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What does God predetermine?

Unsplash/ Warren
Unsplash/ Warren

The other day while I was re-reading through the book of Revelation, I hit a speed bump that’s stopped me more times than I can count. I like these hit-pause-for-a-minute texts because they make me take a breath and really think about what’s being said.

Here it is — the opening of the six seals found in Chapter 6, specifically, the fifth seal that unveils the martyrs who have lost their lives for God: “When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God … And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also” (Rev. 6:9–11).

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It’s the last sentence that’s a brakes-hitter for me. In addition to the martyrs already dead, more believers are going to be killed and there’s a specific number of their deaths that must be “completed,” which was fixed by God far ahead of time.

There’s plenty more of this God-determining stuff going on in Revelation. For example, the fifth trumpet judgment releases something described as locusts, which put the hurt on a lot of people but are “not permitted to kill anyone” (9:5) and the sixth trumpet unleashes “four angels, who had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year … so that they would kill a third of mankind” (9:15).  

Of course, these are just microcosms of the wider-scale model seen throughout Scripture of God determining what, how, and why things happen, all done before anything existed. But this leads to a question and subject of fierce debate — exactly what does God determine?  

All things? Some things? Nothing?

The fact that God has complete knowledge and predetermines things is difficult to avoid for any student of Scripture, although adherents to open theism (which says that for us to be truly free, the future free will choices of individuals cannot be known or determined ahead of time by God) try. That teaching aside, while the vast majority of Christians nod in agreement with God predestining future outcomes, some bristle at the idea of Him determining things like the deaths of believers as spelled out in Revelation 6.

If He determines that, doesn’t He cause it to happen, they ask.  

Some try to answer that thorny question by turning to the prescient (“pre” science/knowledge) view of God’s knowledge and determining power, which says God’s actions are based on Him looking down through a history that hasn’t occurred yet and responding to what He sees.

While very popular with some believers, that position drags a large, nasty elephant into the room: it has God learning something. And that’s a mistake because God is omniscient and never learns anything.

We shouldn’t fall into the error of thinking that God’s foreknowledge means He’s a really good guesser or learns about events and then reactively works with them, but it’s instead what you find Peter saying in the book of Acts when he references God’s plan of the cross: “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know — this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:22–23, my emphasis).

Did God learn about the cross by looking at future free will acts ahead of time or did He instead predetermine that it would happen? I’m sure you know the answer to that.

In his excellent book on predestination, Loraine Boettner writes: “Foreknowledge must not be confused with foreordination. Foreknowledge presupposes foreordination but is not itself foreordination. The actions of free agents do not take place because they are foreseen, but they are foreseen because they are certain to take place … God foreknows only because He has pre-determined. His foreknowledge is but a transcript of His will as to what shall come to pass in the future, and the course which the world takes under His providential control is but the execution of His all-embracing plan.”

So, returning to Revelation 6 and the death of a predetermined number of believers, what are we to think? Answer: the exact same thing as we should think about the death of Christ and how Peter describes it in Acts.

God predetermined it, but as Boettner writes, “His decree does not produce the event, but only renders its occurrence certain, and the same decree which determines the certainty of the action at the same time determines the freedom of the agent in the act.”

Dr. Robert Lewis Dabney agrees, saying, “The only way in which any object can by any possibility have passed from God's vision of the possible into His foreknowledge of the actual, is by His purposing to effectuate it Himself, or intentionally and purposely to permit its effectuation by some other agent whom He expressly purposed to bring into existence.”

Yep, that’s some heavy lifting I know.

And to be clear, I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers to a deep theological topic like this one. The best I can do is say with Boettner: “We are not under obligation to ‘explain’ these truths; we are only under obligation to state what God has revealed in His word, and to vindicate these statements as far as possible from misconception and objections.”

What I can say is there is comfort in even the limited understanding of God’s predetermination that we have.

Writing to a grieving friend, Blaise Pascal, chose to direct his friend to the doctrine of predestination as his primary source of solace for the person: “If we regard this event, not as an effect of chance, not as a fatal necessity of nature, but as a result inevitable, just, holy, of a decree of His Providence, conceived from all eternity, to be executed in such a year, day, hour, and such a place and manner, we shall adore in humble silence the impenetrable loftiness of His secrets; we shall venerate the sanctity of His decrees; we shall bless the acts of His providence; and uniting our will with that of God Himself, we shall wish with Him, in Him and for Him, the thing that He has willed in us and for us for all eternity.”

That’s some good advice and is echoed by Boettner as one of his conclusions: “Hence if we swallow the camel in believing that the most sinful event in all history [the cross] was in the foreordained plan of God, and that it was overruled for the redemption of the world, shall we strain at the gnat in refusing to believe that the smaller events of our daily lives are also in that plan, and that they are designed for good purposes?” 

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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