On August 20 of this year, a 23-year old woman, a tourist from Great Britain, was eating a hotdog with her friend on a busy Manhattan street when a yellow taxi jumped the curb, ploughed into her, and severed her left foot.
An alert plumber nearby fashioned a tourniquet from his plumber’s belt and kept her from bleeding to death. Others from the crowded street, including Dr. Oz of television notoriety, eagerly offered whatever help they could. One man even retrieved the severed foot and put it on ice, attempting to save it for possible re-attachment.
It turned out that the cabdriver had been in moving conflict with a cyclist and in rage had stomped on the gas, jumped the curb, and caused the calamity. The police quickly learned that this driver had nine demerit points on his license and he was not even authorized at the time to drive the cab he was driving.
The incident brought about a strange convergence of good and evil.
The lawless cab driver in his rage had visited irreversible damage on a total stranger. The plumber, doctor, police, ambulance attendant, and several others in the crowd came forward readily to give whatever aid they could.
For those inclined to think about life theologically, this event can raise a fundamental question: who caused this catastrophe? Two different answers present themselves.
On the one hand, the thinking goes, the Sovereign God’s rule is deterministic over all the earth so that whatever happens does so because he has decreed it to happen. Other thinkers suggest that because of God’s goodness and because he is not the author or perpetrator of evil, it is therefore the cabbie acting in a certain freedom who is responsible and to a lesser degree the cyclist.
Regrettably, the question seems to divide earnest believers.
Based on one position, there is a system of theology which says that God in his sovereign will ordains every last thing that comes to pass, whether the contracting of a common cold or the loss of a loved one. In other words, “Everything without qualification is under God’s direct and decreed control.”
But does that explanation not make God’s decree responsible for the taxi driver’s road rage and the young woman’s disastrous and undeserved loss? Did God decree the cyclist’s annoyance, the cabbie’s out-of-control impulses, and the young tourist’s loss of a limb? Those would have to say yes who believe that to understand the situation one must begin with God’s deterministic divine sovereignty.
To other staunch and thoughtful Christians, that explanation would seem cold and severe, unworthy of the heart of God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who “so loves the world” and who is marked by eternal goodness.
Even in the Genesis story of Adam’s primal sin the Scriptures do not make the Sovereign God responsible for sin. The pair clearly “chose” to disobey if we read the story without elaboration.
On the other hand, those who believe solidly in God’s absolute sovereign control over all that exists but who cannot go so far as to charge God as the source of evil see the disastrous moment on the busy Manhattan street quite differently.
Out of his sovereign goodness God grants to fallen humankind, though “dead in trespasses and sins” a grace that at least enables civic and domestic life to be carried on — however roughly. This is often referred to as “common grace” or “prevenient grace.”
When mankind in his rebellion resists that grace and follows his own reckless impulses bad things happen. In such occasions, the rebellious, not the sovereign God, are responsible for the results. Society itself with its own judicial system operates on such a judicial understanding of personal accountability.
All of this fits with “the biblical portrait of God as merciful, just, compassionate and loving” and with the picture of mankind as responsible and accountable for their offenses.
The young tourist who lost her foot in Manhattan was in and out of the news in a couple of days, as were the cabbie and the cyclist, plus the supporting cast that gathered on the sidewalk. They have all disappeared from the screen.
But we can believe the story has not yet been fully told. It will in time reveal some providential moments in which the loving God will intervene providentially in the lives touched by this tragedy. In such tragic moments it has often been shown that God is not limited in the ways he can bring good out of evil.