Today, let’s wade into the waters of a difficult, mysterious subject. Predestination, and in a wider sense, God’s providence, raises a lot of conundrums in our mind, bound as we are by time and the limits of human language.
Many people ask questions about God’s providence that are rooted in faulty premises, either about time or causality. For example, the following questions are often asked:
If God predestines someone for Heaven or Hell, doesn’t this merely reduce us to a fate we cannot control?
Why exhort people to make good choices or to pray if we are all simply acting out a script for our life, written by God long before we were ever made?
There are three important distinctions to make.
Distinction 1: God does not predestine anyone for Hell.
The stated desire or purpose of God is that all come to know Him through faith and thus are saved: God our Savior … desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). While it is true that Scripture speaks of predestining us for Heaven (e.g., Eph 1:5; Rom 8:29), this is not the same as saying that we are locked into a fate. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Thus, as men are ordained to eternal life through the providence of God, it likewise is part of that providence to permit some to fall away from that end” (Summa Theologica I, 23, art. 3). And thus while we are ordained or ordered for Heaven, God, who made us free, permits that those who freely reject Him and His Kingdom will be lost.
Distinction 2: Knowing is not the same as willing.
The second question above fails to distinguish between God knowing something and God willing it (and thereby causing it). Even we mortals can know something before it happens, but our knowing it does not cause it. Suppose you were on a hillside and saw two trains on opposite sides of a blind curve, heading for each other on the same track. You know what will happen, but your knowing it does not cause it to happen.
God can know things that will happen without willing or forcing them to happen. God knowing “ahead of time” that some will go to Hell and others will go to Heaven does not mean that He wills it. For God says,
Say to them, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?” (Ez 33:11)
God wants all to be saved but foresees that some will be lost. Why does God exhort Ezekiel to tell the Israelites to turn from their sinful ways? What good will it do? After all, God already knows who will and will not be saved.
Distinction 3: Primary causes do not eliminate secondary causes.
God wants all to be saved but foresees that some will be lost. In the previous passage, why does God exhort Ezekiel to tell the Israelites to turn from their sinful ways? What good will it do? After all, God already knows who will and will not be saved.
The answer leads us to a distinction between primary and secondary causes.
God is the primary cause of all things, of all reality. Whatever effect things like people, animals, and trees have on one another, God is still the primary cause of those effects, because God is creating and sustaining them all. Thus for them to act and to cause other effects, God must first create, equip, and empower them to exist at all. Because God must “first” do this, He is the primary cause of every effect.
But, as St. Thomas explains, that God is the primary cause of everything does not eliminate secondary causes:
Concerning this question, there were different errors. Some, regarding the certainty of divine predestination, said that prayers were superfluous (unnecessary), as also anything else done to attain salvation; because whether these things were done or not, the predestined would attain, and the reprobate would not attain, eternal salvation. But against this opinion are all the warnings of Holy Scripture, exhorting us to prayer and other good works.
Others declared that the divine predestination was altered through prayer. …Against this also is the authority of Scripture. For it is said… that “the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance (unalterable)” (Romans 11:29).
Wherefore we must say … it is not due to their prayers that anyone is predestined by God. [But it is also true that] … predestination is said to be helped by the prayers of the saints, and by other good works; because providence, of which predestination is a part, does not do away with secondary causes but so provides effects, that the order of secondary causes falls also under providence … [T]he salvation of a person is predestined by God in such a way, that whatever helps that person towards salvation falls under the order of predestination; whether it be one’s own prayers or those of another; or other good works … without which one would not attain to salvation. Whence, the predestined must strive after good works and prayer; because through these means predestination is most certainly fulfilled. For this reason it is said: “Labor more that by good works you may make sure your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10) (Summa Theologica I, 23, art 8).
In other words, God in His providence knows not only the end of a person but also all the things he will freely contribute to that end. Why bother praying? Because God has always known what prayers you would utter and what difference they would make. We should pray to fulfill the role and supply the help that God has always known we would. The same holds for good works and other forms of cooperating with God’s grace. In one of his sermons, St. Augustine said, “God, who made you without you, will not save you without you.”
A final observation is that predestination is caught up in the mystery of time. God does not live in time as we do; He lives in the eternal now. God’s name is, “I AM.” Past, present, and future are all equally present to Him. And though we can grasp in a small way what this means, we cannot really know what it is like. Deliberating, discerning, and considering—which occur over time for us—are not the same for God. We might ponder why at time ‘A’ God would consider creating a person at time ‘B,’ even knowing that at time ‘C’ that person would be lost. But this is simplistic; it tries to put God within our framework of time, which He is not.
Great humility is necessary when pondering the mystery of predestination and providence. We know for certain that God is in control, but His control mysteriously interacts with and considers human freedom in a way that harms neither truth. He tells us to pray and to cooperate with and earnestly work for our salvation and that of others. God knows everything, including our cooperation (or lack thereof). His knowing is sovereign, complete, and absolute—but it does not cancel our freedom.
So remember that all things depend on God and are known by Him. Nothing surprises God. But remember, too, that He Himself has ordained that we should freely cooperate with Him as His providence unfolds in our life. His knowing what we will do does not cancel our freedom, but rather interacts with it in a mysterious way.