Rev. Dean Snyder
It is the last Sunday of the year. In a few days it will be Y2K10. So I thought it would be a good Sunday for an esoteric theological discussion: the debate between predestination and free will. This was the most intense conflict within the history of Protestantism other than the debates about baptism. The concept of predestination is an idea that has its origins in the Bible. There are two passages of Scripture that are most often quoted to support the idea of predestination.
Romans 8 says: 29 For those whom [God] foreknew [God] also predestined to be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son, in order that [Jesus Christ] might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom [God] predestined [God] also called; and those whom [God] called [God] also justified; and those whom [God] justified [God] also glorified.
Ephesians 1 says: [God] chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before [God] in love. 5 [God] [pre]destined us for adoption as [God’s] children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of [God’s] will, 6 to the praise of [God’s] glorious grace that [God] freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
So the idea of predestination comes from the Bible but because an idea appears in the Bible does not necessarily mean it is the only or even the predominant teaching in the Bible about salvation or human destiny.
Many of the first Christians had a sense that they had not chosen Jesus, but that Jesus had chosen them… that they were followers of Jesus because they had been selected from before the beginning of time to be Jesus’ disciples.
The idea of predestination existed as early as the Apostle Paul, it was taught by St. Augustine, its great champion was John Calvin, the founder of the Calvinist movement, including the Presbyterian churches.
The idea of predestination teaches that individuals are predestined or elected from before their birth, even from before the beginning of time, for salvation or damnation.
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote: “Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which [God] hath determined in [God’s own] self what [God] would have to become of every individual of [hu]mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others.”
While the idea of predestination in a general sense is in the Bible, Calvin and his followers came to their understanding of predestination as a result of logic. They believed that God was sovereign, omnipotent, all powerful. They believed God has absolute power, authority and control over everything; therefore, God must have absolute control over who is saved and who is damned.
They also believed absolutely in grace… that we are saved by grace alone. Grace is a free gift. So they concluded that those who are saved are saved by the absolutely free gift of God choosing to save them. It could only be an absolutely free gift if there were others God chose to damn, not because of anything they had done or didn’t do but simply because that is what God chose.
Other Christian teachers like Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley thought that this was logical thinking run amuck… that the idea of a God who chose to damn people arbitrarily is repugnant. That there is no way that such a God could be called a loving God and have the word love still have any meaning.
John Wesley taught that God knew in advance who would choose salvation and who wouldn’t and predestined or elected those who chose salvation for salvation.
I think the greatest teacher on the idea of predestination was the theologian Karl Barth, who considered himself a Calvinist. Barth agrees that the idea that God would arbitrarily predestine anybody to damnation is unacceptable. But Barth still believes in the idea of predestination or election because he finds it in the Bible. The conclusion Barth comes to is that Jesus Christ is the God who predestines and Jesus Christ is the humanity God predestines. In Jesus Christ God elects or predestines all humanity for salvation. It takes Barth a couple of hundred pages to get to this conclusion and his thinking is often intricate and complex.
It was my study of Karl Barth on predestination that brought me to the conclusion that the ultimate logic of Christianity is that all humanity is predestined for salvation. God intends for all humanity to be saved.
I believe in free will. Our lives are not scripted in advance. The decisions we make in life are real decisions. I also believe that the love of God is ultimately convincing. I believe the love of God is the most powerful reality in the universe so I believe all of us will ultimately surrender to it in this life or the next.
Others—good, smart people—believe differently.
But still I think the biblical idea of predestination or election is an important idea. The question it addresses is the question of whether God is on your side or not, whether God is for me or against me or neutral.
There are things we cannot know. Maybe someday some scientist will discover evidence to help us figure them out, but I doubt it. What existed before the Big Bang? If something existed before the Big Bang, what existed before that? What caused the Big Bang? Was there direction and purpose to the expansion of the universe? Is the universe going anywhere? Is there a telos? Is my existence accidental or sensible? Are the events of my life random or purposeful? Does the universe care what happens to me?
The evidence is mixed. I have a good life. Lots of good things have happened to me. I have the capacity to think and to be self-reflective. There is great beauty in the world. There is music. There is mathematics. Did we invent mathematics or discover it? I can’t help but believe that mathematics is woven into the universe. Mathematics is beautiful. I cannot imagine the complexity of the universe being mindless or unintentional.
On the other hand, there is great suffering and misery and unfairness in the universe. Nature is cruel. Nature is ruthless. Read Annie Dillard’s book Tinker at Pilgrim Creek.Annie Dillard wanted to understand God by understanding creation. She begins her book by talking about her loving, affectionate cat. She slept by an open window at night. The cat used the window to go out hunting. In the morning she would wake up with bloody paw prints on her body. The cat walked on her in the night after hunting. Nature is beautiful but it is also ruthless.
A friend who is an atheist asked me once to explain to him the Christian belief in life after death. I said to him, “Okay, let’s begin with the basic principle that no life is ever wasted.”
He said, “What do you mean? Life is wasted all the time. It seems to me that there is nothing the universe does better than to waste life.”
The conversation has bothered me ever since.
There are things, so far as I can see, that are not subject to proof. Yet what we decide about them is pivotal for the way we live our lives.
Is the Creator of the universe aware of me? Am I to the Creator like an ant is to me? Is my existence random? Does it really matter what I do with my life?
Is it finally a dog-eat-dog, me-against-you/you-against-me world? Or are we created for community, for love?
These are pivotal questions but we have no proof.
This Advent we have been studying Foundry Church’s key scripture—Mark 12:28-31. Somebody asked Jesus what the greatest commandment is. Jesus said there were two—one is to love God, the other is to love your neighbor as yourself.
I think this scripture actually helps us with the question of life’s meaning. Frankly, I am not sure I want you to love me unless you think I am predestined for salvation, I am predestined for a good and meaningful life; I am predestined for a purpose.
And you can not believe those things about me unless you believe them about yourself.
The first Christians’ sense was that there was a claim on their life that was eternal. This is what the idea of destination originally meant. Then we became more and more rigid in our thinking. The idea of predestination that emerged—that some of us were predestined for salvation, others for rejection—justified us loving people we thought were like us and rejecting people we thought failed in some sort of way.
Max Weber thought the doctrine of predestination was a driving force of capitalism. People worked hard to become successful because success was a sign that you were one of the elect.
But the only way Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves works is if we believe that we are all predestined for salvation, a good and meaningful life, for love.
I’d like you to try an experiment with me this morning. Close your eyes and think of someone you find it difficult to love or accept… a co-worker, neighbor, relative. Picture them in hell, whatever hell looks like to you. Now reach down and pull them to your side. This is where we are meant to be… neighbors in the community of salvation, goodness, meaning and love. May our vision become real.
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek
(Harper Perennial Modern Classics).