I appreciate the question. It is an important one, given the ways in which issues about chance come up both in scientific reflections and in everyday life.
The question is difficult to answer in a few words (I have a whole book on the subject).Vern S. Poythress, Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014). To begin with, it is useful to ask what each person means by his words. Otherwise, we may miscommunicate. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers no less than five senses for the word chance.
Two meanings of “chance”
For theological purposes, I find it useful to distinguish at least two meanings of “chance.” According to the first meaning, a “chance” event is an unpredictable event for which we can give no satisfying causal explanation (Merriam-Webster, sense 1a). According to the second meaning,Human knowledge should be contrasted with the comprehensive character of God’s knowledge. “Chance” (which I choose to capitalize) serves as an ultimate impersonal cause or explanation, as a fundamental aspect of the world. Merriam-Webster, sense 1b, says: “the assumed impersonal purposeless determiner of unaccountable happenings.” The second meaning, but not the first, is out of accord with a biblically based worldview.
Let us consider the first meaning. “Chance” events are what we as human beings cannot causally explain. Either we can discern no cause for a single event, or we can give no full reason for why two trains of events intersect at a particular time and place. The outcome of flipping a coin is unpredictable, and so we say that the coin came up heads “by chance.” Two cars happened to go into an intersection at the same time, so that they collided “by chance.”
The lack of explanation is related to the limitations in human knowledge. Human knowledge should be contrasted with the comprehensive character of God’s knowledge. That is why the second meaning, where “Chance” is an ultimate determiner, should be rejected. The second meaning pretends that “Chance” is a godlike source for events.
God’s comprehensive rule
The idea of chance has a role in Christian understanding because it is tied to our view of God. We need to consider the nature of God’s knowledge and the nature of his actions ruling the world. Open theism maintains that certain future events, in particular events due to free human decisions, are presently unknown to God as well as to man. But I believe that this position is not consistent with Scripture. God knows all things. Not only that—his plan for world history is comprehensive, including not only broad outlines of history, but also minutiae: “even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matt. 10:30). “Will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matt. 6:30; cf John 19:24, 36–37).
We find challenges in holding together God’s comprehensive control with the reality of human choice and the reality of sin. But, in my view, the challenges do not prevent us from acknowledging all three—God’s control, human choice, and sin.
The result is that no chance exists for God, who knows all things and determines all things. His plan and determination include what we call chance events. There is genuine chance for us as human beings with limited knowledge. Chance events are events for which we do not discern an observable cause.
God knows completely what are the limitations of human knowledge, and he can speak to us about our own human point of view, which is real. So God himself can speak of an event as happening by chance:
“But a certain man drew his bow at randomThe ESV includes a marginal note, “Hebrew in his innocence.” But the meaning of the Hebrew is close to what the ESV puts in the text, “at random.” The man who shot his arrow was “innocent” as to where it might go. and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate” (1 Kings 22:34).
“But time and chance happen to them all (Eccles. 9:11).”
“Now by chance a priest was going down that road (Luke 10:31).”
God created the world, and he governs it now in such a way that there is a real distinction between things that we know and things that we do not know. Some things remain secret to us as long as this world exists (Deut. 29:29). Even in the new heaven and the new earth, we remain human and our knowledge is limited rather than identical with the comprehensive knowledge of God. The word chance can play a significant role in distinguishing between God’s knowledge and ours.
Moreover, the Bible distinguishes between God as primary cause and secondary causes within the created world. The disasters that befell Job serve as a good example. Job acknowledged that God brought about the disasters:
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
“‘Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’” In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10).
In Job’s life, God was the primary cause. There were also secondary causes, such as marauding Sabeans, fire from heaven, and “a great wind” (1:19). In addition, Satan was, if you will, a kind of tertiary cause. Job was aware of the distinction between primary cause and secondary causes, and this distinction makes sense to anyone who knows about the God described the Bible.
“Chance” events are often ones for which we can give no complete account in terms of secondary causes. There may still be such causes, but we do not know them, or do not know them completely. With Job, we should still affirm that God is there as the primary cause.
What about miracles? For some miracles there may be no secondary causes, or only inadequate causes. Yet typically we do not describe miracles as “chance” events.Yet, according to the biblical teaching concerning God’s involvement in the world, he is the primary cause for all events whatsoever. No event is totally without a cause. Why not? Possibly because we affirm vigorously the action of God as primary cause. Yet, according to the biblical teaching concerning God’s involvement in the world, he is the primary cause for all events whatsoever. No event is totally without a cause.
Is there then an inconsistency in the use of the word “chance”? Possibly. But perhaps the meaning in ordinary cases involves the idea of something being unaccountable. In the case of a flip of a coin or two cars colliding in an intersection, we can infer that God is the primary cause, yet the event is still unaccountable, because we cannot discern a reason why God would bring about such an event. God always has his purposes, but we cannot discern them. On the other hand, with a miracle we can begin to discern at least some purposes. Jesus healed the leper in Matthew 8:1–4 as an act of mercy, in order to answer his request and in order that he would be healed. The act also functioned as a sign of the coming of the kingdom in the person of Jesus and his ministry. So we can give an account, even though an appeal to secondary causes would not be adequate.
What about the idea of “randomness”? It is a term closely related to “chance.” Many of the same issues come up. Once again, people may differ in what they mean. Merriam-Webster online provides two senses for the adjective random, and each of these two has two subdivisions. So there is complexity. Sense 1a is “lacking a definite plan, purpose, or pattern.” In the entry as a whole, Merriam-Webster uses the example of a person choosing “random” passages from a book. Once again, we can see a distinction between God’s plans and human plans. A human being can open a book “at random,” which means that he does not deliberately choose any one page. It is “by chance,” then, that he opens it to page 125, let us say. The lack of human planning or intention, and the lack of predictability from a human point of view, is not in tension with an affirmation that the result of a “random” choice is known beforehand by God and unfolds according to the comprehensive plan of God.
The word random also occurs in mathematical contexts. The mathematical reasoning about randomness shows again and again the beauty of mathematical regularity in calculations concerning random processes. What is “random” shows the patterning of the wisdom of God. It becomes a source of praise.
Sometimes people wonder whether the randomness in quantum events represents a special case that shows a limitation in God’s rule over the world. But the answer is basically the same: this randomness has to do with a limitation in human knowledge. Quantum mechanics is a particularly fascinating case, because the limitation seems to be absolute. No increase in knowledge within the world can overcome the uncertainties in quantum events. These uncertainties seem to be innate, unlike the uncertainty in flipping a coin. This innateness, though unique, is itself part of the structural design that God has for the world. It does not produce tension with his control, because he is not a part of the world.