Monday, October 30, 2006

Is Predestination Fatalism?


A frequent objection raised against predestination is that it is a religious form of fatalism. If we examine fatalism in its literal sense we see that it is as far removed from the biblical doctrine of predestination as the East is from the West. Fatalism literally means that the affairs of men are controlled either by whimsical sub-deities (the Fates) or more popularly by the impersonal forces of chance.
Predestination is based neither on a mythical view of goddesses playing with our lives nor upon a view of destiny controlled by the chance collision of atoms. Predestination is rooted in the character of a personal and righteous God, a God who is the sovereign Lord of history. That my destiny would ultimately be in the hands of an indifferent or hostile force is terrifying. That it is in the hands of a righteous and loving God is quite another matter. Atoms have no righteousness in them; they are at best amoral. God is altogether holy. I prefer that my destiny be with him.
The great superstition of modern times is focused on the role given to chance in human affairs. Chance is the new reigning deity of the modern mind. Chance inhabits the castle of the gods. Chance is given credit for the creation of the universe and the emergence of the human race from the slime.
Chance is a shibboleth. It is a magic word we use to explain the unknown. It is the favorite power of causality for those who will attribute power to anything or anyone but God. This superstitious attitude toward chance is not new. We read of its attraction very early in biblical history.
We remember the incident in Jewish history when the sacred Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines. On that day death visited the house of Eli and the Glory departed from Israel. The Philistines were jubilant over their victory, but they soon learned to rue the day. Wherever they took the Ark calamity befell them. The temple of Dagon was humiliated. The people were devastated by tumors. For seven months the Ark was shuttled between the great cities of the Philistines with the same catastrophic results in each city.
In desperation the kings of the Philistines took counsel together and decided to send the Ark back to the Jews with a ransom as well, to mollify the wrath of God. Their final words of counsel are noteworthy:

Then take the ark of the LORD and set it on the cart; and put the articles of gold which you are returning to Him as a trespass offering in a chest by its side. Then send it away, and let it go.
And watch: if it goes up the road to its own territory, to Beth Shemesh, then He has done us this great evil. But if not, then we shall know that it is not His hand that struck us; it was by chance that it happened to us (1 Samuel 6:8, 9).

We have already noted that chance can do nothing because it is nothing. Let me elaborate. We use the word chance to describe mathematical possibilities. For example, when we flip a coin we say that it has a fifty/fifty chance to come up heads. If we call heads on the toss and it turns up tails, we might say that our luck was bad and that we missed our chance.
How much influence does chance have on the toss of a coin? What makes the coin turn up heads or tails? Would the odds change if we knew which side the coin started on, how much pressure was exerted by the thumb, how dense the atmosphere was, and how many revolutions the coin made in the air? With this knowledge, our ability to predict the outcome would far exceed fifty/fifty.
But the hand is faster than the eye. We can’t measure all these factors in the normal tossing of the coin. Since we can reduce the possible outcome to two, we simplify matters by talking about chance. The point to remember, however, is that chance exercises absolutely no influence on the coin toss. Why not? As we keep saying, chance can do nothing because it is nothing. It is no thing. Before something can exert power or influence it must first be something. It must be some kind of entity, either physical or nonphysical. Chance is neither. It is merely a mental construct. It has no power because it has no being. It is nothing.
To say that something has happened by chance is to say that it is a coincidence. This is simply a confession that we cannot perceive all the forces and causal powers that are at work in an event. Just as we cannot see all that is happening in a coin toss with the naked eye, so the complex affairs of life are also beyond our exact ability to penetrate. So we invent the term chance to explain them. Chance really explains nothing. It is merely a word we use as shorthand for our ignorance.
I recently wrote on the subject of cause and effect. A professor of philosophy wrote to me complaining of my naive understanding of the law of cause and effect. He chided me for failing to take into account “uncaused events.” I thanked him for his letter and said that I would be happy to grapple with his objection if he would write back and provide just one example of an uncaused event. I am still waiting. I will wait forever because even God cannot have an uncaused event. Waiting for an uncaused event is like waiting for a square circle.
Our destinies are not controlled by chance. I say that dogmatically with all the bluster I can manage. I know that my destiny is not controlled by chance because I know that nothing can be controlled by chance. Chance can control nothing because it is nothing. What are the chances that the universe was created by chance or that our destinies are controlled by chance? Not a chance.
Fatalism finds its most popular expression in astrology. Our daily horoscopes are compiled on the basis of the movements of the stars. People in our society know more about the twelve signs of the zodiac than they do about the twelve tribes of Israel. Yet Reuben has more to do with my future than Aquarius, Judah more than Gemini.

HT: R.C. Sproul

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