Our God is sovereign. That means there’s no such thing as luck. Anything that happens to you, good or bad, must pass through His fingers first. There are no accidents with God. I like the story of the cowboy who applied for health insurance. The agent routinely asked him, ‘Have you ever had any accidents?’ The cowboy replied, ‘Well no, I’ve not had any accidents. I was bitten by a rattlesnake once, and a horse did kick me in the ribs. That laid me up for a while, but I haven’t had any accidents.’ The agent said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m confused. A rattlesnake bit you, and a horse kicked you. Weren’t those accidents?’ ‘No, they did that on purpose.’
For those of you who’ve been reading my stuff for some time now, you can probably guess as to what I think of Dr. Evans’ assertions here. I mean, that’s a funny story about the cowboy and all. And I get that Dr. Evans did all of his graduate work at Dallas Theological Seminary, which is well known for advocating at least four of Calvinism’s five points.1 And I get that Altrogge is a pastor and musician, not a theologian.
How do either of these guys not see the glaring problem with this line of thinking? It seems obvious to me. Is anyone else seeing this?
At the core of all of this is, I think, a very problematic and inaccurate understanding of God’s sovereignty. Altrogge writes, “God’s sovereignty is his complete and absolute rule, control and power over all things. God has decreed all that has ever happened and ever will happen and ultimately brings about all things he has purposed.” He goes on to quote GotQuestions.org as saying that God “has total control of all things past, present and future. Nothing happens that is out of His knowledge and control. All things are either caused by Him or allowed by Him for His own purposes and through His perfect will and timing.”
Now, if by the title’s claim that “there are no accidents with God” the author meant simply that everything that God does is with intentionality and love, I would certainly agree with him. However, from what I can tell (and it’s not all that difficult to discern), Altrogge means to claim that there are no accidents in reality at all precisely because everything that occurs is a product of God’s will.
For as (surprisingly) prevalent as this understanding of God’s sovereignty is, I find it to be sorely lacking and wildly dangerous. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Altrogge is generally a really nice, very intelligent man. And I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Dr. Evans. His work on ecclesiology, especially as it concerns racial reconciliation, is insightful and valuable. But on this point, I am convinced that neither of these men can see the problematic forest for the clichéd trees.
A Monstrous God
It seems to me that no matter how you slice it, if “God has decreed all that has ever happened and ever will happen,” then God is a demonic monster. Let’s be honest on this point. Admittedly, many good and happy things have certainly happened throughout history, and this view of God’s sovereignty can only jive with His being all-good if we only focus on those happy things. Even if we allow for uncomfortable or inconvenient things, like stubbed toes or getting bit by an animal, then we might still be able to hang onto this view. But when you really allow all of the horrors of human history to weigh in on this view, it starts to fall apart pretty quickly. Our existence as a species has on many occasions been nothing short of nightmarish, from the Rape of Nanking, to the Holocaust of the Jews, to the perverse agony Gilles de Rais wreaked upon small boys, to the systematic mutilation of girls. As far back as written history allows our imaginations to go, mankind has developed the most unimaginable ways of torturing and destroying one another. This is what the German philosopher Hegel referred to as “the slaughter-bench” of history.2 And even if we say that God merely allows every horror, we still haven’t solved the problem. After all, would we consider anyone else to be a morally upright person if they saw a tragedy unfolding and were genuinely capable of stopping it, but didn’t?3
An Utilitarian God
Often it is argued that God only causes or allows the tragic parts of history to take place because He must do so in order to achieve some higher purpose. Assumedly, there is some end goal that God is hoping to achieve, and the success of this vision in some way requires the suffering of humans. We often find this sort of thinking coming across in the trite banalities that people offer to someone going through a difficult time. Phrases such as, “every cloud has a silver lining,” and “everything happens for a reason,” express this line of thinking. The problem is that this perspective often has the unsavory side effect of presenting God as highly utilitarian, and reducing human life to merely the cogs in God’s machine. In this sense, we become dispensable means to an end. If we consider a person to be morally corrupt for manipulating and using others toward their own ends, especially at great cost to the people being used, how much more should we consider Someone morally corrupt who does this on a global scale?
An Unimaginative/Unintelligent God
This view of God’s sovereignty reminds me of a cartoon that I find both funny and powerful:
On a number of occasions I have heard (or read) thinkers argue that this is “the best of all possible worlds” that God could have created.4 If we assume that by this phrase (“the best of all possible worlds”) we mean that a world containing free agents and whose future is partially open to genuine possibilities is the best sort of world that God could have possibly created, then I would agree wholeheartedly. However, if by “the best of all possible worlds” we mean that God has predetermined that each and every event in history (whether good or bad) has happened because this balance of good and evil provides the most optimal scenario for God’s good will to be achieved, then I cannot help but deny that. After all, any one of us can imagine a world better than this one, a world with one less death, one less case of illness, one less person suffering in the Holocaust. All it would take for this world to be even the slightest bit better is one more person choosing love over hate, one more gun that misfired, or one more narrow miss (rather than a life-ending car accident). And if I can imagine not just what this better world would look like, but a way in which it could be actualized, then it would seem that my finite human imagination and intellect outstrips that of God.
At least, that is if we accept that God preordained all events as “the best of all possible worlds.”
In support of his claim that there are no accidents with God, Altrogge cites Isaiah 46:9-10 as evidence that everything God does is done so with perfect timing:
Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’
Certainly, if God chooses to do something, He does so in perfect wisdom. God’s timing is as good as it gets. However, this is a far cry from saying that everything that happens is the result of God’s will and purpose. Just because God is capable of bringing about anything within His will does not mean that everything is within His will. The former statement simply doesn’t equate or necessitate the latter.
Secondly, Altrogge points to the experience of Joseph in the book of Genesis (chapters 37, and 39-45) in support of the idea that even tragedies caused by the evil actions of others are all part of God’s divine purpose. He writes, “Joseph’s brothers intended to harm him, but later in life Joseph saw that it was God’s intent to bless him through the sinful actions of his brothers. They meant it for evil; God meant it for good.” And if we only go with what Altrogge has written here as it is written, he would be correct. However, the problem is that he is intending this passage to support the notion that all evil is compatible and coincidental with God’s own will. The passage, however, simply can’t support that claim. Even if we grant that God’s will worked in conjunction with that of Joseph’s brothers in this particular instance, we cannot take it to mean that therefore God’s will always works in conjunction with the evil intentions of men. In fact, much of Scripture would suggest that the norm is for God’s will to work in opposition to the will of wicked people.
At the End of the Day
When all is said and done, I simply don’t see the value in holding to Altrogge and Evans’ perspective on God’s sovereignty. Sure, it would seem to elicit a sense of gratitude toward God when good things happen to us. And, granted, some people might find comfort in knowing that their suffering is not without meaning, or that it in some way serves a higher purpose.
However, if we think about it from the other angle, it seems like these are shallow and short-lived benefits. For instance, if someone were to give me something, a gift perhaps, that I was unhappy or uncomfortable with, I might still find within myself a need to be thankful for having received a gift at all. However, if I only ever receive disagreeable gifts from this person, I will sooner or later ask them to send something else, or to simply stop giving me gifts entirely. And if they don’t, if my prayers and petitions never result in anything better, if I continue to receive gifts that are painful and agonizing, would I not be at least partially (if not entirely) justified in coming to resent, even despise, this person?
Similarly, if we believe that our suffering is in some way serving a higher purpose or a more valuable end goal, then we might understandably be willing to shoulder such a burden. However, if we follow Altrogge and Evans into thinking that God’s perfect will is manifested in this world through the nightmarish anguish of millions of people, what hope do we really have for an eschatological end in which God’s will is (still) fully and perfectly actualized? If the Holocaust, the attacks on September 11th, and the starvation of children across the globe is what it looks like for God’s will to be done, do we really have anything to look forward to in heaven?
I think that it is telling that even Altrogge seems to fall back on a reactionary view of God’s providence. Near the very end of his article, he writes, “God is not the author of sin and he doesn’t tempt us to sin. But even when we sin and bring consequences into our lives, God in his sovereignty can even work our failures and sins for our good.” If we allow that all of the tragedies of human history took place outside of God’s will, then we can see how God is good to respond to our suffering by working our failures and sins for our own good. However, if we say that any good or bad thing that happens to you must first pass through God’s fingers, if we go along with pretty much anything else that Altrogge has said in his article, then his claim that “God is not the author of sin” is simply not true.
Anyhow, thanks for reading!
2: Hegel, The Philosophy of History (Dover Publications, 2004), 21.
3: As you may recall from one of my recent posts, my own perspective is not merely that God chooses to allow every tragedy to unfold, but rather that because He created a world with free agents He simply cannot stop every tragedy.
4: This argument comes from the 18th century German polymath Gottfried Leibniz in his Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil.