Thursday, April 29, 2010

Was Man Set Up to Fail? A Look at Predestination and Fate (Article III)

Introduction: Is Man Predestined to Be Saved or Damned?

There is an old joke concerning John Calvin, who is credited with creating the idea of Predestination in Christianity.  He took a terrible fall down the stairs, and at the bottom, he was heard to remark, "Thank God I got that over with."

Now this joke is of course an exaggeration of what Calvin believed, but it seems to be a good way to introduce the subject matter for the article today.  Given that God knows the things which happen to us, does it mean we are fated to do these things?

This article approaches an objection which is the opposite of the other objections.  While most people argue that God should have stopped man from sinning but did not (that is, we should have been made free to do good but not evil), this objection is based on the claim we are not free to reject sin to begin with.

The similarity to the other objections is that the sin of man was known by God in advance. The difference is that here God is directly responsible for man being unable to resist sin.

So from the perspective of the one who believes in Fate or Double Predestination, the answer to the question “Was Man set up to fail?” would have to be “Yes.”

It is tragic that God gets the blame for foolish heresies, instead of the creators of the heresies.

What Is Fate?

Fate is a term which can be understood in the sense of "the development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power" according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Thus we see the belief that if something is prophesied to be, or God knows a thing is to be, it means the person could not avoid doing a thing.

Christians have to reject this view of course.  Belief in wrong and in sin indicates a belief there is a right to compare to the wrong and good conduct which is to be compared to sin.  If one cannot help what they do, because it is fated for them to do it, how can it be an act of evil?

The Pagan Idea of Oedipus

The Greek myth of Oedipus (memorialized by Sophocles) gave us a story of a person whom the oracle said was fated to kill his father and marry his mother.  To avoid this, his father abandoned him in the woods.  However, Oedipus was found by a passing shepherd who took him in.  When he grew up, he consulted the oracle and found he was fated to kill his father and marry his mother.  To avoid this, he left home.  He ended up killing a man on the road, going to a city, freeing it from the Sphinx and marrying the recently widowed queen.  Eventually he discovered the man he killed was his father and the woman he married was his mother.

Essentially under this view, one cannot escape an evil destiny even if one wills to reject it.  Oedipus had no idea that the people who took him in were not his real parents.  He had no idea that the man he killed was his father and the woman he married was his mother.  In seeking to avoid doing the evil he was horrified by, he ended up carrying it out.  Trying to avoid one's fate becomes futile.  This can lead to the idea of fatalism (which derives from fate), which is: "the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable."

Indeed, in the ancient world, astrology was used as a way of seeking to determine one's own fate while magic was often seen as a possible way to escape a fate which was otherwise inevitable.

Fate and the Will of God

Some individuals do look at the Bible with this mindset.  Events where prophecies of evil befalling the Israelites are given, people assume that these people who persecuted the Israelites did so because God commanded.  Jesus, as God, knew He was to betrayed and handed over to be crucified.

Does this mean Judas, Pilate and those members of the Sanhedrin responsible could not avoided the tasks set out for them by God's decree?

The answer is simply NO.

The fact that God knows of things which are outside of our ability to know does not mean He decrees a person will do a thing regardless of whether he wants to or not.  Rather, God can permit a thing which men do for an evil intent for the purpose of our benefit.  Because God's knowledge is infinite, He knows the choices we will do before we do them of course, but this doesn't mean He forces our hand to act.

Let's look at it this way.  God knows whether I will wind up in Heaven or Hell.  He knows what I will do in the future.  However, this does not mean I am not responsible for what I do.  It is my willing actions which makes me either cooperate with God's grace or refuse to do so.

It is wrong to say I will do evil because God wills me to be damned. Indeed, claims that man is compelled to act indicate that doing good or evil holds no meaning: It would be wrong to say that God predestined me for Heaven… for this would mean it was irrelevant what I did which was wicked.  It would be wrong for me to say that God predestined me for Hell.  Then it would also be irrelevant what I did.

The Eternal Nature of God and the Knowledge He Possesses

While sometimes God does speak through the prophets with a warning of what is to come if the wicked do not change their ways, men often speak of foreknowledge, saying God has advance knowledge of what we are to do.

The problem with this view is that it views God with the same limitations as man.  It sees God as being in time, but merely existing without an end, something similar to the lifespan of the elves in JRR Tolkien.  This is an error.

God is entirely outside of time itself.  What happened yesterday, today or tomorrow, God sees from a perspective we who are inside time cannot see.  The prayers of Moses, of a person in Christ's time on Earth, of a person today, and even a person 10,000 years from now (assuming humanity exists so long before the Second Coming) are heard by God, who is outside time.  Hence Scripture speaking of a thousand years being like a day and a day being like a thousand years (see 2 Peter 3:8).

Because of this, He can see plainly what each man will do in his life just as plainly as we can see what we did yesterday.  None of us can say we were fated to do what we did yesterday.  We did what we did through our own fault.  God can see today and tomorrow just as we can see yesterday.  The choices we will freely make tomorrow, He sees.  Not because He foreknows what we will do, but He knows what we will choose to do.

God's knowledge of what we will freely choose today, tomorrow or fifty years from now does not mean we are compelled to act in a certain way.  To argue otherwise is actually to make use of the post hoc fallacy: God knew I would act in this way; therefore His knowledge caused me to act this way.  Knowledge of what another man will do does not mean causing a thing.

The Consideration of Prophecy and Fate

So what of prophecy?  What of those wicked men who end up fulfilling something God has said, through the prophets, would happen? Do these not mean that man was fated to continue to sin and could not help it? Does it mean those who did the evil acts mentioned in prophecy were caused by God? Here we have to remove some confusion.

The fact that God knows certain men will behave in an evil nature, and for their evil motives they will afflict the Israelites or the Christians does not mean that such evil men act because God compels them to do so. Rather such men would have acted earlier had God not protected us. If God removes His protection, the wicked afflict the Israelites or the Christians.

Calvin’s Bad Idea

Unfortunately, certain Christians in the 16th and 17th centuries adopted such fatalism, misinterpreting the prophecies as inevitable, they have said that God causes the wicked to sin and then punishes them for their deeds. John Calvin, in his Institutes of Christian Religion describes his belief this way:

The covenant of life is not preached equally to all, and among those to whom it is preached, does not always meet with the same reception. This diversity displays the unsearchable depth of the divine judgment, and is without doubt subordinate to God's purpose of eternal election. But if it is plainly owing to the mere pleasure of God that salvation is spontaneously offered to some, while others have no access to it, great and difficult questions immediately arise, questions which are inexplicable, when just views are not entertained concerning election and predestination. To many this seems a perplexing subject, because they deem it most incongruous that of the great body of mankind some should be predestinated to salvation, and others to destruction. How ceaselessly they entangle themselves will appear as we proceed. We may add, that in the very obscurity which deters them, we may see not only the utility of this doctrine, but also its most pleasant fruits. We shall never feel persuaded as we ought that our salvation flows from the free mercy of God as its fountain, until we are made acquainted with his eternal election, the grace of God being illustrated by the contrast--viz. that he does not adopt all promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what he denies to others. It is plain how greatly ignorance of this principle detracts from the glory of God, and impairs true humility. (Institutes: Book III Chapter 21)

In seeking to give assurance to the believer that he could not be separated from God, Calvin tends to skim over the problem that others rightly object to: In order for punishment to be just, it must be over a thing which man has control over.

Double Predestination: Attempting to "Christianize” an Unjust Idea

Now, as I understand it, Calvin’s idea was formed with the intent of reassuring the Christians that if they were behaving as a Christian, it was a sign they were of the elect. Fair enough. To a limited extent, one can interpret some of the writings of Paul in such a way. The problem is with the idea if DOUBLE predestination, which not only asserts God wills men to be saved, but also wills some to be damned.

Double Predestination could be considered "Fate" in the pagan view.  In this view, before the world begins, God has determined some will be saved and some will be damned.  Neither the saved nor the reprobate will be able to change from one category to the next.

The 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia describes it as follows:

Predestinarianism is a heresy not unfrequently met with in the course of the centuries which reduces the eternal salvation of the elect as well as the eternal damnation of the reprobate to one cause alone, namely to the sovereign will of God, and thereby excludes the free co-operation of man as a secondary factor in bringing about a happy or unhappy future in the life to come.

Double Predestination is promoted by some because it is feared that man’s refusal to accept God’s ultimate authority indicates God is not all powerful. Because God is all powerful, and some people refuse to accept Him as Lord, the argument is that God chose not to save Him. Jesus died on the cross only for those who were predestined to be saved. The end result is that the person who holds this position has to do some interesting verbal gymnastics to explain why a suddenly arbitrary version of God is really good, in deliberately refusing to save Person X.

Limited Love from a Limitless God?

Of course, God, as Lord of all creation is free to save us or not as He wills. From a perspective of justice, humanity lost its right to original grace, and He is under no obligation to save any of us. However this is not the same thing as saying God chooses to save one person and absolutely refuses to save another.

Double Predestination would be like a man on the river bank who sees a number of people drowning. He has the ability to offer rescue devices to all of them, but arbitrarily chooses only some of them, leaving the rest to drown. Such a God is either limited or petty

Now, theoretically the elect could live like a porn star and be saved, while the reprobate could live like Mother Teresa and still be damned, but supporters of this view would tend to object, arguing that how a person acts shows which side of the line they are most likely on. Thus the person who lives morally upright is probably a member of the saved, while the person who lives immorally is probably a member of the reprobate.

Of course there is always the problem of the backsliding Christian. Making use of the No True Scotsman fallacy, if such an upright person is discovered having a secret sinful life; it means he was really one of the reprobates all along. If a total sleaze has a change of heart and becomes a Christian, it means he was always a member of the elect.

All of this is necessary for the believer in double predestination, because such a believer must deny free will. Because he cannot understand how God can permit a thing without causing a thing, he or she reasons that God must cause the person to be saved or damned.

Now of course this is a minority view among Christians, mostly among those branches influenced by Calvin. However, I find myself wondering how many people who rejected Christianity as being unjust were influenced by this awful view which made God into such a monster.

Since God Is Perfectly Just, We Must Reject This View

Double Predestination assumes that God wills certain people to go to Heaven and certain people to go to Hell regardless of what they may want to do on their own.  The problem is that if God is perfectly just, which Christians must believe, then Hell — which is a place of punishment — is only just if a person who goes there is there because of his own actions, which he had responsibility for.  If the person could not avoid behaving in such a way because he was fated to act this way, then the putting of such a person in hell is unjust. If a person is directly willed by God to go to Hell regardless of what he would want to do, this is also unjust.

Since Christians must believe God is perfectly just, such a view is incompatible with God. Therefore we should reject the nonsense of Double Predestination. Can God give special graces to help people to receive His salvation? Yes. Does this mean whoever does not receive these graces are hated by God? No. If we are determined to do evil, sometimes God will give us what we demand: to be left alone.

Is The Alternative Pelagianism?

Some may accuse me of Pelagianism here. Because I say that Double Predestination is false,  They might misinterpret me as saying that God does not matter and only our own works will save us or damn us. This would be an error however.  The rejection of Double Predestination does not mean a belief that man has the power to save himself.

Pelagianism is described as:

Doctrinal system associated with Pelagius and others, based on the inherent created goodness and innocence of human beings, the efficacy of the human will to achieve salvation, and sinless perfection without divine help…

…It held that every soul is created sinless, that the will is absolutely free, and that the grace of God is universal but not indispensable.

Kurian, G. T. (2001). Nelson's new Christian dictionary: The authoritative resource on the Christian world. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Pubs.

In other words, Pelagianism holds that man can get to Heaven by his own efforts, and while God helps, He isn't necessary.  This is not true.  Because man has lowered himself into a pit, as it were, he cannot get out of it by his own efforts.  God would be like a person offering us a rope to get out of the pit.  Without His help, we cannot escape the pit.  However, we can refuse to accept His help and remain in the pit.

So, to say man can be ungrateful and refuse the help God offers is not Pelagianism. Nor does it mean that God is not all powerful if a person refuses to accept His salvation.  It means God will not force us to accept His gift. He made us free to be good, but to be free means we can do wrong with our free will.

We need God if we are to be saved, but we are damned for our own actions which we are free to perform and can blame on no other person.

Denying Double Predestination Does Not Mean God Owes Us Anything

Let’s be clear on this. God does not owe us salvation. Our fallen nature comes because Adam and Eve, by their freely chosen sin, corrupted the nature God gave them. The children born to them in their fallen state share the same nature as their parents, as nothing can give a greater form of existence than one has (since Adam and Eve had lost their original grace, they could not pass it on to their offspring).

The fact that God sent His only Son so we might be saved is a gift we could not merit and did not deserve. However, there is a vast difference between not being able to merit a thing and not being able to refuse the free gift of God.

We believe God loves all of us, and desires all of us to be saved. However, because He has given us free will, we can use it to turn against Him. If we do, He is not obligated to override our Free Will.

Being Fated to Fall Is Not a Christian View, but a Sectarian View

We do know that Calvin’s claims of this being the correct interpretation of Scripture to the contrary; other Christian faiths do not accept this claim. People who think this view of God is unfair and unjust should know they are not alone in it.

The Second Council of Orange said in AD 529:

According to the Catholic faith we believe this also, that after grace has been received through baptism, all the baptized with the help and cooperation of Christ can and ought to fulfill what pertains to the salvation of the soul, if they will labor faithfully. We not only do not believe that some have been truly predestined to evil by divine power, but also with every execration we pronounce anathema upon those, if there are [any such], who wish to believe so great an evil. (Denzinger 199)

Against Calvin, the Church decreed in the Council of Trent,

Can. 17. If anyone shall say that the grace of justification is attained by those only who are predestined unto life, but that all others, who are called, are called indeed, but do not receive grace, as if they are by divine power predestined to evil: let him be anathema (Denzinger 827).

Finally, Augustine — so often cited by those who support Double Predestination — has had this to say in his Letter to Jerome, circa AD 415:

5. I am, moreover, fully persuaded that the soul has fallen into sin, not through the fault of God, nor through any necessity either in the divine nature or in its own, but by its own free will; and that it can be delivered from the body of this death neither by the strength of its own will, as if that were in itself sufficient to achieve this, nor by the death of the body itself, but only by the grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and that there is not one soul in the human family to whose salvation the one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, is not absolutely necessary. Every soul, moreover, which may at any age whatsoever depart from this life without the grace of the Mediator and the sacrament of this grace, departs to future punishment, and shall receive again its own body at the last judgment as a partner in punishment. But if the soul after its natural generation, which was derived from Adam, be regenerated in Christ, it belongs to His fellowship, and shall not only have rest after the death of the body, but also receive again its own body as a partner in glory. These are truths concerning the soul which I hold most firmly.  (Emphasis added)

If every soul can depart from life apart from the grace of God, it stands to reason a person cannot claim predestination to be saved or predestination to be damned.

So before condemning God or Christianity for the idea that man was set up to fail because he was fated to fall, one needs to remember this is a view which is not universally Christian.

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