Lady luck or a gift from God?

Lottery wins pose tricky theological questions, says Andrew Brown The new God takes raw suffering and improvises great, unpredictable joy
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"God, what a shit God is!" Randolph Churchill exclaimed when forced to read the Bible all the way through. Theologians prefer to call it the problem of evil. How can a loving God produce Aids, Auschwitz, childhood cancers and so on? The problem ca n neither be solved nor surmounted, simply accepted.

The National Lottery poses the same problem from a different angle. Can the same God who has overseen so much evil be the hand behind the benevolent flying digit?

The lottery winners have clearly done nothing particularly moral to earn their fortune. That is why the lottery is so popular: we can all hope to win. But undeserved wealth and happiness raise as many problems as do undeserved misery and pain. They make questions about the justice and goodness of God very hard for Christians to handle.

One answer is supplied by a wonderful piece of invective: John Arbuthnot's epitaph on Colonel Francis Chartres, who, "with an inflexible constancy and imitable uniformity of life persisted in spite of age and infirmities in the practice of every human vice excepting prodigality and hypocrisy. His avarice exempted him from the first; his matchless impudence from the second."

The epitaph concludes: "O indignant reader! Think not his life useless to mankind. Providence connived at his execrable designs to give to after ages a conspicuous proof and example of how small estimation is exorbitant wealth in the sight of God, by bestowing it on the most unworthy of mortals."

For many people that argument has more elegance than force. It takes a certain kind of 18th-century self-confidence to draw comfort from the idea that God lets widows and orphans be despoiled so we can draw a pleasing moral. Yet what other explanations

are on offer?

For many modern Christians , the image of God as a bearded kingly man who has been around since the beginning of recorded time has been replaced by God as artist, or God the improviser. On closer examination, this new God turns out to resemble the old one quite a lot, but not quite as much as he resembles Eric Clapton, another revered and bearded gentleman who has been around since the dawn of recorded time.

The new God is a blues man: he takes the raw material of suffering and grief and improvises tremendous unpredictable joy that makes it all worthwhile. Thus a God who fingered lottery winners individually would be impossible to love, because his creatureswould be mere puppets, without the freedom that is essential to love.

The new God-is-Clapton lacks several of the traditional attributes of God; along with omnipotence, omniscience has gone as well. A number of philosophers and theologians have argued that this must be so on purely scientific grounds. The universe, they say, is in principle unknowable. That is how we can have free will. The discoveries of chaos theory have shown we cannot have a rule-bound universe that does not contain patches of unpredictability.

At first sight this view has considerable attractions. If you ask why it should be that some are called to collaborate with God by bearing cancer heroically, while others are asked to join the same dance by spending, you will not get an answer that makessense to either party. But it might be possible to show that randomness - senselessness - is a precondition of beings who can appreciate sense. It is easier to believe in a God who has made a world where certain prayers cannot be answered, even by the omnipotent, than in one who answers a suburban fundamentalist's prayer for a parking place and lets children die of meningitis. Much better to believe in God-as-Clapton, in whose hands the odd string will break, than as a composer who has written the whole score in advance.

This argument, though, strikes at the heart of religion. The only thing worse than a God who could be held responsible for all the evils of human life would be one who could not. The promises of the Christian God are so huge that they could be delivered only by an omnipotent God; and an omnipotent God can by definition be held responsible for everything.

What we seem to have now is a compromise. The omnipotent God has removed his fingerprints from history, but kept a directing role in the lives of a surprising number of people who are not at all outwardly religious. This is not the same thing as the privatisation of religion so frequently denounced by archbishops. It is something much more like the personalisation of providence.

This idea is central to Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the century's most successful religious movements. AA does not demand that its members believe in God. But it does demand a degree of faith in a Higher Power that should be the envy of many supposedly religious types. All members have to believe in what used to be known as a Personal Providence: that everything that happens to them is somehow meant for them, and will never be truly unendurable. This gives a serenity to millionaires and paupers alike.

So it is a pity, perhaps, that the winners of the biggest lottery jackpot so far, as devout Muslims, will not have come in contact with AA. Perhaps Eric Clapton could introduce them, now they're rich enough to talk to him.