Perhaps the most controversial part of evolution is not the idea that humanity descended from other animals or its conflict with a literal reading of Genesis, but the role randomness or chance plays in evolutionary theory. Christians recognize we are made “from the dust of the ground” and have offered numerous interpretations of the first chapters of Genesis, yet have consistently affirmed God’s governance over creation. Many Christians worry that if we evolved through the mechanism of natural selection, it means creation is unguided and Christianity is untrue. But is chance as found in evolutionary theory irreconcilable with God’s providential governance of the world? The issue is more complicated than this question suggests. In this blog post, I will present two different ways of reconciling scientific accounts of chance and divine providence. Together they show that even if randomness exists in nature, it does not disprove God’s providential care over creation.
The first way to reconcile chance events with providence is to say God does not experience time as we do. Because humans are in time, we see events from our own particular vantage point. We remember events from the past and anticipate what will happen in the future. The classical Christian tradition, however, says God is an eternal being who transcends time, meaning God can see the past, present, and future all at once.
If God is timeless, then chance events will not surprise God. The coin flip before a football game, for example, could be both a result of random processes and providential choice because God knew before creating the world what the outcome would be. With respect to evolutionary theory, perhaps God surveyed the almost limitless possibilities available before creating our particular world, the one where creatures evolved. Chance in natural selection would be real because the outcome was not determined by its preceding causes, but God nevertheless has chosen its result. From this perspective, chance in evolution and God’s providential care for the world can both be true; it depends on whether you are considering the event from a human or divine point-of-view.
The second option for reconciling chance and providence argues that chance events in nature are governed by God’s general providence. Theologians refer to general providence as the actions of God which apply to creation universally and to special providence as God’s actions in specific cases. Imagine falling off a ladder. If God had particular reasons for the accident to happen—perhaps as a judgment for your sins or part of a larger scheme for your life—we would say this was an act of special providence. If the accident happened only because God set up the law of gravity, it would result from God’s general providence. In the latter case, God does not actively will the accident but permits it by not intervening to break the laws of nature.
An emphasis on general providence can be found among different theologians in church history, but the idea was especially emphasized after the Scientific Revolution. Discoveries of laws of nature, such as Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, suggested that God primarily governs through universal laws. However, twentieth-century physics no longer seems to support the mechanistic model of nature of Newtonian science. Instead of a deterministic physics we have a probabilistic one, where many events are likely but not necessary.
The discovery of statistical laws shows how chance and predictability are often intertwined. God thus might have created the world through probabilistic general laws, which would allow God to foresee the result, even without fully determining the details. As an analogy, casinos can predict the winnings from their games of chance, even though they cannot predict the outcome of any single game. Position two says God has a general plan for the universe, while still permitting freedom for individual events.
Critics of this argument often accuse it of being deism, which says God created the world but does not govern it. But deism says God only works through general providence, whereas Christians should feel no compulsion to accept this. The Bible records many events where God intervenes in specific situations, such as Jesus’ resurrection. Moreover, at each event in the universe, God must decide whether to change the normal course of nature. From a theological perspective, we might refer to this as God’s permissive will: things happen in the world that God permits by not intervening. God may count the hairs on our head, but for reasons we do not understand, may decide to not act in certain occasions to prevent us from coming to harm. Why God would not step in to stop evil is an important question, of course, but perhaps this position handles it better than others do.
In this post, I have presented only two possible ways of reconciling chance and God’s providence. Theologians and philosophers are continually debating other options. The larger lesson I draw from this discussion is that science cannot speak to the question of God’s providential purpose. Events or objects with no evidence of purpose or intentionality from a scientific perspective may nevertheless have been chosen by God as part of a larger providential plan. Though the word chance is used in both science and theology, it would be a mistake to set them in competition with each other. Because science is restricted to explanations at the level of physical causes, one cannot draw theological conclusions from the scientific data alone.