A Discussion on Predestination

Here’s my take on predestination as a concept.  This post is a reaction to a set of questions Chris asked in response to an earlier post I made.  Please everyone keep in mind that it is only my take. I absolutely do not claim (let alone boast) any special wisdom or education or skill which makes my thoughts more valuable than any other’s. If I have knowledge, it is because God revealed it to me. And the same God who has given me what wisdom I have gives it liberally to all men without finding fault.

Also please understand that I’m not posting this to pick a fight.  If you want to discuss this topic civilly, I’d be happy to try (though it’s a very tough topic, I fully admit).  If you post something about how hateful and stupid I am or anyone else is, then I’m just going to delete your comment.  So, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Alrighty then, with that context in place, I’ll opine…

Predestination is the theological belief that God in His limitless sovereignty orders every atom, every decision, every action in the universe. It goes beyond the very common belief that God is aware of everything, even past the belief that God permits everything, and settles uncomfortably (for most) on the belief that God causes everything. If there is an earthquake, then God caused it. If a man murders his whole family, then God caused it. Etc.

The “opposing” theological position probably has an equally loaded Latin-based name, but I didn’t find it in a quick search, so we’ll just call it “free will theology” for lack of better terminology. This is the belief that man guides his own destiny through his free will. Almost all who subscribe to this theory belief that God knows and sees everything. Some, not all, even believe that God permits everything. But this camp would differ sharply with the concept that God causes most things to happen. They believe God directly acts to keep planets and quarks spinning, to regulate butterfly breeding rates, or to keep gravity pulling down, etc. But they believe He balances these actions with man’s actions. Man – God’s prize creation – makes decisions too, and the unfolding of time and the universe is a complex interaction between God’s decisions and man’s decisions. An even more extreme version views God as a clock maker, who created the universe (the “clock”) and the laws that govern the clock, and then basically went on vacation – allowing the chips to fall where they may, so to speak. The laws govern the universe in which man makes good and bad choices, and God will be back someday to clean up the mess.

So, with that background in mind, let’s talk about Chris’ statement (in my last post) that God, in his view, does not cause suffering as I described, but rather allows man to cause that suffering (essentially) all by himself. I disagree. But I can’t be forced into taking a “predestination vs free will” position either. I have long held that there is significant folly in considering these to be “opposing” views. Here’s how I see it…

Both these concepts are exactly correct. It is BOTH true that God sovereignly orders every atom, every decision, every crossed “I” or dotted “T” in the whole universe. Every nanosecond. Every action of man. God is present. He is aware of, permits, and controls all of them. It can’t be otherwise. The very atoms of the universe are held together by God’s conscious will. The reliability of the laws of physics is in fact the reliability of God’s character as He holds stars and quarks and man in His right hand. God can no more be separated from what happens in the universe than a man weaving a tapestry can be separated from the tapestry.

But God has also given free will to man, a gift that is like no other. No attribute of any other person, place or thing in God’s creation has even close to the kind of responsibility that we have. We are God’s prized creations. We were made in His image … which means that we are so much like Him that it’s kinda scary. Even the echo of God in us carries with it astounding power, astounding responsibility, astounding consequences for the misuse of that power. That’s us. When I choose, *I* have chosen. I am responsible. I will be held accountable. I make no claims that somehow God’s sovereignty absolves me from responsibility for my actions.

However, God cannot be removed from the equation either. Whatever knowledge I use to make a decision comes from God. Whatever IQ, God made it. Whatever wealth, God gave me the skills to create it. Whatever mood I’m in, God created the circumstances for it (from the weather to whether or not my furnace went out yesterday to the traffic patterns during my commute). Whatever family background, God was responsible there too. Even if I believed that I was alone in my decision making, then I’d be forced to ask myself where all the resources and variables and history and context that go into my decisions come from.

There is also no sense in which God is ever surprised by an action. There are no “plan B’s” in God’s world. None. He reacts to nothing. Everything is action. There isn’t even time where God “lives”. Therefore no change. Therefore no calculus (the mathematical study of change). In God’s economy, there is no sense in which He does something and then I do something and then He does something, in order, sequentially. There is only the sense that I am and that He is. That’s why God said is called the great “I AM”. No was. No will be. He just is. Always. Eternally. To God, the same is true of me. I am only what I have been since He made me and always will be. I am not different tomorrow. I do not grow and change. I am eternally the sum total of Jeff.

But to us, in our perspective, life is like a movie. We see one frame at a time as we walk through it. Not true for God. His view of the universe is more like a canvas on which He’s painted an amazing work of art. And not one stroke at a time, either. God spoke, and the painting burst into existence. No time elapsed. Just one moment there was nothing, and the next moment there was everything – including the sum total of history and time as we understand and experience it. But the coolest thing, around which I can barely wrap my head, is that we as the colors in the painting are spiritually alive (physical life in this context is meaningless) and are – kinda, a little, enough to matter – like God.

God spoke, and in some way I don’t fully understand, His decisions and ours mixed together to create the painting. We make choices. There is no escape from the accountability for them. The Bible is clear. But every curve and line and color and hue on the canvas are God’s. He is the artist. He made the picture. At absolute most, we could be said to have made the picture with Him. He condescended to allow us participation. But in no sense is it our picture. God too is responsible. God is accountable for the picture far more than we are.

But the difference is that God is accountable to Himself. We are accountable to Him, and will be judged against Him. He is accountable to Himself and won’t be judged, nor should He be. There is no one to judge Him. He is the universal standard for everything since everything was made by Him … by the expression of His creative character.

Here’s a (bad) analogy… It would be like watching Jeff play basketball. I stink. If you could find a higher authority against which to judge me, like say Michael Jordan, then you could legitimately criticize my skills. You’d be judging me against MJ’s standards. But if I was the only person who ever played basketball in the history of the universe, then the only standard against which there’d be to judge me would be me. You’d effectively be asking “How well has Jeff been like Jeff?”. The answer, no matter what Jeff did or how little others understood what Jeff did, would be “perfectly”. By definition. I’m always perfectly like me.

Whatever God paints is good and right, because God is the one who painted it. So, if God paints an Obama victory in the 2008 presidential election or a murdered family or an earthquake that claims the lives of thousands or Hurricane Katrina or the WWII holocaust, then…. And it’s hard for me to say this… It is ultimately good. It doesn’t feel good. It seems bad. Lots of people made bad decisions that were a part of it happening. But if we really believe Romans 8:28 that all things work together for the good of those who love God and keep His commands and Romans 1:20 (among others) that God is eternal, then I think we’re forced to admit God’s role in these things as well. Again, man was involved. Man is responsible for his actions. No free passes. Sin leads to death. But we have to “hold God responsible”. It is God’s plan unfolding … God’s painting being created. God was never out of control. He’s doing something that seems out of control, no doubt. He’s doing things we don’t understand. But He can be trusted to redeem even horrible things, even things we would never have wanted. Maybe even things He didn’t “want” per se, but were necessary to the rest of the plan in a way you and I will never understand.

I tried for a while to write a spiffy conclusion, but I don’t have one. I also know that this is hard stuff, and that it won’t sit well with most. I have a hard time with it myself. And it doesn’t help that it hurts my head even to think about it. Truth is that I’m not qualified to write about it (who is, really?), so maybe I shouldn’t be. But we all also know that I’m a blabbermouth, so I threw it out there. I hope it’s useful.

I praise God for His majesty, infinite power, and for His goodness. I know it’s hard to trust God, harder for some than others. It’s hard for me sometimes too. But as I get older, I think I’m finding myself able to trust Him more. And I really relate to the comment Mother Theresa made to a man she met once who asked her to pray for him that he would have greater understanding and wisdom in a difficult situation he was facing. She said she would not, and after a pause (and no doubt a seriously troubled look from the man), she said that instead she would pray that he would trust God more even without the understanding and wisdom that he wanted. The older I get, the more sense this makes to me. And as I’m sure I’ve demonstrated in this blog entry, I’m not sure I can adequately explain why.

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About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Christ. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long journey, learning to swim with the current of God's love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
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4 Responses to A Discussion on Predestination

  1. Brad Bull says:

    When you go to the deep end you jump in with both feet. good post.

    As a “clock” man I would disagree with your statement that clock people assume God went on vacation. You can believe God created the laws that govern the universe, but is still present and can still interfere (i.e. miracles). This then becomes a semantic arguement about whether God is actively holding the universe together or created the universe to hold itself together.

    “To God, the same is true of me. I am only what I have been since He made me and always will be. I am not different tomorrow. I do not grow and change. I am eternally the sum total of Jeff.”

    Please correct me if I am mistaken, but the point of your discussion appears to be that from God’s point of view predestination is irrelevant because he already knows what will be. This is a very interesting point, but biblical history is littered with stories of God confronting man to change future decisions. This I would argue counters predestination from the perspective of man. God created us with free will and has convinced us to make decisions we otherwise would not have made.

    I agree this is a tough one – delete and retype, delete and retype. But, I think the arguement of predestination has far more revelance in our perspective and is almost meaningless in His.

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  2. Chris Miller says:

    Thanks for making this post, Jeff. This is definitely a complicated subject that has roots that most likely transcend our limited understanding and visibility into God’s universe. We can debate the principles and draw conclusions that we deem “most likely”, but such debate is based on a limited pool of evidence which may or may not be sufficient to explain it. That said, since I DO believe that we should use the gifts God gave us to the best of our abilities (“reason” being one of those gifts), I’m all for giving it a go.

    I think your description of the two “positions” hits the mark. I also loudly applaud your statement that the two points of view shouldn’t be viewed as contradictory – they’re both true and they work in concert. I think that much is clear from the Bible. The complexity – and the fun part of the discussion – is in trying to understand just how the two can both be true at the same time.

    As I’m sure you’ve gathered from my comments in the previous thread, my beliefs tend to put more mass on the free will side of the equation. However, rather than trying to construct a counter-diatribe explaining my own beliefs on the matter (which I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to do with the same level of eloquence as yours), I’ll keep your position the focus of discussion. Let me just ask a few questions about your POV…

    1. You made the statement “Whatever God paints is good and right, because God is the one who painted it.” I think this is the only logical conclusion you can make if you truly believe that God, the Creator, causes all things to happen. Thus, I believe it’s consistent with your argument. But the statement leaves one big question in my mind: “Is there such a thing as ‘evil’?” If God causes all things to happen, then nothing can be contrary to God’s intention. If one of his creations turns his back on God (classic definition of “sin”), how can that action legitimately be considered “evil” if God caused the man to turn his back? It seems like you’ve left a very limited possibility for “evil,” but only from the point of view of man. From a universal perspective, however, there can be no evil if your statement is to hold true. Are you comfortable with that level of evil nerfing?

    2. You made the statement that you can’t separate the tapestry from the man weaving it. Why not? The creator is not the creation. Take your blog as a very rough parallel. The blogger is not the blog. True, this blog wouldn’t have existed if you hadn’t created it. But now that you have, you’ve opened the door for it to take on a life of its own depending on how much leeway you permit the other participants. I know you’ll keep your hand in the blog to guide it and to stamp out blatant befoulings of what you’re creating here, but that’s not the same as 100% causal control, is it? I know the analogy lacks in some elements – you don’t have an “above time” point of view to foresee everything that will happen to your blog, nor did you create those who will comment on your blog – but otherwise I think the analogy is fair.

    3. I think one of the potential casualties of your perspective is “incentive”. I know you and I have talked a lot, in the realm of politics not religion, about the need to preserve incentive. If you just give a man food and shelter, what incentive does he have to get off the couch and contribute to society? I certainly wouldn’t expect you to embrace those ideals in a political realm and then divorce yourself from them when the discussion flips to a religious realm. You say that man is still accountable for his actions (which I absolutely agree with), but if God CAUSES him to do the things he does, what incentive does he REALLY have to try to make “good” choices? And just how accountable can he be if God causes his actions? Along those lines, where then is the incentive to increase our understanding of God’s will? Similarly, where’s our incentive to try to further our understanding of the universe through science, mathematics, philosophy, etc? If our actions are all CAUSED by an outside force, why would you ever engage your brain at all?

    4. Final point – your basketball analogy. I understand what you’re getting at there. However, even though I can’t explain it, my gut feeling is that if we saw you playing basketball, even without another point of reference, “perfection” wouldn’t be our natural reaction. Something about all that flailing by the big white man would more likely stir a sensation around the funny bone than it would a sense of perfect awe. 🙂 Says the guy who can’t play volleyball to save his life…

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  3. Jeff Block says:

    > 1) Is there such a thing as “evil”?

    This is an excellent question. I wish I could point to the Scripture that directly answers it so that there would be less of my opinion and more of God’s direct will / word in my response. Unfortunately I can’t. All I can do is answer from what I believe is God’s revealed wisdom, again available to all who ask, certainly not just me. So, with that disclaimer in place, here are my thoughts…

    If we were talking about anything but human beings, your logic would be infallible here. I view evil (compared to good) much like physics views darkness (compared to light) or cold (compared to heat). All three only exist / have meaning in their comparisons to their respective counterparts. In other words, evil exists wherever the goodness of God has been (for lack of a better word) withdrawn. This cannot happen with rocks or dirt or stars or hydrogen atoms as we’ve discussed, because no matter where you go in the universe, there God is, sustaining it and holding it together. The only place even a remote exception to this physical law exists is in the human heart. Here, unlike any other place, God has granted us terrible power (made us a little like Himself) in that we are given the right and privilege and ability to refuse God … in such a way that no other part of creation can. When we do this (“sin”), we push God away, creating a vacuum of good, which is evil. And what’s worse, that evil can leave a stain that lasts for generations. It has the power to break and destroy far beyond the individual sin or person sinning. It has power to break the very foundations of the physical world.

    The part I don’t fully understand, and which I find to be the most threatening hole in my whole theory is the question, “How was the devil permitted to sin?” Doesn’t that mean that lucifer was given the same kind of power humans have? Does that mean that Jesus’ death wasn’t for the fallen angels? It must have been a fall in some sense “worse” than ours, then? I’m not sure. Does my uncertainty here make any sense?

    Does that help answer the questions you asked?

    > 2) You made the statement that you can’t separate the tapestry from the man weaving it. Why not?

    I think the analogy is exactly right. In the sense that I can moderate comments as they’re posted and you don’t have administrative access to the blog, I *do* have total control over it. I exercise that control in keeping with my belief system (character) in terms of how I think the blog *should* work. Whatever control I give you, I give you because I want to give it, not because I *have* to give it. I think this is very similar to the God’s relationship to the universe, except for the exact components that you mentioned. Because God is SO far above and beyond us, His interactions with us take on a whole different flavor / reality / whatever than mine as the author of the blog do with those who comment on it.

    I guess it feels to me like we’re not as far from each other as it does to you. Maybe I’m not catching your point exactly.

    > 3. I think one of the potential casualties of your perspective is “incentive”.

    I totally understand this argument, and I think you’re right. Wrongly understanding the concept of predestination or the content of this blog entry could absolutely lead a person looking for an excuse to be lazy to find it. But that’s true of a lot of things. Here’s the way I see it… God wants and makes concrete use of our iniative.

    Predestination is like the man who walked by a hundred-year-old cathedral every day thinking, “I should go in there and look around.” This goes on for years. One day, the man is ahead of schedule, and decides to actually fulfill this age-old thought. He enters the church, and sees a massive list of names and times on the wall. He looks through the names, only to discover that his name and the exact time he entered the church has been etched on the wall since it was built. It was always true that he would decide to enter the cathedral at that moment, but every day he made the real choice whether or not to enter the church.

    It would be a wrong perspective of predestination for the man each day to say to himself, “I have no choice but to walk past the church today.” He chose each day. It would also be a wrong perspective, after having entered the church and seen his name, to say, “I had no choice but to come in here today because my name was already written here.” He chose that day as well. The right perspective is to see that he always chooses, but that what is true about the universe doesn’t become true because of our choices. Because God is eternal, and God’s weaving of history comes from his character, what is true is just true.

    I hope this answers this question. Either way, I just like that story. … like that story.

    > 4) My basketball analogy

    First of all, I resent how quickly you agreed with my total lake of b-ball skillz. What is that about?! 😉

    Second, you’re right in the sense that since you have yard sticks for “grace” (of action) and “beauty” and “dancing” and so on, that you would be able to judge me against those yard sticks. But that reinforces my point. Without a knowledge of basketball that comes from comparison against a standard, you’re forced to revert to judging me against things you DO have an ability to grade. If I took away those measures in my analogy, you’d face the same problem.

    Even if I granted that you have instinctual (and accurate) perceptions that I’m clumbsy and ungraceful in my movements on the basketball court even apart from ever seeing a basketball game, it would be because God has given you that instinct through your exposure to other things “like” basketball. God’s holiness is so completely and totally “other” that there is nothing to compare Him to but Himself. He is in all things His own and the only important standard.

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  4. Chris Miller says:

    Thanks for the comments, Jeff. I think we may be in danger of turning one conversation into 4 distinct conversations, but I’ll risk it for another round because I find all 4 sub-topics quite interesting. Here goes:

    > 1. Is the such a thing as “evil”

    I think your comments here about the pairings – evil & good, dark & light, cold & heat – are all sound. I’m not convinced that that’s the only way to look at the concept of evil – I think it could still possibly be defined in an absolute sense – but for the sake of this discussion I’d concede the definiton of evil as a “withdrawal of good”. I’m on board with that.

    So we’re on the same page regarding what evil is. Where I think we don’t yet agree is on the question of how evil comes to exist. You made the statement: “Here, unlike any other place, God has granted us terrible power (made us a little like Himself) in that we are given the right and privilege and ability to refuse God.” I completely and totally agree with this statement, but I find it to be evidence of free will not predestination. If you truly believe that God has given us the ability to refuse God, then how can you simultaneously believe that God CAUSED us to refuse him? If God causes us to refuse him, then we’re merely puppets and the words “right”, “privilege”, and “ability” are devoid of any real meaning. When you boil it down, I think the root of our disagreement comes from use of the word “cause”. I definitely believe that God is above time and He KNOWS what we’re going to do. He knows when we’re going to refuse Him. But KNOWING that we’re going to refuse Him and CAUSING us to refuse him are two totally different concepts with vastly different implications.

    If God knows that we’re going to sin and let’s us do so (but doesn’t CAUSE us to do so), then we’ve exercised free will and have done genuine evil. However, if you hold to the idea that God causes everything, including causing us to refuse him, then logically you have to deny one of the two truths you’ve asserted. Either the notion that “whatever God paints is good and right” is false or the notion that “evil exists” is false. If whatever God paints (i.e. “causes”) is good, and evil is a “withdrawal of good”, then EVERYTHING will be good if God causes EVERYTHING to happen. Under those circumstances, evil will never happen.

    I don’t think either one of us would deny the notion that “whatever God paints is good and right”. So where then is the illusion: in the notion that God causes all things to happen or in the existence of evil?

    I’ve gone over this several times in my head and I quite frankly can’t see the hole in the logic. What am I missing here, amigo?

    > 2. Separating the “tapestry” from the “weaver”.

    I think we’re both in step on this blog analogy, but we’re still drawing opposite conclusions. I still view the “blog” and the “blogger” as two separate entities. You say that you have TOTAL control over the blog, but that’s not really true at this moment. Yes, you can strike any comment that you don’t like, you can allow or deny others to contribute, etc. But you’ve chosen to allow others to post their comments which means you’ve given up a measure of control. You granted me the ability to post my thoughts, so you can’t control (not honestly anyway) what I choose to say on your blog. You can remove comments I make (as a reactionary measure, incidentally), but you can’t put the words into my mouth. The only way you could regain TOTAL control over the blog again would be to completely deny any measure of contribution from others.

    And on a parallel note, now that you’ve created the blog, it doesn’t necessarily NEED you to continue to exist. If you left everything as it is today and never touched the blog again, others would still be able to read the blog and add comments to the posts that you’ve already created. Thus, in that sense, the blog would take on a life completely independent of the blogger who created it.

    I would put this in parallel with conceiving a child. The child couldn’t have existed if a man and a woman hadn’t conceived the child. Once that child is conceived, gestates, and is born, however, it becomes its own entity completely separate from those who gave it life. So it is with the tapestry and the weaver or with the blog and the blogger.

    > 3. Incentive and the 100-year-old church.

    Great story. I feel like you’re getting all Matrix-y on me now. “What’s really going to bake your noodle is ‘Would you have still broken [the vase] if I hadn’t said anything?'”

    Again, I think this boils down to the difference between fore-knowlege and causality. If you’re arguing that God KNEW ahead of time that the man would enter the church on that day and time, but that the man still CHOSE when he would enter, then I think we’re on the same page. Under those circumstances, I think the notion of free will has meaning. Those circumstances also allow for meaningful definitions of concepts like “evil”, “judgement”, and “consequence”. Fore-knowlege of events does not, in my mind, negate free will.

    However, if your argument is that God not only knew what the man would do but that He CAUSED him to enter the church on that day and time, then all bets are off. The man can not have chosen to go into the church if God caused him to go into the church. Choice just has no meaning under those circumstances.

    So which are you implying here? Did God (or the “builders of the church” in your story) cause the man to enter the church or did He/they just have fore-knowlege of the choice the man would make?

    > 4. Judging basketball ability

    I think your comments here are right on the money. The only way we can understand anything is by having a standard against which to judge. If we’ve never seen basketball, then we have to rely on our understanding of “grace”, “beauty” and “dancing”. If we have no knowledge of those concepts, then we’d have to rely on even more basic knowledge until we found a baseline that we were familiar with. I’m on board there.

    On top of that, however, you’ve made the statement “God’s holiness is so completely and totally ‘other’ that there is nothing to compare Him to but Himself.” That’s a very powerful statement that has some pretty frightening implications in my mind. If we accept that statement as true, I’m left with questions like: “How then can we know anything about who God is, what His will for our lives is, what He wants from us?” “If He is SO far outside our understanding, how then can we even profess a belief that He exists?” I’m not trying to put God in a box here, but I find myself frightened by a notion that we can have no understanding of Him.

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