THE REALITY OF ACCIDENTS
By Pastor Glenn Pease
No doubt everyone of us has had our share of accidents. If not in a car, or with a knife, or some other sharp object whereby we cut ourselves, then all of us have at some point in our life fallen down. It is a part of growing up to fall down, and so it is hard to conceive that even baby Jesus did not fall down at sometime, or fall against some piece of furniture that Joseph had made. It would not be a normal childhood to grow up without some kind of an accident. But whether Jesus did or not is not the issue, for nobody else does escape all accidents. We all have them, and the longer we live the more we have.
In the battle of Sockett's Harbor during the War of 1812, David Sockett had his hand blown off at the age of 76. Most men had no such accidents at 76 because most men never lived that long in that day. Some years later a tree fell on Sockett's head and fractured his skull. A few years after that he was standing by when a cannon misfired and both his eyes were damaged by the blast. After this a horse kicked him in the face causing permanent disfigurement. You have to conclude that he was accident prone, but it was something he learned to live with for he lived to be 115.
In contrast was our 17 year old neighbor. She was riding with her brother when a Christian man in another car had an epilepsy attack. His foot froze on the gas pedal, and he ran into their car. She was thrown into the windshield where glass cut her juggler vain, and she died in just a few minutes. At 17 one accident ended her life. In another church I served an army officer had a wife and three children who were hit by an oncoming car, and the wife and two of the children were killed instantly. The third child was thrown out the back window and survived. It was the first an only three casket funeral I have ever seen.
These accidents didn't last very long, but the suffering they left behind still goes on. I have had my own share of accidents, and have wrecked a couple of cars quite severely but have suffered no bodily injury. My children cannot say the same. My oldest son was hit by a car while on his bike and ended up in the hospital for a month. My youngest son fell down the stairs and was taken to the hospital. My daughter once rolled down an embankment and smashed up a truck and broke her neck. She had to spend weeks in the hospital and months in traction, and with a lifetime of side effects.
I read the same statistics that you read, and know that ten of thousands of people a year die in car accidents, and hundreds of thousands suffer injury, but cold statistics are not why I believe in the reality of accidents. It is my experience of accidents that convinces me they are real, and also my study of God's Word. But there is always this wide spread saying that keeps coming up that says, "With God there are no accidents." This is one of those popular theological sayings that people use to cut off debate on a sensitive issue. What can you say to such an absolute statement? It seems sacrilegious, or at least futile, to argue with such a statement. After all, who is going to have the audacity to challenge the competency of God to run the world? The result is that this little phrase quite effectively cuts off both debate and thought on the subject of accidents. But we cannot escape the fact that our experience suggests that accidents are a very real part of the world in which we live.
Some pastors I have talked to about accidents feel that they have to support the idea that there are no accidents in the life of a Christian. I tried to argue with one Christian leader that that view doesn't seem to fit the facts, and he became emotionally upset and did not want to pursue the issue. So I am aware that this is an emotional topic, and you may not like questioning one of the strong convictions of many Christians. But I decided that the best way to deal with a dilemma is to look it square in the face, and ask some serious questions. People make a lot of claims for God, but what does God claim for Himself? What does the Bible really say about accidents, and the things that happen by chance? Is there such a thing, or are these pagan ideas that do not belong in the minds of God's people?
Philip P. Bliss, who wrote so many of the songs Christians love to sing, such as Hallelujah What A Savior, Wonderful Words Of Life, The Light Of The World Is Jesus, Almost Persuaded, Dare To Be A Daniel, And Jesus Loves Even Me, and many more, was on a train with his wife heading for Chicago for a series of meetings. A bridge gave way and more than 100 people on the train were killed including the Blisses'. He gave so much of what we sing, but his accident did not lead to more praise to God, but less. Bliss wrote the music to It Is Well With My Soul, but the words were written by H. G. Spafford. He sent his family to Europe, and the ship sank, and all four of his children went down with it.
Amy Carmicheal went to India as a missionary in 1895. She did much to alleviate the suffering of children, but in 1931 she took a serious fall, and for the next 20 years she was confined to her room. She was in constant pain, but still managed the mission and wrote 13 books. She gained many victories, but not because of her pain, but in spite of her pain. When David Livingston went to Africa and devoted his life to reach those people he faced constant danger. A lion attacked him and left him wounded. He was handicapped for the rest of his life on one side. A mad buffalo almost killed him, and a hippopotamus tipped his boat, and he nearly drowned. He suffered more fevers than anybody I ever read about, and spent a major part of his life recovering. There seemed to be no end to the problems, injuries, and suffering he endured.
R. G. LaTorneu gave millions to the cause of Christ. He crashed his car through 8 sections of a fence and broke his neck. He spent two months with his head laying useless on his shoulders. Later on in 1937 he and his wife and their quartet were on their way to share the Gospel in word and song at a special meeting. They had a head on collision that killed all three in the other car and two of their quartet. LaTorneu had both hips and a leg broken, and his chest was crushed. His wife was severely injured as well, but they both recovered and went on to serve the Lord, and gave millions more to His cause.
We could go on and on, but the point is that the children of God, as far as the record of history and the record of God's Word goes, do not have any promise that they will escape the suffering that comes through accidents. Godly people and leaders frequently die in accidents. Some Christians think that all of these accidents are really good because they are a part of God's plan. But I do not see this supported by Scripture at all. My study of the Bible has led me to see that all of the events of life fall into four categories. You may see other categories, but here is how I see the breakdown of all events.
1. EVENTS WHICH GOD PLANS.
These events have to happen because they are a part of God's purpose, and they are predestined. They cannot not happen. The cross is a good example. It was planned before the world was even created, for God could not, or would not, create such a high risk being as man with his freedom to fall without committing himself to pay the price to redeem and restore him. The cross was the most necessary event of history.
2. EVENTS WHICH GOD PREVENTS.
These are things that would have happened if God had not stepped into history and by His providence prevented. Pharaoh took Sarah because of her beauty, but God prevented his having her, and got her back to Abraham unharmed and unused. The same thing happened later with Rebekah. The killing of baby Jesus by Herod was also prevented. There is no way to know how many terrible things never happened because God prevented them from happening. These two kinds of events-what God plans, and what God prevents, represent God's will in the world. They happen or don't happen because God's plan demands it. But there are two other kinds of events also that we want to look at.
3. EVENTS WHICH GOD PROHIBITS.
These are all the things that God forbids. He forbid Adam and Eve to eat a certain fruit. He gave commandments of what men should not do. These things do take place, however, because God has given man the freedom to disobey Him. God does not will these events, nor does He prevent them. They happen against His will. All such events are what we call sin and evil.
4. EVENTS WHICH GOD PERMITS.
These are events which God has not planned, but neither has He prohibited, or prevented them. They may cause a great deal of suffering, but they are not events of choice, and so there is not the same guilt connected with them as with those events which God has prohibited. This fourth category is where we put accidents. Accidents are events which God did not plan to happen, nor did man choose to happen. They happen because of mistaken judgments, carelessness, and unawareness of the consequences of what is being done. They are necessary possibilities in a truly free world. They are events that do not need to happen, for they are preventable.
The Old Testament law had a very clear distinction between an act of violence which was chosen, and an accidental act of violence. In Ex. 21:12-13 we read, "Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate." The first is what we call first degree murder. It is a willful planning to take another's life. The second is what we call manslaughter. There was never any willful desire to take another life. It happened because of unforseen events which we call accidents. There are all kinds of degrees of responsibility for these kinds of events.
A ferry heading for Dover, England sank and a couple of hundred people died. It was because of avoidable human error. Someone was careless and forgot to close a certain door, and it led to the tipping of the ferry. Hundreds of examples of this sort of thing happen. Is human error God's will? If so, then there is no such thing as mistakes and human error, for if they are God's will, and what he has ordained, then they had to happen, and man is not responsible for them, for God made them make those mistakes. God alone then is responsible for all human error. This takes away the responsibility of man and puts it all on God, and this is false theology. We are responsible for our own mistakes, and we cannot throw them back on God. It is part of the risk of a free world where we can make choices. We often make bad ones, and they are our choices and not God's. If we make bad choices on purpose it is sin, but if we make them out of ignorance they are accidents. Either way, we are the ones responsible.
Before you ever say there are no accidents again, let me share with you the implications of what you are saying. An accident is something that is not planned by God, or foreseen by man. But if it is a high risk situation where it should be foreseen, then we hold those responsible for the act to a higher degree of responsibility. For example, when a boy is throwing a hard ball against the side of a house where a window is just a few feet away. This scene gives us a good illustration of the difference between determinism and freedom. When the boy lets go too soon and the ball goes flying through the window, you do not get angry at God or the ball. You know the ball had no choice in the matter, and so you do not get a hammer and pulverize it. On the other hand, the boy who chose to throw it so near the window does have a responsibility for what happened. If he has been warned before not to play there, he is even more guilty. If there has never been any warning, his guilt will be less for this first offense, for in ignorance he did not realize the risk involved. His punishment will be in accordance with the degree of his knowledge. If this is the third offense, he is in deep trouble.
But now let us look at this event with the assumption that it is true that there are no accidents. If this broken window is no accident, but is the will of God, then the boy becomes identical with the ball. He is now equally without choice, and had no more of an alternative than did the ball. To punish him is the same as pounding the ball, for the boy is merely a tool in the hands of God, just as the ball was a tool in the hands of the boy. The no accident theory traces all apparent accidents back to the only one with a choice, and that is God. This means God is the one who chooses all of the bad, foolish, and ignorant mistakes that make the world so full of accidents. This is bad theology.
If there are no accidents, there is nobody to blame for the evils of life but God. You cannot blame the devil or man, because they only do what God has planned for them to do. This reverses the revelation of God's Word, and makes Him the cause of all evil, and the devil and man are mere victims. The Bible says just the opposite, and that Satan and man by their choices made the mess that God had to pay a great price to clean up by the sacrifice of His own Son. If there are no accidents because all is God's will, then it is no wonder that people get so angry at God for all of the terrible tragedies of life. You do not even need a devil or evil forces, or even the free will folly of man, for God alone can be the cause of all we hate about life. But once you admit that all is not God's will, and that evil forces and man can do what is not His will, then you open the door to the reality of accidents. You can't have it both ways. If God's will is not always done on earth as it is in heaven, and why pray this prayer that Jesus taught if it is, then accidents have to be a part of reality in a world where free choices are made every moment by imperfect beings.
People like the theory of no accidents because it becomes a sort of magical way to get rid of evil and responsibility, and all of the things that are disturbing about life. It is a form of escapism. Dr. Paul Tournier, the author of numerous books, says in his book A Doctor's Casebook In The Light Of The Bible, "The spirit of magic lies in wait for the Christians as much as for the agnostics and the pagans. It arises, in fact form an inherent tendency in human nature, and none of us can boast of being proof against it wiles. It is the longing for the fairy tale, for the magic wand that will charm away the difficulties of life, the suffering, the limitations, and the uncertainties of our human condition."
Most of our superficial ideas about suffering arise from our desire for a magical simple answer. What could be more simple than to believe that there are no accidents, but that all is a part of God's plan? This means that all is good, and there is no real evil in life. It is true that God can and does work in all things, even evil and foolish mistakes, to bring forth good, but to say that the evil and foolish mistakes are good is going beyond Scripture and common sense. People do get comfort by believing that all is part of God's plan, but I get more comfort by not believing that all of the suffering in the world caused by accidents is the will of God. You can take your choice, but I choose that which is based on the Word of God, and not a traditional saying.
Now, at last, we come to our text in Luke 13. Jesus is dealing with some of the tragedies of his day. He chooses one from the world of suffering caused by the inhumanity of man to man. Pilate had mixed the blood of some Galileans with their own sacrifices, and the implication is that they were violently killed. The other tragedy he deals with comes from the perversity of inanimate objects. Murphy's law comes into play, and things like apartment buildings collapse and people are killed. Jesus refers to the tower in Siloam which fell and killed 18 people.
The main point Jesus is making is that the victims were not meeting such a tragic end because they were being judged for their sin. They were just at the wrong place at the wrong time, and they suffered the consequences. They were not worse sinners that anyone else. They did not deserve their violent end anymore than those who escaped. Neither of these events were planned by God. They fall into the category of events God permits, but does not will. When a plane goes down and kills all who are on board, those people who die are not any worse than those whose plane does not go down. People who die in auto accidents are not worse than those who do not. The whole idea of suffering and death being connected with the sinfulness of the victims is rejected by Jesus. This is a false view of suffering to link it to the sinfulness of people as if all suffering and death were in some way a form of judgment. Jesus is saying that suffering and tragedy can often be accidental, and not a part of some plan to punish or discipline.
There is all kinds of discipline in life, and plenty of punishment, but to look at an accident as one of these two is superficial and contrary to the teaching of Christ. Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers in history, and a strong Calvinist, speaks very openly about the reality of accidents. He said, "It is very customary among religious people to talk of every accident as if it were a judgment. The upsetting of a boat upon the river on a Sunday is assuredly understood to be a judgment for the sin of Sabbath-breaking. In the accidental fall of a house, in which persons were engaged in any unlawful occupation, the inference is at once drawn that the house fell because they were wicked. Now, however, some religionists may hope to impress the people by such childish stories as these, I for one, forswear them all. I believe what my Master says is true, when He declared concerning the men upon which the tower of Siloam fell, that they were not sinners above all....They were sinners, there is no doubt about it, but the falling of the wall was not occasioned by their sin, nor was their premature death the consequence of their excessive wickedness."
Common sense tell us this is so, for accidents happen to the innocent so often. Children fall, and children get into poisons, and nobody suffers more accidents free of all sinful and wicked intentions than do children. There is no connection between sin and accidents as a necessity. It is equal folly to say there never is a connection, for people who drive and drink kill thousands every year, and their suffering is a direct result of their sin and folly. It is not the case with their victims, however. Pilate was doing evil when he killed the Galileans. They were innocent victims of his evil, but there is no record that he suffered, just as the drunken driver often escapes injury as he kills others.
You cannot find a connection between sin and suffering that fits the whole world of innocent and accidental suffering. To even try is to reject the Lord's rejection of the whole idea, and try to make all suffering some form of judgment. Jesus says this tragic suffering and death is not judgment, and it is obvious that it cannot be for discipline. Discipline is for teaching so as to correct bad behavior. Death is definitely overkill for this purpose, and so we are left with a form of suffering we put into the category of accidental.
What does this mean? An insurance agent once asked a cowboy if he had ever had an accident, and he said, "No, none to speak of. A bronc kicked in my ribs and busted my collar bone, and a rattlesnake bit me last year." "Good heavens," said the agent, "Don't you call them accidents?" "No," said the cowpuncher, "They done it on purpose." There are accidents which are done on purpose. We have all seen a movie where the bad guys fix the brakes on the good guys car so they will go out when he is driving down the mountain, and thereby have an accident. Technically this is not an accident, but a plan event to look like an accident. God prohibits such events, and so it is no accident, but an evil act done by choice.
An authentic accident is an event that takes place without God willing it to happen, and with no human foresight or expectation. It is not the result of a plan, but the result of chance. Anything that happens as a result of a plan is not an accident. This is why many Christians say there are no accidents, for they believe that everything that happens is a part of God's plan. If that was the case then everything is planned, and there would be no accidents. Other Christians find this intolerable for it makes God responsible for all that we find most evil about the world of suffering. The innocent who suffer and die in war; because of alcoholic drivers, and because of all the foolish mistakes adults make are all a part of God's plan, if this theory is correct, and that is not acceptable to most Christians.
It would be easy to believe that Satan is responsible for all this evil suffering, but to call it part of the plan of God blurs the distinction between good and evil. The Bible says that God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. It is hard to believe this if one also believes that all of the accidents of the world are really planned by God. The issue of responsibility is what we are dealing with. I once pulled into an intersection as it was getting dark, and a car without its lights on tore the front end of my car off. When the police arrived they did not give me a ticket even though I pulled right in front of the guy. It was because he had a responsibility to have his lights on at that time. He got the ticket because he failed to do what he was responsible to do.
I have made mistakes in driving also, and I could have caused an accident by these mistakes. If I would have, it would not be God's responsibility, but my own. To throw blame back on God for all human error, carelessness, and irresponsibility is passing the buck. We don't like it, but we have to accept the fact that God has given us a great responsibility in determining what happens in this world. Most accidents are because we fail in our responsibility. God permits this because He permits us to be free.