Does God throw dice?

Assistant Rector's House, September 1999

This question was posed by Dr. Einstein, as he queried whether the universe was governed by rational meaning or by chance. It’s a question which is raised in the minds of many people when they hear of yet another appalling natural disaster. I am writing this a week after the Turkish earthquake, when the news seems to get worse and worse - within the last few hours torrential rains have fallen in the stricken area, adding to the misery, the risk of disease and the danger for rescuers. We cannot begin to imagine the scale of that suffering, what it is like to be part of it.

‘Why, why, why?’ is a natural human reaction to earthquakes or floods or volcanoes or drought. The horrors of war, the shocking inequalities of wealth and poverty which bring about death and despair - these can be blamed on human failures. But these ‘acts of God’ just strike out of the blue. Humans may be able to palliate the effects, but they cannot stop them.

Some who believe in God declare this to be part of his mysterious plan, that sometimes he wills what appears to be bad, in order to bring about good, and the meaning is hidden from our human sight. This just cannot be. It is not possible to believe such a thing about the loving Father of whom Jesus taught us - whether we are speaking of tens of thousands killed in an earthquake or the painful death of one child by rare disease. A character in The Brothers Karamazov says he could never accept a God who brought about the tears of even one child for the achievement of some higher purpose. Just so.

Having loved the world into being, God’s greatest gift was to give his creation the freedom to follow its own direction - to give the human and the physical environment the real freedom to create itself. And so we have a mix of chance and natural selection and laws of science… and we have a world where tragedies occur, and much seems meaningless and cruel. Paradoxically there is a grain of truth in the argument that some goods can only come out of undesirable happenings. We can only show courage if we are faced with a situation we would rather not be in; we can only show forgiveness when someone has hurt and wronged us. But this does not mean that the original hurt was part of God’s plan.

St Paul said "the whole creation is groaning in labour pains until now" - that is very recognisable. He also said "the creation waits with eager longing… (to be) set free from its bondage to decay and to obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" Christians believe that the process we are involved in must be going somewhere - "we hope for what we do not see".

Christians also believe that we are to be instruments of our own hope. Given that there are dark and black situations all around us, God has entrusted us with the freedom to respond to them in ways which transform and add to the sum of human loving, not which dwell on the horror and sink back in despair.

There is no conclusive answer to the question why in a world made by a good God there is so much arbitrary suffering and evil. But we do know that God is no puppet master. We know that however often it feels as though events in the world come about at the shake of a dice, God’s is not the hand doing the shaking. And most of all we know that within it all is his almighty love, longing for the good of creation. And by the grace of God, within each one of us there is the capacity for loving wisdom, which can raise even the worst of circumstances to a new level. There are signs everywhere that tragedy can provide the raw material of human growth and human love. God calls his children in every situation, good and bad, to respond out of the freedom he has given us, to build up the kingdom of his love, to bring about ‘little resurrections.’ There is what Paul called ‘a power that works within us’ which can work for good, even at those times when humans feel most completely defeated.

Eileen McLean
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 29th August 1999