Can Predestination Be Reconciled With God’s Love?
“WE DEFINE predestination as the eternal design of God, whereby he determined what he wanted to do with each man. For he did not create them all in the same condition, but foreordains some to everlasting life and others to eternal damnation.”
That is how Protestant Reformer John Calvin defined his concept of predestination in the book Institutes of the Christian Religion. This concept is based on the idea that God is omniscient and that his creatures’ actions cannot call his purposes into question or oblige him to make changes.
But is this really what the Bible implies concerning God? More important, is such an explanation compatible with God’s qualities, especially his foremost quality—love?
A God Capable of Foretelling the Future
God is able to foretell the future. He describes himself as “the One telling from the beginning the finale, and from long ago the things that have not been done; the One saying, ‘My own counsel will stand, and everything that is my delight I shall do.’” (Isaiah 46:10) Down through human history, God has had his prophecies recorded to show that he can exercise his foreknowledge and foretell events before they take place.
Thus, in the days of Belshazzar, king of Babylon, when the prophet Daniel had a dream about two wild beasts, one supplanting the other, Jehovah gave him its interpretation: “The ram that you saw possessing the two horns stands for the kings of Media and Persia. And the hairy he-goat stands for the king of Greece.” (Daniel 8:20, 21) Obviously, God exercised his foreknowledge to reveal the succession of world powers. The then prevailing Babylonian Empire would be succeeded by Medo-Persia and then by Greece.
Prophecies can also concern one individual. For instance, the prophet Micah declared that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. (Micah 5:2) Again, in this case God exercised his foreknowledge. However, this event was announced with a particular purpose—the identification of the Messiah. This instance does not justify generalizing a doctrine of predestination that includes each individual.
On the contrary, the Scriptures reveal that there are situations in which God chooses not to foreknow the outcome. Just before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he declared: “I am quite determined to go down that I may see whether they act altogether according to the outcry over it that has come to me, and, if not, I can get to know it.” (Genesis 18:21) This text clearly shows us that God did not foreknow the extent of the depravity in those cities before he investigated matters.
True, God can foresee certain events, but in many cases, he has chosen not to use his foreknowledge. Because God is almighty, he is free to exercise his abilities as he wishes, not according to the wishes of imperfect humans.
A God Who Can Set Matters Straight
As did Calvin, some say that God predetermined man’s fall before his creation and that he had predestinated the ‘chosen ones’ before that fall. But if this were true, would it not have been hypocritical for God to offer the prospect of everlasting life to Adam and Eve, fully aware that they would be unable to realize it? Moreover, the Scriptures nowhere deny that the first human couple were given a choice: either to follow divine directions and live forever or to reject them and die.—Genesis, chapter 2.
But did Adam and Eve’s sin really thwart God’s purpose? No, for immediately after their sinning, God announced that he would raise up a “seed” to destroy Satan and his agents and that he would again set matters straight on earth. Just as a few insects cannot stop a gardener from producing good yields, so Adam and Eve’s disobedience will not prevent God from making the earth into a paradise.—Genesis, chapter 3.
God later revealed that there would be a Kingdom government entrusted to a descendant of King David and that others would be associated in this Kingdom. These others are called “the holy ones of the Supreme One.”—Daniel 7:18; 2 Samuel 7:12; 1 Chronicles 17:11.*
To Foretell Is Not to Predestine
The fact that God did not choose to know which course mankind would take did not prevent him from prophesying the consequences of man’s good or bad actions. A mechanic who warns a driver of the poor condition of his vehicle cannot be held responsible if an accident occurs or be accused of predestining it. Likewise, God cannot be accused of predestining the sad consequences of individuals’ actions.
The same was true with the descendants of the first human couple. Before Cain killed his brother, Jehovah put a choice before Cain. Would he master sin, or would sin get mastery over him? Nothing in the account indicates that Jehovah predetermined that Cain would make the bad choice and murder his brother.—Genesis 4:3-7.
Later, the Mosaic Law warned the Israelites about what would happen if they turned away from Jehovah, for instance, by taking wives from among the pagan nations. What was foretold did happen. This can be seen from the example of King Solomon, who in his later years was influenced by his foreign wives to practice idolatry. (1 Kings 11:7, 8) Yes, God warned his people, but he did not predestine what their individual actions would be.
The Christian elect, or chosen ones, are encouraged to persevere if they do not wish to be deprived of the promised reward of reigning in the heavens with Christ. (2 Peter 1:10; Revelation 2:5, 10, 16; 3:11) As some theologians of the past have asked, Why were such reminders given if the calling of the chosen ones was final?
Predestination and God’s Love
Man was given free will, being created “in God’s image.” (Genesis 1:27) Free will was indispensable if humans were to honor and serve God out of love, not as robots with every movement determined beforehand. Love displayed by intelligent, free creatures would enable God to refute unjust accusations. He says: “Be wise, my son, and make my heart rejoice, that I may make a reply to him that is taunting me.”—Proverbs 27:11.
If God’s servants were predestined—or programmed, so to speak—could not the genuineness of their love for their Creator be called into question? Also, would it not be contrary to God’s impartiality for him to make a predetermined choice of persons destined to glory and happiness without taking their individual merits into account? Moreover, if some receive such preferential treatment, while others are destined to eternal punishment, this would hardly arouse sincere feelings of gratitude in the “elect,” or “chosen ones.”—Genesis 1:27; Job 1:8; Acts 10:34, 35.
Finally, Christ told his disciples to preach the good news to all mankind. If God has already chosen the ones to be saved, would this not dampen the zeal Christians show in evangelizing? Would it not make the preaching work essentially pointless?
Impartial love from God is the strongest force that can move men to love him in return. The greatest expression of God’s love was to sacrifice his Son in behalf of imperfect, sinful mankind. God’s foreknowledge respecting his Son is a special case, but it assures us that the restoration promises resting on Jesus will indeed be fulfilled. So may we put faith in that Son and draw close to God. Let us show our appreciation by accepting God’s invitation to come into a fine relationship with our Creator. Today, God addresses this invitation to all who want to exercise their free will and show their love for him.
When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom prepared “from the founding of the world” (Matthew 25:34), he must be referring to sometime after the first sin. Luke 11:50, 51 relates “the founding of the world,” or the founding of mankind redeemable by means of a ransom, to the time of Abel.
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PREDESTINED AS A CLASS
“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, New International Version) How should we understand the term “predestined” used by Paul in these verses?
Paul’s reasoning here is not a peremptory argument in favor of individual predestination. Earlier in our century, the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique explained Paul’s arguments (Romans, chapters 9-11) this way: “Increasingly, the prevailing opinion among Catholic scholars is that the actual concept of a predestination to eternal life has not been set out.” The same reference work then quotes M. Lagrange as saying: “The question primarily developed by Paul is not at all one of predestination and reprobation but merely that of the call of the Gentiles to the grace of Christianity, its antithesis being the incredulity of the Jews. . . . It concerns groups, Gentiles, Jews, and not specific individuals directly.”—Italics ours.
More recently, The Jerusalem Bible offered the same conclusion concerning these chapters (Ro 9-11), stating: “The subject of these chapters, therefore, is not the problem of individual predestination to glory, or even to faith, but of Israel’s part in the development of salvation history, the only problem raised by the statements in the O[ld] T[estament].”
The last verses of Romans chapter 8 belong to the same context. Thus, these verses can justly remind us that God foresaw the existence of a class, or group, from among mankind that would be called to reign with Christ, as well as the requirements they would have to meet—and this without designating ahead of time the specific individuals who would be chosen, for that would be contrary to his love and justice.