Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Foreknowledge and Predestination

If God knows all things in advance, then he knew when he created man that he would one day destroy virtually the entire earth. That makes God a sadistic monster. That is the challenge tossed at me a week or so ago. And the logic seemed impeccable. But was it?

The argument was built on a bar stool version of God's omniscience (bar stool being a bunch of guys sitting around talking). The reasoning was that God knows everything that will be in advance (foreknowledge). If he knows everything in  advance, there was no way that the people of the pre-flood era could have avoided destruction. It was predestined. They had no freedom to even repent. That makes God evil. He destroyed people who had no chance to avoid it.

Most Christian would be uncomfortable with that idea. I am uncomfortable with that idea. But what could possibly be wrong with the argument. It seems both valid and sound. Done and out, as far as my friend was concerned. (Valid and sound are technical terms for a deductive argument that is true.)

A little reflection, however, revealed that there had to be some flaw. For one thing, if foreknowledge locked people into a predetermined future, it locked God into that predetermined future also. That means that people are not free agents, but neither is God. What people do, they must do. What God does, he must do. But that creates a dilemma. If God is locked into a future  and is not free, how could he be free to predetermine? The idea is self-contradictory.

For another, our experience is that we daily make choices that seem to us to be freely made. That is, we have many options and chose from among those. When I want a bowl of ice cream I may choose vanilla or chocolate.  Unless that is an illusion, the fact that we can and do choose means we are free to do so. And that means whatever God knows in advance cannot lock us into a particular action or choice.

And finally, from a biblical theological point of view, if we were not free morally we could not be culpable of sin. We might do things that if we were free to choose would be called sin, but because we were not free to choose, we are not sinners. We are no different from the lion on the plains of  Africa. The lion kills an antelope, he may even kill  another lion (male lions do kill  lion cubs) but the lion is not immoral. His actions are instinctive with no moral overtones. We do not condemn the lion. It would be unjust. In the same way,  God's condemnation of our actions would be unjust, at the very least, and immoral if that condemnation resulted in judgement, as in the destruction at the flood.  (Or so my friend claimed).

But common sense, formal logic, and the Bible tells us otherwise. So how is the deductive argument that seemed so sound wrong?

That argument is formulated this way:
      P1: Foreknowledge and predestination are linked.
      P2: God knows all things in advance (foreknowledge).
      Conclusion: Therefore, God determines all things in advance.

The most obvious fault in the argument is in P2. (P stands for premise.) Bar stool theology imagines God's omniscience as total and absolute. As it is usually formulated - God knows all things both actual and potential - it sounds total. So I suppose we can forgive these bar stool philosophers. But there is some fine print.

God does know all things both actual and potential. BUT, with some exceptions, he does not know future events as actual until they happen. (Those more astute theologians who may be lurking, please hear me out and follow the biblical evidence with me.) He knows them as potential, potential among a variety of potential alternatives. And that is where free agency is allowed. We can and do choose from among the potentials. That allows God free agency as well. And that is important as we'll see later.

But first, what are the exceptions? The first are those things that God decrees. That word decree is a technical term meaning the basic purposes of God by which he works out his plan for history. They include among them consequences for sin, but not sin itself; the cross and forgiveness and mercy; the final end, which is glory for the redeemed and perdition for the unrepentant. And God decrees free agency within the bounds of our nature.

We might view God's decrees as A. W. Tozer, one of my favorite Bible guys, described them. The decrees are like a ship that has a predetermined (decreed) destination.  The passengers cannot determine after they have embarked where they are going. But they do have freedom to roam about the ship as they please. In such a way God's decrees allow for limited freedom. But the destination is certain.

There are a few other exceptions. God predestines believers to be conformed to the image of Christ. He works all things together for good, for example, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). And God predestines the details of these believers' lives. There is the famous passage most often recalled, Psalm 139: "all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:16)" But be careful; these all speak of believers.

We should not go beyond that to assume the infamous "sixth point" of Calvinism that God predestines others to perdition. Though that may seem logical to us, given the predestination of believers, it is not supported in the Bible. We should let the Bible speak. Recognize systematic theology as one step away from biblical theology. It may be correct, but it may not be. Just notice how many conflicting systematic theologies have been written over the years. Which one is correct? You choose. But it is better to let the Bible speak.

Prophecy would also be an exception. But is an exception not because God knows the future but because God determines at least these events of the future. Some prophecy is conditioned upon the actions of people, for example Judas who betrayed Jesus. But still those people still are free agents. The who is not decreed. It is the what that is decreed. And the consequences are decreed.

So what is the biblical support for this, admittedly controversial idea that God knows all things in the sense described but only predestines some things? (This will need to be brief, but I hope adequate.)

First, the decrees: Sin has consequences. Romans 6:23, "The wages of sin is death." There are no exceptions. It is not that sometimes sin results in  death. It is that it always does, and that by God's decree. But there is another decree in the same verse: "But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." That is by God's decree and is just as certain. That is why Peter says in Acts 4:12 that "there is no other name [Jesus] given among men whereby we must be saved."  God has decreed that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13). They must be saved. No exceptions. It is decreed. If you have not called upon the name of the Lord Jesus in faith and trust, you may because God gives you that freedom. Do so and God will be faithful to his promise.

The end of history is decreed as well. In 1 Corinthians 15:24-26 Paul writes: "Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death." There will be an end. That is decreed. All opposition to God's sovereignty will be destroyed. That is decreed. Eternity and eternal life for the redeemed will ensue. It is not potential. It is decreed. No exceptions. 

Finally, freedom within the bounds of our nature is decreed.  Here the Bible implies freedom more often than directly states it. But the implication is very strong. From Revelation: "The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!' And let him who hears say, 'Come!' Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life" (chapter 22:17). If the "whoever" means anything at all, it must mean whoever. There is a choice. An invitation without a choice is a mockery. 

That choice is implied even in the passage about the flood in Genesis 6 where my friend and I began. It says of God that he was grieved over the wickedness of men: "The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain." It would be nonsensical for God to grieve if men could not help but do what they did in rebelling against God. It would also be nonsensical to talk of judgement, for judgement presumes culpability, and men who are not free are not culpable. And it would be nonsensical to speak of mercy or grace, yet in the same narrative it says Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. If there is no choice for man or for God, as my friend concluded,  then grace would not be possible, for grace is a choice freely made by God. We have hope because God is free.

Finally, what about the idea that God does not know an event as actual until events happen? The most intriguing passage is in Genesis 22. God commanded Abraham to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him. Abraham obeyed. But at the last moment as Abraham's hand and knife are raised, God said stop. He said:  "Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." God knew that Abraham feared (reverenced) God in actuality, not simply as a potential. He knew  because Abraham obeyed him even in his willingness to sacrifice his son. 

What Abraham did he did freely. His action was not predetermined by God. It would not be obedience if it had been. However, we must remember that our tomorrows are God's yesterday. They have already happened. Just as my knowing today what I ate yesterday does not determine what I ate, so God's knowledge of what I will eat tomorrow does not determine what I will eat. It is yesterday to him. He knows because he is there.

I know this is brief. An adequate treatment would require a treatise. But it is in brief what I think the Bible says. And it is an adequate answer to the puzzle about foreknowledge and predestination.  Both men and God are free agents - within the bounds of their natures and God's decrees. And we should be thankful for both.