There is comfort in knowing the past could not have unfolded in any other way. If you are plagued by guilt over something you have done, you can rest assured that you could not have acted differently. Regret stems from a belief in free will, but such a belief reflects a misunderstanding concerning the nature of God and His absolute sovereignty over all events.
Christians will find what I’m saying hard to accept, of course, other than perhaps those Christians who might try (and, I would argue, fail) to understand God’s absolute sovereignty as compatible with human free will. The arguments of Molinists, open theists, compatibilists, and some Calvinists, all attempt to defend such a position. By all means, examine their arguments and test your conscience against them, for it is noble to seek out Truth until one is convinced one has found it.
Accepting God’s absolute sovereignty isn’t easy for the individual who has read the Bible. Speaking personally, there is a conflict I experience due to feeling a great attraction to the teachings of Jesus, yet also knowing that because we don’t have free will, many central Christian doctrines don’t make sense. This tension, this conflict, is the troubling aspect of understanding God’s absolute sovereignty. It is terrifying to call into question Christian doctrine due to the sheer power of the words of Jesus, who described Himself as “The way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), not to mention the fearful prospect of God’s supposed wrath against unbelievers (see this article for the relevant scriptures).
There is a conflict. It’s unavoidable. Some days I feel more drawn to faith in Jesus and other days I feel more convinced that Christianity doesn’t make sense. On the one hand, I know that we do not have free will, but on the other hand, I find I cannot abandon the Christian Scriptures. To emphasise God’s sovereignty is comforting in one way, but troubling in another way, and to emphasise the Christian gospel is comforting in one way, but troubling in another way. This is the persistent dilemma I face.
Having felt this tension for quite a few years, I am starting to believe it cannot be resolved. There is no longer much point in arguing about it. The arguments on both sides of the debate are clear to me, and I have explored and discussed them to the point of exhaustion.
I continue to pray about the predicament, however, begging God for mercy in relation to it. I know for certain that God is all-powerful and has the ability to inflict terrible suffering on us all, if He wills to do so. I have prayed hard and repeatedly for God to ground me in the Truth, whatever it is, and to enlighten me if there’s something I’m misunderstanding. But the tension persists.
The only way in which I have been able to find some solace in relation to this predicament is by considering how irrational it would be for God to punish human beings for things they have done, when God has been entirely in control of everything they have ever done, which I am convinced is the Truth. And yet, this perspective calls into question the Gospel, and we are back to the same predicament all over again.
I think that the impossibility of resolving this dilemma is perhaps a key reason why Christianity has had such an enduring impact on humankind over the last two thousand years. There is a kind of power in the uncertainty — while theological problems persist, we will always feel we must grapple with them, and if they cannot be resolved, then they will continue to be discussed, because the desire to find peace of mind and security is something human beings always seem to feel.
The fundamentalist Christian might see the predicament as very black and white — you’re either with Jesus or you’re against him. The more liberal Christian may emphasise God’s love over God’s desire to punish, and therefore feel drawn towards Universalism — the idea that all human beings will eventually be ‘saved’.
To be clear, the debate is not between divine sovereignty and human free will — I have satisfactorily resolved that one. The debate is between God’s absolute sovereignty and the truth of the Christian gospel, which is a much harder problem to resolve.
I always find it disconcerting when a person comes down hard on one side of this debate at the expense of the other, because there is clearly a logic behind both viewpoints. To ‘pick a side’ in the debate is to cause conflict — those theologians who define themselves in relation to one or the other viewpoint are necessarily denying some aspect of Truth, and this must be a struggle that weighs heavily on their conscience.
Personally, I don’t wish to be one of those people who comes down on one side of the debate at the expense of the other. To do so would be an act of hostility towards some of my fellow human beings, and for the time being at least, I choose the grace of ambivalence over the egotism of tribalism.
How about you?
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