This is an issue which agnostics and atheists have taken Christians to task for on numerous occasions in the recent past, and most Christians have either ignored the challenge or failed miserably in trying to respond to it. After all, the question: "If God is in control, why is there so much sorrow, suffering and pain extant in the world?" seems to pose a legitimate challenge to either the existence of God, or the degree to which "He" is in control.
And, if that isn't enough to deal with, Scripture offers a number of different perspectives on the issue. Nevertheless, I think that most Christians would begin their attempt to answer this question in the pages of the Bible.
The first two chapters of Genesis reveal God as the Source or First Cause of everything we see around us (including us). Hence, it is reasonable for Christians who give credence to what the Bible relates about creation to conclude that God set everything in motion. However, the third chapter of that book indicates that mankind rejected God as the source of their moral code and decided to formulate one of their own. We are also told there that God, as a consequence of this choice, decided to cut off direct access to "Himself" and the "Tree of Life." Does that imply that mankind was on its own after that event? At the very least, I would say that Christian theology demands some kind of alienation/separation/remoteness from God after the events described there. Isn't reconciliation/atonement the very thing that Christ's sacrifice was supposed to accomplish?
There is also the concept of free will to grapple with in properly addressing this question. Doesn't the ability to decide or choose the course which one will pursue in life (good or bad) imply/demand a certain amount of nonintervention by God? After all, if God is really in control, there is no such thing as free will is there?
However, we also have the phenomenon of Divine intervention described in the Bible. The book of Exodus describes God's intervention to free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Likewise, we are also told there (and in Leviticus) that God gave "His" laws and judgments for the Israelites to Moses. In Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua, we read about God's intervention in battle on behalf of the Israelites. Hence, we must grapple with the fact that Scripture insists that God has the ability to intervene in human affairs when "He" chooses to do so. Nevertheless, for those of us who do not subscribe to the doctrine of inerrancy, I would say that a healthy dose of skepticism is in order regarding Divine intervention in human wars or using God as a justification for humans killing humans.
The book of Job introduces yet another concept concerning the degree to which God is in control. In the opening pages of that book, we read that God allowed Satan to afflict Job. This is a theme that will be employed many more times throughout Scripture: God is not the source of evil or bad things, but "He" does allow or permit them to exist/happen. So here we have the concept of God sometimes choosing not to be in control.
The Psalms, on the other hand, tend to present God as being in control of everything. The psalmists often refer to God as the active sustainer of creation. They even present God as the source of wind and rain, and the one who feeds the wild animals. To be sure, the language of these poems/songs is highly symbolic and metaphorical; but the image of an active God (one who is in control) is undeniable.
Likewise, we have the instance of what happened to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon recorded in the book of Daniel. We are informed there that God was determined to show the king that "He" was the one who was truly in charge. The occasion was yet another dream that the king had had about a great tree that was chopped down. In the dream, a "watcher and a holy one" descended from heaven (Daniel 4:13) and said that everything that was about to happen to the tree was for the purpose of demonstrating "that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men." (verse 17) Moreover, when Daniel interprets the dream for the king and it's subsequently fulfilled, God's control is reiterated. (see verses 25 and 32, and 5:21)
The Apostle Paul seems to echo these sentiments in the New Testament. He wrote to the saints at Rome: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers
The Bible makes clear in a number of places that God's laws trump those issued by the civil authorities. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to obey King Nebuchadnezzar. (Daniel 3) We are informed in the book of Acts that the apostles believed that God's laws superseded those issued by the civil and religious authorities. (see Acts 4:19-20 and 5:27-29)
Further caution is in order when we consider history. In times past, these verses about God setting up rulers were used to support the notion of the "Divine Right of Kings." In other words, the view that the king/ruler was God's chosen instrument and was therefore never to be opposed or deposed. Unfortunately, many Christians have extended this notion to the President of the United States. Many have used this as a justification for not participating in the political process. They reason: "I don't want to inadvertently oppose God's candidate."
In addressing the Biblical offerings on the subject of God's control, we would be remiss not to mention one of the sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospel of Luke. We read there that his disciples told him about Pilate killing a group of Galileans. (Luke 13:1) Christ responded: "Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." (verses 2-5) Jesus seemed to be hearkening back to something recorded in the Old Testament here - about "time and chance" happening to all men. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) In other words, everything that happens does not originate with God.
In response to Pilate's assertion that he had the power of life and death in his hands (John 19:10), we are told that Christ responded: "Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above..." (verse 11). In another gospel account, when he was before the Jewish Council, we are told that Christ informed them that he had the ability to summon twelve legions of angels to his defense. (Matthew 26:53) Hence, it is reasonable to conclude from these two passages that Christ subscribed to the view that God had given Pilate the authority that he possessed, and that (although "He" has the power to do so) God doesn't always choose to intervene in or control human affairs (that "He" sometimes allows things to happen to further "His" purpose(s).
Then there are those pesky scriptures that would seem to indicate that Satan is in control of events here. Paul tells us that "we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of his world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." (Ephesians 6:12) In this same epistle, he had previously informed his audience that Satan was the "prince of the power of the air." John tells us that Satan has deceived the entire earth. (Revelation 12:9) Moreover, in the gospel accounts of his temptation of Jesus, it is apparent that Satan believed "he" had the authority to offer the kingdoms of this world to Christ. (see the fourth chapters of Matthew and Luke)
Finally, relative to Scripture, there is a sense throughout the Bible that God is directing events in a more general way. While "He" may not be in day to day control of events, God is certainly orchestrating events in the direction of fulfilling "His" overall designs and purposes for creation and mankind. (see Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Revelation)
What about science and history? What do they suggest about the degree to which anyone is in control of what's happening on this planet or in the universe beyond it?
As I have previously related on this blog, scientists inform us that the earth on which we reside has undergone dramatic changes through the ages. The evidence tells us that the earth has been subject to great volcanic eruptions, floods, meteor strikes and the like. The fossil record demonstrates that life on this planet has changed and evolved over time. We know that there have been several mass extinction events since life was first introduced to this planet. What does all of that suggest about the degree to which anyone was in control? It seems to me that a reasonable person might conclude that the traditional conception of a hands-on God (at least in terms of how that has traditionally been understood) is suspect.
Likewise, history presents some problems for those who have imagined a God who always has "His" hands on the levers. Do we really want to make God responsible for all of the violence and wars of the past? When Abraham Lincoln pondered God's involvement in the American Civil War, he concluded that it was a distinct possibility that neither side represented God's interest(s). In fact, he went on to speculate that maybe God had "His" own purposes in allowing it.
Having discoursed on the subject at some length, I ask again: Is God in control? What do you think?