Prophecy and Predestination vs. Free Will

Prophecy. The Bible is filled with prophecies. Moses taught that the test for whether someone was in direct contact with God or not was the ability to make prophecies which come true.

Deuteronomy 18:

20 "But if any prophet presumes to speak anything in my name that I have not authorized him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet must die.

21 Now if you say to yourselves, 'How can we tell that a message is not from the LORD?' —

22 whenever a prophet speaks in my name and the prediction is not fulfilled, then I have not spoken it; the prophet has presumed to speak it, so you need not fear him."

(NET Bible®)

Prophecy presents us with a host of theological dilemmas. If the future is known, what is our role in the whole scheme of things? Are we puppets? Are we but sequences of three-dimensional pixels in a gigantic 3D movie that the Creator is running in his mind?

Then we have Paul’s predestination passages:

Romans 8:

28 And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose,

29 because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

30 And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified.

(NET Bible®)

If some are destined to be saved and the rest are born to be damned, is the concept of sin even meaningful? If humans are following preordained trajectories of life, then God is responsible for all sin.

This is logic. If you find the last clause above to be blasphemous, then you need to find an alternative to strict predestination in order to avoid blasphemy.

I opt to believe in Free Will. I believe that Free Will is fundamental to the design of the Creation, that allowance for Free Will is the reason that the universe is such a slippery mess when you get down to the subatomic level. I believe that the challenges inherent in Free Will underlie the supernatural drama in which we play our parts.

I say believe. I cannot prove these assertions with great rigor. I can give indications from the Biblical record. I can also dismantle some of the theological arguments given against Free Will. I will do the latter first.

Omnipotence and Omniscience – the Inherent Contradictions

If God is omniscient, then God knowingly created every sin that has ever happened since the dawn of time. If all your nature is set upon your creation, then you have zero culpability for your sins.

On the other hand, if you have true Free Will, it means you are culpable. But it also puts a limit on God’s omniscience. This disturbs many theologians. Implying any limitations on God seems disrespectful.

But, ruling out Free Will also limits the Creator! It says there is something that the Creator cannot create! It places a limit on omnipotence.

Omnipotence and omniscience collide. Either way there are limitations on the Creator. Proof by definition doesn’t work. We must resort to the data – the Bible. We will turn there in a bit, but for some philosophy.

Is Free Will Even Philosophically Possible?

If we have a Nature, and the things and beings we encounter also have a Nature, then are our choices merely unfoldings of our Natures? Is Free Will even a meaningful concept in theory?

Such thinking makes my brain hurt. I will leave the heavy thinking to trained philosophers. To all the philosophers in the audience, I present a challenge: is there any hypothetical reality in which Free Will is possible? That is, if you were designing a universe which does allow Free Will, what would it look like?

I don’t know the answer, but I have seen some clues. If you try to pin down the complete Nature of anything, things get all weird in the laboratory. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle appears to be one of the most fundamental laws of the universe that we know. Throw in relativity and quantum entanglement and we see what appear to be loopholes in causality itself. Is the universe in a state of weird flux to make room for our choices?

Now, back to theology.

Prophecy vs. Free Will

My cat has a mind of his own. I do not control, nor can I always predict his whims.

Nevertheless, I can make some pretty good predictions regarding parts of his future – because I make them happen. I am considerably bigger than my cat, and possibly more intelligent. I choose when my lap is available. I choose when to open a can of cat food. (For my cat, these are future events of great significance.)

Jeremiah recorded a vision of his people’s relationship to God that is rather similar:

Jeremiah 18:

1 The LORD said to Jeremiah:

2 "Go down at once to the potter's house. I will speak to you further there."

3 So I went down to the potter's house and found him working at his wheel.

4 Now and then there would be something wrong with the pot he was molding from the clay with his hands. So he would rework the clay into another kind of pot as he saw fit.

5 Then the LORD said to me,

6 "I, the LORD, say: 'O nation of Israel, can I not deal with you as this potter deals with the clay? In my hands, you, O nation of Israel, are just like the clay in this potter's hand.'

7 There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or kingdom.

8 But if that nation I threatened stops doing wrong, I will cancel the destruction I intended to do to it.

9 And there are times when I promise to build up and establish a nation or kingdom.

10 But if that nation does what displeases me and does not obey me, then I will cancel the good I promised to do to it.

(NET Bible®)

In this vision the potter does not have complete control over the clay. He guides it, but the clay does its own thing. But, if the potter doesn’t like the result, he reworks the clay and tries something else. There is a bit of playing the odds going on here.

Probability and Prophecy

Free Will does not rule out making some good predictions. There is such a thing as human nature, though it gets blurry when you try to get precise.

For example, using economics I could easily predict the shortages that happened in Venezuela when the socialist government resorted to price controls. These shortages were not guaranteed. It was conceivable that everyone could choose to be patriotic and put the public good over price signals. But it was extremely unlikely, for reasons that require only an extremely crude model of human nature.

The Creator knows rather more of our nature than yours truly. But he doesn’t need puppeteer like control of humans or FORTRAN levels of determinism to make near guaranteed predictions. (And He always has the option of intervening if the whims of human Free Will lead to an improbable result.)

Consider the Moses’ farewell address in Deuteronomy. He starts off with some conditional blessings.

Deuteronomy 28:

1 "If you indeed obey the LORD your God and are careful to observe all his commandments I am giving you today, the LORD your God will elevate you above all the nations of the earth.

2 All these blessings will come to you in abundance if you obey the LORD your God:

3 You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the field.

4 Your children will be blessed, as well as the produce of your soil, the offspring of your livestock, the calves of your herds, and the lambs of your flocks.

5 Your basket and your mixing bowl will be blessed.

6 You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.

7 The LORD will cause your enemies who attack you to be struck down before you; they will attack you from one direction but flee from you in seven different directions.

8 The LORD will decree blessing for you with respect to your barns and in everything you do — yes, he will bless you in the land he is giving you.

9 The LORD will designate you as his holy people just as he promised you, if you keep his commandments and obey him.

(NET Bible®)

These are followed by conditional curses:

Deuteronomy 28:

15 "But if you ignore the LORD your God and are not careful to keep all his commandments and statutes I am giving you today, then all these curses will come upon you in full force:

16 You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the field.

17 Your basket and your mixing bowl will be cursed.

18 Your children will be cursed, as well as the produce of your soil, the calves of your herds, and the lambs of your flocks.

19 You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.

20 "The LORD will send on you a curse, confusing you and opposing you in everything you undertake until you are destroyed and quickly perish because of the evil of your deeds, in that you have forsaken me.

21 The LORD will plague you with deadly diseases until he has completely removed you from the land you are about to possess.

22 He will afflict you with weakness, fever, inflammation, infection, sword, blight, and mildew; these will attack you until you perish.

23 The sky above your heads will be bronze and the earth beneath you iron.

(NET Bible®)

In a nutshell, if you follow the Law then good things happen. If you stray, then bad things happen.

But then God told Moses:

Deuteronomy 31:

15 The LORD appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud that stood above the door of the tent.

16 Then the LORD said to Moses, "You are about to die, and then these people will begin to prostitute themselves with the foreign gods of the land into which they are going. They will reject me and break my covenant that I have made with them.

17 At that time my anger will erupt against them and I will abandon them and hide my face from them until they are devoured. Many disasters and distresses will overcome them so that they will say at that time, 'Have not these disasters overcome us because our God is not among us ?'

18 But I will certainly hide myself at that time because of all the wickedness they will have done by turning to other gods.

19 Now write down for yourselves the following song and teach it to the Israelites. Put it into their very mouths so that this song may serve as my witness against the Israelites!

20 For after I have brought them to the land I promised to their ancestors — one flowing with milk and honey — and they eat their fill and become fat, then they will turn to other gods and worship them; they will reject me and break my covenant.

21 Then when many disasters and distresses overcome them this song will testify against them, for their descendants will not forget it. I know the intentions they have in mind today, even before I bring them to the land I have promised."

(NET Bible®)

Failure is guaranteed, that the Israelites are doomed to suffer in the future. So what’s the point of giving the admonitions in the first place?

One possible answer: the prediction is a matter of probability. Given enough time and temptations, the Israelites were bound to slip up. There is an oft-observed aspect of human nature that makes slip-ups likely: people become less religious after times of extended peace and prosperity. The conditional prophecies thus have a feedback effect that keeps things from remaining too pleasant. The devotion of one generation begets prosperity for the next, which leads to temptation. This produces oscillations. We see the effect in miniature with the life of Solomon. All it takes is an oscillation that leads to the people turning to other gods for help to lead to the dire prophecy above.

But the warning is still useful! Each generation that heeds the warning postpones the unpleasant fate.

By way of contrast, there is an entire book of the Bible describing a similar prophecy where those who hear the prophecy do act, and thus avoid unpleasantness: the Book of Jonah. Human choice matters – at least according this story. (One difference between Jonah’s prophecy and Moses’ prophecy is that Jonah was prophesying to just one generation – one roll of the Free Will dice.)

Uncertainty and the End Times

Mark 13:

31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

32 "But as for that day or hour no one knows it — neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son — except the Father.

(NET Bible®)

Even Jesus was uncertain as to when he would return. Some of the Apostles thought soon, and they were wrong. Later Christian sects have made similar goofs.

May I suggest – without adequate proof! – that the disasters foretold for the end times are at least partly a matter of free choice? We have Biblical precedent. God has been know to hold back wrath on behalf of the righteous.

James 5:

16 So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness.

(NET Bible®)

For example, humanity survived the Flood because of Noah’s righteousness. The Israelites experienced a near brush with doom:

Exodus 32:

7 The LORD spoke to Moses: "Go quickly, descend, because your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have acted corruptly.

8 They have quickly turned aside from the way that I commanded them — they have made for themselves a molten calf and have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.' "

9 Then the LORD said to Moses: "I have seen this people. Look what a stiff-necked people they are!

10 So now, leave me alone so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them, and I will make from you a great nation."

11 But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God and said, "O LORD, why does your anger burn against your people, whom you have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?

12 Why should the Egyptians say, 'For evil he led them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your burning anger, and relent of this evil against your people.

13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel your servants, to whom you swore by yourself and told them, 'I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken about I will give to your descendants, and they will inherit it forever.' "

14 Then the LORD relented over the evil that he had said he would do to his people.

(NET Bible®)

On the other hand, Sodom and Gomorrah did not have a sufficient number of righteous residents to stave off doom.

Could the End Times be subject to similar conditions? This, mixed with Free Will would produce uncertainty. But, like Moses’ prophecy to Israel, is a near deterministic prophecy in the long run due to the odds and human nature.

The Creator knew our inherent capability for technology. Technology can beget great prosperity, long life, universal education, worldly wisdom. Such things make religion less compelling to many.

But, technology also begets great danger. We are in the process of developing the ability to stage all the disasters in Revelation without any need for divine intervention. We’ve had fire and brimstone from the sky mastered since World War II (though one could argue that artillery could fit the bill centuries before). Recombinant DNA technology has recently gotten WAY cheaper; terrorist brewed plague germs are just a matter of time. Drone tech will soon reach the ability to simulate the metallic insects of Revelations 9. Should we take up asteroid mining, we will have the technology to make “mountains of burning fire” fall into the sea as in Revelations 8.

All these technologies could produce wealth instead of woe. DNA tech could produce cures faster than terrorists and militaries produce superbugs. Asteroid mining could lead to humans having more than one home. Doom in any generation is not inevitable. But given enough time, it strikes me as likely.

We have the technology.

So, What about Predestination?

Paul did speak of predestination, both for himself and his readers. Does this mean we are all puppets after all?

Not necessarily.

There can be a multi-thousand year Plan and Free Will at the same time. The Plan could run something like this:

  • Speak to, test, and bless one of the faithful remnant [i.e., Abraham]
  • Turn his descendants in to a nation.
  • While said nation is faithful, make a positive example of them to the world.
  • When they get worldly, make them a cautionary example.
  • When they are humbled, incorporate them into a multi-national empire.
  • Send Jesus.
  • Find a really devout bull-headed Jew and give him a vision he won’t ignore. [Paul]
  • Encourage him to find converts among the heathen, and launch Christianity.

Paul and the earliest Christians ended up being part of this Plan.

The Plan could well be much more detailed, of course. And maybe there was divine intervention to produce the character Paul and some of the other earliest Christians. I don’t know. All I’m saying is that predestination does not necessarily mean puppeteer-like control over human destiny.

Perhaps a converse example will make the distinction more clear. The people of Japan in 40 A.D. were obviously not predestined to be early Christians. They were physically too far away from the Holy Land and the Plan did not include waiting for airplanes and/or communications satellites.

I find it hard to believe that they were damned due to the distance. They were simply not Called – which is potentially a great blessing, but it is also a “pearl of great price” which I explore in a later chapter in this series.

Omnipotence and Omniscience – the Evidence

When humans get serious about creating, they build tools which help build tools, which build the final product. To build a skyscraper, we use bulldozers and backhoes to dig the foundation. We bring in cement trucks which roll on concrete or asphalt highways. The trucks and digging machines are built in part by robots. And so on.

Our tools often exceed our own capabilities. No human is as strong as a bulldozer. No human can compute as fast as a 486 computer. No human can fly, period.

And yes, our creations can be dangerous to us. Automobile accidents are one of the leading causes of early death these days. Our war machines are potentially even deadlier, and they grow ever more autonomous.

A creator is not necessarily in full control of his creation. And created things can in principle can get dangerously out of hand. Whether this is or is not the case for The Creator and The Creation, we cannot determine with theology alone. We have to resort to the data.

In a few places we do have an image of a Creator in direct control at the micro-managing level, but the Bible describes helpers to carry out the Creator’s will: angels. In one vision there are 100 million angels assembled:

Revelation 5:

11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels in a circle around the throne, as well as the living creatures and the elders. Their number was ten thousand times ten thousand — thousands times thousands —

(NET Bible®)

Note the language used in the very beginning:

Genesis 1:

26 Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth."

(NET Bible®)

Note the plural forms. Is this referring to Jesus and the Father? Or is it referring to angels along with the Creator? Or all of the above? If angels, are they like robots, or are they willful?

Genesis 6:

1 When humankind began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them,

2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of humankind were beautiful. Thus they took wives for themselves from any they chose.

3 So the LORD said, "My spirit will not remain in humankind indefinitely, since they are mortal. They will remain for 120 more years."

4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days (and also after this) when the sons of God were having sexual relations with the daughters of humankind, who gave birth to their children. They were the mighty heroes of old, the famous men.

5 But the LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind had become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds was only evil all the time.

6 The LORD regretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and he was highly offended.

7 So the LORD said, "I will wipe humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth — everything from humankind to animals, including creatures that move on the ground and birds of the air, for I regret that I have made them."

(NET Bible®)

Hmmm, it looks like at least some angels had enough Free Will to get uppity, downright disobedient, even. Note also that God experienced regret! This is an admission of fallibility, of trial-and-error creation just as humans experience! Theologically inconvenient that.

These sentient helpers gone rogue could be an outright nuisance:

Daniel 10:

9 I listened to his voice, and as I did so I fell into a trance-like sleep with my face to the ground.

10 Then a hand touched me and set me on my hands and knees.

11 He said to me, "Daniel, you are of great value. Understand the words that I am about to speak to you. So stand up, for I have now been sent to you." When he said this to me, I stood up shaking.

12 Then he said to me, "Don't be afraid, Daniel, for from the very first day you applied your mind to understand and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard. I have come in response to your words.

13 However, the prince of the kingdom of Persia was opposing me for twenty-one days. But Michael, one of the leading princes, came to help me, because I was left there with the kings of Persia.

(NET Bible®)

The “prince” of Persia was able to thwart an angel for 21 days!

Ephesians 6:

12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.

(NET Bible®)

Just how powerful are these rogue angels? The Bible gives a mixed message. In the gospels Satan has the rule over the kingdoms of the world [Matthew 4:8-9] – which he offers to Jesus in return for changing sides. On the other hand, the demons possessing the insane cower before Jesus and fear the future they have in store.

Putting it Together

Suppose the Creator needs – or at least strongly desires – autonomous beings to help manage the Creation. Suppose that the top level beings need autonomy in the Free Will range, making such beings subject to disobedience or worse.

How would such a Creator create a new generation of autonomous beings that are less likely to disobey, or cause other mischief?

  • How about creating mortal beings that have Free Will but no supernatural power?
  • How about testing these mortal beings in an environment with many temptations?
  • How about including some “non player characters” who are not under orders in order to make the temptations really challenging? (The Narrow Gate!)
  • How about disappearing for long periods of time to observe how these apprentice beings behave without supervision?

Recall what Paul said about the endgame:

1 Corinthians 6:

3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? Why not ordinary matters!

(NET Bible®)

Do keep in mind that this chapter is extremely speculative. Whether Satan and his angels are a supernatural danger of Manichean power, mere nuisances for the Creator, or servants following a script for our testing is unknown to me. My main point here is that you cannot rule out any of these (or many other) options with a priori theology.

My other point is to show you a possible rationale for the Narrow Gate, and to introduce you to a picture of the rewards for entering said gate that differs greatly from many popular notions of Heavenly Reward. For the rest, turn to the next chapter.