Is the future an open ended book or is history in some way predetermined? Is there such a thing as destiny? Such questions have been on the minds of women and men since the beginning of recorded history. One thing is certain: we seem to want life to have some meaning, purpose and direction to it. In this essay, I want us to think a little about the idea of determinism. To do so I will first define the word and then look closely at a specific species of it. I will then discuss the problems with the future being under determined and certain views of free will. In closing, I will look at various theological views associated with God’s sovereignty and knowledge of the future and how this affects our own choices in space and time. So, am I determined to write this today or shall I put down the pen? Well, either way, I trudge forward.
Determinism—Its Only Natural
Philosophically, determinism can be defined as follows: Determinism is the view that holds that events in the future are determined ahead of time by an intelligence, other events in the past and/or the current state of affairs. It might but a surprise to some, but the materialistic worldview of atheism is highly deterministic. In fact, the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy has just such a definition for determinism:
“[Causal Determinism is defined as] The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.1
Unlike my definition, here we have no room for an intelligence guiding life and history. In this view, determinism means that the universe and all that transpires in it is predetermined by the causal chain of the interaction of matter based upon the laws of nature.
In the spring of 2002 I was in campus ministry taking a course in medieval philosophy which surveyed thinkers and their works from a period of time spanning from Augustine to just prior to Descartes. The professor asked a rather simple question of the class: “Who does not believe in free will?” Several students, who were philosophy majors of an atheistic orientation, raisee their hands. Why? They believe in determinism because they hold that everything is just matter/energy and therefore the result of natural forces. In this view, there are simply no supernatural entities such as human souls, God, angels or demons who make real choices. The universe starts going at some time in the distant past and then based upon some initial conditions all things simply unfold over time. In my mind, this harsh determinism, is true if a naturalistic/materialistic philosophy is true. In this view of the world, the universe is a closed system of cause and effect without any outside influence. This, of course, includes all your choices based upon the droning forward of the chemical processes of your brain. I find this one of the horrible weaknesses of such philosophy. It simply does not account for our experience as human beings.
As such, it has always amazed me that atheists write books trying to get people to “change their minds” about their beliefs when in fact they believe our brains are already predetermined and any free choice is an illusion. Your beliefs are simply the results of matter interacting; it is physics all the way down. In fact, in this view, there really isn’t any “you” that could change “your mind.” Christian thinker GK Chesterton saw this clearly when he wrote of this kind of determinism. In his typical wit, he reflects as follows:
The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in changing the environment. He must not say to the sinner, “Go and sin no more,” because the sinner cannot help it. But he can put him in boiling oil; for boiling oil is an environment.2
This sort of categorization of the naturalistic worldview (a view which is anti-theistic) is not at all uncharitable. For example, the “Center for Naturalism” quite openly affirms this view of life under the sun. Forgive the longish quotation but I want you to see this thinking in its own terms.
Naturalism as a guiding philosophy can help create a better world by illuminating more precisely the conditions under which individuals and societies flourish, and by providing a tangible, real basis for connection and community. It holds that doctrines and policies which assume the existence of a freely willing agent, and which therefore ignore the actual causes of behavior, are unfounded and counter-productive. To the extent to which we suppose persons act out of their uncaused free will, to that extent will we be blind to those factors which produce criminality and other social pathologies, or, on the positive side, the factors which make for well-adjusted, productive individuals and societies. By holding that human behavior arises entirely within a causal context, naturalism also affects fundamental attitudes about ourselves and others. Naturalism undercuts retributive, punitive, and fawning attitudes based on the belief that human agents are first causes, as well other responses amplified by the supposition of free will, such as excessive pride, shame, and guilt. Since individuals are not, on a naturalistic understanding, the ultimate originators of their faults and virtues, they are not deserving, in the traditional metaphysical sense, of praise and blame. Although we will continue to feel gratitude and regret for the good and bad consequences of actions, understanding the full causal picture behind behavior shifts the focus of our emotional, reactive responses from the individual to the wider context. This change in attitudes lends support for social policies based on a fully causal view of human behavior. 3
If this seems to you a bit unnerving it ought to. Think for a moment about what is being said here. Apparently a certain group of people thinks they can and should set “social policies” to control the “environments” of other people. Why? To control the behavior of others who cannot make real choices but only respond to environments. Wow. Yet before we throw to the wind every form of determinism let’s look at the other extreme.
On the other end of the spectrum is the view that nothing in the future is determined and nothing is supposed to happen based upon current reality. This is problematic as well as certain things today surely seem influenced and even caused by events which happened before. Our choices are never purely “out of the blue” as they are always shaped by many things. Our upbringing, prior choices, the choices of others, education, things that happened to us, and most importantly our character influence how we act today and in some sense shape tomorrow. Furthermore, if God is God and knows the future, is it not in some way “going to happen”? It seems that we can also take a view of “free will” that is indeed “too free” as there is some reason for actions taken in the world even when you consider individual intelligences acting. Is there a middle ground? The Christian view has always held that there indeed is another way.
Throughout history orthodox Christians who follow the teachings of the Bible have agreed on a few principle things here. First, God indeed knows the future and there are some things that WILL happen because God wants them to. (Isaiah 46:8-11, Ephesians 1:11) Second, human beings are responsible to God for their choices and their decisions do matter in shaping our future (Deuteronomy 30;19,20 ) Where there has been divergence it has been related to how much one of these principles holds sway over the other in our theology. One focuses heavily on God’s sovereignty and meticulous providence while the other focuses heavily on our choices and responsibility. The first view can be viewed as a sort of theological determinism4 and the latter a theological libertinism. What we must not do is think that God is not involved in all the transpires during life under the sun. Nor should we think, as in materialistic determinism, that we have no choices that are real. What I want to put forth is a view that highly esteems God’s rule and purposes in all of life while at the same time calling us to live wisely in dependence upon our sovereign God.
God is God and We are Human
Several passages of Scripture teach that God is in control of quite literally everything. Here is a survey of a few ways in which Scripture teaches us that God is in control.
- God’s rule in the actions of people and nations history (Daniel 2:20-23, Isaiah 46:8-11)
- God’s rule in our lives (Acts 14:16-18; 17:24-28 Matthew 6:25-34; 10:26-33)
- God’s rule over both good and evil – each with its own purpose (See the story of Joseph Genesis 48-50; specifically Gen 50:18-21; Isaiah 45:5-7; Acts 2:22-23). We will expound on this in a moment.
Furthermore, Ecclesiastes 3 teaches us that there is a time and purpose for every season under heaven both good and bad. This is never meant to lead us to some sort of fatalism that we have no choices in life and we are just puppets on a string. What we must acknowledge is that we do not control destiny. God does. What we must see is that we are human and finite and God is infinite and knows all things. When we see this, knowing God is in control helps us respond to his actions in history with trust and hope. If you forgive me, I want to spend the rest of my space here with you working to persuade you that God’s sovereignty is a great thing for us to know and then willfully live in light of.
God’s Sovereignty in Bad Times
The questions pour out when thinking of the complex realities of good and evil in our world. Philosophers have discussed these issues for ages. Believers and unbelievers see the very same circumstances often in very different lights. One man suffers immensely and meets God right there, while another curses God for the pain that he experiences and sees all around him. The Scriptures record many reasons God has for allowing suffering in our world. For our purposes here I will just refer you to my recent essay about suffering for reflection upon this.5
God’s Sovereignty in Good Times
God’s nature and character are directly reflected in all that is true, good and beautiful in our world. We call such kind providences “blessings” as we see God’s kindness and favor in so much of life. The creation itself speaks to us (Psalm 19) and we see in our own design the goodness of God’s laws and purposes.6
God is God in All Things
If you are like me, you tend to see quickly the hand of God in the good times yet struggle to see his hand in the terrible sufferings of life. Ecclesiastes 3 teaches us that God has a purpose for every time and season under heaven and the he quite literally makes “all things beautiful in its time.” It is never that all things are good, but the overarching plan of God for all of history is breathtakingly so. The thing that frustrates us as human beings is that we have but a finite view of things. We cannot see all that will be tomorrow let alone see across the horizons of eternity like our God. Without a godlike view of the world we must trust the one who is indeed working all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes (See Romans 8:26-37).
In closing, we are not the victims of blind time+matter+chance as in the view of atheism. Yet neither are we the ultimate captains of our ships as some would want us to believe. The truth is much deeper. God is captain of his world and is working all things towards his purposes. He is weaving his story through history and we only see but a small part that we play. We follow him in the fog and trust his good hand in times of pain and trial. Similarly we rejoice with God in times of immense happiness and blessing. In the end, we might sleep better at night knowing life is on his shoulders. We are free to weep deeply in our pain knowing God cares and will some day wipe away the tears. We can rejoice triumphantly in hope that even death is not the end and an eternal glory is coming. There is nothing more frustrating and impossible that to pretend to know all things. There is nothing more vexing than to claim to see every reason behind each ray of sunlight and the many shadows of this age. There is nothing more comforting than to know and trust the one who does. He is our Father, he is our Lord, he is our King…and he is with us each step of the way.
Reid S. Monaghan
1. Causal Determinism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/ accessed September 30th, 2010. Emphasis in original.
2. GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: NY, Image books, 1959) 20. Originally published: New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1908. Emphasis Added.
3. Center for Naturalism Internet Site, http://www.naturalism.org/center_for_naturalism.htm accessed September 30, 2010. Emphasis Added.
4. By Theological determinism I simply mean that history is in some mysterious way “determined by God” - It is a determinism that has God choosing and acting and humans responding and acting as well. It is not the closed system universe of naturalistic/materialistic determinism as it has intelligent agents involved and not simply blind matter. It is also not “fatalism” as God is working out his good plan and we take part in the working it out.
5. Reid S. Monaghan, Thoughts on Suffering, http://www.powerofchange.org/blog/2010/7/24/thoughts-on-suffering.html.
6. See J. Budzizewski’s What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, for a treatment of God’s designs in us and our world.