We have almost reached the end of this current Sabbath School quarterly (Q4 2017): we have three more lessons before the end of the quarter. Because, in this commentary series, I have attempted to tie in various issues affecting Adventist theology to each lesson, I am going to use the remaining lessons to address some of the loose ends, in addition to the chapter commentary itself.
Last week, we spent some time exploring the underlying reasons why Protestantism took a turn towards predestination. We explained that there was much more involved in the debate than the handful of Bible texts that Calvinists usually bring up in defense of their position. I want now to briefly discuss the underlying logic of the alternative position: free will. One of the simplest ways to understand this perspective is by beginning with the Epicurean Trilemma:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
This is essentially a clever way to bring up the old question, “Why would a just god allow sin, suffering, and evil?” There are a few ways to respond. Firstly, there is the response from ignorance: “God’s ways are not our ways,” or, “Who can know the mind of God?” etc. Needless to say, this is not a very satisfying argument.
Secondly, within the classical theism paradigm, the argument is made that God is the ultimate being, or the greatest possible being. Because there is nothing greater than God, there cannot be any higher standard of right and wrong by which to judge His actions. Thus, everything God does is just, because He is the definition of what justice is.
Thus, given that reality is understood to be timeless (under this paradigm) and therefore, predestination is unavoidable, the apparently unjust situation that results (predestination) must be just nonetheless, because God’s actions cannot be anything but just. This argument might be hard to contest philosophically, but it is not much more satisfying than the previous one.
If, however, we reject the assumption that God is timeless, free will becomes possible—thus introducing an entirely different theodicy.
The first question we must ask ourselves is: “Given the current argument, what are we responsible for proving?” The sequence of the argument is as follows:
- Initial Claim: God is all powerful and all loving.
- Counter claim: Then evil would not exist.
Given this argument, our only responsibility is to show that there is at least one conceivable scenario in which an all-powerful, all-loving God could allow evil to exist. If we can demonstrate this, the counter-claim fails. And there is one scenario that works: An all-powerful, all-loving God who respects free will can allow evil to exist.
However, this response only partially explains the particular situation humanity is currently in. It cannot explain why the innocent suffer. A suffering baby, for example, did not choose evil. To explain this, we must adopt a modified form of the free-will argument: An all-powerful, all-loving God can allow evil to exist, temporarily, if its presence ensures that non-omniscient, free-willed beings will thereby be convinced to never choose evil again for the rest of eternity.
To restate what we’ve learned thus far, the assumptions we hold regarding God and reality predispose us towards either predestination or free will, and each of these options come with their own logic. Within a free-will paradigm, the sin experiment is a temporary state which must be allowed to exist only long enough to gather sufficient data on the nature of sin so as to function as an effective deterrent to humanity for the rest of eternity.
No matter how long time on Earth lasts, there remains an inherent expectation that God will bring this state of things to an end as soon as it is safe to do so. All of this lines up very well with the logic of Scripture. In other words, if we worked out the logical implications of each paradigm, and then used them to make predictions as to what we should expect to find in Scripture, the free-will paradigm is definitely a better fit.
As was mentioned in a previous lesson, when we take Scripture as a whole, the entire story is framed in a context of free will. In addition, the nature of the story fits exactly with what we would expect to see in a free-will context. It is with this understanding in mind that we must approach sections such as Romans 9-11, for example. Major foundational issues, including the nature of God, man, reality, and whether or not free will exists should be established based on the testimony of Scripture as a whole, before we come to any particular passage.
How then should we understand passages like the following?
What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded. (According as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear;) unto this day. And David saith, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumblingblock, and a recompence unto them: Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow down their back alway. (Romans 11:7-10)
Is the Bible telling us here that Israel rejected Christ because God blinded them?
The reality that Paul is describing in these chapters is actually something I can personally relate to. Nearly 20 years ago, I recall discussing with a friend about what appeared to be a general state of disinterest and lethargy among the Adventist membership. Throughout the course of the conversation, my friend began to tell me about a Bible school that took young people, trained them for three months, and then sent them out to do evangelism and missionary work in small groups.
One of these groups had partnered with a local conference to conduct an evangelistic series. The conference did not expect to see any results, but didn’t want to deny the young people a chance to get involved. As a result, they held an evangelistic crusade which resulted in over 100 baptisms—more than from any of the professional evangelists working for the conference.
I was so intrigued by the story that I decided to attend this Bible school myself. I soon found out that the evangelistic team in question, which I had the opportunity to work with a few months later, was run by David Asscherick. David Asscherick had been an atheist until a short while before that time. Nonetheless, within a short time after his conversion, he had managed to gain a more thorough understanding of Adventist theology than most members—enough to hold the attention of large audiences.
That series turned out to be very successful as well. However, almost half the baptisms were, in fact, rebaptisms of existing Adventist members who had been inspired to a more dedicated Christian life. David’s meetings were not only bringing in unbelievers, but were also causing a revival among the Adventists.
I remember sitting through those lectures and wondering to myself how someone who had been an unchurched atheist just months ago could gain such deep insight into Scripture and Adventist theology in such a short time. How is it that the rest of us have been in the church for decades, and yet we needed a brand-new Christian to teach us our own beliefs? I watched many other Adventists attending those meetings become inspired by David, and begin to take their religion much more seriously.
I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. (Romans 11:11)
In short, most Adventists are born into the church, and have been exposed to Adventist beliefs for their entire lives. As children, they sit and listen to long, boring sermons they cannot understand. When they finally become old enough to potentially understand the messages, they perceive them as ideas they have already heard a thousand times, and thus make no effort to analyze them in depth.
Because they live generally sheltered lives (a benefit of being part of the family of God), they don’t posess that deep sense of need that people in “the world” experience. As a result, when they have children of their own, this half-hearted interest in spiritual things is passed down to their children, and increases with each generation.
This is the “spirit of slumber” that the Bible says God has given, but which, in reality, we all have done to ourselves. As a result, when an individual from the outside (David Asscherick, to use my example) comes in and “does Adventism” better than the existing Adventists, it becomes a provocation that wakes some of us up, and motivates us to take our beliefs seriously.