An interventionalist God vs God’s sovereignty

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 🙂


2 responses to “An interventionalist God vs God’s sovereignty”

  1. I follow a different religion, but your analysis to me is very good and the principals you outlined from your religion appear virtually the same. If God is the most Merciful then He is therefore the most Just so each individial whether they perished or lived on will get their true reward/punishment relative to their individual circumstances. We looking at the victims from the outside won’t see it. Even an atheist has to admit there is no real justice by man in this world, their definition of it would be relative anyway, just a man made concept varying from person to person.

    But there are much trickier questions than the one Dawkins posed I think.

    I wonder what Hitchens final thoughts were when he died, was he holding onto hope that he would be cured and live longer? Was he wishing for chance or fate to save him? If so surely that is acctually man’s innate desire to reach out to his creator? Some people when they get terminally ill sometimes become more religious, not just to pray for a cure but because they really do start to believe and even accept their situation. With the amount of suffering you talked about taking place, do you ever worry either a calamity will hit you to test your faith or whether you need to do more to go to heaven because others are struggling/have struggled much, much more? I keep thinking that. You maybe here people say “why do bad things happen to good people?” or “what have I done to deserve this?” But were they actually good? Ok maybe they were not murderers but still, there are plenty of mean people that make bitchy, hurtful remarks during the day. Maybe for overall good people it’s a test of faith. Otherwise I think God tries to straighten the others out with hardship, a hardship really tough or quite unpleasant so when they do straighten out and are relieved, they never go back to the way they were before. Maybe that’s why evil people sometimes never seem to get any difficulty, so they think they are getting away with it and keep sinning and sinning and sinning until like Pharaoh, Hitler and Saddam it’s too late to repent, due to the severity of their evil. I think Hitchen’s illness was an opportunity to believe in God, if he had done so maybe God would have legnthened his life to see if he would do good, or see how sincere he was. Or maybe not, I wouldn’t know as God has this knowledge not me. Sorry for long text, interesting post you have!

    1. Hi Syed, thanks for your comment. Lots of interesting stuff there.

      Personally I like what C.S. Lewis said about suffering – “It’s God’s megaphone to a deaf world.” Suffering is something which reminds us that the world is not what it should be, that suffering and death are alien intrusions into the world and remind us that eventually God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

      I think everyone suffers to an extent, and this is one of the ways God reaches out to people and says “You can either come to me, or you can do this on your own.”

      “do you ever worry either a calamity will hit you to test your faith or whether you need to do more to go to heaven because others are struggling/have struggled much, much more?”

      I think this is an interesting question. There are Christians in various countries who suffer a lot for their faith. But I don’t think that God will not accept anyone because they haven’t suffered enough – I think what Jesus did through the cross and resurrection is and will be what counts.

      Sorry if I haven’t really understood your questions 🙂

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