Predestination

Predestination is one of the most perplexing concepts in philosophy, religion and science. Some of the terms used interchangeably to describe the concept are: determinism, causality, preordination, foreknowledge, fate, destiny, kismet, and karma.

 

Scientific Determinism

 

Scientific and philosophical views of determinism come in many varieties and degrees. The strongest version is hard determinism in which nothing is random or optional; every cause produces a unique, predictable effect. This is easily seen in the natural realm where tectonic plates shift violently on the ocean floor, billions of gallons of water are instantly displaced, rapidly moving water creates monster wave on the ocean surface, and mass destruction inevitably results when a tsunami strikes the shoreline. Hard determinism eliminates mystery and ‘outside forces’, such as God, from the universe. The complex chain of cause and effect has been allegorized in the delicate flapping of butterfly wings producing hurricanes on the other side of the world. 

 

What of intelligent beings? Surely animals and human beings can think for themselves and break the chain of cause and effect by responding in self-determined and unpredictable ways?  Hard determinism rejects freewill and therefore ethics. A universe which is perfectly mechanical and predictable must necessarily be amoral. There is no morality in an exploding volcano or carnivorous animals that kill their prey.

 

Scientists like Richard Dawkins have written extensively about genetic forces which drive us to act in ways that are counter-productive for our human self-interests, but ruthlessly logic for the ‘survival machine’ which lurks in our ‘selfish genes.’ Recent findings in psychology appear to reverse the cause and effect of decision-making. ‘Physiologist Benjamin Libet has demonstrated that activity in the brain’s motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person becomes aware of the decision to move. Another lab recently used fMRI data to show that some “conscious” decisions can be predicted up to 10 seconds before they enter awareness.’ How can human beings controlled by selfish genes or an independent nervous system be morally or legally responsible for decisions they do not consciously make? Neuroscientist, Sam Harris, in an essay entitled Free Will (And Why You Still Don’t Have It), has attempted to explain these ideas simply in the following thought experiment:

 

Imagine that a mad scientist has developed a means of controlling the human brain at a distance. What would it be like to watch him send a person to and fro on the wings of her “will”? Would there be even the slightest temptation to impute freedom to her? No. But this mad scientist is nothing more than causal determinism personified. What makes his existence so inimical to our notion of free will is that when we imagine him lurking behind a person’s thoughts and actions—tweaking electrical potentials, manufacturing neurotransmitters, regulating genes, etc.—we cannot help but let our notions of freedom and responsibility travel up the puppet’s strings to the hand that controls them.

 

To see that the addition of randomness—quantum mechanical or otherwise—does nothing to change this situation, we need only imagine the scientist basing the inputs to his machine on a shrewd arrangement of roulette wheels, or on the decay of some radioactive isotope. How would such unpredictable changes in the states of a person’s brain constitute freedom?

 

All the relevant features of a person’s inner life could be conserved—thoughts, moods, and intentions would still arise and beget actions—and yet, once we imagine a hypothetical mad scientist dispensing the appropriate cocktail of randomness and natural law, we are left with the undeniable fact that the conscious mind is not the source of its own thoughts and intentions. This discloses the real mystery of free will: if our moment to moment experience is compatible with its utter absence, how can we say that we see any evidence for it in the first place?

  

Entertaining thought experiment. However, what are the real-world implications of hard determinism?  Does Sam Harris or any other scientist passively allow his/her life to be dictated by a string-pulling mad scientist? Of course not. We use our thoughts, moods, and intentions to beget actions, and we take responsibility for them. We remain convinced that ‘the mad scientist helps those who help themselves.’

 

Religious Determinism

 

Sam Harris is a prominent atheist, and yet his ‘mad scientist’ evokes images of God; his description of causal determinism is identical to the language used in the religious realm to describe predestination. Monotheistic religions have mostly preferred a God who behaves like Sam Harris’ string-pulling scientist. Although natural laws provide a perfectly satisfactory explanation for the operations of the natural world, many religious people prefer to believe that divine powers control the oceans, storms, volcanoes and all ‘Acts of God’. Every natural disaster in the world is accompanied by a Christian pastor or Islamic Imam attributing the mass destruction to Almighty God pouring out wrath on a depraved population. This string-pulling God can ‘randomly’ circumvent natural laws at any time to protect, bless, curse or torment humans. The Old Testament of the Bible is an account of people ‘chosen’ to be protected, blessed, cursed and tormented by a God who never takes his hands off the strings throughout the entire documented period.

 

Is there a difference between an imaginary string-pulling scientist and a string-pulling God?  It depends how that God is conceived.  The Jewish God intervened with purpose, blessing obedience and punishing sin, like an invisible, omnipresent police force that enforces virtue and morality.  The Jewish people believed they were both free to act and responsible for their actions. 

 

When the string-pulling God is believed to have predetermined/predestined the fates of humans, the result is quite different.  A simple illustration is found in David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia when one member of the caravan is lost in the desert. Lawrence wants to send out a search party for the man. His companions murmur ‘Inshallah’ and shrug that a search party would be futile because the man’s fate has already been written, nothing can change it. Lawrence turns his camel around in search of the lost traveler.  When he returns with the saved man in tow Lawrence exclaims, ‘Nothing is written!’

 

Inshallah is the Islamic equivalent of the Christian invocation ‘(if) God (is) willing.’  The meaning is determined by whether God’s will is permissive or predestined.  If all is predetermined, human effort is futile: God alone determines who is lost and saved.  If nothing is predestined, human effort is meaningful; the lost traveler can be saved.    

 

Early Christianity was based on freedom.  First and foremost it provided freedom from sin in new and direct ways.  It was a faith of personal transformation that broke down traditional barriers between the religions of Jews and gentiles, between rich and poor, men and woman, slave and free. In addition, Christianity provided a direct connection to divine power and the possibility of a personal relationship.   

 

Augustine changed Christianity from a perfectly free faith to one that would be increasingly controlled by a God who had already written the entire script in indelible ink. Augustine began his theological career believing in freewill but switched to a belief in predestination to fight a religious war with the Pagans of the Roman Empire.  Luther and Calvin would base double predestination on Augustine’s writings, but the founder of the Christian Gospel of Wrath was more ambiguous in his beliefs. Many of Augustine’s doctrines are built on paradoxes that defy rational explanation. Predestination is no exception.

 

Augustine began with the belief that the entire human race was tainted by the fall of Adam and Eve. Because of original sin, all humans are under divine curse and hopelessly depraved.  The only means of salvation was a unilateral, unmerited gift of divine grace.  God alone decided who would receive this gift. God alone was responsible for the glorious gift of salvation.

 

This is where Augustinian theology becomes mired in brain-busting paradoxes. God predestined who will be saved, but not who won’t be saved.  God deserves all the glory for his gift of unmerited salvation to depraved sinners, but is not responsible for the damnation of the depraved sinners who are denied saving grace. They are responsible for their own sins, although they are hopelessly depraved and incapable of thinking and doing anything but evil. Original sin comes from Adam but is the responsibility of each individual.  God alone grants saving grace and yet Augustine’s Church controlled salvation via the sacrament of baptism.  

 

Augustine had two principle missions in life. The first was to absolve God of all responsibility for evil in the universe. This is his greatest paradox. God is omnipotent and omniscient yet failed to predict or prevent evil.  This is quite simply incomprehensible. Yet for Augustine it is incontrovertible truth around which he constructs his complex and contradictory theology. Augustine’s second goal was to force the mass conversion of Pagans, while incurring minimal bloodshed.  In this he was wildly successful. But the cost was terrible.  Augustine created a new religion that replaced personal sin with original sin and transformative power with sacramental ritual. He converted a religion of love and freedom into a state controlled theocracy that used brute force to impose conversion and enforce orthodoxy. Augustine replaced simple faith with the rite of baptism. This comforted inveterate sinners with the assurance that a death bed baptism would wash the slate clean. Augustine replaced freedom and personal responsibility with predestination.

 

James J O’Donnell writes in chapter 4 of his biography of Augustine:  ‘This doctrine of the will deals with the central mystery of human existence, the question of who we are and what we are here for. Augustine's answer had to be confusing and obscure to many, perhaps finally and irrationally paradoxical even to the best-intentioned of readers... One further irony must be faced. The dilemmas of predestination create an urgent sense of frustration by the absence of clear, logically compelling answers.’

 

What were the real world effects of imposing predestination on Christianity? It is a fact of history that the implosion of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages are exactly concurrent with the mass conversion of Pagans and the triumph of Augustine’s new form of Christianity. Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the only official religion of the Roman Empire in 391 and the Council of Carthage imposed original sin as orthodoxy in 418. The Goths sacked Rome in 410 AD and the western half of the Roman Empire was obliterated by 476.  

 

Can Christianity be blamed for the fall of the Roman Empire?  It could be argued, as Augustine did in The City of God, that Empires rise and fall as God wills but the eternal Empire of heaven is reserved for Christians alone. Therefore this fallen, fading world is of little importance in the grand scheme of things. It could also be argued that the Roman Empire had sown the seeds of its destruction long before Christianity took command. There is truth to this, just as it is true that every newly elected government inherits the failures of its predecessors. However, a new government must stop blaming its predecessor and take responsibility after it has been in power for five, 10 or 20 years. Christianity was the dominant force in Europe for century upon century throughout the Dark Ages.

 

The fall of the Roman Empire brought an end to law and order, as well as mega infrastructure projects of bridges and highways which, combined with the Pax Romana, had facilitated trade, prosperity and an easy exchange of information and ideas.  Augustinian Christianity and its confusing, contradictory, string-pulling God of predestination produced 1000 years of apathy, fatalism, brutality, cruelty, ignorance, superstition and poverty. The Dark Ages were dominated by war lords, prowling militia and violent oppression of defenseless peasants.  Similarities to theocratic Taliban rule are not coincidental because the same wrathful God was pulling the strings.   

 

The Catholic Church struggled with the legacy of Augustine, slowly and incrementally modifying his theology away from predestination and back toward freewill and personal responsibility. Many clerics and monks strove valiantly to teach and live the Gospel that Jesus had taught.  Meanwhile powerful families of Europe (notably the Medicis and Hapsburgs) bought their way into the Church as Bishops and Popes who knew nothing about simplicity, humility and compassion. Then there were theologians who tinkered with Augustine but dared not repudiate his doctrines of original sin or predestination.

 

As recently as 1952 the official position of the Catholic Church (The Teaching of the Catholic Church, Canon George D. Smith.) has changed little from the days of Augustine. (p 619) ‘Although God has a real will for the salvation of all men, he definitely chooses some for eternal life, and leaves others out of his choice. Having chosen these particular souls for the glory of heaven, he prepares efficacious grace for them so that they will infallibly correspond with his impulses; for the others he merely prepares sufficient grace.’

 

Note, ‘sufficient grace’ is a perfectly Augustinian turn of phrase which suggests that the unsaved could be saved if they wanted. However the definition of ‘sufficient grace’ is ‘that which gives power to do a thing, but is not made use of.’  Salvation requires ‘efficacious grace’ but God,  who has ‘a real will’ for the salvation of all, has only provided ‘sufficient’ (which actually means insufficient) grace for the unsaved. Therefore God is blameless for their damnation. Such is the imponderability of ‘single’ predestination.

 

The Reformation of Christianity began 1000 years after Augustine’s ‘victory’ over Paganism.  The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation completely transformed Christianity.  It is an irony and a mystery that both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation were rooted in Augustine’s Gospel of Wrath rather than Jesus’ Gospel of Love.  Luther and Calvin were more Augustinian than Augustine. They not only embraced predestination but doubled the ante and imposed double predestination.

 

Catholicism maintained the paradox of single predestination in which God is given full credit for the blessed, who are chosen for eternal life, but is not responsible for not granting efficacious grace to the unsaved.  Luther and Calvin reasoned that this pious paradox is indefensible.  If God wanted to provide efficacious grace to all he could and would.  If the damned are left in their depravity it is because God does not have ‘a real will’ for the salvation of all. God predestines salvation and damnation. This is an infinitely more brutal form of Christianity, although ruthless rational. No one defended double predestination more forcefully than John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

 

-          ‘The human mind, when it hears this doctrine (double predestination), cannot restrain its petulance, but boils and rages as if aroused by the sound of a trumpet. Many who profess a desire to defend the Deity from an invidious charge admit the doctrine of election, but ignorantly and childishly deny that anyone is condemned by God’s will. There could be no election without its opposite, which is deliberate, predestined reprobation. I agree with Augustine that when God makes sheep out of wolves, he reshapes them by the powerful influence of grace so that their hardness may thus be subdued. The grace at his command is sufficiently powerful to convert the most obstinate reprobates, but he does not desire to do it in most cases.’

Martin Luther made a virtue of the incompatibility of divine predestination and human freewill in Bondage of the Will.

 

-          ‘It is impossible to reconcile both the foreknowledge of God and the freedom of man together. It would be far easier to maintain that the same number may be both nine and ten!’

 

-          ‘Freewill is capable only of sin. In his second book against Julian, Augustine calls it a slave will rather than a free will. A stone could be said to have freewill because on its own power it can fall downward. Without God’s grace, man’s freewill can only fall downward into deeper sin!’

 

-           ‘It is perfectly clear to anyone who understands the plain, unequivocal words of the Bible! Scripture sets before us a man who is bound, wretched, captive, sick and dead. Satan his Lord adds to man’s other miseries that of blindness so that he believes himself to be free, happy, possessed of liberty and unrestrained ability.’

 

It might be expected that this vision of human nature ‘bound, wretched, captive, sick and dead’ because of the inexorable predestined will of a pitiless God would have increased the fatalism and paralysis of Christians. The opposite is true. The Protestant God was unambiguous, triumphant and irresistible for the elect. Protestant Reformation triggered centuries of Christian conquest. The Christian Empires, as well as controlling Europe and colonizing the Americas, extended its Empire into Asia and Africa.  It was perfectly logical that a God who had predestined that the entire world should be Christianized could not be resisted.  With God on their side, Christian soldiers would march relentlessly forward until every last pagan, heathen and savage had been preached the gospel message. The confidence inspired by Calvinist double predestination created a campaign of global conquest such as the world had never seen.

 

What went wrong? The First World War pitted Christian nations against Christian nations. How could God be on both sides?  The recently Christianized nation of Russia was overtaken by godless communists who began to push back Christianity throughout Eastern Europe, then China joined forces to spread communism throughout Asia. India and Africa demanded independence from Christian Empires. Islam revolted against Christian domination in the Middle East and North Africa. The Christian vision of global conquest was lost.

 

Centuries of predestination and double predestination were characterized by extreme brutality to suppress heresy and enforce mass conversion. The anti-Christian legacy is immeasurable.

 

Modern Charismatic Christians, for the most part, do not believe in predestination.  Their vision of the future is pessimistic: the world is dominated by Satan, and is about to be destroyed by a wrathful God.  The Charismatic God has ‘a real will’ for the salvation of all, but how that will finds expression cannot be understood or explained. The invincible confidence of Calvinism has been replaced by a fragile hope that all will turn out for the best, God willing.  This besieged and retreating modern form of Christianity is increasingly humble, tolerant, compassionate and closer to the pre-Augustinian Gospel of Love that was taught by Jesus.

 

However the Gospel of Wrath is alive among Christians who believe that scripture prophesies (predestines) the imminent destruction of Satan’s kingdom. They are diligently working to hasten Armageddon.

 

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