God, Chance, and Sam Harris

God, Chance, and Sam Harris

How do we know whether a personal event is God's providence or mere chance? Also, a question on God's revelation to ancient people rather than modern scholars.


Transcript God, Chance, and Sam Harris

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, got a couple of questions for you that people have sent in, and this first one says,

My question deals with our human epistemic ability in recognizing God’s hand of providence. Just like you have pointed out in the problem of evil that we are in no epistemic position to claim whether or not God has morally sufficient reasons in allowing pain or suffering and evil, are we in any epistemic position to claim to know for certain that God has, for instance, helped us get through a difficult time or has led us in a particular way? As Christians, we always look back in hindsight and say, ‘everything all worked out; therefore, God must have been behind it.’ But how can we know for sure God was really behind it? What if these events simply worked in our favor by coincidence, and afterwards we just interpret them as a result of God’s providence? In other words, is God and chance mutually exclusive? And, perhaps, as Christians how can we better recognize God's providence? I think we too often subscribe to God's providence only when events in life make things convenient for us.

Dr. Craig: Well, it seems to me that this listener only subscribes to God’s providence with respect to certain events in the world and that the rest are due to chance. And I think that’s a completely inadequate doctrine of divine providence. I think that everything happens in the world that is either willed or permitted by God under his divine providence. So Molina, for example, once wrote that not a leaf falls to the ground but that God either positively wills or permits for this to happen. So I would say that there are no coincidences in that sense; everything is governed by God’s providence.

Now what about being in a position to know that God has helped us get through a difficult time or led us in a particular way? I think we could have a sense, in going through a difficult time, of an inner strength that we didn't have before, and so can thank God for strengthening us as we go through. Or, if we’ve felt guided or called to do a particular action, then as we do that I think we can be claiming God’s promise that he will direct our paths as we lean upon him. So I don't see any difficulty with discerning God’s strengthening or leading.

What would be more difficult would be to say why some event has happened in our lives. There I do think that we get into conjecture and speculation, and we're not in a position to say that the reason this happened is because such and such. J. I. Packer calls this the York signal box mistake. He says, in the city of York in England there is a great train yard, and in the yard there is a signal tower, a control tower. And inside the signal tower is a great electrical board featuring all of the tracks in the yard, all the sidings and crossings and so forth. And in little glowing electric lights the trains are like glow worms being shunted along the tracks, put off on a siding here, moved there, and to someone in the control tower he can see exactly why this particular train was put on a siding and why this other one was moved where it was moved. But to somebody down on the tracks themselves, this would just appear to be a bewildering confusion, and it would be impossible for him to discern the reason for it all.

Kevin Harris: It would look chaotic.

Dr. Craig: Yes, it would. And Packer says when we imagine that we are in a position to see whether or not God has a reason for permitting this or that to occur in our lives we commit what he calls the York signal box mistake. We imagine that we are in the control tower looking at the yard when, in fact, we are down on the tracks, and therefore we're not in a position to make that kind of judgment. And I think he's right about that.

Therefore when we go through difficulties I don't think we should ask the question: why did this happen? Instead we can ask the question: what can I learn from this? How can I benefit from this? How can I react, or ought I to react, in this situation? And we can do that without knowing the question: why did this occur in God's providence? I do think that often in life – and I can say this from personal experience – as one looks back, one can see the good that has come out of certain things that at the time seemed perplexing.[1]

Just to give an illustration. After teaching for seven years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the Philosophy of Religion department, the school closed the department and I found myself out of a job. I had a wife and two little children to support at the time; it seemed like a disaster. But I have to tell you, Kevin, that catapulted Jan and me out of the evangelical pond into the broader world. We moved to Belgium, and I began to do my research at the University of Leuven, and to speak and travel around Europe, and it changed our lives and expanded our ministry in a way that never would have been possible had I remained a teacher at Trinity. Now, is the reason that they closed the department so that God could catapult us into this new ministry? I don't know; I think it's impossible to say that that is the reason. The reasons might be multilayered, multifaceted, and this might just be one of the many, many reasons why God allowed this to happen. But at least we could see, as it were, the silver lining in this event, and therefore thank God for it. Though one wouldn't want to have to go through that again, one can look back and say, “Thank you, Lord, for the way you used this in our lives.” And I believe so often in our lives hindsight does show us good reasons, as it were, why certain things happened that maybe we did not discern at the time.

Kevin Harris: Yeah. Sometimes it requires hindsight, you know, I mean, oftentimes, because you can’t see it while it’s going on, while you’re in the midst of it. I guess we get into trouble, Bill, whenever we make these pronouncements, these presumptuous pronouncements, of “God did this for this reason;” it's more like “I think that this is why, and this is what I've learned from it.” Christians are very careful to give God glory in everything and in so doing often make these rather presumptuous pronouncements of exactly why he has done it.

Dr. Craig: Yes. In many ways this can be often very egotistical because we think that God, for example, has changed or set up the entire weather system to give us a sunny day for the church picnic, say. When you think of the climate and the weather system as a whole and the manifold impact that has on humanity, it's almost enormously arrogant to think that he did it for just you. It could have much wider implications than you, though you would be one of the beneficiaries of it.

Kevin Harris: Atheists on the internet take on Christians all the time, or really give Christians a hard time, for saying things along the lines of, and especially when it shows up in the news and the person is quoted, “That tornado tore through our neighborhood and it hit every house and destroyed every house, but it skipped over mine; praise the Lord, isn't that wonderful!”

Dr. Craig: I don't see anything the matter with that. I think that that's perfectly appropriate to thank God for having been saved from the tornado. And the fact that others were destroyed doesn't do anything to undermine the fact that you were spared, and that that's a great gift of the Lord. I know atheists complain about that but I see nothing at all inappropriate with the sole survivor of a plane crash or the person whose house wasn't destroyed giving thanks to God for that providence.

Kevin Harris: I guess the objection would be, well, why didn't God spare everybody else?

Dr. Craig: Right, he's under no obligation to. We don't know why he didn't spare them; we don't know why he spared us, right? I'm suggesting we don't know the reasons why these things occur, but that doesn't mean we can't give thanks for our good blessings and feel compassion for those who have been harmed.

Kevin Harris: That's right. I can't imagine anybody being arrogant in a situation like that. Your only recourse would be to thank God that you – you – were spared. Now, how can I get busy and help everybody in the neighborhood.

Dr. Craig: Right.

Kevin Harris: Rather than an arrogant “Well, you know, I'm special and God so ordered the weather patterns,” like you were saying, and things like that.

Dr. Craig: [Laughter] And that's not what these people are saying. I think we can guarantee that the sole survivor of the crash or the person whose home was spared from the tornado aren't saying that. They're just thanking God for being spared, and that's perfectly appropriate, and it's up to the providence of God to determine who is spared and who is lost. He gives and takes life as he sees fit. Remember I said, none of this happens by accident. It's all under the providence of a sovereign God.[2]

Kevin Harris: And one more thing on this: we don't know, for example, how many times God may have actually spared our lives that we don't know about. It's as if you were to stand before God and say, “God, why in the world did you let that train hit me?” And he says, “Well, it was your time, number one; and number two, do you know how many times I've spared your neck? It was 1967 when I arranged it so that that truck wouldn't hit you.”

Dr. Craig: That is so true.

Kevin Harris: All things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purposes, and we try to hold on to that as believers and followers of Christ, and that God is going to work in all circumstances for our good.

Dr. Craig: Yeah. Let me just say one other thing about this question. He asks, is God and chance mutually exclusive. Now I've already said that I think all things are under the providence of God, but there is a sense in which chance and God's providence are compatible with each other. When we talk about chance, Kevin, chance isn't really a thing, right? There isn't any causal thing called chance that produces events, right? If we say something happened by chance we don't mean that there is this mysterious causal force called chance that entered the picture and produced this. So what do people mean, what do scientists mean, when they talk about something happening by chance? What they mean is you have two independent causal lines that intersect at some point to produce an event. So, for example, I remember once Jan and I were driving to Northern Illinois University, and we came to an intersection on the way, and there was one of the girls that Jan worked with in Campus Crusade for Christ in her car driving back to university at just the same time. It was an incredible coincidence that we would both come together at this intersection at the same time. Now, if you trace the causal lines behind our driving in the car to get to that intersection and her driving in her car to get to that intersection, in neither case were there any causal gaps or holes or mysterious forces called chance interfering. Everything was deterministic except our free wills, and then these causal lines intersected as we both arrived at the intersection. And what you would say is, we didn't arrive at the intersection by plan or arrangement; it was by chance. And by that we mean there were two independent lines of causal connection that intersect at that point, and that's all that's meant by chance. And, of course, in that sense chance is compatible with divine providence because within the scope of God's providence and sovereign plan for the world there are these independent causal lines that intersect at various points and produce events which God wanted to happen and foresaw and decreed.

Kevin Harris: A Greek view is this kind of fatalism, isn't it? The Fates?

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's right; that everything that happens happens necessarily, and that is not a doctrine of divine providence.

Kevin Harris: We talk like it is, Bill. We talk like . . .

Dr. Craig: Well, Muslims do.

Kevin Harris: Well, Christians do in the sense of, well, if it was supposed to happen it's supposed to happen; if I'm supposed to meet this person then I will, and so on. Well, that kind of reminds me of a Greek fatalism. Ultimately you would give God glory and attribute it to him, but the language is cast in a way that, it seems to me, embraces more of a Greek fatalism than.

Dr. Craig: Or perhaps it's Calvinism and determinism; that God in his providence has determined everything that will happen. And my view is not Calvinist, it's a Molinist view of providence where God, knowing what any free creature would freely do in any circumstances he puts him in, can so arrange the circumstances and the persons that God's purposes are achieved through the free decisions of creatures. And similarly these independent causal lines that intersect do so within the providence of God's planning, but it doesn't mean that God predetermines in a causal sense everything that's going to occur.

Kevin Harris: Next question:

Dr. Craig, I want to ask you something that was brought up by Sam Harris in your debate with him at Notre Dame back in 2011. One objection that he offered to religion, particularly the three main religions of Abraham, was that most of the key figures of Christianity, Islam and Judaism – such as Jesus, Muhammad, and Abraham – all had a narrow worldview that is similar to Islamic terrorists today. In other words, they were not like the modern day intellectuals at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, but rather they were ancient people who were very ignorant.[3] Basically my question is: if God had revealed himself to many prophets throughout ancient history – like Jesus, Muhammad, and Abraham – why did they have such radical, narrow and primitive worldviews. Why didn't God reveal himself to such great intellectuals of our day – like Sam Harris – [Laughter] at the universities? Why didn't Jesus and Abraham know all there is to know about the universe if God spoke to them?

Dr. Craig: It's hard to believe that this question is asked seriously – why didn't Jesus and Abraham know all there is to know about the universe? This question, Kevin, with all due respect, is obviously written by a person who is not himself an educated person. Otherwise he would not have this holy reverence of the “great intellectuals of our day at the universities.” For someone who is part of the university community, you realize the fallibility and weakness and foibles of university professors, and the idea that we should revere them as these brilliant men to whom God ought to have entrusted his revelation is just laughable. And the idea that Jesus held to a narrow worldview similar to Islamic terrorists is ludicrous. Jesus’ ethic alone is completely contrary to what the Qur’an teaches. Jesus was, if not anything, a great ethical teacher; and to compare him with a worldview like those of Islamic terrorists is a caricature.

Kevin Harris: I don't remember Sam Harris saying this directly. I'll have to go back and look again – you may remember, Dr. Craig – or if he implied it?

Dr. Craig: I do not remember this from Harris’ lips. I would be very surprised if he had this sort of reverence for modern day intellectuals at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale.

Kevin Harris: Well, we hear this all the time. I've heard it called chronological snobbery.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: I guess the formal fallacy is argumentum ab aeneas, that you fault something for its era in which it came about. In other words, if it's old then it must not be as true as if it were today that it came across.

Dr. Craig: Yes. I mean, you can imagine someone two thousand years from now writing in the same question and talking about those ignorant people at Oxford, Yale, and Harvard back in the twenty-first century. But I want to make a correction here, too. The idea that these ancient people were very ignorant is just palpably false. You read the Gospels—Jesus of Nazareth was smart. This was one intelligent man. Here is a guy who, as far as we know, had no formal training in terms of rabbinical training, and yet he would enter into debate with the finest scholars of the Old Testament law in his day, and he would embarrass them. He would turn them inside-out with his questions. And when they would try to trap him in a situation he would elude that so artfully that one is open-mouthed at his skill. Jesus of Nazareth – wholly apart from what you think about his divinity – was a smart man. And the same has to be said of the apostle Paul. I think the apostle Paul is one of the great geniuses of antiquity. You read his letters and the theology that he expounded, this is a brilliant mind. And the idea that these ancient people are ignorant is just itself, I think, an idea rooted in ignorance.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, you know, Paul's speech in Acts 17 before the philosophers, we probably only have a synopsis of that. But wouldn't you like to have heard the whole thing?

Dr. Craig: Oh yeah, and what I would like to have heard – it says in Acts that he would rent the Hall of Tyrannus, which was probably some sort of Greek lecture theater, and every day around noontime he would hold public lectures and take on all questioners, all comers, and debate with them. So here's a man in the Greek intellectual culture expounding theology, argument, and taking on anybody, and arguing the case for belief in Christ.

Kevin Harris: Well then, Bill, dispel this notion once and for all, for anyone who thinks we should doubt any ancient writings because we just have more scientific advancement or we've made more discoveries today in the progress of technology and so forth, that that somehow means we can discount that we stand on the shoulders of giants.[4]

Dr. Craig: What's important to see is that although science can become antiquated – for example, no one would believe Aristotelian physics today, and medicine can become antiquated as we learn more – nevertheless in issues or areas like ethics or theology or philosophy, age is not a determining factor in terms of one's insight into truth and grasp of reality. So one shouldn't dismiss these ancient thinkers simply because they didn't live in our time and day.[5]



[1] 5:05

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:08

[4] 20:09

[5] Total Running Time: 20:50 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)