Sunday’s message comes from Ephesians 1:3-14, where Paul writes about people being chosen by God “before the foundation of the world”(Ephesians 1:4b). Paul then makes the encouraging claim that God has “destined us for adoption as his children . . .” (Ephesians 1:5a).
Paul supposedly believed that God determines peoples’ lives in advance, a process known in theological jargon as predestination. The emotions on both sides of the predestination issue are explosive. Nonetheless, it’s worth exploring whether some version of predestination is valid and how it may or may not make sense. As with most biblical controversies, a process of truth-seeking can reveal pros and cons. Through it all, it’s best to keep an open mind by avoiding destructive biases.
The argument for predestination has always caused problems. Consider billions of people making choices each millisecond, with the options for the future constantly changing as almost infinite decisions accumulate to shape the future. How can God control or know all of this or does God simply see the result? From a human perspective there are few enduring answers about how all this works—or not.
Defenders of predestination claim that humans can’t fully understand time and space let alone God Almighty. They argue that the ability to control reality or at least to perceive it supremely is only something God can do. Humans experience time by having some knowledge about the past but also of not having a reliable crystal ball to see into the future. Even spiritually awakened individuals who master the joys of living in the moment fail to reliably predict let alone control the future.
Whereas normal human perception separates time into past, present and future, heaven’s clock doesn’t seem to work in this linear fashion. From what is known about people who’ve had near death experiences and out-of-body visions, the spiritual realm operates differently than what humans can grasp in day-to-day reality. If the spiritual realm functions in a mysterious dimension, then it is understandable that few if any people on earth regularly comprehend it.
Many traditional theologians suggest God not only knows in advance what will happen but also that God controls everything. Critics rightly argue that such God talk must be carefully managed. Declaring that God can do anything makes God variously responsible for evil and most if not all other happenings. Defining God as a both all-powerful and all-knowing suggests that God knows everything and has the power to change reality at any moment. If this is true, then it follows that God accrues some responsibility. Those who question predestination also conclude that if God owns and controls everything then God is logically and morally obligated to manage the universe compassionately. Otherwise, God becomes a heinous monster, one who has great power but who chooses to voyeuristically observe rapes, genocides and countless atrocities while refusing to do much about it.
Believers in predestination claim that whatever Paul wrote must be accepted and that all other considerations be unconditionally surrendered. This view suggests that whatever is in the Bible is the greatest truth forever, including the opinions of writers like Paul and many anonymous biblical authors who wrote poetry and history. Critics of predestination claim that Paul’s writings should not be the gold standard for all moral truth. They argue that no mere mortal’s sayings or writings should have such power to override God’s core, loving spirit. Compared to receiving and sharing God’s compassion, discussion about predestination pales in comparison.
What about free will, the basic human ability to make choices? The classic view is that individuals are not only responsible for their personal choices but as history demonstrates, people are also often blamed for things for which they are not guilty. The mutually contradictory existence of free will and predestination resists an easy solution. Psychology and science have done a superb job revealing that peoples’ choices—free or not—are no simple matter. What appears on the surface as basic human choice masks compelling turbulence below what it appears on the surface. The interface of humans and their choices is more interesting than previously imagined.
How can humans claim total free will while still allowing God to control everything? Some observe that humans lack absolute freedom because reality is influenced and shaped by forces in the physical, biological (genetic) and cultural environment. They also suggest that to believe that God has either damned or saved people before they’ve been born is cruel and absurd since it robs humanity of dignity and renders people as hapless victims of divine mischief and malevolence.
What if any relevance and practicality is there in Paul’s writing for today’s people of faith? Paul’s chief point is that people must trust God and not worry about the detailed mechanics of how the future unfolds or how God accomplishes it all. Paul argued that God holds people accountable, but perhaps more so for their willingness to accept redemption. Despite being complex, personal choice and responsibility remain vital to a person’s moral and physical wellbeing.
Suffice to say that it can be reassuring to feel that our lives are part of a plan even if we can’t always predict how it will unfold. Perhaps more important than predestination is the issue of our status as God’s children. We are redeemed and forgiven, recipients of the grace, wisdom and insight brought about by God’s Spirit. Of this, at least, we can thank Paul for we can know it and feel it to be true with each breath we take.