This post is an abbreviated version of a thought that I had about the whole “Election vs. Free Will” debate that exists in Christian circles.
The Election of God and the Free Will of Man
Is God sovereign and omnipotent and omniscient and good (all the traditional qualities of God)? Or do human being have free will, allowing us to sin? Do we choose God with our free will, or does God choose us through his election? On a related note, why does evil exist?
I’ve been a part of this debate myself in not too long ago, but now I have mostly retreated from it. It’s not that the question isn’t important, it’s just that the question is off-base.
It’s a problem of perspective that only Santa Claus and Arnold Schwarzenegger can solve. That may sound crazy, but stay with me.
The Problem of the Question
These are questions that can confuse us, and indeed have confused me. But there are two reasons that questions are confusing. The first reason is that the answer is difficult to know. The second reason is that the question itself is ridiculous. For example, take a look at the two questions below:
- “What should I do across the full span of my life, including this very moment, to achieve true and lasting satisfaction both now and in the future?”
- “Do you believe in banana?”
I doubt you know the real answer to either of these questions, because both are difficult questions. But they are difficult for entirely different reasons. The first involves a lack of knowledge. The second involves a lack of sense. I would like to suggest that the question “Is God sovereign, or do we have free will?” is in the category of the second question, lacking sense.
To show you what I mean, let me share an example that I would do with you if we were speaking in person. Imagine I am facing you. Imagine I lift my right hand and point my finger across my body to the opposite side, as my hand rests on my chest. Then imagine I ask you the following question: “Am I pointing left or am I pointing right?” You may say that I am pointing to my left and your right, but I didn’t pose the question in terms of “my” and “yours.” I asked you to say either “left” or “right.” That is the problem of Election vs. Free Will.
There are many other ways this same question could be posed. I could have said north or south or east or west or “towards the door” or “towards the window” or many other markers to define where I decided to point my finger. By not asking this question using those words, my question lacks sense.
But unlike “Do you believe in banana,” the question is not flawed because the words do not make sense. The question is flawed because of the perspective. Instead of facing each other, imagine that we are facing in the same direction. Now the question makes perfect sense. My left is your left and my right is your right. The question about “left” and “right” now makes sense because we have the right perspective. Amazingly, it even works if I keep my hand pointing in the same direction, but twist around to look at it from your perspective. You can come to me or I can come to you, but the question is intractable unless one of us changes our position.
The Way Scripture Speaks About the Question
The same principle is at work with God, us, and the question “Is God sovereign or do we have free will?” Our perspective needs to change.
But I can see the difficulty of this question in Scripture, because oftentimes the absolute sovereignty of God is put right next to the necessity of our choice without a second thought.
For example, Paul in Romans speaks of God’s sovereign choice (See Romans 9). He speaks of how God has chosen that some people will be an object of wrath (the ultimate and scary version of God’s sovereign choice.) But then he says in the next chapter:
if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
Confess? Believe? Those are actions of free will! How do we do this? How does that work? To gain insight on the Election vs. Free Will question, we need to change our perspective.
Understanding the Real Question
And while that seems to make sense theoretically, how does it work practically? How is it possible for this very theoretical understanding of the nature of the universe to apply to our Universe? How can it both be true that “God is sovereign” and “We are evil”? Or as Paul asked:
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (Romans 9:19)
In truth, this isn’t a theoretical question. This is a question about children dying. This is a question about terminal illness. This is a question about pain. This is a question about disability and suffering. This is a question about shame and despair. This is a question about why bad things happen. Theoretical claims become insulting:
“Don’t waste my time with all this ‘God loves you’ stuff! Why is the one that I love dead?”
After all, if one believes in a sovereign God who upholds the universe by his hand, then how do we make sense of planes flying into skyscrapers or diseases killing millions of people? How can a good and sovereign God coexist with what we see?
This is where Santa Claus comes in.
The Santa Claus Analogy
Imagine you are writing a story. You can do whatever you want to with the story. You make the setting. You create the world. You choose the protagonist. You make the characters. You make the plot. You make the obstacles. You make the triumphs. You make the climax. You make the catharsis. You control it all. No matter how big or bad or evil the villian, you can solve it with the sentence “And for a reason no one really understood, he simply disappeared, never to be heard from again.”
In other words, you are omnipotent and omniscient when it comes to the universe you created. You are “God.”
But then you decide to make “Santa Claus” a character. Whether you know it or not, you have now created a complicated philosophical problem about Ontology: what it means for anything “to be” at all.
We all know who “Santa Claus” is, don’t we? He’s big and jolly and has a big white beard and a huge belly and laughs “Ho, ho, ho!” as he distributes gifts to the good children at Christmas at midnight. He likes milk and cookies. There are different versions of Santa Claus, but there is also a solid core of what it means to “be” Santa Claus. We can understand that the English “Father Christmas” and the Dutch “Sinterklaas” are a part of the idea of “Santa Claus” but the German “Krampus” is not. There are limits.
But here’s the ontology problem: Let’s pretend that you wanted to do a different thing with your Santa Claus. Imagine that you wanted Santa Claus to wear camouflage. Imagine you wanted Santa Claus to have an Austrian accent. Imagine your Santa Claus story involved patrolling the jungle with a motley crew of beefy special forces soldiers. Imagine that you wanted Santa Claus to fight a mysterious being in the jungle. Imagine that rather than “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!” the memorable line of your Santa Claus is “Run! Go! Get to da choppa!!!”
Now, I’m not going to argue with that story. I think it’s a great story. But there’s a problem of ontology. There comes a point where “This character is Santa Claus” no longer makes any sense. It’s just a name. There is nothing Santa-Claus-ish about him. In philosophy, the question has been posed in this way: “If you replace every single board of a ship, is the ship still the same ship or is it something else entirely?”
The Ontological rules show that even though you are in complete and omnipotent control of your story (in other words, you are “God”), it is impossible to say that your character is “Santa Claus.” You might be able to fool every character in the book that Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1987 movie Predator is Santa Claus, but that doesn’t change the essence or nature of Arnold Schwarzenegger at all.
That’s the ontological problem. Even with omnipotent power over a world, there is a limit to what you can do if you want to create something. You can’t let your character BE anything. To create something is to let it “be.” But in order “to be,” there are limits. Everything has a nature, including Santa Claus, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and mankind.
God’s Creation of Us
Understanding this ontological problem, and understanding that God created us, we start to see the difficulty of God’s perspective. If God created “us,” then there there must be something about “us” that remains consistent. It might not be our cells or our physical nature (for eventually our cells are all replaced in our life), but SOMETHING must stay the same.
God’s omnipotence is not eliminated. He still has complete control. God can destroy us. God can snap his fingers and let us return to dust. He can destroy the entire universe just like an author can toss a draft novel in the fire. God could simply write “and for some reason that nobody could really explain, everything evil in the universe simply stopped existing.” But what would that mean for “us” — not some theoretical idea of us, but US.
One thing God cannot do is make us “be” something that is inconsistent with what we “are,” which is our nature.
God could certainly make something else that is different from what we are, but that would be a different thing entirely. It wouldn’t be “us” at all. If God snapped his fingers and suddenly made everything the way it should be — while not putting any harm on us as we exist now — then that would be as possible and ridiculous as saying that Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator is just an avant-garde version of Santa Claus. Strangely enough, this ontological problem of God wiping us free of our sins was illustrated perfectly by an episode of Rick and Morty (language warning to this link).
So why does evil exist? Because we exist.
The Problem of Evil and Election
But if we’re evil, why does God let us exist? While it’s difficult to understand from our perspective, there is an answer in Scripture, and it’s in the same book that seems to confuse God’s election and our choice:
We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:2-5)
While it may be difficult to see at first, the truth is clear: The Reason evil exists in the world is because God loves us. God does not love some theoretical idea of “us.” He does not love some “us” that doesn’t remotely resemble ourselves (like the difference between Santa and Schwarzenegger). Instead, look in the mirror. That’s what he loves. He loves US.
Or as scripture puts it:
For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:7-9)
The God/Man Comparison to Man/Ant
But I must pause to recognize the seeming absurdity of that statement: Evil exists in the world because God loves us. But it’s a seeming absurdity, because we do not see things from God’s perspective. We do not see what we are. We do not see what we were. We do not see what we will be.
To make sense of it, let’s compare the God/Man relationship to the Man/Ant relationship. Lets make it parallel with the history of scripture:
- We see that God put man is a perfect garden, provided him everything he needed, gave him something to do and stimulate his intellect, and made a purchase order for 10 billion copies of him by very pleasurable means. But we didn’t follow the rules.
- Doesn’t this sound like the universe’s greatest ant farm?
- Isn’t the rule “You can eat anything in this ant farm, but don’t bite my finger” is a sensible rule for ants?
- Once man falls, we see that God patiently corrects and teaches man and has compassion on him. (Genesis 3)
- Have you ever thought about the patience that would be necessary to teach ethics and philosophy to an ant-colony?
- We see that God warns Man of his impending doom from his sin, seeks to keep him from that doom by telling him to guard against his sin, and even protects Man after he murders his own family because of his sin. (Genesis 4)
- Have you ever warned an ant before squashing it with your thumb?
- Have you ever sought to warn an ant of what comes if it continues doing what it is doing?
- Have you ever decided to protect an ant after he does exactly what you said it shouldn’t do?
- We can see that the God of the universe is grieved by man’s actions against man. (Genesis 6:6)
- Have you ever been grieved at one ant-hill actions against another ant-hill, no matter how much ant-pain was involved?
- We see that God chose a people to be his own, put them in a perfect spot, asked them to follow simple rules like “take a break once a week,” and remember that I put you here and provide for you, and these people couldn’t even do that. (See the Exodus)
- Ant-Farm 2.0!
- What would you do if the ant farm refused to eat your food and instead crawled into your bed at night?
- Most amazingly, we see that God became Man in order to teach men how they should be and save them from their sins. (John 1:1-18)
- What are your thoughts about becoming an ant-man.
- No, not THAT Ant-Man (TM), but just an ordinary ant with all the ordinary ant-problems with the mind and soul of a man.
- What are your thoughts about becoming an ant-man.
- We see that God chose us to be his own before the beginning of time, even though we have all gone astray, and that he will not lose a single one of us as he calls those who are his back to him. (Ephesians 2, Luke 15, John 10, and elsewhere)
- Imagine you had that Ant-Farm 2.0, but one day, the ants decided to sway their ant-paradise-of-a-container off the table, break the glass, crawl in your bed, and scatter throughout your home. Imagine they mixed with wild ants from outside your home. Imagine that whenever these ants got the chance, they would bite you and cause you pain and forget that you brought them into your presence and fed them.
- Would your instinct and plan be to gather all of your ants back by the power of your hand, or to call an exterminator?
The crazy part about Scripture is that God seems to have gathered all of us puny ants back to him. In fact, if we follow the analogy, unless you’re a pure-blood Jew, then you aren’t even a part of Ant-Farm 2.0. You’re a wild ant from the outdoors that God decided to bring in, too.
Even more amazingly, God accomplished this plan not as the metaphorical human with an ant-farm who picks up the puny ants and drags them by force into a bigger, better and more unbreakable ant prison. He did it by BECOMING AN ANT and dying at the hands of ants, to show ants how they should act.
The reason God did not call the exterminator in the Garden of Eden is that God chose instead to die himself and bring us back to Paradise. That is a small picture of the truth scripture tells us about God loving us.
Sovereignty, Ontology, and the New Creation
But let’s get back to Santa Claus, because we still need to answer the question about God’s election and our choice. According to my analogy, God decided to make us something like “Santa Claus” and we decided to make ourselves something like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator. “You want to be like Arnold in Predator? Well… okay. I’ll give you predator.”
But with this in mind, how does redemption work? How can God take what we are and turn us into what he wishes us to be if those two things are ontologically opposite? No matter how hard you try, you can’t turn a “Get to da choppa!” swarm of ants into a “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” ant-farm. This is true, but there is a solution!
Instead of the Christmas-card version of “Santa Claus,” let’s instead think of something more real, more tangible, and better than an imaginary figure at the north pole.
The solution is the real-life Saint Nicholas of Myra. Is this guy Santa Claus? Yes! He’s actually a better and more real version of Santa Claus. Even though he is almost as different from Santa Claus as Arnold is from St. Nick, this Saint Nicholas of Myra is unambiguously and undeniably included in what it means to “be” Santa Claus. The ontology problem just might be solved. But how do we connect Arnold to St. Nicholas of Myra?
Let me try to explain how this St. Nick can bridge the gap between between our fallen “Get to da choppa!” nature and the paradisal “Ho, ho, ho!” nature of Santa Claus. Arnold in Predator fights against an unseen enemy that is terrorizing both friend and foe alike. Saint Nicholas of Myra works to save others from darkness as a missionary to the lost and save the church by defending the divinity of Jesus at the Council of Nicaea. Arnold saves people with his grenade launcher and battles the Predator. Saint Nicholas of Myra feeds the hungry and slaps Arius, fighting lies that harm the church.
I acknowledge the limits of this analogy, and I won’t pretend it’s perfect. But if I had more space, I suppose I could make things clearer. Note that at the beginning of the Predator movie, Arnold and his friends brought themselves to the jungle. Note that they soon realize that it was a mistake. Note that they seem to enjoy the experience of war and death until a more terrible warrior than them arrives. Note that this warrior is invisible and unseen. Note that the theme of the Predator movies is that the Predator only kills those who “live by the sword.” Note that when Arnold finally sees what has been hunting him, he says “What the hell are you?” Also note that in a strange twist, Arnold doesn’t actually kill the Predator.
Arnold and Saint Nicholas of Myra are closer than they seem.
The War of the Spiritual Realm
Now, even as I write that, I find it a little silly. I laugh as I picture Arnold Schwarzenegger cast as a 2nd century saint yelling “Gooo! Repent! Get to da baptismal!” Now that’s silly.
But if you think it is ridiculous to compare the Predator movie to the Christian life, then you simply do not understand what Scripture says about our enemy:
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36)
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. (1 Peter 5:7-9)
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Ephesians 6:10-14)
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven . . . And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan (Revelation 20:1-2)
In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea. (Isaiah 27:1)
As a Christian, our battle is not against little bad habits that make life less-than fun. It’s much greater than that. Our enemy is not “like” a lion in the sense that a house-cat is like a lion. Our enemy is “like” a lion, because we can’t even see how terrible our enemy is.
We have no ability to fight him, because we have become like him. Therefore, it is necessary to be “born again,” to use an old phrase. We need to be a new creation. In other words, our battle is a battle that involves changing what it means “to be” ourselves.
We do what we choose. We choose what we love. We love our own evil. Our evil is what we are. That is why both God is sovereign and we must freely choose him. He changes what it means to BE ourselves. He washes us of our sins, and makes us better. We choose him because he chose us. And in doing so, he made us better than we were before.
There was the way we were before:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet, (Psalm 8:2-4)
And there is the way God has loved us afterwards:
Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! (1 Corinthians 6:2-3)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)
God has done it. So let us look at it as God sees it, and freely choose according to the new thing that we love.
It seems it’s time to tie things together. In order to answer the question about whether God is sovereign or whether we have free will, we must understand the problem with the question. Our perspective is off.
If God created us, he must allow us to BE what we are. Otherwise, the thing he has created is not “us.” Our sin seems to be an intrinsic part of our nature.
God could have tossed us out like a book into a fire, but for some strange reason, it seems that God loves us. Therefore, he lets us exist.
As a direct consequence of this existence, our sins continue, our pain goes on, and we continue hating others and ourselves.
But God, being greater than us, did not change us by force and destroy us by the pure power of his might. Instead, he made us more than we were before.