RADICAL deals bluntly and frontally with questions about Christianity sent in by readers of Leke Alder’s #Illuminare blog. This is an intellectual exploration on the subject of destiny. It raises issues and challenges appertaining to the subject matter and looks at Biblical responses to the questions raised.
Q: What Does The Bible Say About Destiny?
One of the most controversial topics in religious philosophy is the doctrine of destiny – the notion that fate is prewritten, that we’re locked within the gravitational field of fortune by powers that be. There’s the concept of the mystic head – the “star” in traditional African religion. Then there’s fatalism –the belief that fate is immutable – cannot be altered or changed. The challenge of the questioning of fatalistic logic is that even where there’s a deviation to the trajectory of destiny the final outcome is still interpreted as the purposed outcome.
The Bible doesn’t use the word “destiny.” The King James edition of the Bible however uses the word “predestination.” Closely allied with this is the doctrine of “election”, simplistically defined as the technical pre-selection of those who would come to salvation. But that doctrine rests on the omniscient capacity of God as we shall soon see. It has no meaning outside God’s precognition.
Paul wrote extensively on the subject of predestination. Two of his letters treated the subject – his letter to Romans and his letter to the Ephesians. From his letters we come to realize that two major attributes of God can determine a man’s destiny. The first attribute is God’s sovereignty. The second is God’s anthropopathism – his emotional dimension. Christian theology can’t be resolved without the factoring of these two attributes. We see God’s sovereignty in the determination of destiny in the salvation of undeserving mankind. And we see his emotional attribute in the determination of destiny in the story of Jacob and Esau.
Truth is, no theologian will posit Paul’s treatise on predestination is easy, being universalist in approach and incorporating moral challenges as well as the question of God’s sovereignty. Inherent in the question of destiny is whether God bears moral responsibility for the state of the world and the state of mankind. At the heart of the subject is the question of the degree of man’s personal responsibility and accountability. This dovetails into the question of salvation. Are some destined to be saved and some not? If our fate is predetermined by celestial authorities can we hold anyone responsible for the outcome of his life or his eternal destiny? And if destiny is a compelling or impelling force of life can God righteously judge any man?
What about the definitions of villainy like Hitler? In the light of destiny can we absolve him of moral responsibility for the monumental abattoir called World War II? Were his actions involuntarily – he merely acting out a script penned for him by destiny? What is his level of culpability? Was evil beyond his control? Was he “destined” to exterminate six million Jews? Or how can a man bring so much destruction to the world without the kidnap of his destiny? And Judas? Was Judas destined to betray Jesus? Could he have escaped that role of fate and avoid the awful curse reserved for the Betrayer – “Better never to have been born!” (Matthew 26:24) Was Judas specified by kismet or could it have been any other disciple? We’re told Satan possessed him. (Luke 22:3) Was the state of his heart responsible for his possession by Satan or was he pre-purposed by that very authority? Were the dreams of Joseph advance information of his pre-selection by destiny? Was he destined therefore to become Prime Minister in Egypt? Are some destined to succeed and others not?
And how do we morally reconcile the account of the perverse intransigence, obduracy, pertinacity and pig-headedness of Pharaoh? The Bible says God hardened his heart. (Exodus 9:12) And the narrative suggests he had a bit role predetermined by God: “I picked you as a bit player in this drama of my salvation power.” (Romans 9:17 MSG) The New Lining Translation puts it more succinctly: “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” In other words Pharaoh was a public relations paragraph in an ethereal cosmological press release. God hardened his heart to accomplish that purpose. It’s what accounts for his devotion to political and economic ruin. But then that raises the question rhetorically posed by Paul in Romans 9:19: “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?” This is the “Pharaoh Conundrum”.
The Pharaoh Conundrum leads us to that critical subject matter – the subject of God’s sovereignty. Our moral lens cannot accommodate the fish eye dimension of that story. A simplistic theological moralism will run into contradictions. There are various theological attempts to justify Pharaoh’s treatment on the basis of his moral culpability. Such a theology posits that Pharaoh was not a good man, that he was a brutal dictator and that is why God hardened his heart. But that position becomes untenable in light of the express words of scriptures concerning Pharaoh, as well as the chronicles of similar despots, notables like Nebuchadnezzar. His absolutism made him an even better candidate for the hardening of heart. You wager your life risking Nebuchadnezzar’s ire. Only three people are known to have survived his despotism – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; and only because God inserted himself directly into their circumstances. There was nothing like freedom of religion under Nebuchadnezzar. The state dictated your belief. When Nebuchadnezzar tells you to worship an idol you must worship the idol. He was so oppressive that Daniel implored him to depart from wickedness to avert judgment. His punishment was a mere slap on the wrist compared to what was meted out to Pharaoh. And God redeemed him, restored him to power after he was dethroned.
To resolve the moral challenge in Pharaoh’s conundrum we need to come to terms with the fact of God’s sovereignty. That was Paul’s simple answer to the conundrum: “Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God?” (Romans 9:20) The Message translation of Romans 9:20 however offers us a second perspective to the subject God’s sovereignty: that man’s obvious intelligence and information deficiency robs him of the moral right to question God’s morality: “Do you for one moment suppose any of us knows enough to call God into question?” And to buttress his point about the unquestionability of God’s sovereignty, Paul pulls out the Creator-creature argument: “Clay doesn’t talk back to the fingers that mold it, saying, “Why did you shape me like this?” Isn’t it obvious that a potter has a perfect right to shape one lump of clay into a vase for holding flowers and another into a pot for cooking beans?” In other words the Pharaoh moral conundrum is answered by the moral right of a sovereign God to do as he pleases and to purpose individuals as he deems: “If God needs one style of pottery especially designed to show his angry displeasure (read Pharaoh) and another style to show his glorious goodness (read Gentiles), isn’t that alright?”
It is the moral right of Sovereignty that also answers to the moral perturbation raised by the story of Jacob and Esau. While the kids were still in the womb, God told Rebecca, “The firstborn of your twins will take second place.” Later that was turned into stark epigram: “I loved Jacob; I hated Esau.” (Genesis 25:21-23; Romans 9:12) The moral right of the Sovereign King to do as he pleases cannot be questioned; neither do we know enough to raise those moral questions. That is the essence of Paul’s argument.
The architecture of destiny is rather complex. It’s not simplistic. It’s complex because it has to accommodate God’s sovereignty yet allow for man’s freewill. And the two seem conceptually contradictory.
What the Bible teaches is that God as sovereign (he must be sovereign) creates the framework within the latitude of which man exercises his freewill. Conceptually, it’s like a house built by your father in which you’re allocated a room. You can do whatever you like in that room, whether good or bad. This is how Paul puts it: “All we’re saying is that God has the first word, initiating the action in which we play our part for good or ill.” (Romans 9:18 MSG) Man can alter his destiny within and in spite that framework is what the Bible teaches. To alter his destiny for good he has to resort to the use of a constitutional means called prerogative of mercy. The prerogative of mercy is a sovereign device employed by a sovereign Lord to alter his own sovereign determination.
We’ll continue in my next post.
If you’ll like to give your life to Christ please pray this prayer: “Father, I come to you in the name of Jesus. I know that I am a sinner. I believe Jesus died for me and that you raised him from the dead. I confess with my mouth that Jesus is Christ is Lord and I receive him as my Lord and my Saviour. I am now born again. Amen.”
© Leke Alder | email@example.com