I don’t often comment on the free will/predestination conundrum. If I had to “pick a side”, I would err on the side of free will. It’s a conundrum because the Bible includes verses and passages that seem to support free will and verses and passages that seem to support the idea of predestination.
Some people say this is an example of contradictions in the Bible. Some people land on one side or the other, seemingly ignoring or explaining away the verses that suggest otherwise.
I say it’s a paradox. A paradox is “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.” A paradox may appear to be a contradiction, but it turns out to be true, and noncontradictory.
How are man’s free will and God’s preordainment true? I don’t honestly know. That we human beings think that we must figure everything out, or it cannot be true, is frankly an arrogant thought, finite creatures that we are. At the same time, we are not completely unreasonable to seek some explanation or understanding.
If you expect, now , that I will give one, I have to apologize in advance. I do have some thoughts about it and will explore them in one of those verses that affirms the free will of men:
“As he approached and saw the city, he wept for it, saying, ‘If you knew this day what would bring peace — but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days will come on you when your enemies will build a barricade around you, surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you and your children among you to the ground, and they will not leave one stone on another in your midst, because you did not recognize the time when God visited you.’”
Sometimes, we gloss over what we read in the Bible too quickly, and we don’t spend enough time digging deeper. I have read over the following verse in John 1 many times before I thought, “Wait a minute!”
“But to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.”
John wrote that “all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, HE GAVE THE RIGHT to become children of God”. My emphasis added is the phrase that caught my attention.
For all the verses in Scripture about God choosing us, predestining us, foreordaining us, we find verses like this that put agency squarely in our own hearts and wills. But that isn’t the beginning of the story – or the end of it.
Yes, God chooses us; and in choosing us He gives us “the right to become children of God”.[i]
Yes, He made that choice before the foundation[ii] of the world, and He made us children of God not by blood descent, not by the will of parents or anyone else – maybe not even by our own will – but by His own choice.[iii]
We didn’t choose Him; He chose us, but the vehicle of the choosing was to give those who received Him the right to become children of God. The implication is that He didn’t those who did not receive Him the same right to become His children.
I do not have a systematic theology. I am not a theologian. My understanding of systematic theology is limited, but free will has always seemed self-evident to me as I read Scripture.
To CS Lewis was posed the following proposition and question:
“Many people feel resentful or unhappy because they think they are the target of unjust fate. These feelings are stimulated by bereavement, illness, deranged working or domestic conditions, or the observation of suffering in others. What is the Christian view of this problem?”
Today, the same question has taken on a sharper edge aimed at Christianity and the character of God: If God is all good and all powerful, why does God allow evil and suffering in the world? Either God isn’t all good; or God isn’t all powerful; or God simply does not exist.
CS Lewis answered the question put to him as follows:
“The Christian view is that people are created to be in a certain relation to God. If we are in that relation to Him, the right relation to one another will follow inevitably. Christ said it was difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt, 19:23; Mk. 10:23; Luke 18:24), referring, no doubt, to riches in the ordinary sense. But, I think it really covers riches in everything – good fortune, health, popularity, and all the things one wants to have.
“All these things tend, just as money tends, to make you feel independent of God. Because if you have them, you feel happy already and contented in this life. You don’t want to turn away to anything more, and so you try to rest in a shadowy happiness, as if it could last forever.
“But God wants to give you a real and eternal happiness. Consequently, He may have to take all these riches away from you. If He doesn’t, you will go on relying on them. It sounds cruel, doesn’t it?
“But I am beginning to find out what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a cruel doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows work punishment, but I find in practice that, when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a punishment it becomes easier to bear.
“If you think of this world as something simply intended for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable. Think of it as a place of training and correction, and it’s not so bad.
“Imagine a set of people all living in the same building. Half of them think of it as a hotel. The other half think it is a prison. Those who think it a hotel might regard it quite intolerable, and those who thought it was a prison might decide it was really surprisingly comfortable. So that what seems the ugly doctrine is what comforts and strengthens you in the end.
“The people who try to hold an optimistic view of this world become pessimists; the people who hold a pretty stern view of it become optimistic.”
I like to say that perspective changes everything. Because human beings are finite, our perspective is limited. Change it, and the world looks different from the new angle.
Lewis had a perspective of this world that allowed him to see it as beautiful, for what it is worth. Perhaps, he was colored by his experience as a late teenager fighting in World War I. He knew the worst the world had to offer.
When he became a believer in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he found the “silver lining”. He found hope and light in the darkness of the world.
Many people who live in the late 20th and 21st centuries have had a relatively good time of “this life” compared to people just a few generations before us (and even more dramatically compared to people of centuries past). Our perspective is colored by our relative prosperity. In the United States today, even those who live below the poverty line live higher and better than most of the people in the rest of the world (and in times past).
The comparative riches we have tend to make us feel independent of God. Indeed, the shift in the question of the problem of evil from focusing on individual unfairness to thinking it is proof that God does not exist is a product of our perspective.
We have enough that we are willing to accept that what we can gain in this life is all there is. We have embraced a shadowy happiness in lieu of true joy that God offers to those who seek Him.
Do we have free will? Modern materialists say, no. This is what I learned watching an episode in a series on science that was hosted by Stephen Hawking on Public Broadcast Television.
Hawking explained the experiments that informed this view. In the experiment, the subjects were told to choose to push a button and to note the time on the clock at which the decision was made. At the same time, the subject’s brain waves were being monitored for activity. Over and over again, the brain waves were measured showing that the uptick in brain waves happened before the subject was conscious of the actual decision being made to take the action.
The experiment demonstrated the following sequence: (1) a brain signal occurs about 550 milliseconds prior to the finger’s moving; (2) the subject has an awareness of his decision to move his finger about 200 milliseconds prior to his finger’s moving; (3) the person’s finger moves.
This was interpreted as evidence by Hawking that we don’t have free will. The decisions we make are actually prompted by brain activity before we are conscious of making the decision. The conclusion is that we are responding to some prior stimuli and only think that we are making independent decisions. Hawking concluded, therefore, that we are determined, as everything is, by natural laws in an endless stream of cause and effect.
But wait, there is more. The scientist who conducted these experiments, Benjamin Libet, actually came to the opposite conclusions. And lest you think this is only an interesting experiment with no practical application, I find some interesting applications to our struggles with sin.
I have tackled various aspects of the problem of pain before, but getting to a place of understanding is an ongoing process. I write as a way of working through issues to gain understanding. My understanding continues to grow and sometimes to change.
In the previous post, I suggested that we should approach the problem of evil in a similar fashion to the way we approach science,. Not that faith questions are susceptible of scientific inquiry, per se, but the answers aren’t always obvious. Sometimes they take considerable work on our part. We shouldn’t be lazy and give up simply because the work is hard.
As with science, we need to start with a premise. For the theist, the premise is that God exists. For the Christian, the God who exists is revealed in Scripture. He is a maximal being – maximally great, maximally good and maximally powerful. Of course, this is where the problem of evil arises for the Christian.
The problem of evil takes on different form, depending on the way each religion describes God. Not all religions describe God as a maximal, personal and volitional Being. For the Christian, therefore, the problem of evil leads to the question:
How can a good and all-powerful God allow evil, pain and suffering to exist in the world?
The skeptic would say: 1) either God isn’t all powerful, or 2) God isn’t good; or 3) God doesn’t exist at all (at least not as Christians conceive God).
I am not going to argue for the existence of God in this article. I am going to assume God exists as Scripture reveals Him. The proofs are satisfying to me, and I believe intellectually and experientially in the God of the Bible.
If God is God, then, how do we reconcile the issues posed in the problem of evil?
As with any complex problem, we need to hold to the premises we are given. Is there a way to do that? Can we harmonize these things? I think we can.