Puppets and Their Masters

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8-9

I closed the window and rubbed my eyes a bit. As i opened them, my glance fell on the single word that was streaming across the screen of my computer: ELECT.

About a week ago I had lunch with a new friend, and what began as the usual discussion over petty things with which we define ourselves evolved into a conversation about core beliefs and principles. We eventually debated free will and predestination, and as each spoke in turn I finally had the “aha” moment and said “oh, i don’t believe in the total depravity of man.” That was it–we both realized precisely why we were coming close to one another’s arguments and then missing the point.

I then asked her: What makes you think we’re fully depraved? She may as well have countered: What makes you think otherwise?

A great number of admittedly petty responses arise. I suppose the real answer is that I never considered it one way or the other, why I believe in free will, why I believe that man’s nature is generally good but tainted. I expect others to logically defend their beliefs and yet here, it seems, was an area that I had never actually thought through nearly as well as I expected. I took for granted that my church and the majority of elders in my life had it right–who among us is not tempted to do likewise?–and I took their belief as my own. This goes beyond the question of whether my entire Christianity is a product of my elders–I have definitely come to the conclusion of Christianity’s validity as a personal conviction. But the question is, was that REALLY my choice?

Once the questions began, the answers needed to be found, and quite frankly I have become bewildered by the lack thereof. It seems to me that some of the chief divisive factors between, say, Calvinists and Arminians, have been established on the basis of sheer semantics, on the interpretation of single verses. And here I come along, a member of the Assemblies of God church, and I don’t have a clue what my own church has to say except, perhaps, that we tend to make fun of Calvinism in a lighthearted way.

So after considering it, I figure I need to delineate the beliefs I have coming into this, because otherwise if they change I won’t be able to trace the changes and figure out which beliefs were logically grounded and which ones just sort of happened. To that end, I came into it assuming that generally speaking, I am a free-willed individual. Thus the good in my life is a product of my will just as much as the evil. My faith rests on my willingness to accept Christ’s gospel and allow him into my life. Likewise I may decide, whether purposefully or incidentally, to walk away from Christ (or, to continue the metaphor, to kick Christ out) and in doing may forfeit my faith. I therefore believe that it is possible for a once “true Christian” to lose his soul.

Okay, those are the assumptions. I look at a list of Calvinism’s five points and I understand that, for the most part, we are diametrically opposed. And so I begin to wonder why. The first question I have is whether our opposing views can be compatible. The second question (and the obvious question) is, clearly, if one of us is wrong and the other is right–which is it?

Our lunch discussion concentrated mainly on predestination versus free will. I say “mainly” because the truth is, you cannot isolate any of the five points of Calvinism; they are inextricable. Nevertheless, at least to start with, I will do my best to stick mainly with that debate.

The number one objection to a doctrine of “free will” is the incontrovertible fact of God’s sovereignty. We cannot interfere with God’s plans. There is nothing that a person can do that will have God scratching his proverbial head and saying “gee, didn’t see that coming.” Everything that happens happens because God allows it to happen. Likewise, since God knows all things, everything that happens happens with God’s full knowledge. Note: I do not say “foreknowledge.” That’s a particular peeve of mine because it erroneously places God’s knowledge within temporal boundaries. To say God knows something beforehand is to suggest that He must wait for it to happen. Yet God is not bound by human conception of time and therefore, just as he “is” (rather than was or will be), so he “knows.” It is wrong to say he knew or will know–he simply always knows.

The point, then, is that we cannot help but be predestined. And I don’t just mean in the “big things.” I mean in all things. Because even something as mundane as the sip of cream soda I just “decided to take” was, is, and always will be part of the story of my life. Save for the theory of alternative realities, my life has an eternal destiny that includes that sip of cream soda. There is no reality in which that quantity of liquid remains in the cup. Thus, though I may imagine myself as having “freely chosen” to take the sip, the fact is I can’t NOT have done so.

That’s all trivial, though. People like to focus on big things, such as the “decision,” whether it be God’s or man’s, of eternal fate. This debate tends to include the ever-popular indigenous heathen who lives a life entirely oblivious to Christianity and whether he goes to heaven or hell. The predestination fans argue, Biblically (of course) that all (wo)men will be held accountable for their actions to God. They then try to tiptoe around the truth by saying that “well, it’s beyond me, but since I consider God to be fair, there’s got to be some alternative way of judging people who don’t hear about Christ.” Except here Christ comes along in John 14:6 saying “no one comes to the Father except through me.” So unless Christ is lying, the native is proverbially screwed. So are a great deal of the people that lived “before current era” (which, by the way, is an expression that bothers me to no end, and if anyone out there can explain to me how the BCE/CE distinction isn’t an entirely arbitrary way of trying to ignore the importance of Jesus of Nazereth, please tell me).

Ironically, this rests well with just about no one. The native never had a chance in all of the decisions he made throughout his life to accept Christ–so he did not freely choose to be damned eternally. This would work out well for the predestinationist except, of course, that generally speaking she refuses to accept that God might actually “predestine” someone for Hell. That seems “unfair” or “unjust.”

The Bible nevertheless tells us that the only truly “fair” result of sin is punishment. That’s where the notion of being “elect” comes in (told you these things were inseparable): we all deserve Hell, but God chooses some of us not to go there. This decision, while seemingly arbitrary, is chalked up to that category labeled “things God does that we as humans were not created with a capacity to understand.” I’m still not sure it belongs in that category. Frankly, it seems unlikely that God would leave one of the most striking inconsistencies with his apparent justice in an area of such great ambiguity.

Scripture says God is just, and scripture is (at least as far as most people on either side of this particular debate are concerned) infallible. Justice, however, cannot exist in a system wherein two equally guilty people arbitrarily receive diametrically opposed responses for their crimes. Justice is further exacerbated if we accept that neither party had any legitimate control over their actions. It would seem, then, that free will is required for God’s justice in this matter to stand; only if both guilty parties had a chance to either refrain from their crime or else accept redemption can it be “fair” for one to be saved and the other not to.

And so everyone turns to Ephesians 2:8. The New International Version says “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.” See, says the free-will proponent. Right there. “Through faith! Not by works! Only by our decision to repent of our sins and accept Christ’s forgiveness can we hope to attain heaven.”

That argument works very well when countering, say, the (typically) Catholic emphasis on good deeds or the somehow-still-accepted sale of indulgences. It does not, however, actually answer the question we are currently posing. In fact, I find that it attempts to dodge the very obvious implications of the verse. Most of my life I have heard that verse in paraphrase and assumed that I was hearing it verbatim. Usually we omit that aside. You know, the one that clarifies God’s participation in the process of redemption.

Without that aside, we get simply “By grace you have been saved, through faith.” And that is a very troublesome passage indeed, because depending on interpretation it can be used to support both the free will and predestination sides simultaneously. Go figure:

Free will: Through my faith I have received grace and am thereby saved.
Predestination: By God’s grace I have the faith that saves me.

Now let’s consider the aside: “and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Gee, sounds an awful lot like the second one to me. And yet this verse is one of the greatest arguments for free will and its involvement in salvation.

This puts us all in a precarious situation. The Calvinist believes (and, perhaps rightly so, as was just illustrated) that salvation comes only through faith, which is itself only possible because God has graciously allowed some–the “elect”–to possess it. If God chooses an “elect,” he must also choose to leave people out. In layman’s terms, God picks some people to go to heaven, and the rest of them are chosen to go to Hell. This group must therefore include all those natives and BC dwellers that never stood a chance in the first place, as well as the (far more comfortably damned) people who have intentionally denied Christ.

I have been hard-pressed to find too many people willing to just say “yeah, sounds about right” to that assertion. While we are comfortable in condemning the wicked, we are less willing to, for lack of a better word, indict God for creating people to go to hell. While clinging to predestination, we squirm under its repercussions. Only if those people had a choice can it be fair to hold them accountable for their actions. And yet free will does not exist. So they had no choice. Which means God must be willing that they perish. Except scripture says just the opposite. It’s a vicious cycle.

Yes, it certainly does seem in-character for God to allow something seemingly bad to happen so as to highlight his goodness. Milton did a fairly good job of demonstrating that in Paradise Lost. Certainly it’s a lot better to be saved from evil than to simply have existed in a pleasant state the whole time. But then the question is, with our tendency to oversimplify, are we going too far by saying “God sends some people to eternal torment merely to make those who are saved from such a torment that much more grateful to him” ? That certainly seems tyrannical–unjust–downright evil, in fact.

Nevertheless some people do go to hell, and they do so without ever knowing of Christ. If God is the “First Cause” of all we know, then ultimately he, not ourselves, not those people, is to blame for the inevitable damnation. This causation problem also arises in the context of another point of Calvinism, the total depravity of man. My friend explained, rather straightforwardly, that all the evil we do is our own fault (and a product of the fall) and that all the good we do is thanks only to God’s grace. I asked her for the Biblical basis of that distinction. She didn’t really know what to say. I didn’t either.

But let’s assume that total depravity IS in fact the state we are in, as a resultant of the (allow some chronological snobbery for a moment) clearly poor decision on behalf of Adam and Eve to consume that which was on the “gloves off” list. From that moment on, all mankind basically sucks. I’ll overlook the inherent contradiction I found in one Calvinist website that suggested that this depravity does not preclude social good (apparently even when fully cut off from God, who is truth, mankind is still capable of truth) and accept that generally speaking, all of our good is incidentally God-inspired and carried out.

The thing is, if we are predestined, then neither Adam nor Eve had the capacity to do otherwise. If our sin is a result of their sin, and their sin is the result of having been predestined to sin, then our sin is a result of their predestination. And that’s where the whole “first cause” question comes in. Even if nothing else in the created order has sovereignty, we attribute it to God–which means that He willingly and intentionally set in motion the events that resulted in their, and therefore our sin. Thus, through a series of A implies B, we find that God is responsible for all of our bad too.

St. Augustine described sin as the absence of God (much in the same way that cold is merely a lack of heat). To that end, if we accept the above model, we must if nothing else applaud God’s ingenuity in having created an absence of himself. But heretical humor aside, the above model should strike us as inherently problematic. I am apt to reject it, just as I am apt to reject the notion that God haphazardly creates people for eternal torment and/or punishes people for actions they could not help but make.

I am therefore at a theological standstill and feel very much desirous of a clear way out. Free will clears up some of the issues, though it still doesn’t seem to help out the isolated native. Meanwhile, it seems to be an illusory contradiction of the inevitable ramifications of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God–we cannot possibly do or think or act in any way that God has not either directly or indirectly caused.

Free will and predestination, then, are like two parts of a roller coaster experience, wherein predestination is the track along which we cannot help but travel. Our free will, then, becomes much like centrifugal force: a sensation felt only within the system, but not actually existing. As you enter the loop, you swear you are being sucked down towards the center. Take off your seat belt, however, and if you’re moving fast enough you’ll find that you don’t fall out. Remove the track, however, and your cart is launched out into space. It is at this point that you realize two things. First, you weren’t really being pulled in. Second, no matter how much you believe in free will, it’s not going to save you when that cart finally hits the ground.

I was considering ending this essay right there, but then I realized it’s important to come full-circle, to finish the ride properly. With few exceptions, the roller coaster ends back where it started, and people safely get off. And let’s face it, even when you know that it’s the track keeping you alive, you can’t help but feel centrifugal force. Likewise, even if no free will exists at all, we cannot help but live as if it did. Winning this argument one way or the other won’t refute that. Even the staunchest of Calvinists will remind you that you can’t simply slack off because of predestination.

The key, however, is humility. Predestination is a slap in the face of human pride, which perhaps is a huge reason for the intensity of the debate over this issue in particular (that and the fact that, with Calvinism’s contingency, proving or disproving predestination basically proves or disproves the rest of it). When taken to their extremes, either assumption will lead us to “work our hardest” at “being good” — the free because they are responsible for their actions, the predestined as a way of saying thank you for the undeserved grace. Ultimately the former makes pride a much greater obstacle. We may forget that it is our faith and not our works that allows us any happiness at all, whereas the latter is a constant reminder of that fact.

And in the midst of an increasingly postmodern, individualistic culture, I can’t help but wonder whether emphasizing the personal involvement is merely a disgusting attempt to resist the true message of Christianity. I saw a human video today that depicted the spiritual struggle in a way I found somewhat unsettling at first. It showed four people sinning, controlled like puppets by Satan. One by one, these people were saved by Christ–and then they began to dance with Him. Like Him. They had become puppets controlled by Christ.

This left me with many questions. Is that a healthy or accurate way of viewing spiritual reality? Are Christians merely puppets for Christ? If so, is that a bad thing? Is Satan truly a free agent? Or is he too (and by extension, all that he controls) merely part of the great puppet show that God is orchestrating?

Feel free to let me know what you think. And yes, pun intended.

EDIT @ 6:15 p.m. 03/16: A comical anecdote. After publishing this, I was talking to a friend, to whom I explained, “I just spent the last two hours, give or take, writing about free will and predestination…voluntarily. Wait.”

I meant, of course, that this was not an assignment. Still, thought it was worth sharing. -AKB