FATE OR FREEDOM
By Pastor Glenn Pease
One of the best known stories of the ancient Greeks is that of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. The story is had an influence on both theology and psychology. Briefly the story is this: A child is born into a royal family, and the oracle brings bad news, for he says the child is destined to murder his father and marry his mother. A gruesome future which the parents with good reason did not care to anticipate, and so to defeat the decree of fate the king ordered the child to be destroyed by exposure on the mountain side. This, of course, would have solved the problem, but the servant in charge of abandoning the child had a tender heart. He gave the child to some passing pilgrims, and they carried it to a far country where a royal family adopted him.
When he grew up he learned of what the oracle said of his destiny, and thinking he was living with his real parents he fled from the palace so as to defeat the decree of fate. He went into a far country which happened to be the land of his birth, and there he met the king and queen. Not knowing they were his parents, he fell in love with the queen and killed the king, and took her as his wife. Only after all had been fulfilled did he learn that in spite of all the efforts to outwit the decree of fate, he had fulfilled it to the letter.
This ancient story is a classic example of the world view called fatalism. This is a philosophy of life that is wide spread and claims the allegiance of many millions. It was made popular by the song that said, "Whatever will be will be." The poet has stated it like this:
All that is was ever bound to be;
Since grim, eternal laws are beings bind;
And both the riddle and the answer find,
Both the pain and peace decree,
For plain within the Book of Destiny,
Is written all the journey of mankind,
Inexorably to the end, and blind,
And helpless puppets playing parts are we.
This view of life that all is determined may not appeal to you, but do not think you can dismiss it as a obvious falsehood. There have been very few ideas more influential in history than determinism. The evidence in its favor is so massive that there is no way to prove it wrong, and those who believe in free will must do so ultimately on faith. Faith in our consciousness of freedom, and more important, faith in the words of Christ that they have meaning when he says, "The truth shall make us free," and, "If the Son shall make you free you shall be free indeed."
Before we consider our freedom in Christ, however, we consider some of the support for the concept that all of life is determined for us, and the only freedom we have is the freedom to do what fate has decreed for us to do. Most, if not all, primitive societies were based on determinism. In fact, most of their life was largely determined. Their attitude was, what has been done must continue to be done, for it is evil to break precedent and tradition, and so all customs became law, and they determined how each generation had to act. These societies became fixed, and since they allow no change they see no progress, and so they are determined to stay primitive. The difference in the progress of the Western world, in contrast to that of the East, is in part due to belief in free will in the West.
Oriental life was controlled for centuries by a practical and theoretical determinism. Except for a modified concept of free will by Confucius, most of the major religions of the East are based on determinism. You have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Mohammedanism. Mohamet declared, "When God creates a servant for heaven, He causes him to go in the way of heaven until he dies, after which He take him to heaven; and when He creates a servant for the fires of hell, then He causes him to go in the way of those destined for hell, until he dies, after which He takes him to hell." The Koran says, "Every man's fate hath God fastened about his neck." One's earthly and eternal destiny is all cut and dried, therefore, and so there is nothing to do but wait and see, for one is saved, not by faith alone, but by fate alone.
Any initiative is futile if this is true, for the present life and the future is already set, and only a fool would work hard to get rich if it is already determined, for he will be rich if he does nothing. A Hindu states, "The possessions which the Creator has written upon our forehead, be it small or great, we shall surely attain even in the waste desert, and more than this we can never get, though we be on Mount Muru, who sides are packed with gold." Imagine trying to explain this philosophy to those in the California gold rush.
Lest we be deceived into thinking determinism is a peculiarity of the Orientals only, we need to consider the fact that it has been held by many in the traditions of the Western world. Great men like Homer, Socrates, Virgil, and Cicero were determinists. Many well known philosophers are also in this category. You have Bacon, Hume, Priestly, Spencer, Hobbs, Voltaire, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Schopenhower, and Nietzsche. It is interesting to see how many of these were anti-Christian in their thinking, but no strong conclusion can be drawn from this fact since many of the most outstanding men of God have also been determinists. You have great men like Jerome, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas in the Catholic tradition, and Luther, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards in the Protestant tradition.
In other words, there is no way we can draw a line and say the unbelievers were on one side, and Christians were on the other. For you have pagans, atheists, and Christians united on each side in this great intellectual battle. Is man free, or is he a victim of a pre-determined fate? Those who say all is determined not only have the support of so many great minds, but they are backed up by science. We cannot go into all of the arguments of physics, biology, and sociology to support determinism, but we can state the basic principle which is a foundation for all science, and that is the uniformity of nature. Every effect has a cause, and so everything in reality can be explained by the mechanical process of cause and effect. Everything you do is the result of previous causes, and so your will does not enter the picture at all. That is just an illusion that makes you think you choose, but your choice has already been determined.
The skeptic, the libertine, and evil men in general endorse this philosophy, for it is an escape from personal responsibility. Fate is a convenient escape hatch for those who do not want to be bothered with conscience, responsibility, and judgment. This abuse of the idea of determinism is no proof that it is not true, for many with strong ethical systems also believe it. The facts of history tell us that in spite of all the evil consequences that can result from a belief in determinism, one need not be lead to these evil results, and so one can be a Christian and be fully convinced that all is determined, for there is a great deal of Scripture on which such a conviction can be based. The believer in free will cannot dismiss the evidence, for it is vast, and if he is honest he must admit it. However, as the poet has put it-
Tis written on paradise's gate,
Woe to the dupe that yields to fate.
However much truth there is to determinism it cannot be the whole truth. One does not need to reject it as part of the truth in order to believe in free will. Dr. H. H. Horne in his book, Freewill and Human Responsibility says, "As a philosophy of life determinism has this disadvantage, that it has room for no freedom at all; whereas, on the other hand, freedom has this advantage, that it does have room for much determinism. For determinism holds that all acts are determined, while freedom holds only that some acts are free." One who believes in free will can accept all of the obvious truth in determinism, yet at the same time recognize that it is not the total picture, but that some aspects of reality demand a belief in freedom.
Jesus in our text I believe deals with both aspects of this debate. He reveals that He was free, but recognized that much of life is determined. He says in verse 34 that those who commit sin are slaves to sin. A slave is not free, but is bound. The unbeliever may think he is free, but he is just carrying out the orders of his depraved nature that determines his course of action. He is a victim of his nature. His will is no more free to choose to be holy and righteous than it is free to choose to fly or walk through a brick wall. Any freedom he has is limited to his capacity, and he does not have the capacity to do anything but follow his master, which is sin.
But Jesus has said, the truth shall make you free, and He says if the Son makes you free you will be free indeed. Now if this means anything, it means even if the life of the non-Christian is totally determined, this is not so for the Christian. He is made free in Christ, and it can be said that whenever a Christian does what is not God's will he is fully responsible, for he could have done other than what he did. The Christian has a free will in that he is not bound to follow the forces of either heredity or environment, but can overcome these and choose to act even contrary to them if God so wills. This is really the whole issue in the debate of determinism and free will. Could a person have done something different from what they did do? If not, and all is determined, then it is foolish to get upset to blame them, or even to hold them responsible, for if they are mere puppets of fate, and nothing could possibly be any different than it was, you can only accept it with stoic like indifference.
This is the philosophy behind letting so many criminals go free. They were victims of fate and did only what they had to do, so why make it any tougher on them? After all, fate has made it rough enough. However much truth there might be behind that thinking, it is not the whole picture. We cannot debate about the non-Christian at this point, but must look at what is a certain exception to determinism, and that is the Christ-led, Spirit-filled believer. The New Testament is filled with statements to the effect that in Christ we are free, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty, and we are to stand firm in the freedom where with Christ has made us free. The Christian is fully responsible for his conduct, for he is a free agent restored to the position of Adam who had a free will. Calvin and other determinists admit that Adam had a free will.
Our race, our eyes, our hair color, the length of our nose, and a thousand other things about us have been determined, and our will has no choice in these matters. But when it comes to obedience to God's will we have the capacity to do so, and therefore, the responsibility of doing so. God asks nothing of us but what we can do. If we don't do it, it is our fault. Emerson said, "Tis weak and vicious people who cast the blame on fate." Even Seneca, the pagan said, "No one is made guilty by fate." If we choose to disobey, then the consequences are no longer a matter of choice, but are determined. So also, if we choose to obey, the consequences are determined by God. But the decision of which road we take is ours, and we are responsible for the end result.
Let us consider the life of Christ. Was He nothing but a robot; a masterful machine sent by God to do His work? Not at all, He was a man, and a perfect man, and a perfect example of what God meant man to be. He was the pattern toward which He is bringing all who trust in Him. Did Jesus go to the cross because He had to, and because it was determined? Was He a mere victim of fate? No, He said He laid down His life, and no man took it, for He gave it freely. In the Garden of Gethsemane He said, "Not my will but Thine be done." He chose to submit His will to the Father's. He died freely and not by necessity. If it was by necessity, and He had no choice in the matter, then we are saved by fate, and all talk of great love is meaningless, for He had no choice. If He had to save us, this is fatalism, and it is not true to God's revelation of Himself. He is free and the first cause, and He was not compelled to save us, but chose to do so freely because of His love.
Come unto me says Jesus, and this implies we can if we will. Go ye into all the world says Jesus, and this implies we can if we will. Jesus tried to persuade the Jewish leaders to recognize Him as the Son of God, but He lamented, "Ye would not." I am convinced that God has given all men, by His grace, the capacity to respond to His truth when they are confronted by it. This is one of the works of the Holy Spirit, and because of this all men are responsible for what they do with the truth. All must agree that the Christian is free, for God is free and if we are indwelt by God and filled with His Spirit, then we must be free indeed. We can introduce causes that will change the future. Conversion and miracles break the chain of causes and effects, and introduce something new into the world. Nicolai Berdyaev said, "God has laid upon man the duty of being free, of safer guarding freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that may be, or how much sacrifice and suffering it may require."
Suzanne De Dietrich said, "The story of our salvation, as the Bible tells it, is simply the record of a long journey towards freedom." That journey finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ the Lord and Liberator of those held captive and enslaved by sin.
There is no chance, no destiny, no fate,
Can circumvent or hinder or control
The firm resolve of a determined soul.
Gifts counts for nothing; will alone is great;
All things give way before it, soon or late.
What obstacle can stay the mighty force
Of the sea-seeking river in its course,
Or cause the ascending orb of day to wait?
Each well-born soul must win what it deserves.
Let the fool prate of luck. The fortunate
Is he whose earnest purpose never swerves,
Whose slightest action or inaction serves
The one great aim. Why, even death stands still,
And waits an hour sometimes for such a will.
Jesus said, the servant does not abide in the house forever, but the son does, and the point is that true freedom is a matter of relationship. If I am the son of a man who owns a store, I can walk in and go to the back room or the office; I can take an article off the shelf with a sense of freedom that a non-son cannot have. My relationship makes me free indeed. Freedom indeed is the freedom of relationship. The closer we are to God the greater is the freedom we possess. God has not decreed that you stay home and watch TV rather than go to a Bible study. That is not a matter of fate, it is a matter of choice. Every day the word comes to us, choose you this day whom you shall serve, and every day we choose either for Christ or for some lesser value. Our use or abuse of freedom is the key to Christian growth or stagnation. We are not victims of fate, but we are victims of our own poor use of the great gift of freedom.