Providence, Prayer, and the Problem of Evil

Providence, Prayer, and the Problem of Evil

Section 1: God

Digging Deeper Topic 2: Providence, Prayer, and the Problem of Evil

Three Models of Providence

For the most part, Christians don’t argue over whether God is sovereign. We do, however, argue over the extent to which God uses his sovereignty to control what happens in the world. Theologians typically refer to God’s control over everyday events as divine providence. Over the years, various models have been proposed. In general, the models run along a spectrum. On one end are models that take an expansive view of God’s control over events. At the other end of the spectrum are models that see God’s control as limited by various factors, especially human freedom.[i] We don’t have space to consider every one. But an overview of three models along that spectrum—Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism—will give us a sense of the issues involved.

To help us get into the discussion, imagine the following situation. Suppose you decide to take a different route to work one day. God does the math and realizes you’re going to reach an intersection at the same time a truck driver is going to nod off, run a red light, and slam into you. God doesn’t want that to happen. So he causes a water main to burst, which forces you to turn back and take your normal route. In that scenario, God is deciding how to respond to your actions as they unfold in real time. God didn’t decide what he was going to do until you decided to take a different route to work.


But that’s not how things work in the Calvinist model. Calvinism, which takes its name from theologian John Calvin (1509-1564), emphasizes God’s sovereign control over all events. From the Calvinist point of view, everything that happens in the world is part of God’s plan. And God doesn’t make plans on the fly; he determined exactly how events would unfold before he even created the world. That means God doesn’t respond to our actions after the fact. In the above example, God not only knew you were going to take a different route that morning, he actually determined long beforehand that you would decide to take a different route. And since everything happens just the way God planned it, you did in fact take a different route when the time came. In the same way, God determined, not only that the water main would burst, but that you would return to your normal route when it did.

Concerns over free will

Not all Christians agree. Even though they may not be familiar with the term, many Christians adopt a position generally referred to as Arminianism, which takes its name from Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). Arminianism rejects the Calvinist model in part because it seems to deny we have free will in any meaningful sense. Arminians argue, when I make a choice, it is a free choice only if I had the ability to choose differently. But that doesn’t seem possible in the Calvinist model. Go back to your choice to take a different route in the above illustration. If God determined in advance you would take the route you did, your choice was in some sense fixed long before you made it. And if it was fixed in advance, you were powerless to choose otherwise. To Arminians, that doesn’t sound like a free choice.

Concerns over the problem of evil

An even greater concern is the fact that Calvinism seems to call God’s goodness into question. If God determines everything in advance, doesn’t that make him responsible for evil? If, for example, I plan to have someone killed, wouldn’t we say I’m responsible for that murder, even if someone else actually carries it out? Arminians argue it’s no different for God. It’s one thing to say God allows evil to occur because he gave us free will and we sometimes use our freedom in wicked ways. It’s quite another to say God actually planned the evil we see.

An Arminian Interpretation

In light of those concerns, Arminianism holds that, even though he is all-powerful and could determine everything if he wanted, God chooses to limit his power to respect the freedom he’s given us. Not everything that happens, therefore, is actually planned by God. He does know everything that is going to happen because he’s omniscient. But he doesn’t determine our choices in advance. In our example then, God knew beforehand that you would decide to take a different route to work. But he didn’t determine your choice ahead of time. He simply foresaw the choice you would freely make and then decided how he would respond to it.

Concerns over God’s foreknowledge

Open Theists agree our possession of free will is incompatible with God determining everything ahead of time. But Open Theism goes a step further and says our possession of free will limits God’s knowledge of the future. Because we have free will, there’s no way God can know for sure what choice we’re going to make until we make it.

An alternate definition of omniscience

Open Theists grant that God is omniscient. However, they define omniscience as knowing everything that can be known. Since the result of a free choice can’t be known in advance, the fact that God doesn’t know what we’re going to choose doesn’t count against him.

Even though he doesn’t know the future, God’s knowledge is still vast. So he’s pretty good at predicting what we’re going to do. But he doesn’t know for sure until we do it. For Open Theists, that means God took a risk when he created the world. He didn’t know (and still doesn’t know) exactly how things are going to unfold. He does his best to work within the world to help guide events toward good outcomes. But he has to react to what we do as we do it. Unfortunately, since we’re free, we don’t always do what he’d like. As a result, he sometimes has to make the best of a bad situation.

An Open Theist Interpretation

In the case of you choosing a different route to work, that means God didn’t know what route you were going to take until you actually took it. God also didn’t know whether the truck driver would pull over because he was tired or continue driving. But, based on the knowledge he had, God predicted the accident would occur. So he decided to cause the water main to burst, assuming it would prompt you to take another route. That decision, however, was made as events were unfolding and without perfect knowledge of what would happen. God intended for you take your normal route. But, because you’re free, you could have taken a different route that potentially could have caused a whole host of other problems. That’s just the risk God had to take.

The Biblical Picture: How Much Control Does God Have?

In the previous section, we briefly examined three prominent models of providence. The question is: how do we decide which is best? Several years ago I was helping a friend move, and we were trying to get a couch up the stairs to his second-floor apartment. The couch was a beast. Each seat had a recliner in it. So it was heavy. To make matters worse, the stairs were steep and we had to make a sharp left turn at the top. We must have tried a hundred different ways to make that turn and we just couldn’t do it. Eventually, with my head wedged firmly between the wall and the couch, I realized it was time to give up. My buddy was just going to have to find another couch – one that fit the dimensions of this particular apartment building.

That’s essentially what we’re looking for in a providential model. From a Christian perspective, the Bible sets the boundaries for our understanding of how God works in the world. That means the question ultimately comes down to which view best fits within those boundaries.

Different Definitions of God’s Sovereignty

Our understanding of divine providence depends a lot on our understanding of the nature of God’s sovereignty. Each of the views we’ve looked at acknowledges God is sovereign. But, they have fundamentally different views on how much control God must exert in order to remain sovereign.

Calvinists tend to argue, in order for God to be truly sovereign, there can be nothing that falls outside of his direct control. His plan, therefore, must determine exactly what will happen at every point in time. Arminians and Open Theists, on the other hand, argue God can be in control without actually determining in advance everything that’s going happen. God knows where he wants the world to go and intervenes when necessary to keep the world moving in that direction. But his goals don’t cover the details of every event. As a result, he has no need to determine every little detail of every little thing. He’s still sovereign though because he’s still in control; ultimately, nothing happens unless he permits it.[ii] Which of those descriptions most closely matches the biblical description?

The Biblical Picture of God’s Sovereignty

The biblical picture of God’s control is pretty expansive. We often think of events in nature as resulting from purely natural causes. But as we saw in the daily readings, a number of passages suggest these events are ultimately caused by God. For example, Ps. 135:7 says “He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth; he sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.” Similarly, Matthew 5:45 says, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Events we perceive as purely random are said to be determined by God. For instance, Prov. 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Even human decisions are said to fall within God’s sovereign control. Prov. 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he turns it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.”

Those passages list specific areas that are under God’s control. A number of passages, however, broaden their scope and seem to say everything that comes to pass ultimately happens because it is part of God’s plan. Take Rom 8:28, for example: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (emphasis added). Eph. 1:11 describes God as the one “who works everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (emphasis added).

Where Do We Go from Here?

These and similar passages suggest God’s plan is more than a mere sketch that captures the general contours of our lives. According to the Bible, God’s plan encompasses everything that happens in the world, down to the smallest details. That of course raises questions about the nature of free will and where our choices fit into the equation. Although those are important questions, to a large extent we’re going to set them aside until the Salvation section (we do however briefly touch on free will in the discussion of the “problem of evil” below). The interplay between God’s sovereign plan and our free will becomes especially important (and controversial) when ask how one comes to put their faith in Christ. So will take a closer look at the issues involved at that time.

Our focus instead in the remaining portion of this Digging Deeper section will be on two related but distinct questions:

  1. If God has already carefully planned out everything that is going to happen, does prayer make a difference? Hasn’t God already decided what he’s going to do by the time we start to pray?
  2. If God’s plan encompasses everything that happens in the world, that necessarily includes evil. Does that mean that God is ultimately responsible for all the evil we see in the world?

 Does Prayer Do Anything?

Believers are called to regularly go to God in prayer. So God obviously wants prayer to be an important part our relationship with him. But does it do anything? If God had a specific plan in place before he created the world and if that plan encompasses everything right down to the smallest details, can prayer really make a difference? By the time we get around to asking God to do something, hasn’t he already decided what he is going to do?

While it’s true God determined everything before he created the world, prayer still has a real effect because God knew we would pray and he specifically took our prayers into account. Think back to our discussion of God’s plan in the daily readings. We noted that, because he’s omniscient, God was able to consider every possible world he could create. He knew if he started with this set of laws and that set of initial conditions, if he created people with certain personalities and they took certain actions, and if he took certain actions in response, he’d end up with a world that looked one way. If he changed any one of the various pieces of the puzzle, he’d end up with a world that looked different. Based on his knowledge of what every possible world would look like, God determined which one was best, and created that world.[iii]

Our prayers factored directly into that determination. Consider a single mom whose car is on its last leg. She asks God to keep it going one more year because she can’t afford a new one and she’s afraid losing her car will lead to her losing her job. From the beginning, God knew she would pray as she did, and it’s entirely possible her prayer tipped the scales, prompting him to do something he wouldn’t have done had she not prayed.

Suppose, for example, God knew she’d be able to arrange a ride to work if her car broke down; as a result, she wasn’t going to lose her job; her family was going to be just fine financially; and eventually she’d be able afford another vehicle. Suppose further the car breaking down would have an unexpected (from our perspective) long term benefit. With the car out of commission, her son would have to start walking to school and every day he’d pass a golf course. Intrigued, he’d decide to take up the game. He would teach his kids to golf, they’d teach their kids, and they’d in turn teach their kids. In the end, her great great grandson would become the greatest golfer of his generation, earn a boat load of money and start a foundation that discovers the cure for cancer. If that would be the end result, in the absence of prayer, God might have decided it would be best to let the car break down.

Her prayer, however, potentially alters that analysis. Suppose life had been tough on her for a long time and her fears over losing her car were pushing her to the breaking point. As a result, her faith in God was starting to wane. When she prays, she’s not only asking God for help with the car, she’s pleading for evidence he is still there. God would have known all that from the beginning and it’s possible the opportunity to increase her faith would have outweighed any of the other factors. In the absence of prayer, God would have decided it was best to let the car break down. Yet, because he knew the effect that answered prayer would have on her, he decided it was best to save her car in order to save her faith.

That doesn’t mean God always gives us what we want just because we ask for it. He is sovereign. We are not. Nevertheless our prayers have a real effect.

When God put his plan in place before the foundation of the world, he knew everything that would happen in our lives and he knew the content of every prayer we’d ever utter. In certain instances, God’s knowledge that we would pray tipped the scales. God always does what is best, and in certain instances God’s knowledge that we would pray altered the calculation of what would be best in a given situation.

But that raises an important question. Why should we believe God always does what is best? We’re surrounded by evil every day. Some would point to the existence of evil as evidence that God doesn’t always bring about the best result. In fact, they would say he often appears to allow things to happen that fall far short of the best.

The existence of evil is thus thought to be a major problem for believers. We either have to say God is powerless in certain situations to do what is best or, if power isn’t the issue, we have to admit he just doesn’t care enough. Neither option seems particularly palatable. How should a Christian respond? We’ll take a closer look at that question in the final three Digging Deeper readings.

Does Free Will Insulate God from Responsibility?

The problem of evil pops up in a number of different places within theology. It’s often discussed, for example, in the context of God’s existence. Christians believe God is all-powerful and perfectly good. But some argue if God were all-powerful, he’d be able to prevent evil from happening. And if he were perfectly good, he’d want to prevent it. The fact that evil exists, therefore, calls God’s existence into question. There are a number of ways Christians can respond.

Earlier we surveyed three different views on Providence – Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism. Many people believe Armianism and Open Theism are better equipped to handle the problem of evil because they leave more room for human free will. Armianism and Open Theism argue that God’s plan does not determine the choices we make. That means we alone are responsible for the evil we choose to do. Our free will, therefore, insulates God from responsibility for the evil in the world.

As we’ve seen, the Bible seems to present a different picture. God’s providence extends to the small details, even human choices. But even if Armianism and Open Theism were correct in their assessment of free will, it’s worth asking whether that is sufficient to solve the problem of evil. Even if Arminianism and Open Theism are correct, we’re still left with a number of difficult questions:

Why Did God Make the Decision?

God, as Creator, started the chain of events that brought so much evil into the world. The question is, why did he set that process in motion. Arminianism acknowledges God has exhaustive knowledge of the future. That means before he created the world, God knew all the evil we would choose to do. Yet he created the world anyway. Given his prior knowledge, we would have to say God willingly decided to permit evil’s existence.[iv] In light of all the suffering and pain that’s been caused, some would argue it would have been better if God hadn’t. What justifies his decision?

Why Did God Take the Risk?

 In contrast to Arminianism, Open Theism maintains that because we are free, God doesn’t know in advance what we’re going to do. That means he didn’t specifically know all the evil we’d bring into the world. At first glance, that might seem to get God off the hook. But even though he may not have known exactly what we’d do, at a minimum he would have known what we were capable of. He knew we might well bring a tremendous amount of evil into the world. Yet he took the risk. “Doesn’t that make God into a kind of mad scientist who throws together a potentially dangerous combination of chemicals, not knowing if it will result in a hazardous and uncontrollable reaction?”[v] Again, in light of all the pain and suffering, some would ask whether that risk was justified. What was gained by the experiment?

Why Doesn’t God Intervene?

Setting aside God’s initial decision to create, there’s still the question of why God doesn’t step in more often to prevent evil. Although Arminianists and Open Theists argue God couldn’t eliminate all evil without also eliminating our free will, they do acknowledge God does intervene from time to time.

That means, for every evil we see, God is making a conscious decision to allow it. Throughout history people have been allowed to do some truly heinous things. It seems natural to ask why God didn’t intervene to stop them. What explains God not stepping in?

In order to respond to these questions, Arminianists and Open Theists have to point to something more than free will. In essence, they have to say, in the larger scheme of things, God’s decision to permit evil accomplishes some greater good that couldn’t be achieved if he took a different route. The problem of evil is a difficult issue. But, in the end, free will doesn’t provide an easier way around it.

Why Finding the Good is So Hard

I was at a coffee shop recently and a friend noticed I was reading a book by Randy Alcorn titled If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil. That led to a discussion about whether God has a plan for the bad things we go through in life. She had lost her job several months before. After not finding any jobs in her field, she was forced to take a job in a different line of work. At the time, some of her Christian friends told her losing her job was part of God’s plan. It was clear to them God allowed her to lose her job because he had a better one in store for her. The trouble is she doesn’t think this job is better. As a result, she finds it hard to agree with her friends’ assessment. Their view on her situation got me thinking about how easily we develop a sort of nearsightedness when it comes to God’s plan.

Our Nearsightedness

In the prior section, I suggested whether we’re an Arminanist, Open Theist, or Calvinist, when it comes to explaining why God permits suffering, we all wind up pointing to some greater good he accomplishes through it. For a lot of us, that’s where the nearsightedness comes in. We expect to see that greater good right in front of us – in our immediate circumstances. So, when a friend loses her job, we assume it must be because God has a better one for her. If she doesn’t find a better job, we assume God wants her to learn some spiritual lesson (e.g. patience or trust). Those are results we can see and understand.

But it doesn’t always work that way. The hardships we endure don’t always lead to an immediately obvious greater good. We naturally want to see the good materialize right away. But God’s plan is much bigger than any of us. Because events are interconnected, the things that happen in our lives (both good and bad) are part of a complex chain. That means the good God intends to accomplish through any given event in our lives may not be realized until years, decades, or even generations down the road.

Joseph’s Example

Think about Joseph’s situation. He was betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, and thrown into prison. Why did God ask Joseph to endure all that? He did eventually ascend to second-in-command over all of Egypt. Was God’s main concern making sure Joseph had an awesome job? He probably learned some spiritual lessons along the way as well. Was that the reason God allowed him to suffer? No on both counts. God’s primary plan was fulfilling his promise to Abraham.

In Gen. 12 God promised to make Abraham into a great nation and to bless all nations through him.  God intended to fulfill that promise by turning Jacob (Abraham’s grandson and Joseph’s father) into the nation of Israel.  But God knew a famine in Jacob’s homeland of Canaan was coming and it was going to be so severe Jacob’s family would starve. All of Joseph’s hardships were designed by God to put him in a position to do something about that. 

Joseph was sold into slavery to get him to Egypt.  He was thrown into prison so he could interpret a dream for Pharaoh’s cupbearer.  Joseph interpreted that dream so Pharaoh would learn of it and summon him to interpret another dream.  Joseph interpreted that dream so Pharaoh would know he needed to store food for the coming famine. Pharaoh stored food so Jacob’s family would be saved.  Jacob’s family was saved so Israel could become a nation and ultimately give birth to Jesus, through whom the whole world would be blessed.  The good God intended to bring about through Joseph’s hardships, thus, extended far beyond Joseph’s own circumstances.

It’s natural that we want to understand what God is doing in our lives. It’s also natural that we look around us for clues. But we’re bound to get into trouble if we think we’re always going to find answers there, because we won’t. That’s when we have to remember God’s plan encompasses all of history. As a result, certain things will only be clear at the end. At any given point, if Joseph had tried to understand his hardships in terms of his immediate circumstances, he would have been totally confused. And we’re no different. Explaining the suffering we see in this world is hard. We make it even harder when we look for answers in the wrong place.

Where Do We Go from Here?

So what are we to do? The details of our lives aren’t recorded in the Bible. That means we won’t find a specific explanation for our suffering there like we do for Joseph’s. Without an explanation, how are we supposed to make sense of it? No one can explain the good God intends to bring out of every particular evil. Given the limits of our finite minds, we simply don’t have the ability to see all the connections. But that doesn’t mean we’re completely in the dark. God does tell us enough about his plan that we can see in broad strokes what he intends to accomplish through the evil he allows to occur. We’ll consider those broad strokes in the last two sections.

Keeping the End in Mind

God’s Existence and the Existence of Evil Are Not Logical Contradictions

Most of us would assume a loving God would want to prevent any and all evil. However, many scholars have noted the existence of evil and the existence of a loving God aren’t necessarily contradictions. If there were a greater good that could only be achieved by permitting evil, a loving God could consistently permit that evil in order to ensure the greater good.[vi]

Skeptics don’t necessarily disagree. However, they argue the existence of a loving God doesn’t seem probable given the amount of evil in the world. In theory, the existence of some evil might be justified by a greater good. But, in reality, so much of the evil we see makes so little sense that it’s difficult to see how it could all be part of a larger plan to acquire some greater good.

Determining the Ultimate Value of an Event Isn’t Easy

The problem is our knowledge and experience is so limited that I’m not sure there’s any way we could determine that. The relationships among events in the world are so complex that it’s extremely difficult to assess whether we’d actually be better off if any of those events had been different.

A classic example is the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. The main character, George Bailey, reaches a low point in his life and thinks it would have been better if he had never been born. But then he gets a look at what the world would have been like without him, and he realizes his life impacted others for the better in ways he never knew.

What is true of life is also true of death. I’m a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation and in one episode, the starship Enterprise encounters an earlier version of itself—the Enterprise C—which has come through a rift in time. At that moment, history changes. The Federation, which had been at peace, is now at war with the Klingons.

In the past, the crew of the Enterprise C gave their lives to save a Klingon ship that was under attack. The Klingons were moved by that sacrifice. As a result, their relationship with the Federation, which to that point had been hostile, improved.

But now, because the Enterprise C came through the rift, that sacrifice never happened and the Klingons and the Federation are locked in a war that has taken countless lives. When the crew of the Enterprise C realize this, they decide to go back through the rift. Even though they know it means they’re going to die, they know their deaths will achieve a greater good in the long run.

Our Perspective Is Always Limited

What’s the point of all this? It’s difficult to determine the ultimate value of an event by focusing on the immediate circumstances alone. You need to know what the end result of an event will be and then compare it to what would have happened had things played out differently. No easy task!

The skeptic wants to argue no good reason could exist to justify all the evil we see. But we’re rarely in a position to see the ultimate result of an event, let alone know what the world would have looked like if events had been different. As a result, the skeptic simply isn’t in a position to make that assessment. “Because of our cognitive limitations, actions that appear disastrous in the short term may redound to the greatest good, while some short-term boon may issue in untold misery. Once we contemplate God’s providence over the whole of history, then it becomes evident how hopeless it is for limited observers to speculate on the probability of God’s having morally sufficient reasons for the evils we see.”[vii]

I can imagine someone at this point saying, “But that doesn’t mean God actually has a good reason for allowing the evil we see.” Our cognitive limitations work both ways. They prevent us from saying for sure God doesn’t have a good reason for evil. But they also prevent us from saying for sure that he does.

If we can’t see how everything will work out in the end, the most we can say is God might have a good reason for all the evil we see. So that raises the question: is there any evidence that suggests we can trust God knows what he’s doing?

Christ Provides the Ultimate Answer

As we’ve said a number of times already, the existence of evil initially doesn’t seem to fit with the existence of a loving God. But, as we’ve seen, there’s no actual inconsistency if God needs to permit the existence of evil in order to secure a greater good that couldn’t be attained without it. Our limitations prevent us from seeing how each instance of evil contributes to that greater good. But that in no way proves God has insufficient reasons for permitting evil.

Philosophical Arguments Aren’t Satisfying

Few are ultimately convinced by that sort of philosophical argument, however. After all, philosophical arguments only prove it’s possible that a loving God could have a good reason for permitting evil. That’s a far cry from saying he actually does.

For many, theoretical possibilities in the philosophical world pale in comparison to the actual evil we see in the real world. My pastor used an illustration from a show called Expedition Impossible in one of his sermons to illustrate what trust in God ought to look like. Teams of three raced across Morocco and along the way encountered physical challenges ranging from jumping off cliffs to kayaking rapids. Remarkably, a member on one of teams was blind. No one was allowed to physically help or guide him. All they could do was shout instructions to him—turn now, duck now, follow my voice, etc.

One of the sighted team members was asked how his friend could have so much trust in him. He responded that his friend had been following him for years and knew he always had his best interest in mind.

Presumably, though, that trust would have been severely tested if he had run his friend into several trees along way. That’s what makes it hard for many to believe that God, if he exists, has our best interests in mind. At times, life gets hard and it feels like God is running us into trees left and right.

But Jesus’ Sacrifice Gives Us Reason to Trust God

Because that’s our experience in the real world, many need more than philosophical arguments to convince them to simply trust God has a good reason for permitting the evil we see. So the question is: do we have any stronger evidence?

I had a professor who thought, in the end, the ultimate answer to the problem of evil was the cross. The Bible says that on the cross, in Jesus, God himself died to pay the penalty we owed for sin, which amounted to eternity in hell. That means, in his death, Jesus somehow endured the equivalent of eternity in hell in order to save us from sin. He didn’t have to, but he did it because he loved us.

That doesn’t explain why God allows any given instance of evil. But it gives us a reason to trust him. How do we know God has a good reason for permitting the evil we see in the world? A God who loves us enough to endure hell to save us wouldn’t allow us to suffer unless it was absolutely necessary.

[i] Terrance Tiessen, Providence and Prayer (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 27.

[ii]  Jack Cottrell, “The Nature of Divine Sovereignty” in The Grace of God and the Will of Man. Ed. Clark H. Pinnock. (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publisher, 1989), 112

[iii] This description could make it appear as though God had to work these calculations out over time. However, because he’s omniscient, God simply would have known all of this as part of his very nature.

[iv] Paul Helm, “Response to Roger E. Olson: Response by Paul Helm” in Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2008), 176-177.

[v] John Frame. No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2001), 136.

[vi] William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 539-541.

[vii] Ibid., 545.


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