A fresh look at Christian beliefs on the Ultimate Sovereignty of God and Significance of Humans
One of big questions that have attracted the attention of people throughout the ages is the question of the significance of human beings in the context of the absolute, final sovereignty of the all-powerful, all-knowing God. Across the whole spectrum of religious, philosophical and ideological worldviews, people have sought now and again to address the question as follows: if God is all knowing, surely he knows what we will do long before we do them. More than that, he controls, absolutely, what we do, what we will do, long before we do them, long before we even think of doing them. If this is the case, it is asked, how can we as humans be responsible for our actions, seeing we are, in modern parlance, acting only as we have been programmed to act by God?
Echoes from the past
One of the first ancient philosophers to address this question was Leucipus, born in the 5th century B.C. He asserted that everything is predetermined, that “nothing occurs at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity.” 1 This school of thought, since known as determinism, has its bands of adherents among ancients and moderns alike. For example, one of major themes explored in Sophocles play Oedipus Rex was the concept of fate as decreed by the gods, and which humans could not escape. Other thinkers argued the alternative viewpoint, encapsulated by Aristotle’s idea of Chance and voluntary action. He declared that “if it is manifest that a man is the author of his own actions, if we are unable to trace conduct back to any other origins than those within ourselves, then actions of which the origins are within us, themselves depend upon us, and are voluntary”2. The philosopher Epicurus also weighed in: “some things happen of necessity, others by chance , others through our own agency….necessity destroys responsibility and chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach.”2
We have drawn attention to these ancient references to reinforce the point that the question to which we have now turned our attention is a truly important one, but by no means new. And it is precisely because it is so important that it has been asked and debated and discussed over and again in the course of human history. Our principal point of inquiry today is the Christian position on this timeless question. To address this we will examine, first, key Bible passages on the subject of Divine foreknowledge and predestination, then we shall turn our attention to the passages on human significance and moral responsibility. Finally, we will address the fundamental question of whether, or how, human significance can be accommodated within the overarching perspective of God’s supreme omniscience and ultimate sovereignty, and what will be the implication of that for the Christian doctrine of God, redemption and eternal judgement.
The Bible on divine foreknowledge and predestination
Several passages in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testament scriptures allude to the fact of God’s sovereign control of human history and his purposeful determination of individual destinies of human beings. We cannot here attempt an exhaustive outline of all relevant scriptures, but we can, to good effect, embark on an overview of some representative scriptures that exemplify the overarching ideas with regard to three key aspects: God’s control of history, his foreknowledge of human destiny, and eternal life and judgement.
God and the flow of history
The Prophet Isaiah declared, under divine inspiration, that God makes “known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come”3. In similar vein, in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul stated that God has from one man “made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.”4. To underscore this point about God’s sovereign control of nations and history, the Prophet Isaiah offered a more striking imagery, describing God as the all-powerful, all knowing one who sits “enthroned in the circles of the earth, and the people are like grasshoppers”5, and all the nations –superpowers and all- are “like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales”6, in terms of their significance and influence.
The essential point of this is not to assert the absolute nothingness of nations, for even “dust” has its own significance, but to affirm the central truth that in the grand scheme of divine omniscience and eternal purpose, history, and nations’ apparent activities and influences on it, is but a minor subset of God’s ultimate purpose. Humans can do lots of things in time and space, but whatever they do, they cannot alter or hinder, but only foster and fulfil, the predetermined purposes of God. In modern parlance, God holds the first and the last cards, controls the final outcome right from the start, and “no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end”7
Divine foreknowledge of human destiny
One of the oft quoted scriptural passages on divine foreknowledge of human destiny is in the Psalms, chapter 139. There, the psalmist proclaims, with a palpable sense of wonder, that God “know when I sit and when I rise, you perceive my thoughts from afar… before a word is on my tongue, you, LORD, know it completely8. He went on to affirm that God knows all about him, even before he was born: “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”8.
This theme of God’s foreknowledge of human deeds and destiny runs through the rest of the Bible. In Jeremiah, for example, we hear God saying about young Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”9.
There are other examples, throughout scripture, of God revealing ahead of time, often through prophecies, about what people will do, long before they did them, and often times long before they were born. The examples of Josiah the King and John the Baptist quickly comes to mind, as well as those of Samson, Jacob and Esau, and Judas.10 In all these passages and examples, the constant refrain is that individuals, in the exercise of apparent free will, only serve to fulfil the predetermined purposes of God.
Eternal life and judgement
Beyond the realm of human deeds and destiny in the time-space confines of earthly existence, there is a bigger perspective of God’s final control of the hereafter. We shall return to this later, but this is one of key points that emphasize God’s supreme control of the ultimate outcome, the final end, of all humanity. In this perspective, we gain the fundamental understanding that even if God does not always intervene in every specific time and case in the course of human history; say with respect to every evil that individuals do to their fellow humans, or in open defiance of God’s known will, the total sovereignty of God is by no means diminished. This is because, on the one hand, the active, defiant pursuit of evil is in itself inherently destructive to those given to it, at least with regard to their forfeiture of true peace and joy and fulfilment even here in time.
More fundamentally, with regard to eternity, God brings his judgment on the impenitent and the wicked. From such eternal judgement there is no escape, and no respite. It is a final monument to God’s sovereign will: “the wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God”11. “If anyone’s name is not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire”12. Concerning eternal life and salvation, one of the cardinal doctrines of Christianity is that as humans we are incapable, just by means of our good deeds and human efforts, to do enough to earn or attain eternal life13. The contribution of our free will in the process, by means of faith and obedience, is merely a response to God’s gracious offer. God’s provision of eternal life is primary and decisive. Our part is only to respond, to accept or reject God’s offer of eternal salvation. Otherwise the exertion of our free will, however earnest and honest, is an exercise in futility.
The Bible on human significance and moral responsibility
We now turn our attention to the subject of human significance and responsibility. As we have already mentioned in the foregoing, free will is not an illusion. It is indeed real, but that reality, and the significance thereof, is like a “drop in a bucket”, like “dust weighed on scale”. In other words, our free will is significant only to the extent that it can gain God’s final approval, or incur his final judgement. It cannot -our free will cannot- change or alter God’s ultimate purpose. We are, in short, morally responsible, even if we are incapable of changing or altering God moral and cosmic order.
Judgement and moral responsibility of peoples and nations
According to the Bible, God judges peoples and nations according to their deeds, collectively, in time and history. Nations and peoples have the capacity to choose to obey and follow God’s righteous ways and principles, and in the exercise of that choice they either incur God’s wrath or gain his blessings: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you… But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed…”14. In Isaiah, God encourages the people to be “willing and obedient” 15 in order to gain his approval and blessings. In Jeremiah God is described as a porter, and the nations and peoples like clay, and God declares that “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.”16
Judgement and moral responsibility of individuals
As it is with nations and peoples, so it is with individuals as well. We are, as it is often said, free moral agents, capable of submitting or acting against God’s will, but incapable of changing or altering God’s will. If we act against God’s will, we simply incur his judgment, his corrective measure to keep all in line. Everyone is responsible before God for him/herself, and no other: “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.”17.
Again, we are told in clear terms that past promises of God are no license for licentiousness, sin or reckless impunity. In this respect what God said to the priest Eli is particularly instructive: “I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honour me I will honour, but those who despise me will be disdained.”18
Finally, concerning eternal life that God has offered us, while it is true that we are absolutely not responsible for the provision – the offer- we still exercise the really important choice to accept or reject, with all attending consequences. On this point the Bible then asks, rhetorically: “how shall we escape” responsibility and consequences, “if we ignore so great a salvation?”19
Conclusion: Human significance in contexts
Let us now summarise the key points of this inquiry: human beings are significant and morally responsible, and this significance is perfectly compatible with and perfectly subsumed in, God’s sovereign will and absolute power. The significance of man can be better understood in the following cardinal contexts:
It is sometimes suggested that if God is all powerful, does it really matter what we think of his fairness, with respect to, say, predestination of some people to eternal damnation, and yet others to eternal salvation, without any consideration of deeds or misdeeds? Can he not do as he wills, seeing he is accountable and answerable to no one?
Those who proclaim this idea of God’s infinite power imagine that they are doing God a great service20 with all reverential fear. Unfortunately, they appear not to recognise the essential point about God’s immutable character. In other words, while it is true that God is answerable to no one, he is nevertheless bound to his own unchanging character. He must be God. He cannot be “false to himself”21. He cannot be anything other than God. He is, and will always be, the embodiment of absolute good, of pure love, of perfect justice. The doctrine of predestination fundamentally affirms God’s sole determination of final outcomes, and does not necessarily preclude the exercise of human free will. As the prominent Christian apologist C.S. Lewis aptly puts it, the gates of hell are, in a sense, “locked on the inside”22. People go to hell because they choose to rebel against God’s righteous ways and sovereign will.
One of the essential points that have become clearer in the course of our inquiry is the limitation of human will. Human free will is real, but it is severely limited. It is restricted, first, by the time-space limitations of our earthly existence. Much as we may will, we cannot live on (most, if not all of )the planets near to us in our solar system, let alone go outside the Milky Way to physically explore billions of galaxies yonder. As stated in the Bible passage explored earlier, nation-states themselves are, in the grand scheme of the universe, like ‘dust weighed on scale’.
Our free will is also limited by the humbling fact of our mortality. Our days are numbered, and that is it. On the average, “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”23. We may be rich or poor, weak or powerful, build great mansions or live in bamboo huts, but death is our common denominator. How much land does a man need? In the words of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, “Six feet from his head to his heel was all he needed”24.
Eternal destiny: salvation/damnation
One important limitation of the human free will omitted in the preceding section is the fact of spiritual depravity. We are- all of us humans- products of original sin incurred in the first man, Adam. In effect, whereas we may set up our standards and make our best efforts to be morally good, our will is utterly inadequate to attain God’s standard of holiness and attain eternal salvation. All have sinned25 and we depend entirely on God Grace. Before his all-perfect purity, “all our righteousness are like filthy rags”13
We have a choice to make in this matter. As humans, we can choose to accept God’s gracious offer of salvation, or we can refuse and explore other ideas or do our own thing. Whatever choice we make though, the outcomes are already determined. There are only two possibilities: eternal salvation, or everlasting damnation. Thank you very much!
First presented on 30th April 2012 at Ilford High Road Baptist Church, Ilford Essex, United kingdom.
- Nichols (2011). The Great Philosophical Debates- free will and determinism (http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=4235, page accessed on 10th April, 2012)
- The Information Philosopher. Free Will in Antiquity (http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/free_will_in_antiquity.html, page accessed on 10th April, 2012)
- Isaiah 46:10
- Acts 17:26
- Isaiah 40:22
- Isaiah 40:15
- Ecclesiastes 3:11
- Psalms 139
- Jeremiah 1:4
- See I Kings 13; Malachi 1; Luke 1
- Psalm 9:17 (New King James Version)
- Revelation 20: 15
- For further reading on this, see John 6:44; Isaiah 64:6
- Deuteronomy 30:15-18
- Isaiah 1:17
- Jeremiah 18:7-10
- Ezekiel 18:20
- I Sam 2:30
- Hebrews 2:3
- In John 16, Christ highlighted the point that people can hold fast to very mistaken ideas of God, and even commits evils under such mistaken notions and ideas. The Jewish leaders who persecuted and even killed some of the early Christians are a case in point.
- I Tim 2:13
- 22. This point was explored in some detail by C.S. Lewis in his book The Great Divorce. He stated, for example, that “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened. ” Lewis is by no means saying here that God surrenders in the end to human will, but just what we have been saying, that by the exercise of rebellious choice people effectively condemn themselves to damnation.
- 23. Psalms 90:10
- 24. Leo Tolstoy wrote the classic How much land does a man need?
- 25. Romans 3:23