It's all a simple matter of counterfactual conditionals.
Let's call them counterfactuals for short. They're something that could have been but wasn't -- such as the Allies losing World War II. Could've happened, but it didn't. Or a Cubs-Red Sox World Series. Again, possible but ...
And it could have been that I never reconciled how human free will and God's sovereignty over who becomes "elected" to eternal life could co-exist. But I did so through the concept of counterfactuals.
Calvinists say mankind gave up his right to freely choose righteousness when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit. As a result, all humanity is hopelessly lost. But wait! God has chosen some to be redeemed. He calls them through irresistible grace. At first blush it seems unfair that God would redeem a few, but leave the rest to suffer eternal punishment. But Calvinists answer that God isn't required to save anybody; therefore, those whom he does save are simply unworthy beneficiaries of his kindness. All are incapable, because of the fall in the garden, from choosing God, but he, in his graciousness, allows some to come to him. And they must come, since God is sovereign, or has control, over everything.
Some Arminians call this a puppet show. If God essentially causes everything to happen, there is no free will at all, they say. As a result, God would be unjust in holding people accountable for their actions. After all, how could Edgar Bergen punish his ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy for sassing him when it was Bergen himself who forced poor Charlie to say it? But if Bergen's daughter, Candice, sassed him it was something that she had made a choice to do, and she could be sent to her room without supper.
Which is it?
So we appear to have a choice to make: free will or predestination. But it's not that easy; there appear to be passages in the Bible that support both positions. This dilemma is hardest on biblical literalists since they believe every word in the Bible to be the very breath of God. So now we have to figure out how God is sovereign, or in control of everything, yet can still hold us accountable for our "choices," if they really indeed are that.
Some Calvinists reconcile these two seemingly contradictory positions through something they call soft determinism. One position states that while people's actions are indeed made through free will, it is of a different sort than most think. What happens, they say, is that God has decided what will happen then organizes events so that the person can make no other choice. So the choice is freely made, but because of the person's previous experiences combined with his or her personality there is only one "choice" that the person will make. It's like if you hit your finger with a hammer, you'll scream out in pain. You really have no other "choice" than to holler and try to do something to alleviate your suffering. But some people will use profanity while others will simply scream, "Ouch!" or something else printable, based on their personalities. Anyone can cuss, but some won't because they rarely or never do, and so their choice is "made" for them ahead of time.
A more popular form of soft determinism says that God uses people's free choices to determine what will happen. In other words, people choose to do whatever they want, but God's knowledge of the future allows him to know all those free choices ahead of time and so they are fixed and unchangeable --predestined. So if I make plans to meet you for lunch tomorrow, then I decide not to show up, it was predestined. After all, it was something that was always going to have happened since the beginning of time. I made the choice to stand you up, but it was destiny nonetheless.
Both these positions have weaknesses that make me unable to accept them. The first one does nothing to get rid of the cosmic puppeteer view. God is still orchestrating what happens; he just "uses" free will to do so. The second view robs God of his sovereignty, which means that he isn't in charge of everything that happens after all. But the Bible clearly states that God has predetermined who will be saved, and even the good works they'll do. Our conundrum has not been solved.
But the Arminians are of even less help. They simply argue that God's sovereignty is like that of a king. A king can't force his subjects to obey his will, but he does have authority over them and can punish their disobedience. In the end, we can do whatever we want and "sovereignty" has to be defined down.
On the far end of the spectrum are "open theists" who believe that God chooses to not even know the future, and so how can he predetermine it? He can know it, of course, but chooses not to.
Both these views make prophesy something of an educated guess. Although they say God can ensure his prophesies come true by intervening himself to point things in the direction he wants them to go.
So I'm left unhappy with my "choices" in this argument, if you'll pardon the pun. And that's where another option is open to me: counterfactual conditionals.
Simply stated, God knows not only everything that has ever happened and ever will happen, he also knows everything that could have happened. And there are an infinite number of alternative scenarios since there are "choices" being made by individuals all the time. STOP READING THIS. Did you? If you're still here you made the choice to ignore me and keep reading. But you could have said, "Fine, this essay is stupid anyway." God knows what would have happened if you'd stopped and what will happen since you didn't. Will it make much of a difference? Maybe, maybe not. But a lot of our other choices in life do indeed make huge differences in how our lives, and the lives of others, turn out.
Should I marry, and if so, whom? What should I do for a living? Should I try to find another job? Should we have children? All of these are choices that make a difference in the world. What if Hitler's parents had never married each other? But they did.
Before he spoke creation into being, God could have looked at every possible world that would exist. In many of these possible worlds people would have been able to make free choices. God then picked the one he wanted to "actualize" into being. He knew what would happen in the world where your parents never met -- and he chose not to create that world. So in that sense, he knew he would create you from the beginning. And he also knew every free choice you'd make in this factual world and in all the counter-factual worlds in which you would have existed. He picked this one to actualize, so in a sense he predestined your "choices." But you've freely made them nonetheless.
And so, in this model free will and predestination are able to stand side-by-side without one canceling out the other -- if you choose to believe it.
"… also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the council of His will .." – Ephesians 1:11 NAS
"For he (God) chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will …" – Ephesians 1:4-5 NIV
"For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called he also justified; those he justified he also glorified." – Romans 8:29-30 NIV
"But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves." – Luke 7:30 NAS
"You have not because you ask not." (Proving the future can be changed by our requests). – James 4:2 NAS
God had to "start over" with Noah (Genesis 6-9), and with King David (1 Samuel 15-16).
"Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God" – James 4:4b
NIVNew American Standard and New International Version used by permission.
Copyright (c) 2003 Owen TewSuggested reading: Predestination & Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty & Human Freedom by John Feinberg, Norman Geisler, Bruce Reichenbach and Clark Pinnock (Edited by David Basinger and Randall Basinger.