I recently watched (or at least listened to) a debate between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins, which you can find on here if you would also like to watch it. One of the things which Richard Dawkins mentions there, and also Christopher Hitchens mentioned in his debate with McGrath which I mentioned earlier, is the quite fundamental question: “Does God intervene?”
Dawkins, in this debate, gives the example of a natural disaster where tens of thousands of people are killed, except one child is saved. The parents of that child then thank God for saving that child. Dawkins asks whether God did actually save that one child – and if he did, why did he not save the others?
This, for me, was probably the strongest of Dawkins’ points in this debate, and in general one of the toughest questions to answer. Does God intervene, and if so, why does he not intervene more often? And if not, why not?
I’ve been trying to think over the past couple of days how I would answer these questions – specifically about the issue of God ‘intervening’, or not. I can’t claim that the following will be particularly clever or coherent, it’s just me trying to make sense of a jumbled mess of thoughts! With that disclaimer, here we go.
The first thing I want to say (sorry, I’m beginning to sound like Alister McGrath!) is that God is sovereign over creation. He upholds the universe by His power. This is known as His immanence: the universe only stays the way it is because of God’s continued creative activity. To say that God intervened is, by definition, wrong: “The corrolary of occasional intervention is ordinary absence”. God is not absent from his creation, he is intimately involved with every single detail of it.
The roots of modern science were grounded in the idea that there is a God upholding the universe, who is consistent, and therefore we are capable of measuring it. Because God is upholding the universe, there is order – therefore we are capable of finding out what that order is.
So the picture that I’m painting at the moment is of a God who is intimately involved with the natural world, who upholds certain ‘rules’ or ‘laws of nature’.
In this scenario, God does not ‘intervene’ in the universe – he upholds every single part of it.
So, going back to the example of the little girl, I don’t know whether God would specifically have ‘intervened’ to save her, but at the same time I think it was probably his will. What about all those other people who died, though, was it God’s will for them?
Well, unfortunately the picture we have in the Bible is – yes, God is sovereign, nothing happens without his say-so – therefore, God did ‘will’ for this to happen. It’s not a very comfortable thought to believe such a thing, is it?
However, there are two more points which I wish to make:
1. In a natural disaster such as the asian tsunami a few years ago, hundreds of thousands of people died. How could God allow such a thing? I think that’s the wrong question to ask. The question should be more like “What happens now?”. In atheism, these people would have lived and died for nothing. Their deaths would basically be a big cosmic joke, and a pretty poor one at that. In Christianity, there is at least hope for these people. God can still have mercy on them, and I do believe that God is a God of mercy (for example, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice“). Although their deaths on this earth may have been painful, that’s not the end of the story. This is important.
I don’t think God ‘intervenes’ in these situations – I believe that the laws of nature are upheld, that if God changed the laws of nature every single time someone was in danger it would be a pretty poor world to live in!
And I do believe that God ‘intervenes’ in another way, which I’m getting on to…
2. A lot – and I mean, a LOT – of the suffering in this world is caused by us. Humans. Corruption, greed, envy, slander, sexual immorality… the list goes on and on. If I recall correctly (which I might not), C.S. Lewis estimated about 90% of the suffering in the world was caused by humans. I don’t know about the numbers, but humans definitely do most of the damage.
We know that God opposes these things. We also know that God sent his son in order to redeem us from these things – Jesus didn’t come just to save us, he came to transform us. In this way, God’s intervention is clear: his ‘job’ is to convict people of their sins, to transform people to become more Christ-like — ultimately, to wipe out all suffering in the world.
God works in us and through us.
I would like to talk more about this, but I’ve been typing for ages already and I think this has got far too long!
If anyone has any comments etc, it would be most interesting… I still don’t think my thoughts on this matter are particularly organised, but maybe they will help someone 🙂