Chance, providence, and the justice of God

Two friends1 have in different ways prompted this post. One is a technologist trained in the sciences, who in the context of dissatisfaction with understanding the how of a particular area of theology wrote:2

Can someone tell me how I can learn to become more comfortable with mystery?

The other is someone who is troubled (in the context of talk about unmerited suffering and the justice of God, by me ascribing much that happens to “chance”.

The justice of God has troubled me all my life, as far back as I can remember I have been aware not only of “those less fortunate” but even of those who suffer acutely for no just cause. The book of Job is a comfort, Job does not know why he suffers, complains bitterly to God and demands a hearing for his complaint against the injustice of the creator. His judicial complaint receives no hearing, except by human judges who fail to accept his plea (the three friends, or even more Elihu, who not having actively participated before steps in in Job 32 to sum up, which he does ineptly and justifying God by failing to admit the justice of Job’s case).  However, before the book ends Job receives two responses from God which, though they do not respond to Job’s accusation, remind Job of who God is and of how wondrous it is that a creature can relate to their Creator!

The answer to (almost?) all the big questions is a deeper layer of mystery.

In responding to people who complain of the injustice of life3 I point to Job, but even more to Jesus who in Luke 13:1-5 makes clear that much (all?) suffering in this world is not justice meted out by a vengeful or benevolent Creator but simply chance.

To say this, however, is not the whole story, for in Scripture there is no such thing as “chance”. When Joseph (in Gen 37) wandering aimlessly in the land around Shechem just happens to meet the one man who can tell him where his brothers have gone and so sets in motion all the rest of the events of his life, Bible readers know this is not random. When Ruth (Ruth 2:3) just happens to glean in Boaz’ field (in all the fields of Bethlehem why did you have to pick this one?) we know this “happening” is not random. And when Amos pondering war other disasters says:

Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster befall a city, unless the LORD has done it?
(Amos 3:6)

He recognises that the bad, like the good, must be ultimately laid at the door of the Maker of All.4

This chance that is not random, like the unloving injustice of the God who is love, and justice, is a mystery. It is one we cannot understand in this life. Though perhaps God on a stick, Christ crucified, points towards the resolution of this terrible paradox.

  1. Well actually one is a friend of a friend. []
  2. In a Facebook post, so I won’t give their name. []
  3. Why do really horrible things happen to good people? []
  4. As also did Job (Job 1:21) []

4 comments on “Chance, providence, and the justice of God

  1. Bob MacDonald

    Both very good questions. For the mathematician, I think pondering Godel’s incompleteness theorem should be sufficient. Or pondering the music of Bach. For the justice question, I agree that Job is an adequate response. I am not quite as hard on the bombastic Elihu as you imply I should be. I think he is a young son of the most high and due his word.

    On Luke’s pericope on the Pilate incident, I have never seen this as chance. One orthodox friend said to me, “I don’t think this was Jesus’ best moment.” Not sure one is supposed to say such things. If I ever reread this section in Hebrew, I might be able to make sense of it. Neither the English nor the Greek speaks to me. Perhaps if I avoid the word repent (as I have managed to do for 55% of the Hebrew Bible so far). I do see the need for all to turn to God – but whose idea of God and whose doctrine? This is part of the problem of religion in the world.

    This morning in church at Pentecost of all times, I conducted a children’s choir prepared by someone else singing the Hebrew shema. They were great. And the congregation joined them well for a repeat. But I was very down at heart because of the problem of religion in the world and the problems of inequality and terror. I wanted – in the middle of the service – to dethrone the NT as Word of God and restrict that name to the Old Testament. Jesus incarnates that Word. The NT writers never thought they were writing ‘Scripture’, did they? Have we not cut ourselves off from the substance of faithfulness (and its related problems of violence, justice, mystery, and even chance) by our failure to hear the OT as the human Jesus heard it?

    Ask me about G-d or the divine and I haven’t a clue. But turning from evil, justice, violence, exploitation, self-interest, prejudice, mercy, I get these. What, brethren, shall we do? (Acts 2:37) Peter’s answer is pretty good if I substitute ‘turn’ for ‘repent’. No amount of logic will figure this out.

    Chance is not precluded from the Scripture. Why else have the phrase in Hebrew, peradventure, perhaps, or maybe – all used in several places, notably in Gen 24, the journey of Abraham’s servant to get a wife for Isaac. You point rightly to the cross, but do we only make of it what it has become in the liturgy?

  2. Tim Bulkeley

    Crikey, lots to ponder here. I did try to suggest that “chance” is not the right expression, yet what other do we have? How much simpler a God who does not hide himself in light would be to understand and grasp! [NB. I am sure Bob spotted the intended irony, but am adding this note as some others who have read here will fail to.]

    I probably am too hard on poor Elihu, but I lost my ability to trust quick simple answers far younger than he, and since then have too little sympathy for those who seek to force them on others (again I am too harsh, but that is how he seems to my oversensitive soul).

    1. Bob MacDonald

      Tim, I was myself somewhat overwrought yesterday, so my comment had more in it than a modicum more discipline would have allowed.

      I just noticed something else in the question about mystery. How does one become ‘more comfortable’ with what one knows one cannot pin down with human understanding? There is a way but it is not certain, and that is to entertain the use of the word comfort in the Scripture, both New and Old T. The word study is round nacham, in the Greek pericletos. The source of the word Comforter as applied to the Holy Spirit. There are a huge number of related metaphors here. One I could pick is from Psalm 90: Verse 13 – Turn YHWH – until when (or how long), and be comforted over your servants. The KJV is not helpful here since it speaks of YHWH repenting (I would accept sigh, as a parent sighs over a problem child – but I think this misses the potential point of Moses’ prayer on our lips and in our heart.) Also it has YHWH ‘turning’ – a word traditionally used for humans ‘repenting’ (an even worse usage of repent). The turning to each other and the facing of each other is the solution that is sought – us to the mystery, the mystery to us and us to the mystery that is each other, if one is too uncomfortable(!) with the invisible mystery. Satisfaction (the next verse) comes in that turning and is itself inexplicable (compare the last verses of Job). The NT example is the character of Simeon waiting for the consolation (same word) of Israel. The step to the Temple Buildre (the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Comforter) is not very far from this, just through the cross (of course). For me that does make the NT Scripture, but not for dogmatic reasons. The same principle is in the OT embedded in the rite of circumcision among other things – targeted at the male, surely the most violent and unjust of all creatures.

  3. Bob MacDonald

    I just happen (by coincidence) to be reading Leviticus 16. I can’t help noting the use of dice in the scripture as a mechanism of chance. So here in the scapegoat ritual and in Jonah for instance. There is plenty of chance used in the Scripture. Milgrom remard (Leviticus p 168) that the purpose of the lots is clearly to leave the selection of the animals to YHWH. I suppose it is no accident that the Jews have their children begin their study of Torah with Leviticus. (I forget who told me this – maybe in a book by Chaim Potok from years ago.)