Zeno’s Paradoxes

       I foretold the former things long ago,
       my mouth announced them and I made them known;
       then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass. (Isaiah 48:3)

One of the questions that theologians like to wrestle with is the question of God’s sovereignty versus human free will. The thought is expressed thusly: if God has determined the future and knows everything that will happen, then what’s the point? How can people really be free? Are we not reduced to mere meat robots, forced to follow our programming, fated to whatever end our programmer has decided and destined to suffer for our decisions over which we had no choice? Why do we get blamed for what we do, then? God made me do it!

Consider that you decide to plan a surprise anniversary party. You make the determination that it’s going to happen. You make all the preparations. And you pull it off and the couple are genuinely surprised. The reason the surprise party happened is because you intervened in the affairs of the world: you got helpers and made preparations. You ordered the food, arranged the venue, invited people and got them to RSVP; they arranged their schedules and put it on their calendars so that they would make it to the party on the day and hour you’d set. You found a way to get the couple to come to the place of the party on the right day at the right time without them figuring out that they were coming to their own anniversary party. They were pleasantly surprised and overwhelmed. Then people ate, had fun, talked, and celebrated. Gifts were given and received. Afterwards, the place was cleaned up, trash tossed out, extra food distributed and everyone went back home and returned to their own lives.

Question: did your sovereignty over the party mean that all who were involved had lost their free will? Was it all absolutely and completely “determined?” Were your celebrants all reduced to meat robots?

If we look at the passage in Isaiah (as an example), it suggests, I think that God goes about getting his way in much the same way we plan future events. He predicts the future, because it’s the future he wants, and the future happens the way he wants because, to paraphrase the fictional Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek, he “makes it so.” But God “making it so” does not require turning people into zombie automatons, any more than you have to handcuff people to make them do what you’ve planned for an anniversary party. You can achieve your goals not because you are a dictator, but just because it’s a normal and ordinary part of everyday life to make plans and see them fulfilled, despite, as Ecclesiastes says, “time and chance happen to all.”

God’s “sovereignty” and his success in getting things done, does not require determinism. There’s a reason that the biblical authors and participants never seemed to feel the tension felt by modern theologians over the question of God’s sovereignty and human free will. Reality is different from theory and theory needs to adjust to it. The paradox theologians see between a powerful God and human free will remind me of Zeno’s paradoxes of motion: they seem reasonable and serious until you actually watch a race or see an arrow fly.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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