Has God predetermined everything in the universe? Evil too?

Suppose it was all God’s idea.

DETERMINISM /di'tər.mən.ɪz.əm/ n. Belief every event is fixed in place by external causes other than human will.
[Determinist /di'tər.mən.ɪst/ n., deterministic /di'tər.mən.ɪst.ɪk/ adj.]

I first bumped into the idea of determinism when I was a kid, ’cause my parents let me read Mark Twain. A lot of people assume, thanks to Tom Sawyer, that Twain was a children’s author. Not even close. And in his later years, after so many of his family members died and Twain became more and more cynical, some of the things he wrote were mighty disturbing. What are the chances I read that stuff? Yep, 100 percent.

In Twain’s novella The Mysterious Stranger, some 16th-century German boys encounter a young angel named Satan (named for his uncle—yeah, that uncle) who takes them on adventures. At one point, young Satan introduces the boys to the concept of determinism.

“Among you boys you have a game: you stand a row of bricks on end a few inches apart; you push a brick, it knocks its neighbor over, the neighbor knocks over the next brick—and so on till all the row is prostrate. That is human life. A child’s first act knocks over the initial brick, and the rest will follow inexorably. If you could see into the future, as I can, you would see everything that was going to happen to that creature; for nothing can change the order of its life after the first event has determined it. That is, nothing will change it, because each act unfailingly begets an act, that act begets another, and so on to the end, and the seer can look forward down the line and see just when each act is to have birth, from cradle to grave.”

“Does God order the career?”

“Foreordain it? No. The man’s circumstances and environment order it. His first act determines the second and all that follow after.”

The idea of being locked into a fixed future depresses the boys. But Satan cheers them up by pointing out how, as an angel, he can interfere with people’s chain of cause-and-effect, and change their futures for the better. To the boys’ dismay and horror, Satan’s idea of “better” usually consists of letting people die prematurely, or letting them go mad. In one case Satan even lets a person live a long, happy life… then die and go to hell.

Later in life I discovered Twain, or Sam Clemens as he was known in his private life, grew up Presbyterian. Must’ve been paying attention to all the Calvinism taught in those churches. Because Calvinism is pretty big on determinism.

Determinism, the belief we’re all victims of circumstance—and that even our free will is bound to do as circumstances have conditioned it to do—wasn’t invented by John Calvin and the Calvinists. Nor even St. Augustine of Hippo, whence Calvin first got the idea. It predates Christianity, predates the Hebrew religion, predates the written word. Humans have believed in it since they first saw one rock topple another, and thought, “What if all of life is like that?” Every religion has its determinists.

And Christian determinism doesn’t actually originate within Christianity.

The “first cause.”

Lots of Christians are big fans of the cosmological argument for God’s existence. Or as it tends to be called, the first cause, the unmoved mover, the reason the Big Bang went bang. Basically, everything exists for a reason, or has a cause behind it. And those causes and reasons, have causes and reasons behind them. And so on, all the way back to the first cause. Which’d be God, of course.

Christians didn’t invent this argument. Thomas Aquinas referred to it in his Summa Theologica, and Christian apologists have used it ever since. But Thomas got it from Aristotle of Athens, from his books Physics and Metaphysics. And Aristotle got it from his teacher, Plato of Athens… and I should point out in his own books, Aristotle actually argued against the idea of a first cause.

Y’see, Aristotle wasn’t a determinist. (Plato was. As were the neo-Platonists who followed Plato centuries later; among them Augustine of Hippo, who later became Christian and brought some deterministic ideas into Christianity with him.) Aristotle believed there were such things as chance and accidents—meaningless events which don’t have any reason behind them, which might even be entirely new “first causes” themselves.

See, that’s one of the many problems with the “unmoved mover” argument: Turns out there are lots of unmoved movers. We can imagine everything might be traced back to only one original cause, but we’ve no proof of only one. (Much less proof it’s an intelligent cause, which is why nontheists are fine with the idea of a Big Bang—and won’t posit a divine cause behind the Bang.) Life doesn’t entirely consist of one domino hitting another: There are gaps in the dominoes. And once in a while there are cats or little brothers who knock down the other dominoes too soon. Every single accident can become an unmoved mover.

But determinists love the idea, and take a lot of comfort in the idea, that everything follows a preset chain of events, deliberately put into motion by God. It gives them a sense of certainty. They hope for heaven; determinism makes them feel this outcome is fixed. Nothing can derail that future, for not only is God mighty enough to make sure it happens that way: He’s rigged the entire universe so that even if he steps away from the steering wheel (not that determinists believe he ever would), their future will still arrive at its destination. Their future is doubly predestined. (Wait… let’s not use that term.)

It’s an idea which comforts them, but it’s an idea which creates a number of serious problems. For if everything, everything, is the product of a long chain of cause and effect, who’s responsible for our sins? Us, for committing them? Or the things which caused us to become the people we cannot help but be? Is being a sinner my fault, or Adam and Eve’s fault? Or must we go back to the One who created Adam and Eve, the tree of knowledge, the serpent, and all the conditions of the fall of humanity—and rigged the universe so things were guaranteed to happen the way they have?

Y’see if everything in the universe is predetermined, so is sin. And if sin is predetermined, it’s God’s fault. Thus God is turned into a sinner, and the cause of every sin in the cosmos. Which, to be blunt, is blasphemy.

But y’know, some determinists are totally okay with this blasphemy. If God is sovereign to the level they insist he is, then yes, every sin in the cosmos is totally part of his plan—and in this plan they get to go to heaven, so they’re okay with it. Their God may be profoundly evil, but hey, they get theirs.

The rest of the determinists try their darnedest to argue this view of God doesn’t make him evil. Somehow there’s a barrier between God and all the evil he foreordained; one which somehow keeps his hands clean. Most of their “explanations” consist of no explanation at all: A barrier does exist, but they can’t tell us what it is, how it clears God of wrongdoing, and why we can’t use a similar mechanism to get ourselves out of similar legal troubles involving coercion and subornation. “It’s a mystery,” they insist. More accurately, it’s a cop-out.

If God is the first cause, the only first cause, then he is by definition the first cause of evil. But that’s not at all how the scriptures describe him. Like Aristotle said, there are multiple first causes. Jesus identified Satan as the father of lies, Jn 8.44 so if you’re looking for a first cause of that particular form of evil, there ya go. The author of Genesis identified fathers of nomadic herdsmen Ge 4.20 and musicians; Ge 4.21 Paul identified Abraham as the father, in a spiritual sense, of those who trust and follow God. Ro 4 Humans can originate stuff, which means humans can be first causes too.

Mighty enough to save without micromanagement.

The biggest problem with determinism is of course the blasphemy. The second-biggest is it posits a profoundly weak God.

I know; determinists think by describing a God who’s behind every single thing in the cosmos, who has his hands on every atom and photon, they’ve described an incredibly mighty, vast, detail-oriented God. It doesn’t occur to them that if God has to manage absolutely everything in the universe directly—that if he doesn’t, it all falls apart—he’s done a profoundly poor job of creation. If “creation” is even what we can call it.

See, if I built a robot, but instead of filling it with batteries, hydraulics, gears, and processors, I hollowed it out and climbed in, and claimed “the robot” is doing everything when it’s really me, I’m incompetent at best, fraudulent at worst. I’m not an engineer. I’m a puppeteer.

Same with God and his universe: If it doesn’t work unless he works it, it’s not a creation. It’s a simulation. He’s pretending. We’ve been manipulated to think he’s not… but we only think what he’s programmed us to think. We’re part of his pretense. Pawns.

To be fair, the universe is broken. (Sin broke it.) Stands to reason the creator might need to be heavily involved in it, much like a trauma surgeon working as fast as possible to stop the bleeding in a dying patient. It’s taking God a lot of effort to put it back to how he originally created it. Still, much of his creation should still work just fine. And this is what we actually see when we look at the universe: It runs on its own, and God only needs to intervene to fix and fine-tune things. The wind and waves function without Jesus to command them, but he can and will command them when he needs to, when he sees fit, when they’re not doing as he wants.

Even Christian apologists rave at the detail God put into his universe. Our DNA, placed in every cell of our bodies, unzips, makes proteins, zips back up; duplicates itself when necessary; and has done so for thousands of generations. The DNA of every plant, animal, and fungus does likewise. All independently, autonomously. What a remarkable creation! That is, unless you want to insist upon determinism, and insist they only work because God is going to all the trouble of making them appear to work. Because that’s what it means if God has to handle every act personally. They only appear to be remarkable creations, but there are no real creations in the universe. There are only simulations. Puppets.

And if we’re all puppets, it doesn’t mean God is mighty. It only means he’s busy. Keeping up the illusion takes a lot of time!

A truly mighty God—in other words, God as he truly is—needn’t resort to such silly behavior. He can create stars with a word, and they work for billions of years without his intervention because he made them so well. He can create humans, and though we don’t always do as he wants, he can determine our future no matter how many times we go off the rails. He’s sovereign, not because he pulls every little string, but because at the End every knee will bow to Jesus, Pp 2.10 whether they want to follow him into his kingdom or not. God is effortlessly almighty.

As for sin and God’s plan: Sin isn’t his plan. Never has been. God’s plan is to undo and destroy sin, not compensate for it, nor compromise his integrity so he can accommodate it. Determinists insist God is defined by his sovereignty (as they define sovereignty), but God defines himself by love, 1Jn 4.8 and his love for us. Ro 5.8 If the plan violates love, it’s certainly not God’s plan; more like the misbegotten idea of a determinist who’s not familiar enough with God’s character to accurately say what God does. Fruit is how we’re meant to identify good and bad prophets, y’know. Mt 7.20 If they make God himself out to be fruitless, stands to reason they’re not as familiar with God as they claim.