Are we predetermined to go to heaven?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Are saved people determined to be saved before they were born? (Christian, male under 18)

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for submitting this question… although it’s a complex one. I find it interesting that you used the word “determined” rather than the usual biblical terms of elected, predestinated or foreordained to ask this question. I will discuss some of these ideas in my answer, but for now, just know that “determined” is the thing we are not. We are the ones who determine what we do day by day, not God.

That being said, the Bible is clear that God acts on our salvation before we do … and when you combine that notion with words like “predestined,” it’s easy to walk away with the idea that God is assigning salvation to some individuals and not to others. But this is not what’s happening.

I see that you are a teenager… and I would usually adjust my response accordingly. But you’ve asked an advanced question… and I can’t answer it except as I usually do. So, I’ll apologize ahead of time for dragging you into the strange places of Philosophy and Natural Theology. You see, the answer to your question is yes — God deals with us ahead of time… but not like you’re thinking… so, the answer is mostly no — we make our own decisions.

Also, I don’t know your church background… and people from a Reformed tradition will not like this response. You see, they take a very high view of God’s sovereignty and a relatively low view of human free-will — and many do affirm that God elected some people to salvation and not others. I take the opposite stand — that if God did not create people with robust (libertarian) free-wills, then creation itself would have no purpose… because even God can’t have a meaningful relationship with puppets.

The first thing to know is that this is a secondary issue of the faith, so you may subscribe to any of the sensible solutions without impacting the Gospel’s core — and there are quite a few ways to look at this issue. But I’ll use this three-part solution to the sovereignty versus free-will paradox: First, the characters in the Bible act as if people must exercise free-will to be saved. Second, God has a unique relationship with time. Third, God knows every possible future.

Predestination is one of the most difficult biblical topics to parse because — on the surface at least — it seems to challenge the core of evangelical thought. We Evangelicals must be… well… evangelical to be congruent. We must preach the Gospel, declare Christ crucified, plead with people to come to the cross and be saved… and all that seems to be an empty exercise when viewed through the prism of predestination — and I think that’s the type of predestination your question has in view. Here’s the paradox:

Why would anyone have to “accept” Christ, when, at the end of the day, God will somehow sweep them up into salvation in spite of themselves? This is our central conundrum because we have a huge body of Scripture teaching that we must be proactive in advancing the Gospel… which seems to be in tension with predestination. But since the Bible teaches both, both are true… and they are true at the same time without being contradictory.

I feel that it's important to look at the person of the Apostle Paul at this time. After all, he is the one who penned many of the important verses about predestination. So, since he is responsible for a lot of the buzz, his personal response to the doctrine should be weighed with great care.

For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; (Galatians 1:13–16, ESV)

The Holy Spirit guided Paul to write —  and in the same breath, by the way — that predestination and evangelism are not mutually exclusive. Paul said that he was set aside by God before he was born — and that's an overt act of predestination. But for what purpose did God do this? So Paul might preach him among the Gentiles — and that's overtly evangelical! 

But did you notice that Paul didn’t bat an eye here? Apparently, Paul did not feel any tension between predestination and evangelism. So, why should we?

Furthermore, can we know the mind of God beyond his revelation to us? No. Will we plumb the depths of his predestination and election? Hardly. But the fact that God has revealed certain structures that are beyond our full understanding should never dull our enthusiasm for performing his clearly stated instructions — nor should they give us mental anguish as if those two enterprises were mutually exclusive. Then what should we do about predestination? Do what the Apostle Paul did in his encounter with the Philippian jailer.

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.
(Acts 16:29–32, NIV)

Paul did not answer the question, “… what must I do to be saved?” with a lecture on predestination and election. Nor did he qualify to the jailer that, if he were among those who were mysteriously chosen before the foundations of the earth that he would be saved... but otherwise he would be lost. He went right for the active heart of the Gospel: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!

At this point I must ask, do you think that the Apostle Paul understood what he was writing when he wrote about predestination? I think so, too. But that didn't stop him from leading that jailer to Christ, and one need not look too far to find other examples of the disciples preaching, teaching and witnessing — but not about election! — about the Lord Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Therefore, do not let the theological heft of these concepts bog you down. We have clear commands to preach, teach, baptize and make disciples… so we should do those no matter what. We should never allow arguable theology to stop us from working towards God's clearly stated objectives. This is the biblical example.

Okay… so the Bible tells us that God set things in motion before the foundations of the world… and that we are to proceed as if we are breaking new ground. But it doesn’t tell us how God pulls that off. This is why we need to shift our emphasis from the Bible to Natural Theology and Philosophy. To understand how God establishes things beforehand without destroying our free-will, we must explore God’s relationship to time and God’s relationship to knowledge.

If time were created along with everything else in the universe, then “before" creation God was atemporal. Time did not exist… but God did… so God just existed timelessly. But from the moment of creation onward, God had to relate to his creation in time, so he became temporal for our sakes. But we cannot think of that as a limit. First, I believe that God still transcends time. But when God engages it, he is omnitemporal — meaning that God exists in all time at the same time. If this is not true of God, then he would not be omnipresent… and that would be no God worth having.

So, even though we live our lives in linear time — and even though Jesus shed his blood on a date and time — and even though we receive Jesus at a point in time — God has no limits on when he works his end of the redemptive process. We merely participate now in what God established before the foundations of the world.

The following verses show that God dealt with you, me and Jesus… but before you and I were even created.

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love (Ephesians 1:4, NIV)

He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, (2 Timothy 1:9, NIV)

[Christ] was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 
(1 Peter 1:20, NIV)

So — and from the perspective of a God who experiences all time at the same time — God created the cosmos, Adam fell, I fell, you fell, Jesus died, I was saved, you were saved — and all at the same instant. You and I don’t experience it that way because we are “stuck” in linear time.

Let’s shift to our final focus — how God deals with knowledge. We understand that God is omniscient — he knows everything… but the weight of that statement escapes most people. God not only knows every actual thing in the past, present and future, he knows every possible thing in the past, present and future. This has ramifications.

Since God knows how every possible scenario for your life would play out, and since he created you to love him and to be loved by him, God will actualize whichever life would find you saved… and which would optimize redemption for the world. So, out of the limitless possible lives that could have played out for you under every combination of their possible contingencies, God has chosen the life that you are in right now… but… the life you are living right now is not causally determined by God; you are living it in real time, proceeding by your own energies and steered by your own decisions. This is good news for us free will advocates.

This is not to say that we humans exercise complete control over our lives. We have no control over whether we are born, where we are born when we are born and to whom we are born. We also have no control over the culture and environment of our early lives. It is only after we break free from the gravity of those initial conditions that we become free agents. Then we are free to love or hate, free to work or loaf, free to purchase a cell phone or to dismiss God philosophically. And in spite of the biblical terms like predestination, election and foreordination, we are not causally predetermined to do anything.

Since God knows all the world’s possible futures as part of his omniscience, transcendence and omnitemporality, and since he is limitlessly powerful, he can choose to actualize your best possible life without being causally prior to your every individual choice. So, by virtue of God’s timelessness, you lived this very life before God actualized it! This gives you the best of both worlds: you maintain your full volition as you go (including your choice of eternal homes!) yet you have all the protections that an omnipotent and omniscient Father can bestow.

I admit… these ideas take some getting used to — particularly if you’ve been postulating too-small of a God to fit too-tight of a theology. But this system of sorting through future contingencies takes determinism out of the equation. But also, it takes the bite out of terms like election and predestination, because in this scenario, you are the one who chooses to join “the elect” when you receive Jesus.

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