In the movie The Matrix, the protagonist Neo goes to see the Oracle who can see into the future, in order to discover whether he is The One. As he enters the room, the Oracle says without turning round, “I’d ask you to sit down, but you’re not going to anyway. And don’t worry about the vase.”
“What vase?” Neo responds and, turning to look about, accidentally knocks over a vase of flowers.
“That vase,” the Oracle says.
“I said don’t worry about it.
“How did you know?”
“Oh, what’s really going to bake your noodle later on is: Would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?”
This exchange between Neo and the Oracle is an elegant exploration of free will and fate, two themes we also find in Scripture by their more theological terms, free will and predestination. The Oracle is right: Would her failure to say anything have prevented the thing from happening? And yet, she foresaw the thing happening just the same.
The exchange between the Oracle and Neo is an elegant exploration of free will and fate, two themes we also find in Scripture by their more theological terms: free will and predestination.
Twentieth century author W. Somerset Maugham tells a similar tale in The Appointment in Samarra in which we learn that Death, who allegedly confronts a man in a crowded marketplace and causes him to flee far away to another town to avoid his own death, was startled to see the man in the marketplace in the first place, knowing he had an appointment with him in a distant town that very day.
In each of these stories, we find the tension between the choices we make and what is preordained. What is interesting in each is that the reality of the one does not in any way limit the reality of the other: Both exist simultaneously in place and time. Neo and the Oracle at every moment retain the freedom to act, or to not act, just as they choose. And yet the broken vase was bound to happen. So, too, with the man who flees Death to escape his own fate, only to find it in the very place to which he fled.
All of this might be idle speculation were it not for the fact that we find this same tension in Scripture. In the book of Exodus, God declares to Pharaoh, the enemy of His own plans: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Like the Oracle, God knew how Pharaoh would respond.
The interesting thing about free will and predestination is that the reality of the one does not in any way limit the reality of the other: Both exist simultaneously in place and time.
But in this account, God takes the stakes and raises them even higher. Unlike the Oracle, God did not merely know: He preordained. God raised up Pharaoh to do and act just as he intended for His own glory. As the saying goes, what God’s enemy meant for evil, God intended for good.
It is perhaps most fitting at this point to mention that, as a general rule, we do not like tension. We do not like free will coexisting side-by-side with predetermined fate. It troubles us to think that human autonomy could, and does, occupy the same space as a fixed and immovable future, that though we are free like Neo and the Oracle to do exactly as we please, nonetheless all of the events of human history have and will transpire just as God has intended. We are quite intolerant of it, actually.
This is why we are inclined instead to choose between the two. In the secrecy of our hearts we decide free will wins. And so we go about the business of constructing a theology that says since we cannot possibly predict or control the outcome of future events given free will, then neither can God. We call the Oracle misguided, and God incapable, pulling Him like a collapsed hot air balloon into our sphere of understanding, making him less than all-knowing and even less than all-powerful.
But as a general rule, we do not like tension. We do not like free will and predetermined fate coexisting side-by-side.
Or we say that between the two, fate wins. That the only way for God to know, and preordain, the beginning from the end is to violate our free will. We conclude that God has not created free moral agents at all, but instead robots whom he has programmed to say and do exactly as He has intended.
Because of this, we are okay with the Oracle and also Death, for they are merely jumping ahead a few steps and anticipating the unavoidable consequence of a purely mechanistic physical and biological universe.
But then, we are no longer okay with Neo, nor the man in Maugham’s story. We say they are misguided, for free will is merely an illusion.
But if free will is an illusion, then most importantly we are not okay with God. For if God raised Pharaoh up for the very purpose that He stated, in the very way we think that He did — as no more than a robot preprogrammed to suffer God’s wrath — then we conclude that God must be unkind, and very unfair.
But if free will is an illusion, then most importantly we are not okay with God. For if God raised Pharaoh up as no more than a robot preprogrammed to suffer His Wrath, then we must conclude God is unkind.
How fair is it, after all, to create a being whose sole purpose is to suffer plagues and eventual drowning at the hands of his Creator? It would be like creating beings preprogrammed to reject the free gift of eternal salvation and spend eternity in hell.
Poor Pharaoh — and poor us! None of us really have a choice in the matter.
Or do we? In fact, we do. Pharaoh had every choice, and God even gave Pharaoh several chances, just as He does with each and every one of us. But Pharaoh would not repent.
This is where it becomes painfully obvious that our inclination to simplify things, in order to keep the vastness of the universe and God Himself within the tight space of our own understanding, does not serve us well.
The truth is, Pharaoh had every choice. And this is where it becomes painfully obvious that our inclination to simplify things, in order to keep the vastness of God within the tight space of our own understanding, does not server us well.
Before any of us go picking up stones to throw at God for his unfairness in making us all into robots, I would suggest that He hasn’t. We are not robots; God’s incomprehensible intimate relationship to His Creation in no way diminishes our unbridled free will.
Second of all, the material point as to whether God is unkind and unfair rests solely on whether each of us is given a right to choose, not whether from God’s vantage point — who sees the beginning from the end and even orchestrates it — our actions are preordained.
And lastly, I would like to suggest that when we mere mortals bump up against a God who is beyond our comprehension, it is not God who is under scrutiny, but us.