Faith Not Fatalism (Guest Post)

Faith Not Fatalism (Guest Post) January 7, 2022

*The following is a guest blog post by my former student and now pastor Ross Shelton. I do not expect Ross to respond to questions or comments; that is up to him to decide. If you decide comment, please make sure your comment is civil, respectful, relatively brief, and shows that you read the whole essay. Do not misrepresent it or use it as a springboard for your own sermon or essay. If you agree, say why concisely. If you disagree, say why concisely. If you have a question, keep it brief. The purpose of this blog is dialogue, not debate. This is not a discussion board; it is a moderated blog primarily for evangelical Christians. Do not include a hyperlink in your comment. Know that this guest post does  not necessarily reflect the views of this blogger.*

Faith, Not Fatalism

By: Ross D. Shelton

Pastor, First Baptist Church, Brenham, Texas

A phrase I have seen expressed on social media and heard people say in greater numbers recently is some variation of the following: “God decides when it is your time to die, and there is nothing you can do about it.” This phrase is often used when someone dies unexpectedly or tragically. The more recent context where I have heard this phrase, though, has centered on the deaths connected with the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to the debates around the efficacy of vaccines and whether or not to use suggested mitigation strategies. In whatever context I have seen or heard this or a similar phrase, the well-intentioned desire was to give an expression of faith.

Nevertheless, as I have seen and heard this phrase, I have been asking myself whether or not this phrase is really the most complete and sufficient expression of faith and understanding of how God works in the world. For example, if a person smokes and gets lung cancer as a result of their smoking, is it still true that “God decides when it is your time to die, and there is nothing you can do about it”? I think most people in this instance will agree that not smoking may have provided a longer life. My concern, then, is that what is intended to be an expression of *faith* is actually an expression of *fatalism.*

Fatalism is the idea that “…what will happen will happen, and nothing we do or do not do will make any difference.”[1] Some Christians associate this fatalism to a kind of divine determinism that God will do whatever He wants, and we are without any kind of freedom to impact potential change. I believe there is a better (and more biblical) way to understand God and our lives than fatalism/divine determinism. This better way begins with a proper understanding of God’s power and then exploring how we are called to live in light of how He exercises His power and the freedom He provides.

God’s Power

Thomas C. Oden, in the first volume of his systematic theology, clarifies two ways to describe God’s power: (1) God’s absolute power and (2) God’s ordered power.[2] Oden describes the difference in this way, “God’s absolute power, in classical theology, is without limit and can be exercised without mediating causes in the creation, as in miracle or direct agency. God’s ordinate power works through the order of nature by means of secondary causes and influences….”[3] Having defined these understandings of God’s power, Oden then makes a crucial point: “Absolute, unmediated divine power is not the usual way we experience the power of God. Rather, it is usually expressed through mediated powers of nature and history.”[4] Therefore, it is important to realize that God, in the exercise of His power, “…is not bound always to exercise every conceivable form of power in every situation”[5] and will, at times, exercise His absolute power and at times – the majority of times – will exercise His ordered power.

In reflecting on these two ways of God’s power, it is important to note that they are not in conflict with each other nor should they be juxtaposed in our life of faith. For example, I once knew a man who needed a relatively minor surgical procedure for a problem that was causing him a great deal of discomfort. He desperately wanted God to heal him via a miracle (use of God’s absolute power), and he suffered a number of weeks waiting for the healing. He eventually had the medical procedure and healed without any complications. In this case, God worked through the means of medical science and providing humans the ability to understand God’s creation (God’s ordered power) to supply him with the healing necessary to overcome the problem. While this scenario was not as dramatic as a miracle, I believe it was still an opportunity to praise God.

God-Given Freedom

Having an understanding of God’s power also shapes our understanding of human freedom and how we are called to use our God-given freedom to make decisions and steward our lives. Oden provides clarity on this relationship when he notes how God foreknows the use of free will: “God knows what will happen, but does not unilaterly determine each and every event immediately – that would dishonor human freedom and the reliability of secondary causes….Hence God’s foreknowledge does not imply God’s omnicausality or absolute determinism so as the eliminate all other creaturely wills. God knows what other wills are doing by divine permission….”[6]

One way of understanding this relationship between the ways God exercises His power and our use of God-given freedom is revealed in our response to the natural order (one of the ways God exercises His ordered power). How we use our God-given freedom to respond to God working through the natural order (His ordered power) is a freedom He allows us to exercise and experience the subsequent positive or negative consequences. This use of our God-given freedom in response to the natural order is also understood as part of God’s consequent will (“…the will of God in response to human willing.”[7]) instead of God’s antecedent will (“…when God wills something independently of creatures, without regard to other wills or any subsequently developing contingent circumstances.”[8]).

For example, our understanding of gravity enables us to use our God-given freedom to make decisions and mitigate risks associated with falling. If, on the other hand and to use a preposterous example, a person jumped off a building in the name of faith and with the hope that God would save Him miraculously via the use of His absolute power, this person misses three important realties about God:

(1) God works through His ordered power (e.g. gravity is part of the natural order), and He will not arbitrarily disrupt His ordered power to overcome foolish decisions masquerading as faith or when we misconstrue the difference between fatalism and faith.

(2) God did not cause the man’s death; his foolish decision caused his death.

(3) Associating faith with fatalism can have fatalistic consequences.


Having a proper understanding of God’s power and living in light of how He exercises His power and freedom He provides does not clear up every issue and question. For example, there are many times when death comes as a surprise, and there seems to be nothing the person could have done to prevent their death (e.g. someone not at fault dies in a car wreck, etc.). In these scenarios, the phrase “God decides when it is your time to die, and there is nothing you can do about it” seems to be accurate. Second, we are still left with the question, “Why does God not exercise His absolute power in certain situations (e.g. childhood cancer deaths, etc.)?” Thirdly, are my thoughts biased by a kind of rationalism and “anti-supernaturalism” that often characterizes modern, western Christians? That is, does a focus and reemphasis on God’s ordered power better fit an often preconceived bias against the ways God displays His absolute power (miracles, etc.)? Fourthly, in the game/battle of proof-texting scriptures, there are scriptures that *seem* to conflict with what I wrote (e.g. Job 14:5). While I have the desire to have some of these questions answered and issues perfectly cleared up, I realize that this is not possible. Nevertheless, we can seek to – and are called to – live lives of faith and not fatalism.

Therefore, overcoming fatalism/divine determinism begins be recognizing that God exercises His power in different ways. Recognizing these different ways enables us to think how we will use our God-given freedom to seek God as He exercises His power in different ways and then respond in faith to God who is working in the world and in our lives. Living such a life will lead us to see life as a gift we are called to steward as we make decisions and not to resignation of fate. Ultimately, living with a better (and more biblical) understanding of God’s power will provide us the opportunity to flourish in God’s vision for our lives and bring glory to His name.

[1] Flew, Anthony, A Dictionary of Philosophy, Revised Second Edition, (New York, N.Y.: Gramercy Book, 1999): p.119.

[2] Oden, Thomas C. Classical Christianity: A Systematic Theology, Three Volumes, (New York, N.Y. HarperOne, 1992), p. 53.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 49.

[7] Ibid., p. 61.

[8] Ibid., p. 60.

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