Is the World One Big Machine?

Do Christians often think of the universe more in terms of materialism or deism, as if it is one big machine, rather than in terms of divine working? C.S. Lewis wrote in his essay “The Laws of Nature”:

The smallest event, then, if we face the fact that it occurs (instead of concentrating on the pattern into which, if it can be persuaded to occur, it must fit), leads us back to a mystery which lies outside natural science. It is certainly a possible supposition that behind this mystery some mighty Will and Life is at work.

And here is the kicker:

If so, any contrast between His acts and the laws of Nature is out of the question. It is His act alone that gives the laws any events to apply to. The laws are an empty frame; it is He who fills the frame — not now and then on specially ‘providential’ occasions, but at every moment.[1]

Lewis’ point is that what we call “natural laws” and “divine acts” are more intimately related than we think. Natural laws do not necessarily exist by themselves as if independent from God. This would be a materialist or deist understanding. Rather, natural laws are more like a picture frame that God himself has set up in which to paint his narrative of human history. Natural laws by themselves are nothing.

I wonder if we could take Lewis’ point a step further? Could it be that natural laws are more of an expression, or description, of God’s actions in the universe? This would certainly give us a more robust understanding of divine providence–God would be working at all times in all places in the universe.

Too many times, we Christians seem to conform more to a materialist or deistic understanding of the universe. God created the universe to operate according to physical laws, wound it up, and let it go. The universe is now relatively independent to “choose” (in some sense) as it wishes, bringing about events that merely accord with the laws divinely implanted within it. But this is deism at best: the world is one big machine operating on its own as God watches the movie unfold (of course, hopping in once in a while to help us humans out).

At worst, this is a materialist view (at least a practical materialism). Materialism gives us a world in which there is no divine working. Physical laws exist in and of themselves, causing events and controlling the destiny of humanity, for better or worse.

Jesus once commented, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (John 5:17; NASB). This is a present working; God is working in the world and not just in human lives. Colossians 1:17 states, “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Exactly how is God working in the universe? ” The Psalmist claims, “He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the labor of man” (Ps. 104:14), and “He causes the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth; who makes lightnings for the rain, who brings forth the wind from His treasuries.”

Perhaps these passages are much more literal than we often think. Maybe natural laws are a description of the acts of God.

Dr. Peter Rasor

Notes:

[1] C.S. Lewis, “The Laws of Nature” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 74.

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