at the intersection at 8:06 instead of 8:07. He could have not forgotten his lunch, therefore eliminating the need to go back home, and putting him at the intersection at 8:03. He could have not gone out to dinner the previous weekend and spent fifty bucks on his credit card, thereby making money tight by the end of the week, such that he could not afford to charge his lunch that day. Furthermore, the tractor-trailer driver could have stopped at a rest area to sleep, meaning at 8:07 he would not have been anywhere near that intersection, and when he did finally reach the intersection, he would not have been so tired that he ran the red light. The tractor-trailer driver could have gotten hung up at a weigh station a few extra minutes, putting him at the intersection at 8:09 instead of 8:07. He could have gotten stuck behind a slow poke who pulled out in front of him, delaying him by a few minutes.
But none of those things happened. Instead, everything worked together to cause that tractor-trailer to run that red light at 8:07, and to cause John Doe to be turning through that same intersection at 8:07, thereby leading to John Doe’s paralysis.
In this scenario, did God make it happen? Did God “set the wheels in motion” by allowing all those “what ifs” to come together in just the right way, such that John Doe ended up in a wheelchair? More importantly, why didn’t God “set the wheels in motion” to allow just one tiny little detail to change, such that John Doe and the tractor-trailer would not meet up in that intersection at the same time?
How would mainstream Christianity account for this tragedy? From my long experience in the church as a traditionally-believing Christian, I think I can say with certainty that the general answer would be that this is a flawed, cruel, uncaring world, and sometimes bad things happen to good people. Thus, we need God in order to cope with the cruel tragedies of life. God doesn’t make bad things happen. Bad things happen because Satan holds dominion over this world.
But what if this scenario had not turned out this way? What if John Doe had decided, for instance, to just go without lunch that day? He’s been eating a little too much lately and has packed on a few extra pounds, so it would do him some good to skip a meal. Thus, he decides, at 8:03, to just head on to work instead of turning around for his lunch. He pulls through the intersection safely and moves on with life. He later learns from a neighbor that a tractor-trailer ran a red light at the intersection just a few minutes after he pulled through, but no one was hurt because no car was in the intersection at the time.
Considering this change, now how would mainstream Christianity account for this situation? Again, as a church alumnus and a nearly 30-year veteran of traditional Christian beliefs, I can say that the general answer would be that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord (to quote the Apostle Paul), and that God helped set the wheels in motion to keep John Doe out of that intersection when that tractor-trailer came rumbling through.
Unfortunately, it cannot be both ways. Either the world is a cruel, cold, uncaring place where bad and good things happen based on the whim of chance, without any interference from God, or God is in control of everything, meaning he caused both John Doe’s paralysis in the first scenario and John Doe’s salvation in the second scenario.
Most Christians want to have it both ways. When bad things happen, they want to turn to God for comfort and solace against a cold, cruel, indifferent natural world. When good things happen, they want to attribute it to God’s control.
For me, the inability to reconcile these dichotomous positions caused me to ultimately move away from the belief that God sets any wheels in motions, intervenes in any way in history, or has anything at all to do with tragedies and blessings.
I believe in God with all my heart, soul, and mind. I believe in a God of infinite love. I believe God can be experienced in very real ways. But I do not believe in a god who intervenes in history, either directly or indirectly. I do not believe in a god who has the power to prevent tragedies, but chooses not to. I do not believe in a god who bestows blessings and fortune and success and safekeeping on some, while leaving others to the whims of a cold, cruel world. I do not believe in a god whose ways are so self-contradictory, illogical, and inexplicable that he must be worshipped as “mysterious.”
When we can learn to love unashamedly and without prejudice, when we can learn to live fully in each and every moment, and when we can learn to be the very best that we can be, we can move into communion and life with God. And when we do that, the need to explain tragedy and blessing in supernatural terms dissipates (in fact, the very idea that events on earth happen at the intervention or neglect of a whimsical god becomes absurd and incompatible with Godly thought). Instead, we can simply face the intersections of life with courage and conviction, we can live as children of God in happiness and peace, and we can truly say that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord.