Do you believe in Fate?
Or in Blind Chance?
Or in Luck?
Or in Destiny?
Are you free to make all your own choices?
Or is your path through life all laid out for you?
Big questions indeed and how much do most people ever really think about them at all? Not surprisingly philosophers and theologians do a lot, because they’re fundamental to our views on life, individual agency and accountability for our actions, and therefore on crime and punishment. The current push to argue that our DNA influences heavily our life choices, maybe even determines them, is pushing many modern scientists to come down on the side, at least tentatively, of predestination.
The Greeks as ever were perhaps the first to turn thinking about them into a large line of philosophical enquiry even before there were philosophers, right back into the time of the composing of the Greek myths in which the Fates make many appearances. The Greeks called a human’s mix of good and bad luck ‘moira’ or ‘portion’, and believed that each person was given a ‘portion’ by the gods when they were born. Some got a mix of good and bad fortune, some just bad luck, but no one got just good. Very telling about the Greeks’ pessimistic view of humanity!
So what’s the connection of the Greeks’ thinking about these issues when this is an article about Christian theology and the concepts of Free Will and Predestination? Well, at least in part because far more than any other faith Christianity absorbed pretty painlessly huge elements of Greek philosophical enquiry and abstract thought. The young faith was founded in a world dominated by Greek thought, was undoubtedly influenced by it at least in the way it articulated itself right from the start (the first verse of St John’s Gospel reads like Platonist thought), and had to have answers against the incisive conceptual questions asked by Greek philosophers. That it easily and even almost wholeheartedly did so is one of the things that differentiates Christianity from all other faiths and why it’s no accident that Christian civilisation has dominated all avenues of intellectual, artistic and scientific advancement for much of the past two millennia. And long may that continue – no other culture comes close.
So Christianity engaged with Greek ways of thinking and speculation, and as a consequence sought to have answers rooted in the Bible, but applyed reasoned logic to develop answers to all the conceptual questions that could be thrown at it, even if the Bible didn’t directly provide specific answers. And hence we have advanced conceptual thinkers like William of Ockam and Thomas Aquinas (arguably one of the greatest three conceptual thinkers in human history, along with Plato and Aristotle, who reconciled Aristotelian thought with Christianity) in the so-called primitive Middle Ages (hah!).
And two of the biggest conceptual questions are those of Free Will and Predestination which have been argued about backwards and forwards for almost two millennia, an intractable clash and paradox, which are seemingly mutually exclusive.
In the Blue Corner, Predestination. If God is outside time and space (the Jewish/Christian conception from the start of Genesis) He must know every human’s life and outcome, and whether they will make it into an after-life or not, and hence, by this, every human’s eventual fate is predestined by God from before their birth, so God picks who goes to Heaven and who Hell, and so where then is Free Will and personal accountability? Theologians supporting this view would cite verses from the New Testament such as Paul’s Epistle to the young Roman church in the 50’s AD chapter 8, verses 11 and 28-30 for example,
“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom He predestined He also called; and those whom He called He also justified; and those whom He justified He also glorified.”
Seemingly a clear statement from St Paul that it’s predestined by God whether a person makes it into Heaven or not. Arguably the greatest and most influential early (4/5th century) Christian theologian (Augustine of Hippo from North Africa) came down broadly on the Predestination side and carried the argument for a time. Interestingly, Augustine had previously been a Manichaean, or follower of the prophet Mani, whose ideas later broke out in the Cathar and Bogomil heresies, although Mani founded a new religion entirely distinct form Christianity and seems to have been more a dualist Zoroastrian if anything. Manichaeans believed that the material world was so corrupt that it could not have been made by a perfect God and therefore was made by a lesser being, and it has been suggested that this pretty bleak view of the world influenced his later Christianity.
But the nagging objections to Predestination just wouldn’t go away. How could a loving God predestine souls to damnation and wouldn’t this render Jesus’ death and resurrection meaningless as each human would not be accountable for their actions or salvageable? Augustine’s great opponent Pelagius (a Briton – yay) was the banner carrier of the Free Will argument, and could cite verses like the well- known statement of Jesus in Revelations 3, verse 20, which clearly says it’s down to a person’s choice whether they will let God give them salvation,
“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”
Furthermore, the whole story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (always from the earliest times understood by Christian thinkers to be an allegory about Free Will rather than the literal truth) would be advanced. And so in the Red Corner the argument that we all make our own choices and are accountable for our actions, and that the offer of salvation by God is open to all if they choose to take it up. Now God might know whether people will choose to take it up or not, but omniscience does not imply Predestination. But of course, the proponents of Predestination would say this in effect limits God’s omnipotence and makes Man the arbiter of God’s plans and that Man cannot save himself without action by God.
[A Christian joke related to me by a very good vicar on this subject: a Christian has had an accident on a mountain road and is clinging to a precipice by his finger tips and prays for divine intervention as there’s no one around to rescue him. A bit later a motorcyclist drives by and stops and the biker offers to pull him up, but the Christian says “No thanks, God will save me,.” and so the motorcyclist drives off. A little later a car drives by and the driver stops and offers to help him up, but the Christian refuses saying God will save him. An hour goes by and the man’s strength is failing. He hears a helicopter above him and the pilot shouts out if he needs rescuing? The Christian shouts back that he doesn’t because he has faith that God will save him, so the helicopter flies off. A few minutes later the man’s strength gives out, his grip fails and he plummets to his death. A few seconds later he’s in Heaven and sees God and says, “Lord I called on you, had faith, but you didn’t save me. Why not?” God replies, “Well I sent three people to rescue you. How many more did you want?”]
And so the arguments raged backwards and forwards, with many attempts at reconciliation. Crudely, the Eastern Orthodox churches inclined more towards Free Will while the Western Roman churches towards Predestination, although even here there was a gradual drift towards Free Will. In reality, a middle ground was being thrashed out until he Reformation came along and the emergence of Calvinism strengthened the vehemence of those arguing for Predestination. Some even advanced Double Predestination, although other more liberal Protestant thinkers like the Dutch theologian Arminius argued for Free Will. Today, Free Will has largely prevailed in a modified form inside the main churches outside their more fundamentalist fringes, although the advent of bio-determinist geneticists may well reinvigorate the arguments of Predestinationists.
An illustration of this somewhat messy middle ground view. Some Orthodox Christians use the parable of a drowning man to illustrate the teaching of synergy: God from the ship throws a rope to a drowning man, pulls him up, saving him, and the man, if he wants to be saved, must hold on tightly to the rope; explaining both that salvation is a gift from God and man cannot save himself, and that man must co- work (syn-ergo) with God in the process of salvation.
Now at this point you might want to give up and put your head in your hands – I know the feeling well. So how can they be reconciled? I’ve come to a view that Predestination and Free Will are not mutually exclusive, and that indeed they are just different sides of the same coin, and indeed mutually necessary.
I’m no computer gamer, but my lads are (when I can’t stop them) and I have developed an ignorant layman’s interest in computer programming as a director of a software house. My boys were bought a football game for Christmas which finally downloaded at 42.3 giga-bites which helped crystallise my thinking on this issue. The complexity and potential permutations are extraordinary, mind bogglingly so, and that’s just for a retail game. Imagine some of the programming required for Google’s software, that of the NSA or GCHQ, let alone what will be possible in the future? In effect, whole virtual worlds, the Matrix one might term it.
So is the reconciliation to be thought of as a game with seemingly infinite permutations, seemingly infinite choices by each player interacting with one another and other factors (although many mathematicians say an infinite number is not possible in reality and that reality is by nature constrained)? But in every such game the result comes down in the end to two potential results: You Win or You Lose. So a player has in effect infinite choices – or Free Will – of how they play according to the rules of the game, but despite these infinite choices it still comes down to one of two endings because that is how the programmers have constructed the rules and so there is no escape. The rules and the cumulation of all the other players’ choices, together with one’s own, in effect drive you to the end of the game. You may start off at different points, with different inherent advantages or disadvantages, interact with myriads of different other players, but still end up at the same inevitability every time. So the ending is predestined by the programmer, but within constraints of the rules you have Free Will as to how you get there and what the ultimate outcome is.
So, imagine a super intelligence, with infinite time and unconstrained resource, which for reasons of their own constructs the greatest programme possible, so vast that the entities within it can live out entire lives unaware and make immense choices, but still always get to a binary possibility ending to determine if they go to the next level or not. A crude and not very accurate or even sympathetic analogy, but perhaps an aide of a way to look at the issue. We have Free Will within the rules of the game. We are accountable for our choices, but cannot break out of one or two possible endings, and the programmer already knows which one we’ll choose, so Predestination operates still.
Perhaps convincing, perhaps not, but interestingly some cosmologists have speculated that what we see as reality is in fact a projection from something, somewhere, beyond our Universe’s Event Horizon. Our language, our ability to hold adequate conceptual thought in our brains, break down, so we are reduced to analogies to cope. I at least find it helpful.