Is Our Future Determined or Free?
The issue of free-will and predestination is one that has raised its head in every generation of Christians. Do we exercise choice, or has everything already been decided? The resultant mental gymnastics leave many feeling confused, and others feeling disappointed. Did you choose to read this article, or has God already determined that you will…or won’t? Maybe if you get halfway through, put down the article, and then pick it up again, you might think that you have double-bluffed God. Yet we know that nothing takes Him by surprise. On the other hand, Christians throughout the ages reject the kind of fatalism seen in other parts of the world.
The problem with the question as presented is that it is not nearly difficult enough. In order to truly appreciate the magnitude of what we are discussing, we must first deal with an even greater one. And it is this: Imagine if I were able to stop time right now. What would you be thinking? What would you be feeling? The answer is nothing.
In the absence of time, we cannot think or feel or do. Everything is frozen. People sometimes complain that I speak too quickly--the problem being that there is not sufficient time for them to think about what has been said. I always try to cheer myself by saying that at least something has been said for them to think about! But it is a fair criticism because in the absence of sufficient time we cannot think things through. In the absence of time altogether, however, we cannot even begin to think, as there is literally no time to think in.
This is because we live and have our existence in a space-time continuum. Space and time are related. We "belong to eternity stranded in time," observes Michael Card.1 This also means that before God created there was no time. Time is not co-eternal with God. But we also know that God was a thinking, feeling, doing Being before He created. Can you imagine a Being who is able to think in the absence of time? Of course not, but we worship a God who not only can do this, He does do this.
Just think about that for a second. We almost feel that somehow a clock must start ticking in order to enable God to think and to act. Yet this is not the case. God was existent in a loving relationship before time began, and was able to act and plan in the absence of time.
Can you now see the enormity of the problem? The God whom we worship not only exists outside of time, He can think and act in the absence of time. We, however, can only think in time. Furthermore, we cannot even think what it is like to think in the absence of time, let alone do it.
Just reading about this is enough to make us feel overwhelmed. And so it should. Whenever we think about the person of God, we should rightly feel that we have come across something truly awesome. And maybe this is part of the problem with the way this particular issue has been addressed. We are not faced with a logical contradiction here. Rather, we are faced with the reality of what it means for God to exist; for God to be God.
Think about God’s words to Moses: "I AM WHO I AM."2 The description only really makes sense when said by someone outside of time. Otherwise, it would be capricious--God is whatever He wants to be. However, God is not fickle. In this namesake by which God proclaims that He is to be remembered, He reveals Himself as the unchanging, faithful and living God, both now and forevermore. It is from Him, the great I AM, and because of Him that time even exists.
By now, some will have given up on this article. Don’t lose heart; it was ordained to be so! Yet in fact, because we are only able to think in time, God confronts us with choice: "Choose this day whom you will serve," "choose life," and so on.3 It is the only way we can understand our lives, analyze the past, and plan for the future. However, God, outside of time, sees all of history stretched out before Him. The problem comes, therefore, when we confine the God whom we worship within time. Part of me can’t help but think that this is why so many people get lost on this issue. The God we have come to worship becomes too small when trapped in time. A proper understanding of the tension drives us back both to God’s divine nature and to our knees, acknowledging how wonderful He is.
This understanding also helps us with the issue of eternal life. Many people find the idea of eternity frightening. What will we be doing for all of that time? After we have sung "O for a thousand tongues" a few hundred million times, then what? Once again, our faulty dilemma arises because we are captive both to an understanding of eternity concerned with the passage of time and a too small view of who God actually is.
People also then ask if God knew the world would fall after He created it. If He truly knows all things, then why did He create knowing that we would experience misery and pain in a fallen world? But we know that God did not create the world and then think of a plan to rescue it. In Revelation we are told that the Lamb was slain before the foundations of the world were laid.4 This does not mean that the Crucifixion took place in our space-time history before creation, because there was no space-history for it to take place in! What it does mean is that even before God created, He also knew the price it would cost Him—the suffering of His Own Son--to redeem His creation and save us. He didn’t count that cost too great--and hence we sing of God’s amazing grace.
Let me conclude with the following: People who assert that everything comes down to choice and that the future is full of possibilities believe that they have a basis for hope, but acknowledge that the future is unknown. Of course, the French existentialist writers were famous for this. I was recently at a conference and asked all who had read any of the existentialists to raise their hands. A surprising number did. I then asked them to keep their hands in the air if they had ever read a happy one. Two things happened. Everyone put his or her hand down, and everyone laughed. There is no such thing as a happy existentialist novel! Why? For all the existentialists’ desire for hope, when their open future was realized, it always disappointed. Indeed, confronted with this void, some (like Camus) concluded that suicide was the "one truly serious philosophical problem."5 In this sense, hope becomes wishful thinking when it has no secure future.
On the other hand, fatalists believe they have a future, but no hope. Nothing is or can be done; all has been determined. However, only God is big enough to be able to say, "I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."6 There is no hope without a secure future. The future is frightening in the absence of hope. Only God is big enough to bring these two things together---hope and a future--and this is what He has done for us.
1 Lyrics from “Joy in the Journey” by Michael Card, 1986.
2 Exodus 3:14
3 Joshua 24:15; Deuteronomy 30:19
4 Revelation 13:8
5 Albert Camus makes this argument in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus.
6 Jeremiah 29:11
Michael Ramsden is director of The Zacharias Trust (RZIM) in the United Kingdom. For more information on our ministry in the UK, see www.zachariastrust.org