The God I don’t believe in (part 2)

Romans 8:29-30 (NIV)

29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

James 4:7-10 (NIV)

7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

The story is told of a group of theologians who were discussing predestination and free will. Things became so heated that the group broke up into two opposing factions. But one man, not knowing which to join, stood for a moment trying to decide. At last he joined the predestination group.

“Who sent you here?” they asked.

“No one sent me,” he replied. “I considered the facts and decided on my own.”

“Free Will!” they exclaimed. “You can’t join us! You belong with the other group!”

So he followed their orders and went to the other clique. There someone asked, “When did you decide to join us?” The young man replied, “Well, I didn’t really decide–I was sent here.”

“Sent here!” they shouted. “You can’t join us unless you have decided by your own free will.” (http://www.freewill-predestination.com/humor.html)

We are in week two of a four-week sermon series on apophatic theology, that is, understanding God by looking at who/what God is not. Last week we discussed how God does not cause everything that happens; earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and car accidents are not God’s way of punishing us or trying to get our attention. Though we didn’t really get into it, I believe that a lot of the things that happen occur because of the choices that we make. Some even go as far as to say that natural disasters are a result of our choices and the environmental impact of those choices.

I would never say that God doesn’t have a plan. Indeed, I believe God does have a plan for our lives, but we also have a choice to follow God’s plan or not. That is what we call “free will.” And free will is going to be really important to today’s apophatic statement because free will is the complete opposite of today’s apophatic statement. So without further ado, I give you apophatic statement number two:

God is not a god who creates people to throw them into eternal punishment.

This goes right along with last week’s apophatic statement. It is usually those who believe God plans and causes everything who would also believe that God creates some people for heaven and some for eternal punishment or eternal damnation. Most of them probably wouldn’t say it in that way, but you can’t believe that God predetermines who will be with him forever in heaven without also believing that the rest of humanity has been predetermined not to spend eternity with God in heaven. This is what we often call “double predestination.”

While doing a series like this where I attempt to state something that I don’t believe, I realize that I run the risk of misrepresenting someone else’s point of view. So I will try to explain this concept of predestination as best as I can and then show you why I don’t believe it to be true. I do have respect for those who hold this belief because, as my friend Jim Engle has said, “The problem with predestination is that it is biblical.” And I believe that people that believe in predestination do so because they hold a high view of the Bible. But I would say that they are misreading or misunderstanding the Bible.

The writings of the New Testament mention predestination a number of times, particularly the writings of Paul: John 1, Philippians 1, and Ephesians 1 all mention predestination in some way. According to some interpretations of these texts, God predestined those who would/will come to know him, and therefore, again, the reciprocal must also be true. God also predestined those who will suffer eternal separation from God. Unfortunately, all of those scriptures fail to go into any kind of detail on what this predestination thing really is. So I would argue that it is up for interpretation.

One of the more thorough discussions on predestination in the New Testament is found in our passage for today from Romans chapter 8, verse 29-30: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” (προοράω: to see in advance)

Those that believe in predestination often say things about how human beings, as fallen and sinful, do not possess the ability to freely choose to come to Christ. Instead, humanity will always choose sinfulness (a condition sometimes called “total depravity”).

Again, I understand this. I can see how someone would read the scriptures and believe in predestination based on these texts. But I want to introduce today’s kataphatic statement early on to help us better understand these passages about predestination:

God is at least as good as we are.

In our dining room we have a sign that says, “God is good, all the time.” I am not good all of the time and I bet the same is true for you. I am sure that you have no problem with that theological assumption. God is good, I make mistakes. I don’t love perfectly, I don’t act justly. I fail, I sin. God is at least as good as I am.

But some theologies of predestination make God out to be less good than we are, less good than human beings that some would call “totally depraved.” Allow me to share an example to serve as an illustration.

I have done a little bit of woodworking in my days. I have made end tables and bookshelves, nothing special. Perhaps my best piece of work was a bathroom vanity (I got plenty of help from my friend Glenn). We put a lot of time in that vanity. We planned ahead how it would look. We figured the lumber that it would require. We measure, marked, and cut the boards to length. I learned how to do some fancy joints like mortise and tenon joints. I recessed all of the screw heads and sanded down the entire vanity before staining and varnishing it. I put a good deal of work into making that vanity.

Then, when I completed it, when the final hinge and handle were attached, I threw it into a bonfire, which was my plan all along.

That doesn’t make any sense, now does it? Why would I make something just to throw it away? Let’s up the ante a bit.

I have two children. Making them required significantly less work than the vanity. I created them in my own image. Paxton, I am told, looks a lot like his daddy, and Hadley looks a lot like her mother. The days that my children were born were two of the happiest days of my life. They were and continue to a blessing. And as much as I love my children, I never would have had children if I knew that their lives here on earth were going to be painful.

I have a friend whose daughter has Cystic Fibrosis. This means that both he and his wife carry a recessive gene for CF. Therefore, any biological children that they have will have a 25% chance of having Cystic Fibrosis, like my friend’s daughter.

Cystic Fibrosis causes a thick mucus to form in the lungs of children, which keeps them from being able to breathe and also digest properly. My friend and his wife had their daughter about 20 years ago, before some of the more recent medical advancements were made. So on a regular basis, they would have to hit their daughter on the back on several times a day to help her to remove the mucus from her lungs just so she could breathe. Back when their daughter was born, the average person with CF only lived to Middle School age.

My friend and his wife chose to not have any more children. They didn’t want to put any more children through the pain that their first daughter has had to endure and they didn’t want to run the risk of having another child die before they did. They chose to not have any more children, even though there was a 75% chance that their next child would not have Cystic Fibrosis. I think that is a very loving thing to do. And the pain that my friend, his wife, and children would endure is only for a short period of time that we call “life.”

Let’s up the ante one more time. I never would have had children if I knew that they were 100% guaranteed to spend eternity in hell. If a credible person had told me before I had children that any child of mine was predestined for eternal conscious punishment, I would not have had children.

I think you can see why I say God is at least as good as we are. If God created human beings, knowing in advance that some specific people were going to be destined for punishment, wouldn’t the loving thing be to not make them at all? What would God have to gain from making beings that he knew without a doubt he would just end up punishing for eternity?

No, I don’t believe that God predetermines who will go to heaven and who will not. I don’t even think God knows in advance who will come under his grace and who will not. If he did, then it would be equally as wrong to create those who God foreknew would reject his offer of grace (Open Theology; yeah, get to know it.) I believe that God gives us free will; we ultimately have the choice to accept God’s offer of grace or not.

There are many references in the Bible that speak to the free will of humanity. I won’t quote all of our passage from James again, but verse 8 says, “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” That sounds like you have a choice to me; you are the initiator of this cause-and-effect scenario. Joshua 24:15 is also helpful: “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

‘Nuff said, right?

So what do you do with all of these references to predestination in the New Testament? And how do you balance those passages with the ones we find about choosing? Well, I would suggest that predestination as we commonly understand it is not how Paul meant the word to be used. Remember, Paul was a Jew. He was trained in the Hebrew Scriptures and was, by his own account, a Pharisee of Pharisees, a Hebrew of Hebrews. We need to remember that Paul thought as a Jew, likely spoke Aramaic, and then wrote his letters in Greek. So some of these complicated subjects can be all the more confusing when we translate them into English.

The Hebrew Scriptures also speak of someone being predestined. They speak of the Hebrew people being God’s “Chosen People.” The Hebrew people were the ones through whom God would spread his message of reconciliation. They were the “in” ones and the Gentiles were “out.”[1]

But the Hebrew Bible never talks about individuals being predestined. Those who are predestined are always a group of people. This people group is predestined, not the individuals. The individuals must choose to be a part of the group that is predestined. It isn’t like God went through the Hebrew people before they were born and said, “Jacob, you are in. Joshua, you are out.” The Old Testament understanding of predestination is that there is a people group known as Israel that God has chosen in advance to work through and redeem.

Now, in the New Testament era, that chosen group is opened up to include all those who would call Jesus Lord. The gentiles have been “grafted in” to the predestined people.

I recently heard a really good illustration of this concept of predestination.[2]  The illustration involves trains. I grew up just down from the railroad tracks, so I was pretty familiar with trains growing up. We have an Amtrak station here in Staunton, so I am going to guess that you all are at least somewhat familiar with trains.

Riding in a train is a bit different than driving a car. You get in your car and you drive from place to place and you can stop, go, and change directions as you wish.

Sonya and I don’t go out to eat very often anymore, but back in the day, we would hit a restaurant once a week or so. We are two very indecisive people who would prefer to defer to others to make such decisions. So often we would get in the car and ask the question: “Where do you want to go?”

When neither of us would make a decision, we would just drive downtown, hoping to see something that caught our eye. Then, after driving around for a while, our growling stomachs would convince us that it was time to pick a restaurant and we would settle on something.

If you are going to ride a train, however, you can’t travel like that. You must make the decision where you are going before you get on the train. You cannot change where a train is going. If you get on the 2:45 Amtrak train out of Staunton, that train’s destination is predetermined. It is going to Pittsburgh. Everyone on that train is going to Pittsburgh. You have the choice to get on that train or not. You also have a choice to get on or off that train along the way. But that train’s destination is predetermined. The tracks were laid many years before.

I believe in a God who offers grace to everyone. Everyone is offered a free ride on that train, and it is going to a much better place than Pittsburgh (thought I think Pittsburgh is a pretty nice place these days). You’ve got a ticket to ride. Whether you get on the train or not is up to you.

That, I believe, is what the word predestination means. There is a train bound for glory, a destination for which it was predetermined. You can choose whether you get on or not. You have been given the gift of free will.

[1] See Greg Boyd’s sermon “He Cho-Cho-Chooses You,” January 12, 2013

[2] Ibid.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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