Category Archives: predestination
Three puzzles in life
As a youth being brought up in an age, and an area, where the church played a greater role in everyday life I thought of ideas such as divine punishment, predestination, and free will as being presented by interpretation of sacred scripts. Today I would argue that there is greater freedom for such ideas to be discussed as human constructs. There will always be a reaction from those who accept sacred scripts as historically correct, or literally true, but for me sacred script was written for a purpose and I do not question that. My questioning is of the interpretation and meaning we are often trying to give to those scripts.
The idea of divine punishment or divine retribution appears frequently in sacred scripts, not merely the Hebrew and Christian bibles. Floods and other natural disasters are seen as punishment of whole populations for failures, illness can be seen as a punishment of an individual. The way in which this idea is still embedded in thinking surfaces every time you hear of someone who has suffered an illness, or maybe just a material loss, declare they know not what they have done to ‘deserve what has happened’. Divine punishment is administered by some god, goddess, or both, who are displeased with a behaviour. In particular, the Judahites, Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans and Greeks could all attribute defeat in battle to being a punishment of a people by a deity or deities. The Pharisees were convinced illness was a punishment by God. To suggest that misfortune can be attributed to some supernatural force opens up a number of questions.
There were no logical explanations for much illness in past times, but the Greeks had begun to doubt the idea of divine punishment as they developed medicine and found cures for some diseases. Even though we continue to find not just cures, but very often also causes, of illness and disease, the idea of divine punishment still lingers on. Why should that be so?
We are aware of many horrific actions being carried out that cause misery, suffering and often death, and many of these actions are a result of human activity including the bombing, torture, starvation, and even deliberate spreading of illness among people who have seemingly done nothing to deserve what is happening to them. An early explanation of such events would have suggested that they were suffering because of the actions of previous generations, but there are even bizarre ideas of the suffering being for future generations.
Putting aside some ‘natural disasters’ such as earthquakes and volcanoes, we see human activity as being the cause of much of the suffering in the world today. We see many of those who are responsible for atrocities carrying on a normal life or even benefiting from the suffering of others. The divine, in administering punishment, would seem to be a little confused? To explain this apparent ‘abnormality’ the thinking turned to the idea of a ‘Judgement Day’, still under the control of a supernatural power.
A Judgement day introduces a whole range of new ideas, but still depends upon the idea of divine judgement or retribution. If you cannot explain how the ‘divine’ fails to act in your lifetime then you simply delay the judgement until after death. The idea of the ‘good’ folks being whisked off to a ‘heaven’ whilst the ‘baddies’ are sent to ‘hell’ seemed to get around this, except that there was a need to present the reward and punishment idea with an incentive, so some groups devised the idea of ‘everlasting life’. I guess this was a sort of ‘Divine Reward’ to balance the scales. Of course, the clever part of this idea is that there can be no clear challenge or proof since you only know your ‘fate’ when death occurs and you cannot come back and tell the rest of the world whether the idea is valid or not!
Divine punishment needed divine judgment, but how was the judgement to be made? Today we have courts with judges and juries to determine whether laws have been upheld. In the church the judge is still divine and the laws are those to determine if a person has sinned. This raises the question of how laws are made what is a sin, but that is not a question being addressed here.
The question that I raise is that, if divine punishment does exist, then why does so much suffering occur at the hands of fellow human beings? To have people wounding, murdering, torturing, imprisoning, and fostering all manner of foul deeds against fellow human beings and to suggest the victim is being punished makes no sense whatsoever. However, the idea that perpetrators may only be punished after death seems just as unsound.
Predestination remains a puzzle for me because the belief is so widespread even today. We see the idea expressed when we hear people talk claiming that ‘if a bullet has your name on it’ then your life was meant to end, or more vaguely that ‘written in the book is your name and that has decided when your time will come’. You will also hear a similar idea which is kind of the reverse, the soldier who was shot and the bullet lodges in a book (usually a bible) in his breast pocket, and others proclaim that ‘his time had not yet come’. You can hear folks who have won money from a lottery declaring that the win was meant to be. These last two still reflect the idea of predestination.
The whole idea of predestination created a new line of employment, for if all was predestined then there may be a way of determining what would happen in the future. So ‘signs from the heavens’, looking into the crystal ball and reading the tea leaves are but a very small selection of the ways in which ‘the future can be foretold’. Almost every daily paper in the United Kingdom still publishers the astrology ‘reading’ for the day and such words are followed by large numbers of people. We might consider some of the larger influences of predestination, including the idea that certain races or peoples are ‘the chosen ones’, or the idea in Calvinism that there are a special few who have been chosen by God and they will receive salvation. Foretelling the future provided a life for prophets, and in some belief systems a livelihood for priests as well.
Believing in predestination seems to me to be fairly harmless, and like ‘life after death’ can never really be proved or disproved because the idea is still rooted in the supernatural. However, the idea can produce harm if ‘telling the future’ gains a hold and provides control over an individual, a group, or even a whole population. The ‘chosen people’ or ‘special people’ has been reinvented in the 21st century in the USA and United Kingdoms to discriminate against immigrants.
These days I live my life with a blood cancer. Was that predestination and will my death also be predestined? I do not accept either premise. I prefer the view that an environmental cause and translocation of chromosome parts have an element of chance, but how the treatment is given and how I live the remainder of my life are things that I have a good element of control over.
The third idea, that of ‘free will’ had greater attraction to me. Free will implied choice, that I could choose a particular course of action and refuse another course of action. Free will also seemed to provide an answer to predestination, that we are not all born with ‘sin’ and had to seek salvation. Free will suggested that we were choosing to follow actions that could cause good or harm to others. Most importantly for me was the idea that free will put an emphasis on how society was affected by our actions towards each other.
There are two problems with the idea of free will. The first is that we all have different ‘freedoms’ and so our choices are not entirely ‘free’. We do not choose to step on a hidden mine, we do not choose to be born into a country that is in conflict, or be born into a country ravaged by drought or disease causing poverty and epidemics. We do not choose to be on an island when a volcano erupts or an earthquake hits. The second is that to me some have greater choice (greater free will) than others. The child born to a family where one or both parents are alcoholics and abuse them, the refugee fleeing from a conflict they did not initiate, how much choice is there in these situations?
The reality is that free will can cause harm, politicians sending young men and women to war, fortunes to be made from selling cigarettes, chemicals, and drugs that cause cancer and other illnesses, living for the ‘pleasures’ of today and ignoring climate change that will cause harm to future generations.
If life is about free will and not divine judgement or predestination then we have a lot of thinking to do about how, and indeed if, we can create a society compatible with the idea of free will and not harmful to others.