* The following is a guest blog post from my former student and now Pastor Ross Shelton. I don’t expect Ross to answer questions or comments; it is up to him to decide. If you do decide to comment, make sure your comment is civil, respectful, relatively brief, and shows that you have read the entire essay. Don’t distort it or use it as a springboard for your own sermon or essay. If you agree, concisely say why. If you don’t agree, concisely say why. If you have a question, be brief. The purpose of this blog is dialogue, not debate. It is not a discussion forum; it is a moderated blog primarily for evangelical Christians. Do not include a hyperlink in your comment. Please be aware 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
One phrase I’ve seen voiced on social media and heard more people say recently is a variation of, “God decides when it’s time for you to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it. ” This phrase is often used when someone dies unexpectedly or tragically. The more recent context in which I heard this phrase, however, has focused on deaths linked to the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to debates around the effectiveness of vaccines and whether to use or not the suggested mitigation strategies. Regardless of the context in which I saw or heard this or a similar phrase, the well-meaning desire was to give expression of faith.
Nonetheless, as I saw and heard this sentence, I wondered whether or not this sentence is really the fullest and most sufficient expression of faith and understanding of how God works in the world. . For example, if a person smokes and gets lung cancer from their smoking, is it still true that “God decides when it is time for you to die, and there is nothing you can do about it”? I think most people like this would agree that perhaps not smoking has prolonged life. My concern, then, is that what is meant to be an expression of * faith * is in fact an expression of * fatalism. *
Fatalism is the idea that “… what will happen will happen, and nothing we do or do will make a difference. “ Some Christians associate this fatalism with a kind of divine determinism that God will do whatever he wants, and we have no freedom to influence potential change. I believe there is a better (and more biblical) way to understand God and our lives than divine fatalism / determinism. This better path begins with a good understanding of the power of God and then exploring how we are called to live in light of how he exercises his power and the freedom he gives us.
The power of god
Thomas C. Oden, in the first volume of his Systematic Theology, clarifies two ways of describing the power of God: (1) the absolute power of God and (2) the ordered power of God. Oden describes the difference this way: “The absolute power of God, in classical theology, is limitless and can be exercised without mediating causes in creation, as in miracle or direct action. The ordered power of God works through the order of nature by means of secondary causes and influences…. “ Having defined these understandings of the power of God, Oden then makes a crucial point: “Absolute, unmediated divine power is not the usual way we experience the power of God. On the contrary, it is generally expressed through the mediated powers of nature and history. Therefore, it is important to realize that God, in exercising his power, “… is not bound to always exercise every conceivable form of power in every situation” and will sometimes exercise its absolute power and sometimes – most of the time – will exercise its ordered power.
As we reflect on these two paths of God’s power, it is important to note that they do not conflict with each other, nor should they be juxtaposed in our life of faith. For example, I knew a man who needed relatively minor surgery for a problem that was causing him a lot of discomfort. He desperately wanted God to heal him by a miracle (use of the absolute power of God), and he suffered for several weeks while awaiting healing. He eventually had the medical procedure and recovered without any complications. In this case, God worked through medical science and provided humans with the ability to understand God’s creation (the ordained power of God) to provide them with the healing needed to overcome the problem. Although this scenario was not as dramatic as a miracle, I believe it was still an opportunity to praise God.
Freedom given by God
Having an understanding of the power of God also shapes our understanding of human freedom and how we are called to use our God given freedom to make decisions and manage our lives. Oden sheds light on this relationship when he notes how God pre-knows about the use of free will: Foreknowledge of God does not imply omnicausality or absolute determinism of God in order to eliminate all other wills of God. creature. God knows what other wills do by divine permission … “
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). The way we use our God-given freedom to respond to God acting through the natural order (his ordered power) is a freedom that He allows us to exercise and experience the positive or negative consequences that flow from it. This use of our God-given freedom in response to the natural order is also understood as part of the consequent will of God (“… the will of God in response to the human will.) instead of the antecedent will of God (“… when God wants something independent of creatures, regardless of other wills or any contingent circumstances developing thereafter.).
For example, our understanding of gravity allows us to use our God-given freedom to make decisions and mitigate the risks associated with falls. If, on the other hand and to use an absurd example, a person jumped out of a building in the name of faith and with the hope that God would miraculously save him through the use of his absolute power, that person moves on to next to three important realities about God. :
(1) God acts by 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 disguised as faith or when we misinterpret the difference between fatalism and faith.
(2) God did not cause the death of man; his foolish decision caused his death.
(3) Associating faith with fatalism can have fatalistic consequences.
Having a good understanding of God’s power and living in light of how he exercises his power and freedom that he grants does not solve all problems and questions. For example, it often happens that the death is a surprise, and it seems that there is nothing that the person could have done to prevent his death (for example, a non-at-fault person dies in a car accident, etc. .). In these scenarios, the phrase “God decides when it is time for you to die, and there is nothing you can do about it” seems to be correct. Second, we always end up with the question, “Why does not God exercise His absolute power in certain situations (eg cancer deaths in children, etc.)? Third, are my thoughts skewed by a sort of rationalism and “anti-supernaturalism” that often characterizes modern Western Christians? That is, does a focus and re-emphasis on the ordered power of God better match an often preconceived prejudice against how God displays His absolute power (miracles, etc.)? Fourth, in the evidence text scripture game / battle, there are scriptures that * seem * to conflict with what I have written (e.g. Job 14: 5). While I desire to have answers to some of these questions and problems fully clarified, I realize that it is not possible. Nonetheless, we can seek to – and are called to – live a life of faith and not of fatalism.
Therefore, overcoming divine fatalism / determinism begins with recognizing that God exercises his power in different ways. Recognizing these different ways allows us to think about how we will use our God-given freedom to seek God as He exercises His power in different ways, and then respond with faith to God who works in the world and in our lives. Living such a life will lead us to see life as a gift that we are called to deal with when we make decisions and not as the resignation of fate. Ultimately, living with a better (and more biblical) understanding of the power of God will provide us with the opportunity to flourish in God’s vision for our lives and to give glory to His name.
 Stolen, Anthony, Dictionary of philosophy, Second revised edition, (New York, NY: Gramercy Book, 1999): p.119.
 Oden, Thomas C. Classical Christianity: A Systematic Theology, Three volumes, (New York, NY HarperOne, 1992), p. 53.
 Ibid., P. 49.
 Ibid., P. 61.
 Ibid., P. 60.