Today's Broadcast

Providence or Chance?

A Message by R.C. Sproul

What chain of events brought you to this very moment in your life? Some say this all is a matter of fate, coincidence, or chance. But Scripture has a better answer. It is God who is in absolute control of our moments. Here in this lecture, Dr. Sproul will remind you that all things which come to pass must be a matter of either "Providence or Chance."

From the series: Providence: God in Control

Get the Providence: God in Control Series on CD and the Does God Control Everything? Booklet for a Gift of Any Amount

Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Mere Coincidence?

  2. devotional

    The Myth of Chance

  3. devotional

    God or Chance?

Mere Coincidence?

Keith Mathison

One of the most interesting stories ever published was a novella called The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility by Morgan Robertson. Robertson tells the story of the sinking of a large luxury liner named the Titan. The Titan in Robertson’s book was the largest ship in existence at the time: over eight hundred feet in length with a passenger and crew capacity of three thousand. It had numerous watertight bulkheads and was considered unsinkable. It carried the minimum number of lifeboats required by law, but far short of the number needed for three thousand people. While carrying many wealthy passengers across the North Atlantic on a cold April night, the Titan struck an iceberg at 24 knots just before midnight about ninety-five miles south of Greenland. The iceberg tore a gash in the ship’s starboard side, which flooded the watertight compartments. The unsinkable ship sank. Because the Titan did not have enough lifeboats, more than half of her passengers died in the icy waters.

We’ve all read books or watched films that claim to be “based on actual events.” Those who are familiar with the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, would naturally assume that Robertson’s book was a fictional account based on these actual events. The numerous similarities are just too striking. The problem is that Robertson’s book was published in 1898, fourteen years before the “unsinkable” Titanic sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic with too few lifeboats.

I’ve been interested in so-called coincidences since I was a child. In fact, my first research paper of any substance during high school was on the subject of coincidences. I recently ran across this old paper, which I wrote before I was a Christian. After giving examples of some of the more remarkable coincidences to be found in the annals of history and looking at some of the different theories that have been suggested as explanations for these phenomena, I concluded that perhaps coincidences were somebody’s way of trying to tell us something. I also added at the time that if this someone or something were trying to tell us something, there were probably better ways to do so. It wasn’t too long after writing those words that I read the Bible for the first time.

Some of the events that skeptics would attribute to chance or coincidence are examples of God answering our prayers. I have experienced these in my own life. As an example, the week I began seminary studies, I did not have enough money to take a full course load, which meant that my new wife and I could not stay in the seminary housing. The only person I had talked to about this was the housing director. I stayed up all night praying. The following day I went to buy a loaf of bread (I didn’t know what else to do, but I knew we had to eat). When I returned, the phone rang the very moment I opened the door. I picked it up and discovered that a fellow first-year seminary student was on the line, a student I did not even know. He had heard of my situation and had paid the remainder of my tuition, enabling my wife and me to stay in the student housing and begin seminary studies. A skeptic would say the timing of the phone call was a mere coincidence, pure chance, nothing more, nothing less. No, in reality, it was God’s dramatic answer to my prayer.

Even Tabletalk has been involved in “coincidences.” Our daily Bible study for September 11, 2001, covered the text of Judges 9:42–49. This text tells the story of the deaths of a thousand people who perished in the tower of Shechem when it was burned by Abimelech. The study was written months before the events of September 11, 2001, but it had particular resonance to those who read it on that tragic day. Such stories could be multiplied hundreds of times over. Most people can share similar stories of coincidence. Atheists and other skeptics relegate these kinds of events to pure chance, but Christians do not believe in chance. We believe in a sovereign God who providentially controls all things. So what’s going on?

Scripture explicitly teaches us that things we might attribute to mere chance are actually controlled by our sovereign God. The entire book of Esther is an example of God’s providence working through seeming coincidences. Proverbs informs us that “the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (16:33). God, then, is in control even of things as simple as the “roll of the dice.” As the Westminster Confession explains: “God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least” (5.1).

So-called coincidences appear to be striking glimpses of God’s providence in our day-to-day world. We know and confess that all of life is under God’s providential control, but we tend to forget this in the humdrum regularity of our lives. So-called coincidences are a splash of water in the face, as it were, to us and to others who can tend to forget that our world is not simply matter in motion. God is always trying to tell us something. We just don’t listen very well.

The Myth of Chance

Ancient Greece is well-known for its religious mythology. The colorful stories of gods and goddesses continue to be read by schoolchildren across the Western world. Our culture’s language and art are filled with references to the deities of Mount Olympus.

Even though these ideas have long since been discredited, it is important for us to realize that ancient mythology and modern science hold one thing in common: both are trying to explain mysteries. Though they may differ in their conclusions, each inquiry is equally concerned with discovering why things are the way they are.

Mythology has its literary, linguistic, and artistic uses; but it has been rejected as a way of explaining reality because it obscures that which it seeks to explain. However, though science helps us make sense of the universe, we would be naive to think modern science has no myths of its own. In fact, the one, great myth embraced by many biologists and physicists is the myth of chance.

On the one hand, we note that chance is a perfectly appropriate term for speaking of mathematical probability. It is statistically sound to say that a coin has a fifty-fifty chance of coming up heads when it is tossed. The problem comes when we attribute the power of causality to chance. Though the term can be used to measure probability quotients, the outcome of something like a coin toss results from the force of the toss, atmospheric pressure, the number of revolutions the coin makes, and numerous other causal factors. Chance can help us predict, but cannot itself determine, the outcome of the toss, because it has no causal power of its own. It is in itself nothing.

In seeking to save the phenomena — to explain reality — modern science speaks of chance bringing the universe into existence. Yet this violates a basic axiom held by both science and theology: ex nihilo, nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”). To say chance created the universe is to say nothing created something, and thus we have irrationality. But since modern scientists typically assume there is no Creator, the myth of chance is offered to save the phenomena. For if chance as a causal power exists, there can be no sovereign Lord.

God or Chance?

People who deny the existence of God give chance the credit for creating and ordering the universe. Even Christians are guilty of this blunder when they try to explain why bad things happen. They give God the credit for causing good things, but they give chance the credit for causing inconsequential or bad things. While God is certainly not the author of sin, we must not abdicate His sovereignty by removing Him from the causal chain of events—especially when the Scriptures so clearly state that God does cause “bad things” to happen. Lamentations 3:37–39 (niv) is an excellent example: “Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come? Why should any living man complain when punished for his sins?” We have certainly learned from our study of the Psalms that David understood the hand of providence in everything that happened to Him. He did not attribute anything to chance, but turned to God in times of difficulty and joy.

People who talk of chance as a causal agent reveal their atheism by rejecting God as sovereign. It is impossible for chance to cause anything because it is only a mathematical concept of probability. Chance is not an entity, and it is incapable of doing anything. Therefore, something must cause things to happen—the answer is God. Because God is eternal, infinite, and self-existent, He is not an effect—nothing caused Him to come into being.

The universe, however, is not self-existent, it is not eternal, and it is not infinite. It is an effect; therefore, something caused it—once again, the answer is God. The Lord of all is the primary cause of everything that happens. To attribute the ultimate cause of events to anything other than God alone is blasphemous and atheistic. Many Christians err when they unwittingly attribute some calamity to chance instead of Divine Providence. We must, therefore, not only counter the atheism in our culture by exposing the error of “chance causality,” but we must also sweep the church clean of the notion that God is not involved in the afflictions, calamities, and trials we face. It is much more comforting to know that a holy God controls these events rather than unexplainable “chance.”

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