“The notion that in rejecting Jesus, Israel was simply following the predetermined plan of God revealed centuries before in his Scriptures might seem to remove from Israel all responsibility for rejecting its deliverer. The problem appears with greatest clarity in John’s gospel. In summarizing the Jews’ rejection of Jesus’ words and deeds; John says that this rejection happened ‘to fulfill’ the prophecy of Isaiah 53:1 that God’s people would neither believe his ‘message’ nor acknowledge the revelation of his mighty ‘arm’ (John 12:38). Then, as if to drive the point home, John says, ‘For this reason they could not believe’ (12:39a). The reader may be tempted to respond with Paul’s imagery Jewish debating partner in Romans 9:19, ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’ THE GOSPEL AUTHORS DO NOT FORMULATE A PHILOSOPHICAL ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION, anymore than does Paul. They simply affirm, alongside their conviction that those who rejected Jesus ‘could not believe,’ that they were nevertheless culpable for their own disbelief” (Frank Thielman, “Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach.” Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005, page 190).
The issue of the divine predetermination of Israel’s actions and Israel’s responsibility for its actions is something that has plagued theologians and believers alike since the days of the early church. As Thielman tells us above, despite our struggle with “how” the same acts for which humans are held responsible were divinely predetermined, the Gospel writers themselves did not provide such answers. The writers gave no philosophical answer to this puzzling issue.
I looked up the word “predetermine” in The Oxford American Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus, and I found the following definitions:
“1. determine or decree beforehand. 2. Predestine. Fix, prearrange, preestablish, preplan, preset, set up; fate, doom, destine, predestinate, predoom, ordain, foreordain.”
I looked up the word “predestine” and found this:
“1. Determine beforehand. 2. Ordain in advance by divine will or as if by fate.”
On the surface, the word “predetermine” looks as if the person decides the events that will happen and the role that everyone will play in life’s events; and then, the events happen at a set time because they were planned before the event itself.
Let’s take Jesus’ Crucifixion. When we think of the word “predetermine,” we think of God deciding before time began every little thing that would happen, and then bringing Christ to earth to bring about God’s plan. And our first notion of “predetermine” even seems to conflict with the idea that others are responsible for their actions. If a playwright, for example, determines what the actors and actresses will do (in other words, writes out every little detail of the script), then how do the actors in the play have responsibility? In the Shakespeare work titled “King Lear,” who determines every event that happens? Shakespeare. And if something goes wrong, who is responsible? Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the one who controls what happens in the play. If things fall apart, then Shakespeare is responsible, not the actors themselves. And that’s how it seems it should be with the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. If God decided that He would have Pilate play the role he did, and Jesus play the role He did, and Judas play the role he did, etc., then God is responsible, right? But how can these people be responsible if they did what God predetermined they would do? How do the concepts of divine predetermination and human responsibility work together?
John 12:37-39 reveals that despite Jesus’ teachings and miracles, the Jews did not believe; their disbelief confirms what the Scriptures foretold about them. The question becomes, “Despite the Bible’s prediction that the Jews would not believe, did Israel have a genuine opportunity to accept or reject the Gospel”? And this leads to other questions such as, “Did Jesus give a genuine presentation of the good news of salvation while on earth? When He told the Jews that they could be saved, was He serious? Did He genuinely plead with them to turn from their sins, repent, and believe the Gospel?”
The solution I propose is that we must decide what the nature of predetermination is: is the predetermination “unconditional” or “conditional”? In other words, does God predetermine something “unconditionally” in that He simply decides to cause the Jews to deny Him? Or, does He predetermine “conditionally,” meaning that He determines the Jews would disbelieve ON THE CONDITION that the He knew the Jews would reject Him?
Now, before you answer this question, let me just say that how we answer this question determines how we view Scripture. If we say that God determined that the Jews would reject Him “unconditionally,” meaning, without consideration of whether the Jews would choose to believe or not, then we have made God out to be “the author of sin and evil,” since He would have predetermined in this thought that the Jews would die in their sins, before the foundations of the world. John, however, tells us that “He came to His own and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11, NKJV). Since John places the blame on the Jews, this means that they had the genuine chance to believe. The same thing can be said for the Pharisees: while Jesus certainly knew they would not believe, He could still genuinely say, “I say these things that you may be saved” (John 5:34b) and “you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:40).
The idea of predestination and free will is one settled by a simple question: do things happen because God foreknows them, or does God foreknow them because they happen? The church father Justin Martyr wrote,
“Lest some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever occurs happens by a fatal necessity, because it is foretold as known beforehand, this too we explain. We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Now, if this is not so, but all things happen by fate, then neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it is predetermined that this man will be good, and this other man will be evil, neither is the first one meritorious nor the latter man to be blamed. And again, unless the human race has the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions” (quoted by David W. Bercot, editor, “A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers.” Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998, page 285).
Justin Martyr fights against predetermination because, on the surface, predetermination seems to be “unconditional.” If predetermination is unconditional, then God decides, for example, that Joe will be an unbeliever...and then eternally punishes Joe despite the fact that God decided Joe would be an unbeliever. If, however, predetermination is “conditional,” based upon what God foreknows creatures such as Joe will do, then God can justly punish Joe because, in His foreknowledge, God knew that Joe would never come to faith. How we qualify and specify the nature of “predetermination” will not only maintain God’s character, but also man’s God-given libertarian freedom.