Do Things Happen by Chance or For a Reason?

By Lael Arrington Published on June 24, 2017

In The Year of Living Biblically A. J. Jacobs, general editor of Esquire magazine, writes, “Julie [his wife] always told me that things happen for a reason. To which I would reply, Sure, things happen for a reason. Certain chemical reactions take place in people’s brains, and they cause those people to move their mouths and arms. That’s the reason. But, I thought, there’s no greater purpose.”

We all long to know where our lives in particular and history in general are going. Does everything happen by chance? Or is God directing the course of human events with purpose? Are our lives part of a larger story (a meta-narrative) that’s going somewhere?

Secular Confusion

A.J.’s view of purposelessness reflects a modern, secular worldview: chance mutations and natural selection are the driving forces of history. With all species competing in the great race of life, all evolving like blind drunks with no direction or purpose in mind, history turned out to be the chance story of human progress—the “ascent of man.” Had earth’s climate favored gigantic rodents, history might have been written only in fossils, not books.

Darwin’s theory of evolution blew fresh wind into the sails of the Enlightenment view of history. French thinkers had rejected the idea that God was directing the course of history, substituting instead their own teleology: Directed by reason, mankind would move toward a more perfect civilization.

The 9/11s of history and the brokenness of our own lives cry out for meaning.

By blending Darwin’s and the Enlightenment’s visions of progress, modern thinkers offered a new purpose of history: Although there is no longer an author, there is still a grand story of progress enabled by science. Given enough money, technology and especially education, mankind can create a utopia.

The brimming optimism of early 20th century thinkers hit the wall of reality in the trenches of World War I, the holocausts of World War II and the atrocities of Stalin’s and Mao’s “more perfect civilizations.

Postmodern Pessimism

In our own postmodern times, families are breaking down, politics as well. Suicide, opioids and death by despair are becoming epidemic, and people’s confidence in reason and progress is flagging. Where is the promised utopia?

Perhaps, if there is no author, then there is no larger story. History may not be going anywhere. If chance, not progress, is the driving force, then life is a “tournament of narratives.” A person can only create their own small story and make it as interesting as possible.

The Bible declares that God, the living treasure, created mankind with a purpose.

But the 9/11s of history and the brokenness of our own lives cry out for meaning. As Julie said, there has to be a reason. When chance displaces purpose, it also crushes hope. Even A.J. admits, “Now I sometimes think Julie is right. There is a reason. There has to be. Otherwise, it’s all too absurd. The world can’t be that Dadaist.”

Biblical Purpose

The Bible declares that God, the living treasure, created mankind with a purpose: to give himself as a gift to those who would reach out and find him, though he is not far from each of us (Acts 17). He is directing a larger story of creation, fall, redemption. At the still point of history he died on a cross to atone for our sin. He promises ultimately to redeem all the tragedies of history. If we believe and receive him, he will exchange the mourning of our personal lives with the gladness of his presence and a future beyond imagining.

Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in The End of Christendom,

We look back upon history and what do we see? Empires rising and falling, revolutions and counter-revolutions; wealth accumulated and wealth dispersed. I heard a crazed, cracked Austrian who announced to the world the establishment of a Reich that would last a thousand years. I’ve seen an Italian clown say he was going to stop and restart the calendar with his own ascension to power. I met a murderous judge and brigand in the Kremlin proclaimed by the intellectual elite of the world as wiser than Solomon, more humane than Marcus Aurelius, more enlightened than Buddha. All in one lifetime, all in one lifetime, gone — gone with the wind.

Hitler and Mussolini, dead and remembered only in infamy. Stalin, a forbidden name in the regime he helped found. … Behind the debris of these solemn supermen and these self-styled imperial diplomatists stands the gigantic figure of one person because of whom, by whom, in whom and through whom alone mankind may still have hope. The person of Jesus Christ.


Originally published at Used by permission.

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  • Howard Rosenbaum

    Sure. Even random (chance) episodes are not devoid of a reason underlying the event. Someone decided to make a left turn w/cause. Someone else was randomly crossing the street. What happens next makes all the difference for these two actors in our imaginary developing drama. Were there no reason (cause) for our characters to be out that day there would be no tale (effect) to tell. So no matter how obscure theres always a reason. While nothing takes God by surprise, the same cannot usually be said for humanity. Otherwise, we’d be as gods. Therein lies the crux of the matter. Back to our story. There are only two outcomes we need to consider. The pedestrian either made it across the street or he didn’t. Is there a suggested unseen reason behind the cause for what is about to unfold? That is, to imply some sense of divine destiny in every matter. Should the participants of this transpiring traffic travelogue be either blaming God or thanking God for one outcome or another? In other words when the ‘everything happens for a reason’ reasoning is proffered, is it done so from a sound theological precedent? The one extreme view from secularists so inclined is that there is no “purpose” or divine intelligence behind anything which with we have to do. The other extremity is that nothing happens except God was somehow either behind it or “allowing” it. This “theology” usually is a response to otherwise unexplainable or untenable situations that caught the casualties of unintended consequences by surprise. I believe scripture provides the only viable prescription for those struck w/either idealogical position.
    Yes, for the believer God is inextricably involved w/everything which with we have to do.
    Directly or more often than not, indirectly. It is the believers responsibility to discern whether it is God ‘s leading or God”s precepts for living that we should be following as we find ourselves “crossing the street’ so to speak. I believe most tragedies , whether self inflicted or otherwise can be avoided. The operative word is can. Yes, God is in control, if you will, in the sense that nothing takes Him by surprise. Nothing is unknown to this transcendent being. Should this criteria render God accountable for everything that happens among men ? Is God to be blamed for everything bad that happens to “good” people? To hear some proponents of the wholesale ” God is in control” thinking, you might think so. Sure, God is sovereign. Does that imply nothing happens except God caused it to happen? That kind of thinking perhaps has contributed to the creation of more atheists in their logical efforts to discount that kind of a god. One who would rob “innocents” of life, love & the pursuit of happiness. Yes, there is divine purpose in life. For everyone. Everyone, understandably does not attain to that loftiest of life objectives. Some come closer than others . Some may even live a life where destiny is lived out on a daily basis. Only one ever attained fully to this most noble of life objectives. The Master , while setting up the perfect standard of belief & behavior did so much more than that. He
    redeemed us unto a vital relationship w/The Father. It’s is paramount that we recognize our responsibility to follow His leading & His precepts. Every day & all the time. The closer we get to that holy challenge the closer we will be to understanding in practice that God’s sovereignty over His creation is best understood by His compassion towards us. He has chosen for us who call upon His name to” be wise as serpents & harmless as doves”. He has sovereignly designed for His children to heed His oftentimes “still small voice “. He has bestowed an awesome authority over unseen factors that would seek to steal, kill & destroy what is precious to Him. He has called us to be responsible for what he has given us the responsibility & the provision for. Back again to our story. God would not be responsible for the pedestrian that didn’t arrive safely across the street. Were that pedestrian a believer & able to distinguish the “voice” of God, that witness of the Spirit w/ in his own spirit he would always make it safely across the street. Regardless of which way that is driver’s turning . When perhaps common sense is not enough , the Lord’s grace is more than enough. We need to cultivate a hearing ear to that which the Lord may be warning us to avoid, leading us to pursue & the timing when to do so …

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