Many of the writings of the apostle Paul in the New Testament suggest that God has already chosen those who will be saved and live eternally with him in his kingdom (Romans 8:29-33; 9:18; 16:13; Ephesians 1:4-6; Col 3:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). This, in theological language is called “divine election”.
This leads to the unsettling thought that God has chosen those who will go to hell – and that God had decided this even before the world was made. Such an idea, of course, presents huge ethical difficulties – because it’s not fair on those who were not chosen. It also conflicts with Bible verses that speak of God’s desire for everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9).
The idea that God has made us like mechanical clocks, predestined to move its cogs and tick its way remorselessly along, presents a logical problem, for it would mean that our relationship with God is not real. We were simply “pre-programmed” to love and become Christians. Therefore, the whole notion of Jesus and Paul admonishing us to be faithful, to follow, to love, to choose holiness, becomes meaningless.
The reality is, however: both Jesus and Paul both featured the importance of choice (Mark 16:16; John 10:9; Acts 2:21; Romans 1:16).
Paul had an incredibly strong understanding of the high calling of being a disciple of Christ. The privilege of being ‘in Christ’ and therefore being ‘saved’ colours all of his theology. Paul never taught that anyone was excluded from God’s kingdom except through sin. His whole missionary focus was to preach to those who might reasonably have thought they were excluded from God, and include them. The urgency he felt for doing this is well displayed in his letter to the church in Rome.
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14-15)
The theory that God predestines some people for hell was popularised by the Swiss reformer, John Calvin. Calvin revised his teaching (his Institutes) several times and never claimed they were the last word. As such, we should be careful to take our final authority from the Bible, not Calvin. To be fair to Calvin, his understanding of predestination was driven by a pastor’s heart. He wanted people to know that we were never left unseen by God in the hands of fate and chance. God has a plan. And to this, we can all say, amen!
The fact is: God’s will for humankind is not realised until God and humankind each become the object of the other’s love. For this to happen, both must be able to freely choose to love each other – for unless they do, no authentic relationship will occur. It is important to remember, however, that whilst God and humankind are the two agents participating in a freely chosen, loving relationship, only God supplies the means for this to happen and realise its full potential in God’s kingdom. He has done this, of course, through the cross of Christ.
So, how do we make sense of the Bible verses that speak of predestination?
The issue can be resolved when we remember that God stands outside of time. This means that the past, present and future are equally known to him. The consequence of this is that God already knows who will, by faith and of their own free will, become his people.
It is important to remember that God has not made people for hell and damnation. God did not intend anyone to go to hell (1 Thessalonians 5:9). It was to save us from hell that Jesus came. Hell was designed primarily for the devil and his evil spirits (Matthew 25:41). Sadly, however, the Bible teaches that hell is a state of being that many people choose. After all, God will respect anyone’s decision not to have anything to do with him. Jesus put it well when he said, “Many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14).
An image that has helped some understand the issue of predestination is this. Picture yourself walking towards the gate of God’s kingdom. As you approach this gate, you see written above it, “Enter all who choose to.” You decide to enter the gate, but on looking back, you see written above it on the inside, “You have not chosen me, I have chosen you.”
Do choose well.
Dr Nick Hawkes is a scientist, pastor, apologist, writer and broadcaster. He also describes himself as an absent-minded, slightly obsessive man who is pathetically weak due to cancer and chemo, who has experienced, and needs to experience, the grace of God each day.
Nick has written a book Soar above the Storm in which he draws on his experience of cancer to encourage anyone walking through a storm in life to find rest and hope in God. It offers a 40-day retreat to be refreshed and strengthened and find deep peace in God. Order it at Koorong.
He blogs and records podcasts at nickhawkes.net.
Nick told his life story to Eternity in ‘Deadly storms, heroin addicts, cancer and my faith’.