One of the most common Christian beliefs, and the one most often appealed to in order to explain why evil exists, is that human beings have free will to make choices that are not in God’s control. God doesn’t want robots, the argument goes, nor mindless puppets programmed to sing his praises. He desires genuine fellowship with real, independent beings, and giving us free will is the only way to achieve that, though some people may misuse the gift and cause evil and sin that harm others.
But if you look at the Bible, this reasoning isn’t so easy to support. In fact, there’s strong evidence that, in the world of Christian theology, human beings are not free to make their own choices – as we see from some little-known bible verses.
“According as [Christ] hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated [Greek proorizo, to predetermine, to decide beforehand] us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will….”
—Ephesians 1:4,5 (KJV)
This verse from Ephesians arguably isn’t even the strongest predestination verse in the Bible, but I chose it because it easily disposes of the usual counterargument: that God does not predestine, but with his omniscience, he sees in advance who will freely choose him. This verse refutes that interpretation by using the Greek word proorizo, which specifically means “predestinate”.
If the author of this verse had instead wanted to say that God would foresee who would choose him, there’s a perfectly good Greek word for that – proginosko. That word is not used here. However, it is used in another verse which puts the nail in the coffin of the foreknowledge argument:
“For whom [God] did foreknow [proginosko], he also did predestinate [proorizo] to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. What shall we then say to these things? …. Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.”
—Romans 8:29-33 (KJV)
This verse uses both the words for “foreknow” and “predestinate”, and it specifically says that God does both. But there’s one more predestination verse in the Bible that’s the most compelling of all:
“Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?”—Romans 9:14-21 (KJV)
This long verse makes it clear what Paul’s views on free will are. Salvation is “not of him that willeth”, but the choice of God, who selects some people and shows mercy to them. The rest, like Pharaoh, he “hardens” so that they will reject him and be condemned. But the most incontrovertible proof that this passage teaches predestination is that Paul anticipates the obvious counterargument – that it would be unjust for God to punish people for being as he made them to be – and responds to it! His argument is that since God is the maker, he can do whatever he wants with us – just as a potter shapes clay into different vessels to suit his purposes – and we have no right to lay a charge of injustice against him.
Verses like these may disturb Christians who’ve always believed that God gave us free will. But the truth is that such a concept finds little support in the Bible. By contrast, the pro-predestination verses are numerous and specific in their wording: God makes us as he chooses, rewards the people whom he made to be good, and punishes the ones whom he made to be evil, even though neither group had any choice in how they would turn out. Many influential historical Christian thinkers, including Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin, accepted these verses for what they say.
Today this view is much less popular, probably because of its unsettling moral implications for God’s goodness. As mentioned earlier, even most Christians now seem to accept that a god who was directly responsible for evil, and who condemns people for being as he made them to be, would not be worthy of worship. But this can’t change the fact that it is still what the Bible clearly says.
Other posts in this series: