(This article was originally published in Helium 11/8/2013)
Human beings created the concept of time and neatly divided it into manageable segments including the concepts of the past (any moment that is neither present nor future); the present (right now, this moment and also by extension, today); and future (time that has not yet happened). We humans live in the “now” of present time. We can regret or study the past and we can fear, plan for or try to predict the future. The past is over and done, nothing any human can do can change it and although many try to re-write history, it really doesn’t change the past. The future is unknowable, unpredictable and uncertain. All that we have is the current moment in the current day. As humans, we come to understand time from this perspective.
Not only have we, as humans, created a system for organizing time, we have also described God in our own image. We have difficulty conceptualizing a god that does not have human features and human attributes. We use many of the same terms to describe God that we use to describe humans. We gave God a gender. We made Him old. The human intellect is unable to conceptualize something beyond itself. This is as true of the timelessness of God as it is the nature of God.
We have trouble absorbing the notion that God is always in the “Now” or in the present moment that includes both the future and the past.
Since we are limited by our concept of time, we Christians pray for things we would like to have today or at some future time. We pray for a better job, a promotion, a cure for or relief for illness, or a bright clear day for the big football game. Rarely do we pray for the past. Yet the past is as much the present to God as is the future. God can act or directly intervene in our human past just as easily as He can act or directly intervene in the present or the future. So why not pray for the past as well as the present or future?
God’s timelessness is a concept with which many have difficulty. Many theologians have tried to objectively describe the consequences of God’s timelessness in words like “foreknowledge”, or predestination. Some look at God’s timelessness and wonder how humans can have free will if God already knows what is going to happen. Some even question the utility of prayer.
If God already knows what will happen in the future, did God share any of this knowledge with us? Many believe He did and cite certain passages in the Bible that indicate future happenings. The Book of Revelation is a popular source for predicting future happenings especially the timing for the end of the world or Jesus second coming. To date all these predictions have been wrong but the enthusiasm for trying to predict the future based upon Biblical phrases has not waned. The concept of Predestination falls under this general heading of attempting to read God’s mind by interpreting certain passages in the Bible.
Both Martin Luther and Calvin were interested in salvation and tried to describe God’s foreknowledge of who would enter heaven and who would not. In searching the Bible, Calvin felt that certain individuals were predestined to heaven.
Doctrine of Predestination
Predestination was a concept promulgated by Martin Luther and John Calvin in an attempt to unravel the mystery of salvation. Who will be saved and enter the kingdom of heaven? Since God is not bound by the human concept of time, God knows what will happen in the future. If God knows the future, God knows who will enter heaven and who will not. If God knows the future, does that mean that God accepts what will happen? If God accepts what will happen, does that mean God wills it to happen? If God wills it to happen, does that take free will away from humans? The logical conclusion is the Doctrine of Predestination.
These questions and their answers attempt to deal with the will of God versus God’s foreknowledge; the will of God versus human free will to choose or not choose God; God stating that heaven is available to all versus God giving certain individuals the grace to hear his word and become a member of the elect by the forgiveness of their sins. In other words, the Doctrine of Predestination is extremely complex. It involves a variety of theological issues. In order to explain the doctrine, Calvin peppered his writings with Biblical quotes. Luther, however, believed that the doctrine was simply too complex for laymen.
According to Calvin, “Predestination is the doctrine which attempts to describe justification as the decision and act of God alone—an act based upon no external determinants, but only on God’s own, divine decision. Additionally, it is held that those who are not elected to salvation are, through Divine will, elected to damnation. In this, ‘double predestination’ is, in fact, accepted. God elects people to both redemption and to reprobation.”
Luther wrote: “The human doctrine of free will and of our spiritual powers is futile. The matter (salvation) does not depend on our will but on God’s will and election.”* Since salvation is totally of God’s doing, the doctrine of election comforts those who believe. We can say, “I belong to God! I have been chosen by God. I am one of his sheep!”
Today, predestination is a theological concept adhered to by Presbyterians (see the TULIP Theology of Calvin), and Lutherans as well as Calvinists. It has its detractors, some of whom are scathing in their criticisms.
Toward a reconciliation of ideas
Not only are we humans circumscribed by our concepts of time, we are also circumscribed by language. Certain words have certain meanings and can reflect either or both broad or narrow concepts. Language hampers as well as frees. Problems arise when we demand everyone must use certain words to express certain ideas. It may be that “Predestination” is a word that constrains and is no longer as useful as it once was.
The Bible does contain the word “predestined;” but as with so many words in the Bible, should we understand the word literally or metaphorically? If taken literally, then certain people are predestined to hell (the double predestination theory). God wills certain people for hell before they are born. Christian understanding of a loving, forgiving God, rejects this notion out of hand as not being compatible with the nature of God.
There is every reason to believe, as Christians, that all people are destined (or even pre-destined) for heaven. God created us so we could be happy with Him in heaven. So why doesn’t everyone end up in heaven? (We are told in the Bible that this is so.) The logical answer to that question is that we do not chose the path that will lead us to heaven. We choose to ignore or deny the existence of God and his teachings. Therefore, a “double destination” exists, as an either/or, heaven or hell. But are these destinations necessarily “predestinations?” This would assume that God is a punitive God who picks and chooses who He will punish. Most Christians would reject this notion of a punitive, dictatorial God.
This question leads to the notion of free will. If God has foreknowledge, are humans really free? This is the paradox. There are many paradoxes or mysteries in Christianity that are difficult to comprehend and explain. Christianity teaches that Jesus was both human and divine. How can that be? How can something be both rather than one or the other? It is a paradox; a mystery. God is one person with three natures. Humans are both corporal and spiritual. God is both just and merciful. We humans insist upon either/or doctrines. God doesn’t seem to.
All theological concepts become re-worked over time as humans learn more and come to understand more. Most human concepts are not static, they evolve. Great thinkers write out their initial thoughts, then over time and more thought (and perhaps argumentation), polish or change early concepts. There is no shame in this. Just as growing older includes the accumulation of experiences that are reflected in thoughts and opinions, so too ideas form and grow.
Our notions of who God is has changed over the centuries. Learning to winnow out the truth from half-truths has always been the goal of philosophers and theologians. No one person can possibly hold the key to God’s thinking. It takes generations of experience, new knowledge about the natural world, study and thought by scholars to arrive at a consensus. It would seem that the concept of Predestination is one of those ideas that is being re-thought.
(I have chosen to link to Wikipedia articles simply because they are still in existence where the original links are no longer available.)