It was All Saints Day, November 1, 1755. In Lisbon, Portugal, considered one of the most Christian cities in the world, thousands of people packed the local churches. Then at 9:40am one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history (estimated to be between 8.5-9.0 on the Richter scale) hit the city. As the churches swayed people ran out into the streets only to be crushed by falling stones. Attempting to get away from the crashing buildings they rushed to the water front only to be met by three successive tsunamis. Finally as they ran from the tsunamis back into the city they were met by fire which ultimately consumed much of what was left of Lisbon. Estimates of deaths range from 10,000 – 100,000, making it one of the most destructive and deadly earthquakes of all time. The questions which then confronted Christian Europe were: did God cause this to happen? Was this the Providence of God?
Providence is not a word that is commonly used in the modern American lexicon other than to refer to a town in Rhode Island or to a hospital system here in Southeast Michigan. I have no great theories on why we have allowed a term of such great Biblical and theological importance to go dormant, yet we have. Be that as it may we are going to resurrect it for a little while not only because it matters to "the church" but because it matters to us. I say that because, whether we realize it or not, we not only deal with the concept of providence on a regular basis, but we often struggle with it during some of the most difficult times of our lives (as did those who suffered in the Lisbon earthquake).
Let's begin with a few simple definitions of providence from Dictionary.com.
- The foreseeing care and guidance of God or nature over the creatures of the earth
- God, especially when conceived as omnisciently directing the universe and the affairs of humankind with wise benevolence
- A manifestation of divine care and direction
The issue at stake in these definitions as well as in any discussion of or struggle with Providence is that of how much power does God have and how does God use it. We wrestle with these issues every time we ask questions such as: "Why did God let this happen?" "How could God allow evil to exist?" "Why am I still here when I want to die?" "Why hasn't God answered my prayers?" We also make reference to Providence when we make statements such as: "It's all in God's hands." "God always has a purpose." "God's in control." "God will provide."
Over the millennia people of various religions, races and cultures have wrestled with these questions. They have wondered about their own freedom from or dependence on God or the gods. At times people have believed themselves to be completely independent of supernatural forces while at other times people have come to see themselves as no more than puppets of the gods/God. As we will see over the next few weeks Judaism and Christianity have expressed and held widely divergent views on the extent of God's Providence.
A final piece with which we must deal when speaking of Providence is the role that science has played in how we understand God's control or lack of it in human affairs. As science has developed its understanding of things such as genetics, evolution, geology (including the physics of plate tectonics and earthquakes) and brain chemistry and the social sciences have developed concepts which explain human interactions (both individually and corporately) humanity has the knowledge that allows it to see itself as completely independent of God. We see this in the rise of the New Atheism movement. Writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have led this movement which believes that religion, and in many ways, the concept of Providence should be exposed and done away with by rational arguments.
Though much of what I have articulated above is focused on how Providence and evil are linked we will see that Providence in the scriptures is a much broader concept.