Randomness and Assurance: Does Everything Happen for a Reason?
The Blueprint Worldview
On August 1, 2007, a highway bridge several miles from my house collapsed during rush hour, killing 13 people and wounding 144 others. That night, a well-known local pastor blogged about a discussion he had with his eleven-year-old daughter as he put her to bed. He asked her what purpose God might have had for not “holding up that bridge,” even though he could have done so with “his pinky.” He affirmed her when she responded that God “wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.”
The assumption behind this young lady’s answer is that everything happens for a reason—it’s all part of a grand divine plan. This assumption has dominated Christian theology since Augustine in the fifth century, and I have elsewhere labeled it the “blueprint worldview” because it holds that every detail in history happens in strict accordance with an eternal blueprint that resides in the mind of God. The blueprint worldview is expressed in some of the most famous hymns of the church, such as William Cowper’s famous eighteenth-century piece, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” This hymn encourages believers to “judge not the Lord by feeble sense, / but trust Him for His grace,” for “behind a frowning providence, / He hides a smiling face.” Whatever the nightmare that you or a loved one may be going through, we are encouraged to accept that God ordained it for a good reason, which, presumably, is why he is “smiling” as it unfolds.
So far as I can tell, this view is about as prevalent today as it ever was. It’s reflected in the many clichés Christians, as well as non-Christians, often mutter in the face of tragedies: “Everything happens for a reason,” “God has his reasons,” “God’s ways are not our ways,” “Providence writes straight with crooked lines,” “Nothing happens by accident,” “God knows what he is doing,” “God’s timing is the right timing,” and so on. Although the blueprint worldview reflected in these clichés produces rage toward God in the hearts of some sufferers, it provides a great deal of comfort to those believers who feel assured that, however terrible their suffering or the suffering of a loved one may be, at least that suffering is not without purpose or permanent. It is all part of God’s grand plan.
To understand the traditional theology supporting this perspective, it’s helpful to distinguish between a strong and a weak version of the blueprint worldview. The strong version is usually associated with Calvinism, a school of thought that believes that God eternally predetermines all that comes to pass. In this view, everything happens for a reason because God wills everything to unfold exactly as it does. The weak version is usually associated with Arminianism, a school of thought which believes that God created people and angels with free will, though God eternally foreknows what they will do. In this view, everything happens for a reason because God allows everything to unfold exactly as it does.
Although there are obviously significant differences between these two versions of the blueprint worldview, both are grounded in the same, apparently straightforward, line of reasoning: if God is omnipotent, as all orthodox Christians believe, he has the power to do whatever he wants. He therefore possesses the ability to bring about anything he wants or at least to prevent anything from happening if he wants to. From this it seems to follow that everything that happens does so because God wanted it to happen, or at least God did not want to prevent it from happening. And if God is perfectly good and perfectly wise, as all orthodox Christians believe, it also seems to follow that God has a perfectly good and wise reason for why he chose to bring about every specific thing that happens or at least for why he chose not to prevent every specific thing that happens. And so, whether God specifically willed it or specifically allowed it, everything happens for a reason.
I believe both the strong and weak versions of the blueprint worldview are misguided. In this essay, however, I will focus only on the weak version. I do this because I believe that whatever valid objections I raise against the weak version will apply a fortiori to the strong version, whereas the converse is not true. I will first review the blueprint worldview’s approach to the problem of evil and then address several challenges this worldview faces in the light of Scripture. I will then argue that the apparently straightforward line of reasoning that leads to the blueprint worldview is in fact misguided. As counterintuitive as it may initially sound, I will argue that affirming the omnipotence of God does not entail that God can prevent any event he wants to. I will thus argue that believing in God’s omnipotence does not mean we must accept that everything that happens, including fatal bridge collapses, does so for a reason. Yet, I will close by contending that this does not mean suffering is gratuitous. So long as we remain confident in God’s infinite intelligence, I will argue, we can embrace the same assurance the blueprint worldview offers without denying the randomness of evil events.
The Problem of Evil
There’s no denying that one can find support in Scripture for the blueprint worldview. For example, Luke tells us that, although Jesus’s crucifixion was done “with the help of wicked men,” it nevertheless took place “by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23). Clearly, the freely chosen actions of those who crucified Jesus fit into a grand divine plan. Similarly, the author of Hebrews encourages believers facing persecution to “endure hardship as discipline” from God (Heb. 12:7). It’s again clear that the freely chosen actions of those who persecuted these early Christians serve a divine purpose. And although Joseph’s brothers mistreated Joseph of their own free will, he later told them that although their intent was to harm him, “God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). These kinds of passages make it impossible for anyone who takes Scripture seriously to deny that there is at least some truth to the blueprint worldview.
But does this perspective tell the whole story? There are both philosophical and biblical reasons to think not. The main philosophical challenge to the weak version of the blueprint worldview concerns the problem of evil. While there is little difficulty accepting that God may sometimes have a specific reason for allowing a particular evil event to take place, it is challenging to accept that this is the case for each and every evil event. Some events manifest a depth of evil for which it seems almost obscene to suppose they happened for a divine reason.
For example, in my book God at War, I discuss an eyewitness account of a six-year-old Jewish girl named Zosia whose beautiful eyes were plucked out by the bare hands of two Nazi guards in front of her horrified mother. The mother went insane and both were subsequently gassed in one of Adolf Hitler’s concentration camps. It makes some sense to me to affirm that this event happened “for a reason” if by this one is assuming there was something that motivated the guards to choose to carry out this atrocity. But it’s challenging, to say the least, to affirm that this event happened “for a reason” if by this one is assuming there was a specific, perfectly good and perfectly wise reason that motivated God to choose to not prevent this specific atrocity. If we allow ourselves to vividly imagine this terrorized little girl pinned to the ground while getting her eyes plucked out, does it not become obscene to suppose that this is brought about by a “frowning providence” that hides God’s “smiling face”?
Consider that if God deemed it better to allow this nightmare than to prevent it, we must also believe that it would have been bad had Zosia’s torture been prevented. We must thus accept that God’s perfectly wise and perfect good plan for the universe would have been less good and less wise if Zosia and her mother had been spared. And this we must accept for every single child and adult who were tortured and gassed under Hitler’s demonic regime as well as for every unthinkable nightmare people have experienced throughout history. God’s grand plan would have been somehow tarnished, we must believe, had one less child been kidnapped, raped, and mutilated or had one less person been tortured by the corrupted church in the middle ages and by demented world leaders such as Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin.
I fully accept Cowper’s encouragement to refrain from judging God’s ways “by feeble sense” and to instead “trust Him for His grace.” Believers must expect to encounter a great deal of mystery as we ponder the ways of God. But at least for me, to affirm that God specifically allows evil events such as these as part of his greater plan is to move from legitimate mystery into sheer incoherence.
Problems with Scripture
Although Scripture contains many examples of God allowing evil for specific reasons, it also contains a many examples in which God must engage in conflict with rebellious opposing spiritual forces. In fact, I’ve elsewhere argued that God’s conflict with opposing spiritual forces forms one of the central motifs of the biblical narrative. In the Old Testament, these forces are rebellious subordinate gods, hostile waters, and cosmic monsters (e.g. Leviathan) that all Ancient Near Eastern people believed surrounded and perpetually threatened the earth. In the New Testament, the opposing spiritual forces God must battle are Satan, principalities and powers, and demons.
There are biblical grounds for believing that the infinitely wise God always finds a way to use the evil he battles to further his sovereign purposes, but nowhere in this central biblical motif do we find the slightest hint that the battle itself was allowed, let alone willed, for a specific higher purpose. Indeed, the very fact that God must engage in genuine conflict with opposing forces and rely on his wisdom to overcome them suggests to me that he can’t simply use his omnipotent power to prevent their evil activity. I will address the paradox of how there can be things an omnipotent God can’t do in a moment, but first we must consider other biblical material that conflicts with the blueprint worldview.
Given that Jesus is the one and only perfect revelation of God (e.g., Heb. 1:3), our understanding of God’s conflict with opposing forces should be based primarily on his ministry. Jesus spent his entire ministry among people who in one way or another were suffering. Yet he never once suggested that their suffering was “for a reason.” Never do we find any suggestion that people’s afflictions somehow fit into a grand divine plan. To the contrary, Jesus and the Gospel authors uniformly diagnosed people’s afflictions as being due to the work of Satan and/or demons (e.g., Mark 9:25 and Luke 11:14 and 13:11–16). And far from suggesting that people’s afflictions had anything to do with God’s will, Jesus manifested the will of God by freeing people from their demonically influenced infirmities.
Peter would later summarize Jesus’s entire ministry to Cornelius by proclaiming that Jesus “went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil” (Acts 10:38). In doing this, we are elsewhere taught that Jesus destroyed “the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8) and broke “the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). Such teachings should lead us to conclude that if infirmities happen for a reason, the reason is found in Satan and other forces of evil that oppose God. The only reason for afflictions that has anything to do with God is for people to be set free from them and for the forces that oppress people to be overthrown.
As a matter of fact, Jesus several times explicitly rebuked the suggestion that tragedies happened for a reason. For example, when certain people speculated, in good blueprint fashion, that Pilate’s massacre of a group of Galileans served a divine purpose, Jesus responded by asking them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!” Whatever purpose led to the massacre of those unfortunate people resided in Pilate, not God (Luke 13:1–3).
Along the same lines, in response to this crowd’s blueprint belief that God was somehow behind a natural disaster involving a tower that collapsed and killed eighteen people in Siloam, Jesus asked, “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you no!” Instead of getting involved in misguided speculations about what purpose God had for allowing people to perish, Jesus instructed these people to focus on turning their own lives around, lest they perish (Luke 13:4–5). If someone wants to discern the reason natural disasters occur, the fact that Jesus responded to a life-threatening storm by rebuking it, just as he did demons, should not lead them to God but to the spiritual forces that oppose God and that corrupt nature (Mark 4:37–39).
Finally, just as there is no suggestion in Scripture that there is a divine purpose behind God’s conflict with spiritual opponents, so too we find no hint of a divine purpose behind God’s conflict with rebellious humans. Beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and continuing throughout the biblical narrative, we find God giving people the choice to follow him or not. And when they choose to rebel, it is almost uniformly understood to reflect their own purposes and to stand in opposition to God’s purposes. So, for example, Luke notes that “the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves” by rejecting John’s baptism (Luke 7:30, emphasis added). And in Isaiah, Yahweh rebukes his “obstinate children” who “carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin” (Isa. 30:1, emphasis added). Far from being allowed for a specific sovereign purpose, we see that sin is sin precisely because it conflicts with God’s sovereign purpose. In this light, I would again submit that if someone wants to look for a reason behind Zosia’s torture, they should look for it in the guards who tortured her, not in God.
The Logic of Free Will
With very few exceptions, Christian thinkers throughout Church history have agreed that there are certain things an omnipotent God can’t do, such as create a married bachelor, a round triangle, or a rock so heavy he can’t lift it. The reason God can’t do these things is because they are not really things at all. They are, rather, self-contradictions and are therefore devoid of meaning. A bachelor is by definition not married. A triangle is by definition not round. And rocks, by definition, have a finite weight and can always be lifted up by an omnipotent God. The problem with the blueprint worldview is that it fails to apply this logic to the concept of free will.
There are, of course, an almost endless number of highly complex and hotly contested philosophical issues surrounding the concept and conditions of free will, but for our purposes here I submit a brief, less nuanced definition: agents are free if and only if they have the capacity to resolve, by their own power, two or more possible courses of action into one actual course of action. Free will, in short, is our self-determining capacity to choose to go this way or that way. It’s my conviction that God created us with this capacity because his ultimate goal for creation, so far as it is revealed to us, includes humans entering into an eternal love relationship with him and with one another. Yet, as Tatian and other early church fathers so clearly understood, it is logically impossible for contingent beings such as ourselves to enter into a genuinely loving and morally significant relationship with God or with other people unless we have the capacity to choose for or against it.
Of course, God certainly could have created us in such a way that we would have to always perform loving actions, speak loving words, think loving thoughts, and even experience loving feelings. But unless we possess the self-determining capacity to choose against these things, God would know, even if we did not, that our decision to engage in these things was not our decision at all; it was rather his decision when he predetermined us to engage in these things. I would argue along the same lines for angelic beings: the very fact that some angels rebelled against God and are destined to be punished for this implies that they were created with something analogous to our morally significant capacity to say yes or no to God’s love.
If this understanding of free will is accepted, we can begin to see why God cannot prevent certain events, despite the fact that he is all-powerful and despite the fact that he would like to do so. Suppose God has endowed someone we’ll call Charlie with the self-determining capacity to go this way or that way—this way representing a way that God approves of and that way representing a way God disapproves of. If God prevents Charlie from going that way because he disapproves of it, then he clearly didn’t endow Charlie with the self-determining capacity to go this way or that way. For God to endow Charlie with free will, we see, means that, by definition, God cannot coercively prevent Charlie from going that way simply because he doesn’t approve of it. Charlie’s free will must, by definition, be irrevocable. The concept of God preventing Charlie from going that way, though he’s endowed him with the capacity to go this way or that way, is as self-contradictory as the concept of a married bachelor, a round triangle, or a rock so heavy God can’t lift it.
Of course, the free will that God endowed Charlie with is limited in scope and duration, as is the case with the free will of every created being. Therefore, there are limits to how much and how long God must tolerate Charlie making decisions he disapproves of, as is also true for every created free agent. And Scripture assures us there will come a time when every created agent’s capacity to “go that way” will be used up and when the entire creation will therefore be free of evil. Until that time, however, the extent to which God has endowed agents with the capacity to resolve, of their own power, two or more possible courses of action into one actual course of action must be the extent to which God, by definition, cannot unilaterally prevent events from happening just because he doesn’t approve of them.
To my way of thinking, this perspective on free will explains why God, though he is all-powerful, engages in genuine conflict with opposing spiritual forces and opposing humans. It also explains why Scripture celebrates God’s wisdom, and not just his power, in governing the world, engaging in battle, and bringing good out of evil (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:30 and 2:7, Rom. 7:12 and 16:27). One only needs wisdom when one has to outsmart an opponent or solve problems, things that God would never need to do if he could simply coercively prevent anything from happening that he didn’t approve of. And this perspective makes sense of why the God of the Bible is often portrayed as getting exasperated and grieved when he tries unsuccessfully to get obstinate people to align themselves with his will (e.g., Jer. 3:6–7 and 19-20, Ezek. 22:30–31, and Isa. 63:10). The God we find in Scripture is sovereign without being micro-controlling, and in my opinion, his sovereignty is all the more praiseworthy for this reason.
Accepting Randomness with Assurance
If we accept that God’s goal for humans is centered on love and that this love requires a free choice, and if we accept that this free choice is, by definition, irrevocable for a significant length of time, then the only “reason” for events that are the result of free decisions is found in the agents themselves, not in God. We thus need not speculate about a divine reason for Zosia’s atrocity or any other atrocity. Moreover, if we accept the biblical witness regarding the existence and authority of good and evil angelic beings, we can say the same thing about natural evil. As the early church fathers uniformly understood, whether we’re talking about physical infirmities or injurious earthquakes, we may presume that all suffering that occurs from natural causes is ultimately due to the fallen state of creation and to the cosmic rebellion of angelic free agents who use their God-given authority over aspects of creation at cross-purposes with God. Hence, we may affirm that everything in creation that is inconsistent with the character of God, as revealed in Christ, is ultimately due to wills other than God’s.
I have no doubt that some readers will find this perspective disturbing, however, for it means we must accept the apparent randomness of evil at face value. There is, in this view, no higher reason to explain why Zosia had her eyes plucked out while other girls in her vicinity were spared. This randomness grows even more disturbing if we consider the many free decisions that factored into Zosia’s atrocity. For example, for all we know, there were a thousand free decisions Zosia’s mother made in the days, weeks, and months preceding the moment of the attack that, had any one been different, may have prevented her and her daughter from being precisely where they were when the Nazi guards noticed her beautiful eyes. The same can be said about an innumerable number of other people whose decisions exercised, or could have exercised, any degree of influence on this unfortunate woman and her daughter. The same holds true for the two guards as well as for Hitler—for all we know, had any one of an unfathomable number of free decisions that exercised any degree of influence on Hitler, his colleagues, his enemies, his parents, or his grandparents been different, he may not have become the führer of the Third Reich. He may not have attempted to annihilate the Jewish people and Zosia may have consequently been spared.
In this light, we can only conclude that these kinds of tragedies are the result of an unfathomable number of random events. And we have not even considered the unknowable, but nevertheless real, free decisions of the myriad of angelic agents who undoubtedly exercised some degree of influence in bringing Zosia’s tragic episode about. Looking into this vast abyss of arbitrariness can indeed be disturbing, for it seems to suggest that Zosia’s suffering, and all such suffering, is devoid of meaning. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons the blueprint worldview is attractive to many people despite its formidable problems. If the blueprint worldview is true—if everything happens for a reason—then we can rest assured that Zosia’s suffering, and all suffering, occurs for a good and wise purpose. Evil and suffering are not random and do not have the last word.
The longing for suffering to have a purpose is both understandable and legitimate. But if we remain confident that God is all knowing and infinitely wise, I don’t believe the blueprint worldview is our only means of having such peace. For although the innumerable free decisions that factored into Zosia’s suffering constitute an unfathomable abyss to us, they surely do not to God. To the contrary, if God is all knowing and infinitely intelligent, he foresaw from all eternity the possibility that every one of the innumerable free decisions that factored into Zosia’s torture might occur just as they did. Not only this, he must have foreseen every other possible way these free decisions might have gone. Indeed, he must have foreseen from eternity each and every possible decision that each and every possible free agent could ever make and how all these possible decisions could possibly interact with each other. And because his intelligence has no limits, God must have anticipated each and every one of these innumerable possibilities as though it was the only possibility he had to consider.
Some theologians have claimed that unless God foreknows the future as a domain of settled facts, he cannot guarantee that his plan will bring good out of evil. While they don’t intend it, this claim actually insults God’s intelligence, for only a God of limited intelligence would be better prepared for one certain future as opposed to a myriad of possible ones. If we remain confident in God’s infinite intelligence, we can rest assured that God has an eternally prepared plan on how to bring good out of evil for each and every possible tragedy that could ever possibly come to pass. And we can be confident that this plan is as perfect as it would have been had the tragedy been specifically allowed by him for the very purpose of the good he plans to bring out of it, in case it occurs. We thus need not believe that evil events happen for a perfectly good and wise purpose in order to believe that evil events happen with a perfectly good and wise purpose. That is, specific tragedies don’t happen because they fit into an eternal divine plan, but God nevertheless has an eternally prepared plan for every specific tragedy that might ever possibly come to pass.
Thus, we do not need to accept that Zosia’s nightmare was part of a “frowning providence” concealing God’s “smiling face” and that God planned her torture for some greater purpose. I, for one, believe God wept as this arbitrary demonstration of demonic evil was being carried out. Yet I also believe that God, from before the creation of the world, had been preparing a contingency plan to redeem good out of this atrocity, just in case it tragically came to pass.
Editor’s Note: As a companion to Gregory A. Boyd’s essay on the randomness of evil, check out the creative writing piece “Things that Fall and Things that Stand,” which meditates on the same tragic bridge collapse that opens this piece.
 John Piper, “Putting My Daughter to Bed Two Hours After the Bridge Collapsed,” desiringGod, August 1, 2007, http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/putting-my-daughter-to-bed-two-hours-after-the-bridge-collapsed.
 Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), chap. 1.
 Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/g/m/gmovesmw.htm.
 Although people who believe that everything is predetermined obviously advocate the strong version of the blueprint worldview, not everyone who believes God foreknows how humans and angels will behave is an advocate of the weak version of this blueprint. Some contemporary Arminians espouse what is often called “simple foreknowledge,” which is the view that although God eternally foreknows all that will come to pass, he does not possess the ability to do anything to alter it.
 This Scripture reference and all subsequent references are from the TNIV.
 The strong version of the blueprint worldview faces other philosophical challenges, such as the question of how humans and angels can be held morally responsible for engaging in evil acts that God predestines them to commit while, conversely, God is held to be all holy (and not morally responsible) for predestining them to do so.
 Boyd, God at War, 33–36.
 Ibid., passim.
 For a complete discussion of Jesus’s healing and deliverance ministry and how it undermines the blueprint worldview, see Boyd, God at War, chap. 6.
 To read more about Jesus treating this storm like a demon, see Boyd, God at War, 211. This is not to suggest that there is a specific demonic being behind every particular natural disaster but that were it not for the corrupting influence of demonic beings, nature would not afflict us the way it sometimes does. See Boyd, “Evolution as Cosmic Conflict,” in Creation Made Free: Science and Open Theology, ed. J. Oord (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009), 125–45. See also S. Webb, The Dome of Eden: A New Solution to the Problem of Creation and Evolution (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 147–52. I should note that many see John 9:1–3 as an example of Jesus affirming that God was involved in a man being born blind. Even if this is granted, it is the one exception to the otherwise uniform perspective of the Gospels and cannot be legitimately used to overturn this perspective. But I have elsewhere argued that this passage actually provides another example of Jesus rebuking people for speculating about God’s supposed role in people’s afflictions (God at War, 231–36).
 I say “almost uniformly” to account for those several instances in which Yahweh is said to “harden” someone’s heart, such as he did with Pharaoh (e.g., Exod. 9:12 and 10:20). Even here, however, I argue that Yahweh’s hardening is a disciplinary action taken in response to human sin, which originated in people’s own will, not God’s. It’s significant, for example, that Scripture says Pharaoh hardened his own heart before it says God hardened it (e.g., Exod. 8:15 and 8:32).
 I have explored these matters in detail in Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), especially chaps. 2–6.
 Tatian, Address to the Greeks, 7, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 67.
 This is not to suggest that God can’t influence free agents to go this way and not go that way, so long as this influence stops short of taking away these agents’ God-given capacity to go this way or that way.
 For a more comprehensive and detailed fleshing out of issues surrounding this perspective, see Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil as well as Boyd, Is God to Blame: Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003).
 See Boyd, Satan and Problem of Evil, chaps. 8–10. This is in no way to deny that humans frequently share responsibility for “natural” evils that afflict us, given that it is becoming abundantly clear that our free decisions affect our environment, for better or for worse, in a much more profound way than previous generations ever imagined.
 See for example, Bruce A. Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000); and John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001). For fuller responses to this frequent claim, see Boyd, “Neo-Molinism and the Infinite Intelligence of God,” Philosophia Christi 5.1 (2003): 187–204; and “The Open Theism View,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, eds. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 13–47.
Gregory A. Boyd is co-founder and senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood, Minnesota. For sixteen years, Boyd served as Professor of Theology at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he still teaches on occasion. He has authored or co-authored nineteen books, including Letters From a Skeptic (1994, with Ed Boyd), The Myth of a Christian Nation (2006), The Jesus Legend (2007, with Paul Eddy), and God at War (1997). Boyd and his wife live in community with several other families in St. Paul and have three grown children, five grandchildren, and an adorable dog named Max.