Are there no accidents in death because God appoints all deaths? And if so, then why should we bother wearing seatbelts?
At first glance, the answer to your question is obvious. Put on your seat belt! But a closer examination reveals a much larger issue: Free Will versus Determinism.
When I was about twenty-five I told our congregation that God has determined in advance the coming day of our demise. There is not one thing on earth, I preached, that can take us before our appointed time. If we are in prison for our faith, for example, no one can martyr us before God’s appointed time. If we have cancer, that dread disease will not be allowed to take our lives before God’s ultimate time table for us is played out.
I was wrong.
“Free Will” is a philosophical term that postulates the freedom of rational people to choose courses of action from among various alternatives.
Theological determinism is the idea that there is a god who determines all that humans will do, either by knowing their actions in advance, via some form of omniscience or by decreeing their actions in advance. From this perspective, actions cannot be free because God has determined them before hand and they cannot be changed.
It is possible to take the view that anything that happens on earth must be God’s will—otherwise, it could not have happened. This is determinism. On the other hand, it is possible to take the theological view that because the world is a broken and fallen world, God’s will can be thwarted by any number of things, including our own choices.
The idea that God is deterministic means that it doesn’t matter whether you wear a seatbelt or not, if today is our God-appointed day to die, we will die today. If not, even the most horrendous accident can’t claim our lives. The idea that we have free will means that anything can happen, nothing is already “written” or determined. Therefore, we ought to buckle up our seat belts.
There is a difference between God knowing in advance what will happen (omniscience) as opposed to making it happen (determinism) or just allowing it to happen.
From a theological viewpoint, very few things on earth are bound to happen because God determined them. For example, God never intended for Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. Adam made that choice on his own (with Eve’s help, of course).
God never intended for Genesis 6:5-6 to occur.
Genesis 6:5-6: The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.
Nothing was determined here. Mankind was free to make evil choices; and, what they chose broke God’s heart.
We cannot extend the days God has appointed for us (Psalm 139:16); but we certainly can shorten them—or, they can be shortened for us by others.
Psalm 139:16: “Your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”
While there is no doubt that God has a “Plan A” for each of us, there is no guarantee that “Plan A” will be fulfilled exactly as God imagines it.
Accidental deaths occur because we live in a fallen world. Many things happen that are not God’s will because of the free-will choices (are they really free?) that we make. Too many people, because of carelessness, theirs or others, enter into God’s presence before their appointed time.
Christians who choose to place themselves in the way of physical harm can’t claim that God has promised to protect them in order that “Plan A” will be fulfilled. I’ve met Christian missionaries who have claimed Acts 18:9-11 for their protection in dangerous situations:
Acts 18:9-11: One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”
God promised that protection to Paul; He did not promise it to us.
It is wrong for Christians to put themselves in risky situations and justify the risks by saying, “Nothing can take me before my time—or before the time God has planned for me either.” Another term for this is “tempting God”; another way to say this is “presuming on God’s will.”
Remember that Satan is now in this world of ours and he is here to “kill, steal and destroy” (John 10:10). The battle in the Heavenlies between God and Satan is often acted out in real earth time. Spiritual warfare praying is more than a suggestion, it is essential (Ephesians 6:10-18).
If pre-ordained death days are determined, then there is no need for Christians to wear seat belts. On the other hand, since we live in a fallen world where we have free will, we had best put them on and cinch them up tight!
The issue of free will and determinism has perplexed men and women for centuries. Writings from Greek, Roman and Jewish philosophers and both Buddhist and Hindu teachings confirm that free will versus determinism is a hot issue in most all cultures and societies. Philosophers have debated this question for over two millennia, and just about every major philosopher has had something to say about it.
While free will seems to me so obviously true, as to not be questioned, this is not the case. Let me just share a few of the subset of areas where philosophers struggle with the issue: biological determinism, genetic determinism, behavioral determinism, cultural determinism, social determinism and environmental determinism.
So, at the risk of oversimplification, let me simplify this in a Christian and Biblical context that might give us guidance for the things God does and the choices we make.
The reason that the free will—determinism debate matters is that it centers around the issue of moral responsibility. “Am I responsible for my actions or not?” If my actions are determined before hand by God, then I am not responsible for what I do and how I act. If, on the other hand, I have free will, then, of course I am responsible for what I do. I’d better buckle my belt. I am free to die today whether God planned it for today or not.
In my opinion there is little room for argument. We all make wrong choices at times. Honestly, we must all admit that none of us are living out “Plan A” exactly. In fact, most of us are somewhere on “Plan X Triple Prime!”
Have you ever stopped to consider that even God is free to change His Own mind?
1 Kings 21:17-19: Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’”
1 Kings 21:27-29: When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”
If God’s actions are not set in stone, then neither are ours. After all, we are made in His image.
For me the issue is forever settled by Jesus’ words in John 3:16:
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
We are not predetermined to go to Heaven or Hell; but, we have a choice to make. We might say it like this, “Whoever so chooses is free to believe in Jesus and those who do believe are determined to receive eternal life.
In conclusion, I think a proper understanding of the debate really includes both ends of the spectrum. Our freedom to choose is set in the context that some things are determined by God and will occur whether we choose them or not. Not even the gates of Hell can thwart them.
Romans 8:35-39 is theologically determined and we are the better for it:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Well, H, I hope my answer is helpful.
[Dear Reader, H and I exchanged several emails over the next several weeks regarding his question. In his last email he wrote, “I guess Ralph should have worn his seatbelt.” Yes, I suppose he should have.]
So, put on your seat belt and be careful.