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. 


Steve Johnson said...

IImagine a man owns an elaborate train set with numerous crossing tracks and dozens of trains.He can schedule the trains, he can control the speeds he can set the whole system up to run at the same time.
If he knows that by setting the entire system in motion it will result in a disastrous crash that destroys every train after a six hour timespan, what are the ramifications?
The trains are predestined to crash.
The man has foreknowledge of the crash before he starts the trains in motion.
He also has the ability to stop the trains before they crash.
Does the foreknowledge that dooms the trains once the system starts lock him into allowing the crash to happen.
The man exists outside the realm of the trains, he is in another plane. His foreknowledge predestines the trains beyond their control, but it doesn't predestine him to anything.

Don Camp said...

It an interesting story. But to make it more interesting and to conform it a bit more closely to the reality we experience and biblical theology let me rewrite it.

Imagine a man owns a railroad. There are numerous crossing tracks and dozens of trains. He schedules the trains. He determines the time times of departure. The trains don't run randomly, or at least that is not his purpose. The owner has a destination for them to reach. There are engineers driving each train. Thy can slow down, speed up or stop.

His purpose is, as the owner of the railroad, that the trains safely reach their destination. There are signals and warning flags along the way and a manual of procedures which each engineer can read. There is even a means for the railroad owner to communicate with the engineers to let them know when danger is immanent.

There is the possibility of a crash, of course. The engineers can ignore the signals. They could go rogue and run randomly. The owner knows that in advance. But that is not what the owner desires. It is certainly not the purpose of running a railroad. But the owner does not control the engineers.

The owner could, of course, simply stop the trains or not set them in motion in the first place. But doing that would prevent them from reaching their destination.

Does his foreknowledge that a crash is possible lock him into allowing the crash to happen? No. Theoretically he could take personal control of the trains. But he chooses not to do so, allowing the engineers to operate the trains. The whole object of running the railroad is for the engineers and trains to reach their destination safely. Predestining them to crash would be totally stupid. But the only way to absolutely prevent a crash is take absolute control or to not run the railroad. He could computerize the whole thing, for example, and do away with engineers. But then only empty trains would reach the destination. That seems pointless.

There is a risk for this owner. There are risks for the engineers. Crashes are possible. But the risks do not out weight the benefits: the engineers and the trains arriving at their destination.

Let's imagine that the owner exists outside the realm of the trains. Let's say in England. He does know there are risks to running a railroad. But knowing there are risks does not predestine anything. It is the only way, given the goal, get the engineers and trains to the destination, so the risks must be run.

Is the owner required (predestined) to run the railroad and run the risk of crashes? No. He could choose not to run the railroad. He is not predestined to that. So why does he do what he does? He chooses to do so for the pleasure of seeing these engineers reach their destination.

What are the ramification? Engineers and trains arriving safely. If they don't? The responsibility belongs to the engineers.

No analogy is perfect. But I think this more faithfully conforms to reality.

Don Camp said...

I should add for those who are a bit more sophisticated theologically, that I am not advocating open theism. God does not wait to see what will happen. But neither does he, except in certain situations, determine what will happen absolutely. One of the decrees of God is that men have free will - within limits. So what happens in the exercise of that free will does not surprise God. It is as he willed it to be along with the limits upon it and the consequences attending the choices made.

Steve Johnson said...

Ok, so there is no such thing as foreknowledge, only a recognition of possibilities. Sounds rational.

adam2aces said...

In Genesis God puts a tree of evil knowledge on earth. Who put evil on earth? That's right -God did. Without a tree containing the knowledge of evil there is no evil and without a creator to make an evil tree there is no evil tree.
Why do we live in a fallen world? Because God made it that way! Supposedly God can make a perfect world that is sin free and it is called heaven. Why not just make heaven only and put everyone there (because that would be too nice of him?). No God did not want to make robots, is the claim I hear most. So in order for us not to be robots we need to have sin available to us? Yes, they say, it is the only way to have freewill. There is no sin option in heaven, so I ask, is everyone in heaven a robot then? At which point I get blank stare or name calling.
We don't have carte blanche freewill on Earth, we have limited freewill. We cannot will ourselves to fly around the house or walk through walls. All God had to do was exclude the capacity for sin along with walking through walls.
Earth is supposedly a freewill testing ground to see if we can be good robots in heaven. An all-knowing God who is a perfect creator that needs to test anything means he is not all-knowing or perfect. If God was perfect, and loved us all, we would simply all be born in heaven and any creation that is defective with sin simply need not be made to begin with. An omniscient, omnipotent God that is loving would not create people that will go to hell, he has the power and knowledge to do it any way he wants; but yet we are told he made a hell that he does not want anybody to go to. Again, if that were true he would not have made it. Clearly God wants people he deems unworthy to go there.
If God never made hell there would be no hell to be sent to. Instead we are to believe he did make people, he did make a tree of evil, he did make hell, then planned on sending many there; you cannot physically get to hell without God's "help", in fact nobody even knows where hell is only God does. You can only get to hell by God's power exclusively (Luke 12:5). Infinite punishment for finite crimes is not just or merciful.
If you love your creation, and you don't wish them harm, you don't start out by sticking a tree of evil knowledge in the middle of it, then allow an evil deceptive serpent full access to the whole thing, that would be just plain idiotic.

Don Camp said...

Why the tree?
God desired beings with whom he can have fellowship. That evidently means morally free. Moral freedom implies the freedom to choose right or wrong. In order for that to be, there must be a choice. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil provided that choice. It waqs the one and only command God gave.

Why not just create heaven and bypass the earth experience?
Remember that there was sin in heaven also. Some of the angels chose to rebel against God. Heaven did not prevent sin.

No. Freedom implies choice. If freedom is God's desire for us - and for angels - a choice is necessary.

Why is there no sin in heaven?
Because the angels who remained obedient to God chose to do so. Perhaps part of that choice included seeming where sin leads. And that may be the reason heaven will remain sin-free when it includes humans. By the end of human history the sad and tragic history of sin on earth will be all too obvious. The redeemed will remain sinless because they chose to be obedient to God. By their choice they embrace obedience to God, and God makes that choice the final moral choice.

It is not that God needs to test anything. The test is for our benefit. In our failures (we all are sinners, so we all have failed) we recognize the destructiveness of sin and choose obedience rather than sin.

Does God want people (or angels) to go to hell?
No. God has done everything he can do - apart from taking away our humanity - to keep us from hell. That is the reason for Jesus coming and dying for sin. God gives us the chance to reverse our choice to sin by seeking his mercy and forgiveness.

It is telling that many choose to continue to resist God rather than welcome his love.

Hell is a place where sin is its own punishment. God withdraws his protective care and his presence. Sin is allowed to be as evil as it can be. (We'll have a preview in the final period of time before the end of human history.)

See 2 Thessalonians 1:9 "They [those in hell] will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might."

There will be punishment for what we have done, but that is finite - though far more significant than you imply. But beyond the punishment is the isolation from all that is good and beautiful and holy. That will be forever. That is the meaning of the metaphor of darkness. Hell will be total and forever darkness.

On the other hand, heaven is the presence of God and the enjoyment of his beauty and glory in a new creation forever.

Why argue the justice or injustice when all you need to do is humbly receive God's mercy? God has promised that whoever comes to him he will not cast out.

Romans 10:13 “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Leray Eason said...

This was the best explanation I’ve ever encountered for some of this burning questions that has been plaguing me!! Thank you for this!!