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Christianity and fatalism are diametrically opposed faiths. Hope is the anchor of the Christian life. In the fatalist mindset, if the anchor is going to fall on you, it will fall on you. There is nothing you can do about it. Fatalism makes us victims of the universe. Christianity makes us victors through Him. Fatalism is pessimistic; we are not actors but pawns. Christianity is intrinsically optimistic.[1] God’s plans for us are good.[2] Why is it, then, that in times of calamity we fall prey to the victim psychology of fate?

A twenty car pileup on the interstate leaves Cousin Johnny without the use of both legs. After the pain and trauma, he and his family come to the conclusion that it must have been God’s will for his life, otherwise why would He have allowed the accident to happen in the first place? On this foundation, Cousin Johnny develops a testimony centered on all the wrong things he did when he had legs, why God was forced to take them from him, and how much he is doing for the kingdom of God now because he has no legs! You may laugh (or cry), but there are Christian celebrities who have made a living with this type of testimony.

Blaming God for tragedy and calling it love is perhaps easier than accepting personal responsibility. After all, who would have the courage to ask Cousin Johnny why he was driving 30 miles over the speed limit without a seat belt on? Questioning his conclusions would seem just as insensitive. “It was God’s will for me to be paraplegic,” Johnny says. We pat his shoulder and say, “God bless you,” instead of asking, “If God wanted you paraplegic, why weren’t you born that way? You say your legs led you into evil. Seems to me, God could have avoided all that by never letting you walk in the first place.”  Your aunt is incensed at your implications. “Look how much he is doing for the Kingdom now. He would have never been able to do that without the accident,” she says. Did she ever consider how powerful his testimony would be if God supernaturally healed him?

Why is it that tragedy and evil in our lives winds up being blamed on God? I believe it stems an incomplete understanding of God’s sovereignty and the impact of foreknowledge and predestination on our free will. Though a full examination of the Lord’s sovereignty over the universe is out of the scope of this study,[3] the impact of foreknowledge and predestination on our free will is a question of the nature of time and our lives in it.

Romans 8:28-30
28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
30 Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. KJV

According to verses 29 and 30, foreknowledge precedes predestination and predestination precedes the call. This is from God’s perspective. What do we experience? We experience the call first through the hearing of the gospel[4]. It is only after we answer it do we understand that He chose us from the beginning (foreknowledge) to be saved by the sanctifying work of the Spirit (predestination). We become aware after the call. God has been aware all along. This is the basic nature of foreknowledge.

The Greek word translated “foreknow” in Romans 8:29 is proginosko. The noun form of this word is prognosis. Prognosis is one of those Greek words the English language swallowed whole. Any reader who has seen a doctor should be familiar with the term. It is used most frequently when speaking of the probable outcome of a disease or treatment. Prognosis is formed from the prefix pro-, meaning “before,” and the word gnosis, which means “knowledge.” Prognosis is knowledge beforehand, proginosko is to know ahead of time.

Imagine your doctor told you, “I have foreknowledge of your disease.” Would you then expect the doctor to deliver a word of prophecy about your condition? “Foreknowledge” carries a large theological baggage train with it. Prognosis is a much more pedestrian term, seldom sending us into mystical flights of fancy. A doctor’s prognosis, his forecast on what track a disease or treatment is going to take, comes through diagnosis, the thorough examination of the facts involved in the patient’s condition. Doctors are human. Their diagnosis can miss crucial facts and their prognosis can be wrong. But our God is omniscient. His knowledge is perfect, thus His prognosis is never wrong.

We get into trouble about God’s foreknowledge when we tie it to time with false cords. Below is a classic diagram that is used to illustrate an understanding of how God relates to time and thus how He knows the future.

God in Time

In this view, God sees all of time at once from His timeless vantage point. His perfect knowledge of past, present, and future derives from His ability to see it. Aside from reducing God to a mere observer of events, it exposes a misunderstanding of time more than it offers an explanation for God’s foreknowledge.  This view presents all of time as existing in the “eternal present” of the Divine perspective. Our sense of progress through time thus becomes an artifact of how we experience it and is not a true reflection of time’s actual essence. Theologians are not the only ones to hold this view. Some physicists see space-time in just this way, as a solid loaf we think we move through somewhat like stick figures drawn on the corners of a notebook appear to move when we flick through them.[5]

Scripture reveals time as dynamic and progressive, not as a static whole. In the words of the apostle Paul, “God calls those things which do not exist as though they did.”[6] When God said to Abram, “Thou shalt be (future state) a father of many nations,”[7] Abraham’s progeny were not already alive in the future sector of space-time. God was calling the things that were not, that had no existence, as if they were. The future as a static state populated with all of Ishmael’s and Isaac’s descendants did not exist. God’s knowledge of Abram giving birth to nations derived from His ability to make it so, not from His observation of a future state. He declares “things that are not yet done.”[8]

Foreknowledge, God’s and Man’s

Was Judas fated to betray his Master? Was Pilate fated to send Jesus to the cross? If neither of these men had a choice in their actions, how can they be judged? Jesus gave Judas ample opportunity and empowerment to avoid the snare of the devil. Pilate’s wife warned him against doing anything to Jesus because she had had troubling dreams. Each man could have taken a different course of action.

Acts 2:22-23
22 Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know:
23 Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: KJV

God’s counsel and foreknowledge determined that the Son would be crucified to redeem mankind. The particular agents, the individuals, complicit in the crucifixion involved themselves through choice. We see this in Pilate.

Acts 3:13
The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go. KJV

Pilate was determined to let Jesus go, but he didn’t. Why? Was he doomed to fulfill an unavoidable fate? No, he had authority to let Jesus go. The Jews brought Jesus to Pilate because the Romans reserved the right of capital punishment. If Pilate decided to let Jesus go, the Jews could not crucify him.

Luke 23:20-24
20 Pilate therefore, willing to release Jesus, spake again to them.
21 But they cried, saying, Crucify him, crucify him.
22 And he said unto them the third time, Why, what evil hath he done? I have found no cause of death in him: I will therefore chastise him, and let him go.
23 And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed.
24 And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required. KJV

Pilate, like King Saul, abdicated in the face of populist pressure. As the governor with the authority to determine the validity of a death sentence, he gave the order for Jesus to be crucified even though Pilate believed Jesus was innocent. It isn’t fate, it was choice. Had Pilate decided to let Jesus go, the death sentence would have come from someone else.

Foreknowledge educates choices; it doesn’t take freedom of will away. We know this from our present experience. God knows what we are doing right now. Does His knowledge of our current action determine the current action? No, but if we hold in mind that God sees all, we certainly may decide to change our current action or avoid a sinful desire. As with current knowledge, so it is with foreknowledge. God gives us knowledge of the future so we can make wise choices.

2 Peter 3:13-14, 17
13 Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
14 Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless.
17 Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness. KJV

The words “seeing ye know these things before” in verse 17 are a translation of the single Greek word proginosko, to foreknow.  God gives us foreknowledge to aid us in our daily walk and decisions, not to hamper our freedom of will. God gives us knowledge of the future, of what He is absolutely going to bring to pass, through the Scriptures. It isn’t going to happen because it exists already. It is going to happen because He is going to bring it to pass. Much of God’s foreknowledge is in this category. He lovingly lets us in on what He going to do so that we can wisely order our lives accordingly.

[1] Rom. 5:5; 9:33; Ps. 34:3-8.
[2] Jer. 29:11; Luke 12:32.

[3] God’s Sovereignty and man’s freedom of will are age-old and deep theological issues. I would not presume to put these questions to bed even with a full work devoted to the subject, let alone a paragraph. But for the sake of brevity, following is the paragraph:

God is sovereign in that He is the ultimate authority in the universe. In His wisdom and sovereignty, He has given freedom of will to His sentient creatures and freedom of motion to the material creation. Both freedom of will and freedom of motion were designed to follow His plan (i.e. His ultimate authority). Whenever a person or a particle in their freedom move outside of His plan (whether by will or coercion) calamity occurs. This calamity often impacts those who have not moved outside of the plan. Does this mean that God isn’t Sovereign? No, this means that He has truly imparted freedom into His creation. His sovereignty is ultimately vindicated in that He is able to repair the damage deviation from the plan causes. As a matter of fact, He is so good at it that many default to blaming Him for the plan deviation in the first place!

[4] See 2 Thess. 2:13-14. A study of Matt. 22:2-10 in view of Rev. 19:9 and 22:17 gives one an interesting twist in contradistinction to the popular view of foreknowledge and predestination. In the wedding parable, those for whom the feast was intended refused the invitation causing the Father of the groom to extend an invitation (a call, if you will) to any who could be found. In this parable one moves from a specifically foreknown and predestined and called group to a general invitation to the feast to any who would hear and respond.

[5] See for instance Julian Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics.
[6] Rom. 4:17.
[7] Gen. 17:4.
[8] Isa. 46:10.