Is Predestination Anti-American?

In the last post, I wrote about how predestination—the idea that God chooses who believes, not us—is a “hard teaching,” per John chapter 6. It was hard when Jesus taught it and remains hard today, though perhaps the reason for rejecting it has changed.

Jeff Robinson, pastor and seminary professor, gets at this in his article, “Predestination is Biblical, Beautiful, and Practical.” Dr. Robinson writes, “In some churches ... let the pastor breathe [the word ‘predestination’] in the presence of the deacon board and he risks firing, fisticuffs, or worse. A God who chooses is anti-American, anti-democracy....”

I assume “fisticuffs or worse” is an exaggeration. But “anti-American” is not. Our tendency to conflate the healthy ideas of our civics with the biblical doctrines of our faith is part of the reason why predestination can be so difficult to accept in our particular place and time.

Institutional churches internalize the values of the culture around them. They can’t help it, because churches are made of people, and people come in from out of the local culture and track that culture in with them. This is either harmless or dangerous, depending on the value in question. Yet one important aspect of that internalization is this: Institutional churches that succeed do so by modeling themselves after other successful organizations.

For example, up to and including five hundred years ago, the leading institutions were courtly. Kings, lords, and their courts of aristocrats governed society and its resources. Accordingly, the institutional church at that time organized itself as another court.

Contrast that with today. Monarchy gave way to democracy and the leading institutions have become commercial. Today, businesses govern society and its resources. Institutional churches have taken heed, learning to market and compete as businesses, appealing to potential churchgoers as consumers.

There is no criticism intended in this. But framing the matter this way highlights why predestination might be a problematic doctrine for those charged with leading an institutional church today, as Dr. Robinson describes. To say the gospel message is only able to transform those who have been chosen, rather than potentially transforming all, is to inherently limit the number of potential congregants in the church. Predestination is, in a sense, bad for business. If churches do indeed compete for attendees much like businesses compete for customers, then it’s not too blunt to state the matter this way.

But what is far more profound is the sense Dr. Robinson identifies in which predestination seems anti-democracy or anti-American. Democracy and America are two things widely regarded as good (I regard them as good), so the charge that the doctrine of predestination stands against them is serious. Is the charge valid?

The answer is that American democracy makes a claim in one realm, predestination makes a claim in another, and the two do not overlap.

In America, we rightly value the “self-evident” truth (according to the Declaration of Independence) that “all men [and women] are created equal”—a truth that America to its shame has long and often disavowed. When that truth is held high and the ideal it conveys is realized, the result is that the people of this country share equally in the rights and privileges of their citizenship.

The country is the context. Indeed, the country and its laws represent a realm so large that we still are prone to fail in this democratic ideal, so the vigilant among us rightly cultivate the civic reflex to uphold that ideal and push it as far as it can go.

But what God is doing across the context of the created cosmos is playing out in a different way. And this point, too, is every bit as self-evident. The phrase “all men are created equal” clearly means only “equal in the eyes of the law,” because in terms of various sorts of ability and in terms of the opportunities of a given life, it is readily apparent that all people are not initially equal. They have each been made individuals and launched into different lives.

And according to scripture, now that Christ has come, some of these people in the courses of their lives are “predestined to be adopted through Jesus Christ for himself,” for a role in his kingdom in this world and beyond, “according to his favor and will.” (The quoted parts come from Ephesians 1:5.)

Just one part of the challenge of this—maybe the hugest part, and what makes it seem undemocratic—is the sense of different rewards. It is hardly fair for one person to be predestined for heaven and another to be predestined for hell, with neither of them getting a say. If that were the truth of the matter, I would agree. It is not. I offer my book about predestination, along with this long companion essay refuting what we think we know about hell, for a response in depth. Or suffice it to say this much here: Those chosen for belief are in a sense chosen for calling and burden in this world, and God does not love less those he does not choose for this burden and call. Instead, chosen and unchosen simply have different destinies, one to eternal life and one to eternal peace. If that sounds wrong to you but you’re open to the argument, I will send you the book for free.

Jesus, in his preaching, often made clear that his message was for “those who have ears to hear.” Not everyone has those ears, has been chosen to hear, has been called to understand. In his article, Dr. Robinson cites Acts 13:48 as the verse that “threw the knockout punch” for him, persuading him that predestination is not only consistent with scripture but conveyed there unambiguously. This verse describes the effect of the preaching of Paul and Barnabas and, more significant for our purposes, it describes precisely who was and was not affected.

Not everyone believed upon hearing the message. Instead, the verse says:

When the Gentiles heard this, they rejoiced and glorified the message of the Lord, and all who had been appointed to eternal life believed. —Acts 13:48