A number of you have asked for regular updates on the Ask Your Question class that I lead at Fellowship Bible Church in Roswell, GA. I share these updates to encourage you that it is practical, fulfilling, and good to lead a church community where people can come and explore Christianity.
Below are my talk notes from this past Sunday. I hope you find them helpful; feedback is welcome as I continue to learn and grow!
Does fate determine our lives?
Last week I was away… [personal notes]
I understand that one of the questions that was asked is whether or not the Bible teaches predestination or free will. As we thought about the question, we tweaked the wording of it a bit to ask this question: does fate determine our lives?
I think this is an interesting question because it speaks to a human concern that we all have.
But first, we have to ask: how do we approach this question in a rational way?
We could just say, “I like this answer.” Or, “This answer feels good to me.” Or, “I want this to be true.” Or, “This is what I’ve always believed.”
What we need to do is find a coherent answer. What approach to this question matches up with our experience, our observations of the world, and our ultimate commitments?
This is a “first-story” question. Think of a house. You have the foundation. Then you build the first story of the house. If the foundation doesn’t support the first floor, then it collapses. Maybe slowly, maybe quickly, but a good foundation is essential to living in your home.
Even if you don’t care about this, if you ever go to buy a house, I assure you that the mortgage company will require a detailed housing inspection, with attention given to whether or not the house is built according to code. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the windows are and how nice the paintings are on the wall, if the first floor is on a poor foundation, the house will eventually fail.
What we’re going to see is that there are many different answers to the question, “Does fate determine our lives?” And we’ll assess them. But the best answer to this question is one that we can also reasonably connect to the foundation of our belief systems.
Ok. Back to our question: does fate determine our lives?
Everyone has a formula of sorts in their heads.
‘This part of my life is under my control; this part of my life is under an external control.’
If I do X, then I expect Y to happen.
If I do A, then I expect B to happen.
If this circumstance happens, then this will be the effect on my life.
If that person decides to do this, then I will decide to do that.
We are all trying to sort out how to make sense of everything that happens to us - and of the broader human experience too.
Why do some people suffer and other people have easy lives?
Why do we sometimes have a good year and sometimes have a bad year?
Why are some days good and other days bad?
There are times when we feel like we are in charge of our lives.
We work hard… and we get a good grade on a test or a promotion…
We make some funny jokes… we get a date with someone we like or our boss invites us to an important meeting
We get everything organized the night before… and all the kids get to school on time the next morning.
But there are other times when we realize that we aren’t in charge of our lives. There are greater powers at work in the world.
For me, I think back to 9/11. People worked hard, achieved success, went to their nice jobs in NYC, and boom, a plane was flown into the side of the building.
Last year, Hurricane Irma caused massive devastation. A category 5 hurricane that caused incredible destruction in the Caribbean. Searches about the hurricane were the top term searched for in Google in 2017, both in the US and globally.
There are so many incidents like this. Whether they are caused by people or by powerful natural forces, they question our sense of autonomy and control. Are we really in charge?
Tomorrow I will be at a funeral for one of my cousins. She obviously died quite young. It happened under sad circumstances. If you knew my cousin, you would know that she was an incredibly sweet, giving person.
Being at the funeral will be a reminder that death is coming. It may be what we call ‘premature’ and there is a particular sadness to this. Or it may be at the end of a long and happy life. Either way, death and funerals are perhaps the most poignant reminder that we are not in charge of what happens.
And in America, where perhaps one of our foremost values is the ability to decide for oneself, is it any surprise that cemeteries have been relocated to places where we rarely see them? How often do we attend funerals? Perhaps it is simply because of my age, but it seems that they are few and far between. And I’m grateful for the excellent medical care available in our community.
Still, it is likely that one day I will be in a stage of life where funerals are part of the regular routine. And of course, my own funeral is in the not so distant future.
So how can we make sense of this question? Does fate determine our lives? Or are we in charge of what happens to us?
Even before death, how did we get into this room together? Did God orchestrate the details so that we would be here at Fellowship Bible Church? Did we decide on our own? Was it God’s will and our will together?
Whatever explanation we have for our being here together at church, does the same explanation hold for why other people are suffering in the North Korean gulag? Is there a consistent rationale for why our lives go the way they go?
If God made it that we would be here this morning, did God also determine that the Holocaust would happen? How do we make sense of both the good and the bad circumstances?
Let’s consider some different points of view.
If you look online, you’ll find an incredible diversity of answers to this question.
For instance, on Quora, you can find many perspectives on this question:
Here’s Shivshankar Sangale:
LAW OF KARMA
Whatever activity we do, good or bad, brings us good or bad reactions. For every action you take, you will face a reaction in the future, which could be a few seconds, few minutes away or 10 years away or your next incarnation. If you take good actions, you will face good reactions. This may come in the form of good health, wealth or birth on higher planets etc. If you take bad actions, you will face bad reactions in the future. The bad reactions may come in the form of disease, poverty or birth on one of the hellish planets etc. When we suffer, we are facing the bad reactions to our bad actions taken in the past.
Jack Bruni adds this thought:
From a scientific perspective, yes, of course fate controls our lives. Everything that comes to pass means things that once might have been possible become impossible. Existence clearly evolves moment by moment out of a matrix of possibilities and impossibilities. The conditions that exist right now constrain what can happen next. Scientists call such constraints “initial conditions” and they are every bit as important as the laws of physics.
It is common experience that while early on in a stream of events there are choices, often limited ones, but at some point things become inevitable. What science denies is that everything is predetermined. At one time Newtonian mechanics made predetermination seem a reasonable description of nature, but the discoveries that led to the advent of quantum mechanics changed that viewpoint, as did the recognition of chaotic processes.
Sneha Kedia disagrees:
Definitely not. It’s you who decide your faith [I think ‘fate’ was meant]. Your actions and your beliefs do. Fate is just a lame excuse that people all over the world use. You might be lacking certain skills that you need which might make you feel helpless, ending up thinking about fate. But in reality, it’s all inside you. Whatever you believe matters, nothing else.
However, probably my favorite answer came from a guy named Fayyaz. It is an interesting thought experiment. I think I can illustrate his comment best with a volunteer.
Who will volunteer?
Ok, try this:
stand up. Then lift one of your legs off the ground. Now [keep standing] lift the other one…
Fayyaz explains it this way:
You can’t. It’s the same with life. You can control parts of it but not all of it. Fate plays a big role bit you can accept, improvise and overcome.
I also enjoyed Natasha Koifman, who wrote an article for the Huffington Post in Canada. She says this, “Fate is what puts opportunities in front of us but our destiny is ultimately determined by our decisions. For instance, if you go to a party and meet the perfect guy that was fate. But what you do about it is your destiny.”
Sarah, who commented on a New York Times article, wrote this: "I feel like I have complete control over my fate because this is my life and i will do with it what I want to do with it. No one can determine your fate but yourself.”
Damien expressed the same thought: “I think that we do have control of our fate. I think that we have the opportunity to determine our fate and can do things to change it. i think that in the end where we end up is because of our choices.”
I think that Shivshanker, Jack, Sneha, Fayyaz, and Natasha have eloquently expressed some pretty common views about fate and free will.
There is also the perspective of the committed naturalist, or in popular terms, the atheistic point of view.
In an article at livescience.com, Natalie Wolchover summarizes a presentation made by Jerry Coyne. Here’s what she writes:
Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, defined free will as the possibility that, after making a decision, you could have chosen otherwise. But a “decision,” Coyne argues, is merely a series of electrical and chemical impulses between molecules in the brain — molecules whose configuration is predetermined by genes and environment. Though each decision is the outcome of an immensely complicated series of chemical reactions, those reactions are governed by the laws of physics and could not possibly turn out differently. “Like the output of a programmed computer, only one choice is ever physically possible: the one you made,” Coyne wrote.
Hilary Bok, a philosopher at Johns Hopkins University is said to have disagreed. In her words, "The claim that a person chose her action does not conflict with the claim that some neural processes or states caused it; it simply redescribes it.”
As I reflected on Hilary’s disagreement, it seems to amount to the same thing. We have to be gracious; this is one sentence from a professional, academic philosopher! Yet, if our brain processes are the governing factor in what we decide to do, relabeling those processes as “free will” doesn’t seem to do much to guarantee that I - or you - independent of the laws of physics and chemistry, is making a decision.
You can see how Jack Bruni has expressed their ideas in a conversational way on Quora.
Finally, in the Qur’an, we read in Surah 81:29, "And you do not will except that Allah wills - Lord of the worlds.” Commentary on this at islamqa.info states, "this is the belief that everything that happens in this universe happens by the will of Allaah. Whatever Allaah wills happens and whatever He does not will does not happen. Nothing exists outside of His will.”
And in the hadith, which is a collection of traditions about Mohammad’s life, we read, "And the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “Allaah has made every doer and what he does.”
So in both atheism and in Islam, there is a very strong, comprehensive sense that our every action is determined by an external power. What it means to have ‘free will’ has to be understood in light of what these worldviews state about how ‘fate’ (whether atoms or Allah) dictates all that happens.
But, in popular American life, there is a significant strand of people who would say that we determine our own destiny.
How does this relate to Christianity?
As some of you know, after college, I spent ten years in campus ministry. I talked to dozens if not hundreds of students about these questions. At the time, the best language I had for discussing these questions were the categories of predestination and free will, Calvinism and Arminianism. These are theological categories, systems of thought for attempting to make sense of the Scriptures.
John Calvin put it this way in one of his most famous works, his Institutes:
By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.
At the same time, Arminians, like Roger Olson, will argue that we must take into account free will. Here’s the approach that Olson takes, and I’ve supplemented his ideas a bit:
First, Olson points out, isn’t God himself not able to freely decide whether to do A or B? It does not make sense to say that God’s own will is determined; it must be free. So the idea of free will is a coherent, sensible account of how things are.
2 - To amplify this point, Christians believe that God is a Trinity - a triune God of love - as we’ve recently discussed! The highest expression of love is not the determined love of a robot, but the free love of a person. It seems to be true to God’s nature as a Trinity that not only is the love within the Trinity freely given and received, but that his loving plan for humanity is that we would freely give and receive love in relationship to him and one another.
3 - Roger Olson also raises this point… If humans are not able to make free choices - to decide for themselves whether they will choose A or B - then we do not have a good basis for explaining original sin. Unless Adam and Eve decide on their own accord, "we will disobey God,” the alternative is that God would be the author of evil. As the statement of faith at Fellowship says, it was “in Adam’s voluntary sin” that humans turned away from God.
4 - It appears throughout the Scriptures that God is in genuine relationship with people. Jesus says “follow me” - some become disciples immediately. Others give excuses and go their own way. Why is this? The most natural reading is that some freely chose to respond to Christ’s invitation; others refused his offer. It seems quite odd to read these accounts as, Jesus said come, follow me, then Jesus determined that a person followed him. The Scriptures don’t read like the story of a puppet master pulling all the strings, but a record of the interaction of free people as they personally encounter a personal God.
So where does this leave us today?
We’ve seen many different points of view.
Some people argue that fate is in charge.
Some would say that our lives are determined by karma. Our past decisions determine our present circumstances. At the same time, through meditation and mindfulness, we can change our karmic situation.
Others would say that our lives are determined by physics and chemistry. Given the initial circumstances, and the laws of nature - even understood according to quantum theory and chaotic processes - what will happen, will happen. Our decisions are just a series of electrical and chemical impulses in the brain.
Orthodox Muslims would argue that everything - absolutely everything - happens because of Allah’s will. Allah comprehensively determines our fate.
At the same time, as Fayyaz’s colorful illustration reminds us, we also have the sense that while there are some things under our control, there are other things that aren’t. We can lift one leg at a time, but we can’t lift both legs at the same time - if we’re standing up.
And then there are others who assert that we are completely in charge of our fate.Our choices determine our circumstances and our future. We are the masters of the universe.
And then there’s Christianity, which I would argue speaks both to human free will and the eternal plan of an all-knowing God.
I think we can group these views into three categories:
1. Fate determines everything
2. I determine everything
3. Life is determined by both fate and our own decisions
To a large degree, the answer we choose to this question will come from prior commitments.If you are already committed to Islam, or atheism, then your answer to this question may already be settled.
But I think we can see that the idea that “Fate determines everything” is not a reasonable position to hold.
If fate determines everything, then this external force also determines what I believe and think.
For instance, if it is the impersonal laws of physics and chemistry that determine the substance and order of my thoughts, then my thinking is not rational. I do not believe what I believe because I see that, say, “all cats are mammals; Spots is a cat; therefore Spots is a mammal.”
If it happens that I think those thoughts, it is not due to any rational cause-and-effect; all the cause-and-effect is described by the initial conditions and the relevant laws of nature.
Similarly, if Allah dictates what I think, again, what I think is not due to my own rational capacities. Or if karma, or even the God of the Bible, determines our thoughts, I think this is a very similar situation.
It may be true that Allah determines what we think. But if this is the case, all I am saying is that it will not be reasonable for me to believe that is how things are.
If the laws of chemistry dictate the thoughts of my brain, then there is no room left for the laws of logic to affect my beliefs.
I know that’s a bit of an abstraction, so let me say it again:
If the laws of chemistry dictate the thoughts of my brain, then there is no room left for the laws of logic to affect my beliefs.
So, as long as we are committed to finding truth at least partly through the use of reason, then we cannot say that fate determines everything. That would be an unreasonable position to hold.
The next view to consider is that "I determine everything.”That’s a very popular point of view. I can see the appeal of it!
But again, it seems that this can only make sense if we have a very narrow view of ourselves. It doesn’t take into account that our genetics, our parents, our mentors, our friends, our teachers, our employers have all had an incredible influence on our lives.
For instance, according to one estimate, only 6.7% of people in the world have a college degree. So if you meet someone who is well-educated, who believes that they determine everything that happens, we can reasonably suggest: this may be a perspective you have because you are part of a very narrow, uncommon slice of the human population.
If you look at the bigger picture, if you live in Iraq, or North Korea, or Myanmar, you would very quickly realize that you don’t determine everything about your life. Even in the United States, the land of the free, we are still aware of many limitations. There are financial limits. Time limits. Relational limits.
Getting married and having kids, for many people, are catalysts for re-evaluating whether or not we determine our lives.
It could be getting unexpectedly fired, or a terminal medical diagnosis.
Anyone who sincerely believes that they are the captain of their ship is at risk of a large wave coming over the bow… and capsizing their boat.
So the only view left standing - no pun intended - is the idea suggested by Fayyaz. We can lift one leg at a time, but not both. We control some parts of our lives, but never all of it.
I think this is a common and a common-sense view of reality.
But what best accounts for this understanding?
We could just say, “hey, I’m good with that” and stop there. But I think that is unsatisfactory. If atheism is true, then fate does determine our lives. If Islam is true, then Allah does determine our lives. But if we freely choose what happens in our lives, at least to some degree, then atheism and Islam are false.
We have to think our beliefs through - what do they point to? Where do these ideas lead us? Even if the first story of the house is nice to live in, we need to check the foundation of the house before we buy it and move in.
I think back to a time in seminary. We were in a systematic theology class. And a student asked the professor, “Is God in control, or are humans free?” And our professor paused for a bit, then simply said, “Yes….yes.”
**How can a Christian answer this way? **
I think it comes down to the fact that Christianity offers a view of reality that is intensely personal.
It is because we believe in a personal God - in fact, a Triune God of love - that we believe there is an eternal purpose to the universe. We believe there is a grand story behind all the details. Sometimes we see the story itself; sometimes we see its shadows. It is the existence of a personal God that leads Christians to believe that there is an intentional plan to what happens.
A distant, removed, deistic God may or may not care what happens. But the God of the Bible is lovingly, deeply invested in the ultimate outcome of this world.
At the same time, it is because we believe that humans are not just biological machines, or puppets of Allah, but persons made in the image of their Creator, that we believe that our decisions affect our lives. This is the basis of personal responsibility. Christians state, in emphatic terms: your life matters. Your choices matter.
Most importantly, your choice to follow Jesus - or to follow your own path - is a momentous decision.
The conviction that we have free will is what gives our lives signficance. What you do - or don’t do - is up to you. It matters!
The conviction that GOD is in charge is what gives our lives purpose. We are not choosing our own meaningless adventures. Rather, we have the opportunity to join our lives to God’s eternal, good purposes.
We’ve meandered through a lot of territory today. The question, “does fate determine our lives?”, is a complex one!
But as we’ve seen, there are only three options:
First - Yes, fate determines our lives.
Second - No, I determine my life.
Finally - God’s purpose is that we would choose his will for our lives.
I’ve tried to make a case that the first and second options do not hold up to scrutiny. I think the worldview that best accounts for our experience of significance and purpose is Christianity.
It looks like we have time for Q&A - let’s hear what you have to say!