Providence & Fate: Synonyms?

What is the difference between the providence of God and fate?  For some the difference is not easily discerned.  In fact, it may have been your unfortunate experience to have learned about fatalism while listening to someone lecture on God’s providence!    So, what is the real difference between two?  Well, it might be helpful to describe fatalism before trying to differentiate it from the providence of God.  So, how should we describe fatalism?  Well, we can say that it is the inevitable necessity of the falling out of events.  In other words, fate is a natural force which a person cannot change or resist.   

Sadly, many think of God’s providence as a synonym for fatalism.  It has been my unfortunate experience to have had inquiries from Christians regarding the difference – because they thought that there was no great difference!  But in an article written by Benjamin B. Warfield titled, “What is Fatalism?” written in 1904, the Lion of Princeton wrote, “There is, therefore, no heresy so great, no heresy that so utterly tears religion up by the roots, as the heresy that thinks of God under the analogy of natural force and forgets that he is a person.”[1]  Obviously, according to Warfield, the difference is very great.  So, in order to help and strengthen the church’s theological moorings, Warfield went on to tell the story of a little Dutch boy that illustrates the difference between God and fate.  Let me retell it to you. 

This little boy’s home was on a dyke in Holland, near a great wind-mill, whose long arms swept so close to the ground that any who carelessly strayed under them put their life in danger.  But the boy was very fond of playing precisely under these threatening arms despite the repeated warnings of his anxious parents.  They had even sought to frighten him by describing what it would be like to be struck and carried up by these indifferent arms. 

One day, heedless of their warning, he strayed again under the dangerous arms and was soon absorbed in his play – forgetful of everything but his present pleasures.  Perhaps he was half conscious of a breeze springing up; and somewhere in the depth of his soul, he may have been obscurely aware of the danger with which he had been threatened.  At any rate, suddenly, as he played, he was violently smitten from behind, and found himself swung all at once, with his head downward, up into the air; and then the blows came, swift and hard!  Can you imagine how this young lad must have felt?  O, how his heart must have sunk!  The latent fears had become reality!  Had he only listened to the warnings of his loving father!  Now, thought he, I am in the arms of the machine!

In his terrified writhing, he twisted himself about, and looking up, saw not the immeasurable expanse of the brazen heavens above him, but his father’s face.  At once, he realized that he was not caught in the arms of the wind-mill, but was only receiving the threatened punishment for his disobedience.  He melted into tears, not of pain, but of relief and joy.  In that moment, he understood the difference between falling into the grinding power of a machine and into the loving hands of a father.[2]

What is the difference between God’s providence and fatalism?  The difference is contained in this simple story.  The one is a blind unremitting force and the other is a Father’s wise plan being carried out in the lives of His children.  What is the difference?  It is God Himself.  Dear Christian, does God send trouble?  Yes, he surely does.  To the sinner in punishment and to his children in chastisement.  To suggest that it does not always come from His hand is to take away our comfort.[3]  And to forget that it comes from Him or to attribute it to a blind force is a heresy among the worst.  But a firm faith in the providence of God is a balm to our earthly troubles.   

[1] Benjamin B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 1, (Philippsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 395.

[2] Ibid., 395-396.

[3] Ibid., 110.

Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995.  He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.


Jeffrey Stivason