What Do People Mean When They Say, “Everything Happens for a Reason”?
It’s not uncommon to hear one respond to some life event with these words: “Everything happens for a reason.” This overused phrase is semantically loaded. Hearing it leaves one questioning just how to interpret it. At first glance, one might think it’s gesturing at a version of what philosophers call the Principle of Sufficient Reason (aka PSR). PSR roughly says everything that happens must have a reason for why it happened. The idea behind this principle is that whatever contingent event happens or whatever begins to exist, must have a cause that explains it. The intuitive idea here is that contingent events — that is, events that didn’t have to happen or things that don’t have necessary existence — must have a cause, a reason explaining it.
We don’t exist necessarily like God, who has necessary existence. There was never a time God didn’t exist and there was no prior event that caused God to exist unlike contingent things and events. Indeed, according to Christian tradition, all things that exist depend upon God because God is the creator and sustainer of all things (Col. 1:17). For example, you and I are contingent things. There was a time we didn’t exist. Our existence is caused by something outside of us — indeed, we can’t flex our will muscle — “grunt!” — and will ourselves into existence. No, if it were not for the event involving the fusion of our biological parents’ gametes, none of us would be here today.
Possible Interpretations of “Everything Happens for a Reason”
My guess, however, is that when one says, “Everything happens for a reason” what they mean is roughly something like this, although other meanings may be in play: This event happened because…
- Optimistic Type-1: There is some significant good in the future that will happen.
- Optimistic Type-2: God will bring about some good from this or be able to redeem this event for some greater good.
- Optimistic Type-3: There is some benevolent force at work that will bring about some good.
- Pessimistic Type-1: It is an omen or harbinger of something bad in the future that will happen.
The goods, I suppose, some people have in mind are better results in one’s circumstances, character, outcomes, or something of the like. Often, I suspect this utterance is an expression of hope in the future despite the psychological instability the current event elicited. Christians often take comfort in Paul’s words: “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose,” (Rom. 8:28). Putting one’s hope, trust, confidence or faith in God who can bring about good things has provided theists the kind of psychological stability needed to persevere in the face of challenging events. But when people say “Everything happens for a reason,” it’s important to consider what causes their worldview supports.
Bringing About Some Future Good Requires a Cause
I suspect that when some people say “Everything happens for a reason,” the future referring “reason” one has in mind is brought about by some cause. This cause or set of causes, then, naturally explains why these future goods show up. But what kind of causes are there? Aristotle said there are four important kinds of causes: formal, material, efficient and final cause. The formal cause is the blueprint or paradigm that informs, structures or organizes something to be a particular thing. The material cause is the matter from which a thing is made. The efficient cause is the means by which something is brought about. The final cause is the purpose for why an effect or event takes place. It’s often overlooked how some worldviews don’t support all of these causes. Indeed, naturalistic (i.e., atheist, materialist) worldviews seem unable to permit formal causes (which are abstract) and final causes (which require teleology).
Teleology is a cause or principle that explains the goal, aim or purpose of some entity or event. Teleology provides an answer to the ‘Why’ question. But in a Godless world, it’s difficult to account for how mindless, purposeless causes and events can be happening for genuine purposes. Some naturalists consistently appeal to only material and efficient causes when explaining some event, knowing the universe lacks teleology. Consider the following statements given by naturalist Stephen Jay Gould when explaining why humans exist: We are here because one odd group of fishes had peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a “higher” answer — but none exists.1
Notice the causes appealed to in this explanation are material and efficient causes. There is no room in a naturalistic universe for events happening for real, genuine purposes. Indeed, Alex Rosenberg, takes this to its logical conclusion — denying human beings interact with each other for real, genuine purposes. He says, “human behaviors aren’t really driven by purposes, ends, or goals. … Every behavior that looks like it’s driven by a purpose is just the result of physical processes, like those of blind variation and natural selection uncovered by Darwin … .”2 Other naturalist reject the denial of final causes. Thomas Nagel, a naturalist, says there really is teleology in a Godless universe, which calls into question why his worldview is still considered natural rather than supernatural.3
The Christian Worldview is Chockfull of Teleological Explanations
The good news is that the Christian worldview has a home for teleology. Christians have the kind of explanatory resources needed to ground teleology, as well as efficient, material and formal causes. If Christianity is true, humans have a tremendously significant purpose for their existence. Indeed, humans were designed to be informed and empowered by God to fulfill their true function, purpose, and capacity for happiness. This entails a union, communion and dependency upon God who is worthy of worship. Indeed, acknowledgement and cooperation with God’s will results in a life wherein one worships, glorifies and loves God. This is part of the Christian design plan for how humans experience the best kind of happiness.
1 I’m indebted to J.P. Moreland for making this point in both class as his student and in print. Stephen Jay Gould, “The Meaning of Life” in Life (December, 1988), p. 84, quoted in J. P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), p. 56.
2 I’m indebted to Joshua Seachris and Stewart Goetz for citing this passage to make this point. See Alex Rosenberg, How History Gets Things Wrong (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018), p. 206; quoted in Steward Goetz and Joshua W Seachris, What is This Thing Called The Meaning of Life? (New York, NY: Routledge, 2020), p. 35.
3 See Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
Approved by Full-Time Faculty for the College of Theology on Nov. 28, 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.