by Msgr. Charles Pope.
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.