Free Will OR Predestination: A Harmful False Dichotomy

Christians have been arguing about whether salvation is by choice or election for two millennia. Non-Christians have been lambasting the Faith for just as long. How, after all, is it fair that God holds humans responsible for a decision they cannot make correctly? Further, how can the Bible be true when it contains such obvious contradictions? These are valid concerns, particularly in light of Christian theologians’ attempts to define themselves by setting free will and predestination up as mutually exclusive propositions.

I am not a theologian (or a philosopher), but I’m going to take a shot at this topic anyway because I see its misunderstanding causing substantial problems both within the Church and for nonbelievers. The short version of my argument is:

  • Scripture clearly teaches both free will and predestination
  • Verses supporting free will and predestination are interspersed within the same book (e.g., John, Romans)
  • The authors’ intent was to demonstrate that free will and predestination are NOT mutually exclusive
  • This is but one example of how higher-order thinking reveals as complimentary what may otherwise be seen as contradictory

There are dozens of verses throughout the New and Old Testaments supporting free will and dozens supporting predestination. The easiest way to find a list for each is visit and type in “free will” or “predestination”. Rather than look at the whole list I am going to focus on just the books of John and Romans to illustrate that the “beloved disciple” and Paul teach both free will and predestination. There are verses more clearly supporting these ideas elsewhere, but I am constrained by the purpose of this argument to “contradictions” within a single book.

  • John 6:35-40 – Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
  • John 6:44 – No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.
  • John 7:16-17 – Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. 
  • Romans 8:29 – For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
  • Romans 9
  • Romans 10:9-10 – If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Here and elsewhere Scripture clearly teaches both that there are things we must do and that there is something God has done. Jesus follows up His statement that only those drawn by the Father will come (John 6:44) with the claim that “anyone who chooses to do the will of God…” (John 7:16-17). Likewise Paul follows one of the strongest proclamations for election and predestination (Romans 8-9) with the command to “declare with your mouth”. I think it highly unlikely that John and Paul “messed up” and included back-to-back contradictory statements on accident. It is much more likely, in my view, that they were attempting to convey a truth that cannot be fully understood from our perspective. Both are true only within the context of the other.

Perhaps it is not unlike the One Way signs at the top of this entry. They initially appear contradictory, but upon further thought  it is possible to have a road in which traffic must run away from a central point. There is also nothing in the picture which requires that the signs be at the end of a road. Perhaps it is the end of a runway, the traffic is really supposed to be gaining elevation, and it doesn’t greatly matter whether they bare left or right as long as they are going up. Only for a vehicle unable to access the third dimension is this a problem.

A better analogy, for those who have taken chemistry, is the idea of resonance structures. Valence bond theory requires that we describe molecules by the discrete position of electron pairs (lines in the structures below). The more electrons a pair of atoms share the stronger the bond between them. This works fine most of the time. The structure of propene (below) has two different types of carbon-carbon bonds. The one between C1 and C2 is stronger than that between C2 and C3.


There are times, however, when this fails. An example is acetate (below). Both carbon-oxygen bonds are the same strength, but there is no good way to depict this with valence bond theory. The structure on the left isn’t really correct, nor is the one on the right. Only if we recognize that “reality” is a combination of the two structures can we properly understand the structure of acetate.


This is the best example I can think of to parallel what I think John, Paul, and ultimately God are trying to do in describing how salvation happens. God does something. We do something. Somehow we have free will and God chooses upon whom to have mercy.

I am not satisfied with this explanation. The contradiction may not be real, but it is all that I am capable of understanding. Is it really possible that there is a higher truth that I am incapable of understanding? Yes, if there is a god (or even just one person smarter than me). I hate to admit that my intellect is so limited that I cannot understand something as fundamental as salvation, but I am more reticent to deny Scripture.

I doubt this attempt to explain free will and predestination will help non-Christians much, but I can hope. The premise of Christianity is that there is a god and His ways are not our ways. Hopefully it is possible within this context to see that apparent contradictions can actually be complimentary images that get our limited minds as close as they can get to understanding God’s ways.

I am reassured that because we have choice, God is just. I am also humbled to realize that God has somehow made it possible for me to make that choice. I see no room for pride here, just thanksgiving and hope that God will enable others to make that choice. I realize this is offensive to many who haven’t made the choice, or don’t feel that they have even been given a choice, but I hope you realize that it is not my intent to offend. My goal is to provide an alternative way of understanding this complex and divisive issue, get feedback on it, and ultimately understand it better myself.

Too many good things

I’ve always been a hard worker. Maybe its my German heritage. Maybe its because my mother and paternal grandmother both grew up farming. Maybe deep in my subconscious I feel I have to work to be loved and valued by others. Whatever the reason, I spend almost every free moment from 4 am to 10 pm working and I love it. I know some would say this makes me a work-aholic, but I disagree. I spend time every day with family and friends. I am (mostly) able to focus on them during those times and block out work. I exercise six days a week. I just don’t feel the need to “veg”. This is usually a good thing. It has enabled me to advance in my career and have even more fun opportunities. Sometimes, however, too many good things can be a bad thing.

Two or three weeks ago I realized that I was doing too much. Everything was demanding “just a little more” of me and there was no more to give. Signs of trouble included:

  1. Thinking about, and sometimes actually working, while spending time with my kids;
  2. Losing track of my mental To Do list;
  3. Losing track of my mental calendar;
  4. Having ideas for things to write about on this blog and no time to write them up, then;
  5. Not having ideas for things to write about on this blog;
  6. An e-mail inbox with more than 50 messages requiring some action on my part.

Its great to recognize when too many good things have overwhelmed me, but these six signs of trouble don’t give me enough warning to avoid the problem. What should I look for that would give me more warning – enough warning to avoid getting to the signs of trouble above?

I know I need to be better at saying “no”. I get to this point because fun and necessary opportunities come along and I say “yes”. They are all good things. They all need to be done. I enjoy them all. I can do them all, except when I can’t. I have a personal mission statement and yearly goals. I use these to stay focused on the most important things and say no to everything else. There are still too many important things. How can I avoid being overwhelmed by too many good things?

(These are not rhetorical questions)

Is Automobile Racing Immoral?

A recent post by SiriusBizinus about the (non) evils of tabletop gaming has me thinking about whether there are immoral or inherently evil forms of entertainment. More specifically, I am thinking about whether I engage in any entertainment that is immoral. One concern is that I enjoy watching cars go fast (as long as it isn’t in a straight line or around an oval).

My concern with automobile racing is its environmental impact. The consumption of limited fossil fuels and production of climate-change-producing carbon dioxide must be substantial. It isn’t just burning gasoline during the race, but also building the cars and tires, testing, transportation, etc. The effects of this are and will be felt most by the most disadvantaged people, most of whom will never have seen a TV let alone an automobile race. Supporting racing, then, does not seem consistent with loving my neighbor.

The other side of this argument is the claim that racing provides manufacturers the opportunity to develop new safety and efficiency technologies. How true is this? Does producing a F1 engine really enable Honda to make safer and more fuel-efficient Accords? If so lives are (potentially) being saved and overall fossil fuel consumption could be reduced every time a race car hits 180 mph on the back straight.

What do you think? Could automobile racing be an immoral form of entertainment? If so, what other common forms of entertainment are brought into question?

Perspectives on Abortion: Forever Orthogonal?

Charles, a recently de-converted Christian who’s blog I appreciate, recently treaded into the dangerous waters of the abortion debate. I hope that the conversation on his blog will help pro-life and pro-choice people come to some understanding of one another. Unfortunately what I have seen so far on his blog and links to other blogs are each group talking past the other. It seems that the pro-life argument is “the fetus is a distinct person therefore abortion is murder”. People that are pro-choice seem unwilling to grapple with the personhood of a fetus and focus upon the fact that everyone’s body is their own property and therefore we cannot be told what to do with it. The other camp refuses to consider this until the question of personhood is settled. The absolutism in these statements, I believe, makes for two orthogonal perspectives that negates productive conversation. As with most things, I don’t believe either perspective is absolutely correct. I have attempted to consider other moral/legal situations that deal with similar issues and offer the following scenario. I hope that by demonstrating that neither argument is absolutely correct it will be possible to have more constructive conversations.

The Plane Crash – A two person plane crashes in a remote region of Alaska as another storm moves in. The pilot may bear some responsibility for the crash or it may be completely the fault of someone else (a mechanic, meteorologist, etc). As the pilot comes to she is aware that surviving the crash doesn’t guarantee survival. She must hike to help because there is no way it is coming to her (weather, communications, etc). She looks around to find her passenger pinned beneath debris unresponsive. The passenger has a heartbeat, but is certainly incapable of hiking and will die if she doesn’t help. Whether she is morally and/or legally responsible to help the passenger is dependent on more than the heartbeat. She, and potentially the legal system, must weigh her own chances of survival and that of the passenger in light of their injuries and the hike ahead. She would not have a moral or legal obligation to rescue the passenger if doing so would cause certain death for both of them. If, on the other hand, the pilot clearly has the strength to save herself and the passenger but chooses to abandon the passenger to certain death anyway that is criminal. She would have a moral and legal obligation to rescue the passenger. I believe a case was recently decided in either Canada or the US that was somewhere between these two extremes. Anyone have a link to that?

There is a lot of grey area between these two extremes, but I hope the extremes demonstrate that in a situation parallel to abortion there is more to it than the presence of a heartbeat or “my body, my choice”. There are times when despite a heartbeat it would be irresponsible to save the life. There are times when we are responsible for the life of another whether we intended it or not and whether we like it or not. I argue, by analogy to the plane crash scenario above, that the abortion question is far more complex than the personhood of a fetus or the absolute right of someone to do with their body whatever they choose. I think it requires an honest, probably statistical, analysis of survival probabilities for both the mother and fetus. Should a pregnancy with a high probability of ending in death of the mother be terminated? Yes, that is medically necessary. Should the morning after pill be available? Probably, there isn’t yet a heartbeat and chances of fetal survival are really small anyway. Should a healthy woman be required to carry an unwanted pregnancy to completion? That depends upon available medical care and how society weighs the risks to her life. It is likely that much grey area would remain in which, like in the plane crash scenario above, the person having to make the difficult choice that is most effected by the choice should make it. I have heard very strong arguments that even in America today pregnancy and delivery are sufficiently perilous that society should never attempt to make that decision for a woman. That is certainly a valid perspective, but I would need to have mortality statistics to make any such sweeping claim.

Now that I have deeply offended almost everyone to read this post I am going to ask a favor. Please don’t respond by calling me names or ascribing motives to this post beyond attempting to understand a complex issue. I am not a murderer. I am not in favor of oppressing women in any way. If you think I am wrong please explain WHY you think so.

Update – I initially proposed the plane crash scenario only to demonstrate that the primary assertions of most pro-life and pro-choice advocates are not absolutely true. Further consideration has led me to wonder whether thinking about abortion as we would the choices survivors of a plane crash might make could be useful. I will refer to this as a probabalistic approach because at its core are assessments of the probability mother and fetus will survive.

  • This approach would affirm the personhood of both mother and fetus.
  • This approach would affirm the responsibility that the strong and healthy have for the weak and dependent in our society. This strengthens, not undermines, point one. This responsibility does not automatically trump all other considerations.
  • This approach would take into account the unique and highly personal perspective of a pregnant woman. Society would have to decide when and to what extent this trumps other (probabalistic) considerations.
  • It is likely that abortions most resisted by pro-lifers would still be prohibited: late-term abortions with a healthy woman and healthy fetus.
  • It is likely that this approach would affirm all manner of contraception as it is hard to tell there is life without a heartbeat.
  • Medically necessary abortions would be permitted regardless of timing.
  • This approach would take into account the health and health care available to a pregnant woman.
  • This approach would not mandate forced abortions. Just as there are no laws against trying to rescue people against all odds in an emergency there would be no need or right to force women to terminate a pregnancy.
  • This approach would not provide fathers any paternal rights. Their lives are not at stake – not their choice.
  • This approach could be complicated if people insist on shrinking the “grey area” between clearly permissable abortions and clearly impermissable ones (assuming there are such things). I would hope that an attempt to see pregnancy from the perspective of the woman would discourage pro-lifers from this.

Update #2 – I have included a few legal issues.

It is pretty clear in American law that the responsibility to assist that I am claiming in this entry is not generally applicable. Crimes of ommission are more common in other legal systems (e.g., French), but are limited to specific instances in America. The one most relevant to this discussion is that of parents to protect their dependent children. My read is that parents are required to go to pretty great lengths to protect and care for their children.

While researching the duty to assist I came across another relevant case, United States vs. Knowles (1864). Sea captians are required to attempt rescue of any sailors that fall overboard as long as they are alive. Evidently Knowles failed to do so when a sailor fell overboard and claimed that it is because the fall itself killed the sailor. He was found guilty because the court placed the burden of proof on him for the claim that the sailor died from the fall. This seems directly parallel to the question of whether a fetus is a person. It seems reasonable enough to consider a fetus “alive” (at least once there is a detectable heartbeat) that the burden to prove otherwise should lie on those who claim it isn’t a person.

And Shall We Judge God?

For better or worse we all do it. We read (or hear) about things that God has done and we question Him. Our thoughts range from “not what I would do, but He must know what He is doing” to “that doesn’t seem right” to “what kind of sicko is this god” or “there must not be a god”. I think Christians can learn something from our propensity to judge God. I would also like to understand how atheists think about judging a “god” in which they don’t believe. It is not clear to me how important a line of thinking this is to non-Christians, but it seems to be a substantial part of your discourse.

If there is a god what characteristics would distinguish it? My starting assumptions are that it would not be human and that it would have more of something than humans. If this something were just power the world wouldn’t look anything like it does today. That god would run around crushing all doubters like an oversized playground bully. Since we don’t see this it is likely that this something involves at least intellect. This hypothetical god’s intellect wouldn’t have to be infinite as Christians believe, just more than humans’.

If a god is more intellectually advanced than humans judging it or its actions would be a little problematic. What are the chances that we would be able to prove that such a god was wrong about something? Would everything that such a god did make sense to us? Would we have any ability to know the thoughts of such a god beyond what it revealed to us? Or would every misunderstanding be caused by our inability to comprehend the thoughts of something greater than ourselves?

As a Christian I take comfort in the aspects of Scripture that I cannot comprehend (prayer, the Trinity, election and free will, etc) because I expect that a true religion would be founded by a true god that has greater intellect than me. If everything made sense and appeared consistent to me I would question whether my religion was actually an invention of men. As it is I relish plunging the mysteries while realizing that the solution may be beyond my intellectual grasp.

To my non-Christian, particularly atheist and agnostic, readers – thanks for reading this far. Do you agree that if there is a god it would have to be more intellectually advanced than us? If not, please explain what I’ve missed. If so, doesn’t this invalidate any statement that begins with “if there were a god it would (or wouldn’t)…”? I’m not trying to argue that there is a god, but rather to frame an understanding of the essential characteristics of a god should one exist. Any assistance appreciated.

To Love My Neighbor

What does it mean to love thy neighbor? Is it just being nice? Is it willingly sharing all that we have? I am increasingly convinced that this is only part of it. Helping others CAN be an act of love, but it can also be prideful, arrogant, and pitiful. I am beginning to realize that just as we must know God to love Him, so we must know our neighbors to love them.

Loving and knowing neighbors different from ourselves doesn’t come naturally. This is particularly true when viewed through the lens of privilege. It takes effort for me, a big athletic guy that has never been physically intimidated by anyone, to appreciate the fear that some experience when I am excited. Loving them means realizing that their fear is my problem, not theirs. I am privileged to have been big my whole life. I don’t know what it’s like to be picked on in school, beat up on the playground, or raped by someone everyone thinks is a nice guy. It is irrelevant that I never have and never will do these horrible things. Loving my neighbor means being sensitive to their fears, not asking them to “toughen up”. It means using self-control to moderate responses that are likely to trigger my neighbor’s fear of being physically assaulted (again).

I likewise cannot understand what it is like to grow up poor or non-Caucasian in America. Authority figures have always protected me, expected me to succeed, and given me the benefit of the doubt (whether I deserved it or not). I would do well to realize my ignorance when discussing issues related to race and socio-economic status. Loving my neighbor means recognizing when they view an issue very differently me and asking them to explain their experience of it. This is not about right or wrong, it is about recognizing that I am blinded to their perspective by my privilege. One of my African-American friends is really passionate about the situation in Ferguson. I cannot understand this from my position of privilege. My experience is that if you do what the police ask you don’t get shot. I am smart enough to realize that there is police brutality, but it is an entirely abstract concept to me. Loving this friend means admitting that I don’t understand the anger in Ferguson and asking him to share his perspective/experience. Knowing him I will have to patiently wait through a lot of facts about the Michael Brown case and rhetoric before getting to what I really care about, his experience (past and present). Love cares about understanding the experiences and perspective of our neighbors. Pride is interested in convincing them that we are right and they are wrong.

A week ago I thought I was doing okay loving my neighbors. My wife and I give well over 10% of our gross income to Christian charities. I think I am nice to everyone. I don’t think I am sexist, racist, ableist, or a homophobe. Today I am both devastated by my shortcomings and excited for what God may do in my life going forward. Someday I hope to explore the ways that my privilege is made possible by others’ oppression. Today I am most excited to explore how my privilege has blinded me to the oppression of others. I hope this will provide new opportunities to really love my neighbors.

Learning Theory and Christian Education

The motivation for this post is a desire to discuss how we can improve Christian Education in our churches. I do not approach this topic as an expert, but rather as a university professor that knows enough to know that we can do better. I hope you will share helpful resources and perspectives to that end.

I believe effective eduction begins with two questions:

  1. What do I want my students to learn
  2. What do they already know

 The goal of education is then to fill in the gap in the most effective means possible. Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives is very helpful in thinking about how to fill that gap. I will use the terms expert (teacher) and non-expert (student) for the remainder of this post.


There are many times that the goal may be to have non-experts learn (or be reminded) of basic facts of the faith, doctrine, or policy. These (and Scripture memorization) are the first level of Bloom’s taxonomy. Non-experts of any age should be able to memorize, but in many ways this is most appropriate for children and new Christians. My experience is that a lecture-type classroom is the most effective means to disseminate large amounts of material for which the goal is recollection as long as the non-experts are sufficiently motivated to interact further with the material outside class time. Motivation can be a concern with children so we often have them perform memorization drills in class, but what do we do for adults? I see room for growth in this area.

Understanding requires higher-level interaction with the material than recollection. It also requires higher-level cognitive development that may not be present in very young children. Classical tests and activities for understanding include restating a passage in one’s own words, comparing two passages, or stating the main idea of a passage. It is important that these tasks be modelled by an expert and that non-experts have the opportunity to both attempt the tasks and receive feedback on their attempts. Lecture can be used to model expert completion of these tasks, but does not provide non-experts the opportunities needed to develop their own understanding. Active learning and the “flipped” classroom are all the rage in higher education right now. The idea is to have non-experts performing these higher order cognitive tasks in the classroom. The “flipped” classroom moves all expert modelling into a pre-meeting forum of some variety. What would it look like if we were intentional about developing the understanding of non-experts in Christian Education? Would most of every meeting time be devoted to having an expert explain their understanding? Probably not. What if meeting times were spent reviewing non-expert attempts to restate passages in their own words and getting feedback from experts (and others)? What if, particularly for younger non-experts, meeting times were spent working in groups of 3-4 on tasks related to understanding and getting feedback on the results? 

Application is using acquired knowledge in different circumstances than it was initially encountered. This is straight-forward in Christian Education since the Bible was written a few millenia ago and we live now. I still don’t think it is easy. As with understanding, non-experts need to see application modelled by an expert. They also need assistance with their initial attempts and as much feedback as possible. Are we purposeful about this in Christian Education? Could we be? What if we had non-experts in groups of 3-4 attempt to apply Biblical passages to hypothetical case studies? This is very common in professional, particularly medical, schools where practice is needed to increase proficiency before entering the real world. Non-experts attempt to apply their understanding to a hypothetical scenario and then receive feedback from other non-experts and one or more experts before encountering real life scenarios. Application of Scripture to hypothetical case studies would also develop non-experts’ ability to apply Scripture to their own lives. Ideally these real life applications would also be part of Christian Education.

The image of Bloom’s taxonomy I included above lists analysis, evaluation, and creation in ascending order, but from what I can tell the ordering is discipline-dependent. I think this ordering is reasonable for the purpose of Christian Education. Analysis (making inferences, etc.) is probably helpful before non-experts learn to evaluate inferences (their own or others). All three of these learning modes require well-developed cognitive faculties. Most non-experts in their late-teens on up are probably capable of analysis, evaluation, and creation. But should Christian Education focus on these higher-order learning goals, or should they be the domain of universities and seminaries? If these goals are to be addressed in Christian Education what would be an appropriate audience?