Determinism vs. Freewill
Imagine for a moment a huge and vast jigsaw puzzle. When it is fully assembled it will cover the floor of the Boeing Factory in Everett, Washington – all 398,000 square meters. That would be an incredible challenge to any person or team of people.
If the pieces are only one inch square, can you imagine the difficulty assembling it? Two pieces of the same puzzle might fit into place hundreds of feet apart from each other. Where do you begin with such a task? Sifting through the towering pile of disconnected pieces for all the “end pieces” – the simplest way to begin, would still take months, perhaps years, to complete.
But God could do it easily, couldn’t He. His infinite mind would not be challenged at all by this task. God could snap his fingers and cause the billions of pieces to assemble in seconds. God’s fathomless intellect would know all at once where every piece needs to go. For he has no problem focusing attention on every individual piece simultaneously.
And before He even begins, God already sees what the finished picture will look like. For, you see, God designed the puzzle. So He knows, from the beginning, exactly where He’s going with this puzzle.
In a way, this illustrates theological determinism. This is the belief that God not only foreknows all that is going to happen. He makes it all happen. You see, God designed and made the puzzle. So He knows exactly how the puzzle will unfold. In this belief system, there can be no freewill, no choosing of right or wrong. And if we believe and obey Jesus Christ, it’s because God determined that we would do so. Conversely, if we reject Jesus Christ, it’s because God determined we would do so.
This understanding of predestination is, of course, fraught with problems. First, it reduces human beings to mere robots or marionette puppets. We’re only acting the way God determined we would act. So, we’re not really made in God’s image. We’re not a self, as God is a self. The actions, choices, and behaviors of the entire human race is all a matter of cause and effect.
A second problem with theological determinism is that it makes God the author of evil. Without any freewill of our own, God is the true cause of our disobedience to His commands.
The third and most disturbing problem with theological determinism is that, when God punishes our disobedience to His commands, He is punishing us for sins He Himself forced us to do. This is akin to a movie or stage director punishing those actors who played villains in the story. He’s the one who cast them for the role of the villain. He’s the one who handed them the script. And he’s the one who directed their acting. Yet after the play is over, he wants to exact revenge on them for the evil part they played.
But then there is the belief in freewill. We can illustrate humanity’s freewill by going back to the giant puzzle. Only this time fitting the pieces together will get a whole lot more complex. For in freewill, each and every one of the pieces is moving in irregular and unpredictable spins and directions. Therefore, God’s task becomes immensely more difficult. He must foreknow all the movements of the pieces and piece them together at just the right moment.
And to make the puzzle exponentially more difficult, neither the puzzle nor its pieces are merely two-dimensional. They are not merely flat, having only width and length. This puzzle and its pieces are three-dimensional, having depth as well. Assembling this puzzle begins at its very core and builds outward into a massive sphere, as big at the planet. This three-dimensional puzzle, with billions of moving pieces – each piece doing its own thing, begins at its core with the first human parents and builds outward in all directions.
Is God up to the challenge of assembling the puzzle, of bringing its difficult pieces together? Indeed He is. For God foreknows everything – not because He makes it happen but because He is omniscient. His infinite intellect and vision know the outcome of every spinning piece and He sovereignly uses and incorporates every turn and movement into His divine plan to save as many souls as possible.
Yes, God knows that some people will not, under any circumstances, yield to His loving appeal. Therefore, He uses their very rebellion to serve His purposes – to somehow benefit those who will respond to God in faith and repentance. Those who reject God will still serve His purpose to create the adversity through which believers will grow and be conformed into the image of His Son.
And because God knows, from the beginning, those who will yield to His will – given the right opportunity and circumstances – He maneuvers them into His love and into those circumstances through which they’ll respond to His call. “Those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed into the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29). We are chosen, Peter said, according to God’s foreknowledge (1 Peter 1:2).
Knowing from eternity all the twists and turns every one of us will take, God directs circumstances to save as many as possible and to utilize the disobedient to facilitate the salvation and sanctification of believers. In this way, God maintains both His sovereignty and humanity’s freewill. In this way, at the end of time, God will receive into heaven those who will have loved Him by choice rather than by force.
This is why Paul the apostle describes God’s wisdom as “manifold” (Ephesians 3:10). The original Greek word is polupoikilos and is used only here in the New Testament. In classic Greek the word described something as “multicolored,” “multifaceted,” or “multi-pieced.” Perhaps Paul also incorporated the idea of multidimensional. God’s wisdom, knowledge, and foresight are simply infinite and unfathomable to us. How God orchestrates all our choices, behaviors, and actions to bring together His mighty, three-dimensional puzzle of moving pieces will remain a mystery to our feeble minds in this life.
But in eternity we’ll grasp it all and say with the apostle Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches of both the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Romans 11:33).
PRAYER: Dear Father in heaven, please open my eyes to understand Your ways and Your heart. And in those many times when I cannot understand, help me to trust in the riches of Your infinite and manifold wisdom and knowledge. In Jesus’ name, Amen.