Mere Coincidence?

by

One of the most interesting stories ever published was a novella called The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility by Morgan Robertson. Robertson tells the story of the sinking of a large luxury liner named the Titan. The Titan in Robertson’s book was the largest ship in existence at the time: over eight hundred feet in length with a passenger and crew capacity of three thousand. It had numerous watertight bulkheads and was considered unsinkable. It carried the minimum number of lifeboats required by law, but far short of the number needed for three thousand people. While carrying many wealthy passengers across the North Atlantic on a cold April night, the Titan struck an iceberg at 24 knots just before midnight about ninety-five miles south of Greenland. The iceberg tore a gash in the ship’s starboard side, which flooded the watertight compartments. The unsinkable ship sank. Because the Titan did not have enough lifeboats, more than half of her passengers died in the icy waters.

We’ve all read books or watched films that claim to be “based on actual events.” Those who are familiar with the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, would naturally assume that Robertson’s book was a fictional account based on these actual events. The numerous similarities are just too striking. The problem is that Robertson’s book was published in 1898, fourteen years before the “unsinkable” Titanic sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic with too few lifeboats.

I’ve been interested in so-called coincidences since I was a child. In fact, my first research paper of any substance during high school was on the subject of coincidences. I recently ran across this old paper, which I wrote before I was a Christian. After giving examples of some of the more remarkable coincidences to be found in the annals of history and looking at some of the different theories that have been suggested as explanations for these phenomena, I concluded that perhaps coincidences were somebody’s way of trying to tell us something. I also added at the time that if this someone or something were trying to tell us something, there were probably better ways to do so. It wasn’t too long after writing those words that I read the Bible for the first time.

Some of the events that skeptics would attribute to chance or coincidence are examples of God answering our prayers. I have experienced these in my own life. As an example, the week I began seminary studies, I did not have enough money to take a full course load, which meant that my new wife and I could not stay in the seminary housing. The only person I had talked to about this was the housing director. I stayed up all night praying. The following day I went to buy a loaf of bread (I didn’t know what else to do, but I knew we had to eat). When I returned, the phone rang the very moment I opened the door. I picked it up and discovered that a fellow first-year seminary student was on the line, a student I did not even know. He had heard of my situation and had paid the remainder of my tuition, enabling my wife and me to stay in the student housing and begin seminary studies. A skeptic would say the timing of the phone call was a mere coincidence, pure chance, nothing more, nothing less. No, in reality, it was God’s dramatic answer to my prayer.

Even Tabletalk has been involved in “coincidences.” Our daily Bible study for September 11, 2001, covered the text of Judges 9:42–49. This text tells the story of the deaths of a thousand people who perished in the tower of Shechem when it was burned by Abimelech. The study was written months before the events of September 11, 2001, but it had particular resonance to those who read it on that tragic day. Such stories could be multiplied hundreds of times over. Most people can share similar stories of coincidence. Atheists and other skeptics relegate these kinds of events to pure chance, but Christians do not believe in chance. We believe in a sovereign God who providentially controls all things. So what’s going on?

Scripture explicitly teaches us that things we might attribute to mere chance are actually controlled by our sovereign God. The entire book of Esther is an example of God’s providence working through seeming coincidences. Proverbs informs us that “the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (16:33). God, then, is in control even of things as simple as the “roll of the dice.” As the Westminster Confession explains: “God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least” (5.1).

So-called coincidences appear to be striking glimpses of God’s providence in our day-to-day world. We know and confess that all of life is under God’s providential control, but we tend to forget this in the humdrum regularity of our lives. So-called coincidences are a splash of water in the face, as it were, to us and to others who can tend to forget that our world is not simply matter in motion. God is always trying to tell us something. We just don’t listen very well.

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