The Bible and the Butterfly Effect

Truthfully, my first introduction to The Butterfly Effect as a theory was when I watched the 2004 movie by that name. I became intrigued and did a little research whenever I thought of it. Dabbled here and there like I do with most philosophical intrigues I encounter. Encountering the notion again this week, I determined to apply my mind to it and consider how the theory correlates to what the Bible has to tell us about small things and big consequences. Before we go there; however, let's have a look at how and where The Butterfly Effect emerged as a school of thought or means of explanation. Interestingly, it was not in philosophy, but science. It was related to weather patterns, wrote Peter Dizikes in the MIT Technology Review, February 22, 2011:

On a winter day 50 years ago, Edward Lorenz, SM ‘43, ScD ‘48, a mild-mannered meteorology professor at MIT, entered some numbers into a computer program simulating weather patterns and then left his office to get a cup of coffee while the machine ran. When he returned, he noticed a result that would change the course of science.

The computer model was based on 12 variables, representing things like temperature and wind speed, whose values could be depicted on graphs as lines rising and falling over time. On this day, Lorenz was repeating a simulation he’d run earlier—but he had rounded off one variable from .506127 to .506. To his surprise, that tiny alteration drastically transformed the whole pattern his program produced, over two months of simulated weather.

The unexpected result led Lorenz to a powerful insight about the way nature works: small changes can have large consequences. The idea came to be known as the “butterfly effect” after Lorenz suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado. And the butterfly effect, also known as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” has a profound corollary: forecasting the future can be nearly impossible.

Like the results of a wing’s flutter, the influence of Lorenz’s work was nearly imperceptible at first but would resonate widely. In 1963, Lorenz condensed his findings into a paper, “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow,” which was cited exactly three times by researchers outside meteorology in the next decade. Yet his insight turned into the founding principle of chaos theory, which expanded rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s into fields as diverse as meteorology, geology, and biology. “It became a wonderful instance of a seemingly esoteric piece of mathematics that had experimentally verifiable applications in the real world,” says Daniel Rothman, a professor of geophysics at MIT.

Chaos Theory

The issue with The Butterfly Effect and Chaos theory where some are concerned is that it challenges the completely orderly and predictable nature of Sir Isaac Newton's theories. Newton's theories were very linear. Action equals consequence. Period. Chaos Theory does not deny order in Creation. Conversely, it helps us to see that what seems chaotic...remains beyond our understanding, still informs and equips us to function in our world:

Chaos is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. It teaches us to expect the unexpected. While most traditional science deals with supposedly predictable phenomena like gravity, electricity, or chemical reactions, Chaos Theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, and so on. These phenomena are often described by fractal mathematics, which captures the infinite complexity of nature. Many natural objects exhibit fractal properties, including landscapes, clouds, trees, organs, rivers etc, and many of the systems in which we live exhibit complex, chaotic behavior. Recognizing the chaotic, fractal nature of our world can give us new insight, power, and wisdom. For example, by understanding the complex, chaotic dynamics of the atmosphere, a balloon pilot can “steer” a balloon to a desired location. By understanding that our ecosystems, our social systems, and our economic systems are interconnected, we can hope to avoid actions which may end up being detrimental to our long-term well-being.

While nonbelievers believe (see what I did there?) that science and faith are juxtaposed, informed believers understand that true science does – and must – support the tenets of their faith. Consequently, we embrace people like Newton and his Law of Gravity. We embrace the Laws of Thermodynamics. Sure, we debate and decline to buy Darwin's theories, as they are not Scientific Law, but are taught as such, especially by anti-Creationists, atheists, etc. Just so, on first blush, a Christian may look on Chaos Theory and its companion/component Butterfly Effect with suspicion.

I find this unnecessary. How can any of us deny the complexity of this universe? Which of us does NOT struggle with why God allows some things? Like school shootings? Pedophiles? War? He is Good and He is Omnipotent. How can we reconcile when we earnestly, sincerely pray for one outcome and get another when Romans 8:28 is right there in black and white? Is our faith to be blind? Well, no. We are told that Nature itself declares God's glory (Psalm 19:1). Job, a man whose faith was tested beyond what most would consider reasonable expectation, said to his friends,

Just ask the animals, and they will teach you.     Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you. Speak to the earth, and it will instruct you.     Let the fish in the sea speak to you.  For they all know     that my disaster[a] has come from the hand of the Lord. For the life of every living thing is in his hand,     and the breath of every human being. (Job 12:7-10)

If ever a man could have felt like his world was chaos, like there was no God or that God was unfair or cruel, it was Job. He was caught between faith and a hard place and under verbal assault from his distraught wife and his "friends." Yet, here he is, giving us a theological peek into Chaos Theory in Theology –centuries before science caught up to it.

Fly, butterfly, fly

So, let us leave the broader spectrum of Chaos and return to the particular element of the Butterfly Effect. What about this notion that the smallest variable or variance in variables could result in a completely different outcome? Radically different, even. Stephen King's novel 11/22/63 imagines a man who can time travel. this man goes back in time several times until he gets it right and is able to alter the events surrounding the Kennedy assassination. He saves the president and is a hero. But when he returns to his own time, he finds a world in utter chaos – it appears to be a post-apocalyptic world. I suppose that is King's take on the Butterfly Effect. Change one event in world history and how different does the world thereafter look?

But does the Bible address this idea at all, this notion of small things making a huge impact? I believe it does.

The prophet Hosea wrote about decisions the nation of Israel made – decisions to make themselves gods of gold and seek out leaders without consulting God. Hosea predicts "you have sown the wind and you will reap the whirlwind" (Hosea 8:7). These little decisions you made along the way will have far-reaching and devastating consequences.

Jesus talks about the rewards ultimately associated with selfless, kind, humane decisions vs those who live for themselves and ignore or abuse the weak and downtrodden:

“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,f you were doing it to me!’

“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.g For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46, NLT)

Jesus is talking about ultimate consequences. What we experience is in the more immediate context and we still ask today the same questions the Psalmist did so long ago:

Truly God is good to Israel,

to those whose hearts are pure.

But as for me, I almost lost my footing.

My feet were slipping, and I was almost gone.

For I envied the proud

when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness.

They seem to live such painless lives;

their bodies are so healthy and strong.

They don’t have troubles like other people;

they’re not plagued with problems like everyone else.

They wear pride like a jeweled necklace

and clothe themselves with cruelty.

These fat cats have everything

their hearts could ever wish for!

They scoff and speak only evil;

in their pride they seek to crush others.

They boast against the very heavens,

and their words strut throughout the earth.

And so the people are dismayed and confused,

drinking in all their words.

“What does God know?” they ask.

“Does the Most High even know what’s happening?”

Look at these wicked people—

enjoying a life of ease while their riches multiply.

Did I keep my heart pure for nothing?

Did I keep myself innocent for no reason?

I get nothing but trouble all day long;

every morning brings me pain.

If I had really spoken this way to others,

I would have been a traitor to your people.

So I tried to understand why the wicked prosper.

But what a difficult task it is!

Then I went into your sanctuary, O God,

and I finally understood the destiny of the wicked.

Truly, you put them on a slippery path

and send them sliding over the cliff to destruction.

In an instant they are destroyed,

completely swept away by terrors.

When you arise, O Lord,

you will laugh at their silly ideas

as a person laughs at dreams in the morning.

Then I realized that my heart was bitter,

and I was all torn up inside.

I was so foolish and ignorant—

I must have seemed like a senseless animal to you.

Yet I still belong to you;

you hold my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel,

leading me to a glorious destiny.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

I desire you more than anything on earth.

My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak,

but God remains the strength of my heart;

he is mine forever.

Those who desert him will perish,

for you destroy those who abandon you.

But as for me, how good it is to be near God!

I have made the Sovereign LORD my shelter,

and I will tell everyone about the wonderful things you do.

Psalm 73

Trust the process


The Psalmist felt like he had to fake his faith so he didn't hurt those who seemed less confused than he. But then he began to see that there was still design. God was still in control. What seemed chaotic and irreconcilable to his faith was just him not trusting the process.

I do not believe Chaos is an enemy of faith. In fact, it is expected, predicted, and the reason we must "walk BY faith and not by sight."

Sometimes I feel as delicate and unsteady as a butterfly in a hurricane. Reason seems unreasonable. Outcomes seem irreconcilable to what I believe. So, I have to choose. I can trust the God of order in the midst of chaos or I can hurl my unbelief in His face and flap my delicate wings while the winds of controversy unmercifully and unceremoniously toss me about.

I choose faith. I have seen enough of His grace to believe in His goodness. I have received enough of His patience to trust His plan.

How about you, butterfly? Will you flutter by on your own fragile wings? Or will you rest in the cleft of the Rock? How you choose – in every circumstance, every situation, every decision – has a huge effect, whether you see it in the chaos or not.