God as Master Puppeteer
“I could never worship a God who pulls all the strings.”
Next to “What about the unreached?”, this objection to the Christian worldview is perhaps the most commonly voiced by the skeptic. They have heard of the doctrine of predestination and conclude that Christianity teaches that God has foreordained everything that happens, including the sinful choices we make and the eternal direction we take. And they want no part of such a tyrannical arrangement.
Interesting aside before I present my view…some of those who rail at the concept of mankind being deceived into thinking that we possess free will actually hold that deterministic position, as atheist scientists Sam Harris and Stephen Hawking do. Whether they realize it or not. Naturalism logically leads to the conclusion that our biology determines everything and free will is just an illusion.
But back to the topic at hand. If there’s one thing I wish every skeptic would do immediately, it would be to STOP doing something. Stop assuming that what they heard or read about Christianity from one or a few sources is the gospel truth (pun intended) and they are therefore familiar enough with the faith to reasonably reject it. Instead, START giving Christianity its due by acknowledging that as it is a faith based in part on written teaching believed to have come from God, mere humans may fail to always correctly understand what he has said. And that multitudes of intelligent, reasonable, free-thinking individuals have embraced it as the most coherent worldview, even if some of its tenets are indeterminate or have various interpretations.
So what is predestination? Well, in the same way that Harris and Hawking believe that we are naturally determined to think and do what we do, predestination for some is theistic determinism. It is true that some Protestant reformers and those today who identify as strong Calvinists do believe that God does pull all the strings and is the ultimate cause of all our actions, good or bad. By some twisted (in my view) logic they maintain that only by ascribing to him this complete and total control can he be properly and supremely glorified.
But that is NOT what all Christians believe, and in fact I think it’s a safe bet that most do not. So as this series is about removing barriers to Christianity, I’m not going to take the time and space to argue against theistic determinism, only establish that it is not part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian.
There is a correlating doctrine, however, that is traditionally accepted as true of the faith but is disputed “in-house” as to its meaning. Even some who may not hold to predestination as hard determinism believe and teach that God sovereignly chooses whom to save and whom to damn. It’s known as the doctrine of election and there are a number of verses in the Bible that seem to suggest this is true. But interpreting them this way leads to a number of contradictions. Because there are also many verses that read as a universal call to believe.
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” – John 7:37
“I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” – John 10:9
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. – 2 Peter 3:9
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. – 1 Timothy 2:3-4
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” – Romans 10:13
Furthermore, if God is just, as he is clearly portrayed to be and must be as the greatest conceivable being, on what basis could he justly punish those whom he had predetermined would not believe and submit to him? And how could the perfect God/Man be so deceptive in inviting all to believe and pronouncing condemnation on all who will not when in actuality he knows none of them have a choice? “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:18
So how are we to understand verses like, “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will”? – Ephesians 1:4-5. Or, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” – Romans 8:29a. The view that I believe most coherently accounts for all these passages is that election is primarily corporate in nature. Just as before Christ God singled out an ethnic group to represent him – the Israelites were his “chosen” people, so too he has designated a group as those who will be saved – all who believe in Jesus…Jew or Gentile. Similarly, just as an individual became one of God’s chosen people, the Jews, by being born into the group, so too we become one of the “elect” by being spiritually reborn.
So the idea is that God foreordained or predestined that all who are “in Christ” will be saved. And all have the opportunity to join the club by putting their faith and trust in him. God’s church on earth is an exclusive club with an inclusive call.
For a fair and thorough exposition of the competing views of election I refer you to William Lane Craig’s “Defenders” class, which is available as a podcast or written transcript. Here’s where he presents this corporate election view, and if you’re interested, have a look or listen to the earlier lessons for the deterministic and individual election view.
I also could not worship a tyrannical God who fools us all into thinking we can freely choose to love him or reject him when in reality he’s pulling all the strings. But such a being is merely a caricature created by misguided believers and promoted by misinformed unbelievers. God as master puppeteer is a needless barrier. I pray this post takes it out of the way.