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According to Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, one of the most important elements in your relationship with Them is the element of choice. Your Gods give you choices in life. They are always limited choices. You never get to choose between an infinite set of possibilities. Instead, you can only ever choose between a range of options that your Gods give you. Your life is a mix of elements that you have the option of changing and elements that you are stuck with. For example, you can change your hairdo, but you can’t change the fact that you need oxygen to live. You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your biological family members.
When it comes to your personal relationship with your Creators, this blend of choices and non-choices continues. You can choose to accept or reject the things that your Gods tell you, but you can’t make Them talk to you, nor can you control the order in which They will explain things to you. Always, your choices are limited to the options which They give you and meanwhile there many other factors which you have no say over which are greatly limiting you. For example, you will be judged by God at the end of your life for the way your soul responded to Him on earth. In other words, you’ll be judged by the choices you made.
Plenty of humans feel enormously threatened by the idea of being judged by their choices. When humans are threatened by something, they often respond by trying to deny that something’s existence. Atheists go so far as to pretend that God Himself does not exist, but many Christians settle for simply denying certain aspects about God. Take this business about choice, for example. When Christians look around, they see many people going through very difficult things. They then decide that these things are evidence that God is unfair or hard to please. Both of these ideas naturally make the concept of being judged by God fearful, and many Christians respond to this by trying to say our choices aren’t nearly as important as God says they are. This is where we get into theories like “objects of wrath” and Calvin’s version of predestination—theories which come down to saying we’ve all been pre-programmed by God to experience certain fates, thus nothing we do really matters.
Well, we can try to play God’s game by different rules, but in the end we’ll still be judged by our choices, and our Gods say that blowing off the things They tell us will be counted as willful rebellion. So if we’re going to succeed with our Gods, we need to stop trying to say that the things They say can’t be right, and instead take more time to listen to Them and realize that things are far more complicated than they appear to be at first glance.
Now this issue of choice is so vast and vexing to Christians that we can’t possibly cover it comprehensively in a single post. Reams of arguments and theories have been put forth by many different theologians over the years regarding how choice works, but most of those arguments are utterly foolish for they discount God’s sovereignty and complexity. You can’t understand choice while you’re trying to keep our Gods reduced to smiling Simpletons who only focus on one priority at a time. The Gods who created this vastly complex universe are vastly complex Beings, and if we’re going to understand Them better, we need to recognize that no topic is simple to Them.
In this post, we want to tackle a very specific question: Why do our Gods decide to eternally damn some humans when They know that those humans would submit to Them if they were just given more time and chances? In the Bible, we can point to three specific passages in which our Gods describe Themselves doing just this sort of thing. Here is a quick summary of those passages.
In Isaiah 6, we find Yahweh striking a large crowd of rebellious Israelites with spiritual blindness. He has already given these people many chances to repent out of their rebellion, but they have refused. Yahweh then announces to the prophet Isaiah that He will prevent this crop of rebels from being able to comprehend any of Yahweh’s convicting messages. By withholding conviction from these people, He is blocking them from having the option to repent and get back into a right place with Him.
“Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isa. 6:9-10)
How long will this spiritual barricade be kept in place? Until the land has been brutally ravaged by military invasions—invasions which will result in many Jews being killed. Once we’re dead, we end up in Heaven or Hell, so some of the members of this group of rebels Yahweh is talking about are permanently out of chances to come to Him. Perhaps some will live through the invasions and violence and be given chances to repent later on in life. But some are definitely goners. This is our first example of one of our Gods talking about intentionally taking the option of salvation off of the table so that it cannot be used by humans who might otherwise be interested. Fascinating.
Our second example comes in the Gospels when Jesus is speaking in parables which no one is understanding. Today many Christians find Jesus’ parables simplistic and obvious, however the people in His original audiences were often left feeling utterly confused about what He was driving at. Even Jesus’ disciples were often stumped by the stories Jesus would tell, so they would frequently try to ask Him what He meant after a preaching session was over. Why does Jesus insist on telling such confusing stories? In Mark 4, Jesus suddenly explains why He’s always talking in riddles, and His answer is a shocking quotation from our Isaiah 6 passage.
When He was alone, the Twelve and the others around Him asked Him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” (Mk. 4:10-12)
What Jesus is saying here is that He is intentionally preventing many souls from understanding what He’s talking about. Why? To block those souls from having the option of acquiring salvation through sincere repentance and submission. Fascinating.
Our third example is also from the Gospel books. An angry Jesus is rebuking the people in three cities which He has spent a lot of time in. Despite all of Jesus’ preaching and miracles, these people have refused to repent and submit to God. In the middle of His angry speech, Jesus makes these shocking statement:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes!” (Matt. 11:21)
And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to Heaven? No, you will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. (Matt. 11:23)
Tyre and Sidon were two cities which Yahweh prophesied the destruction of in the Old Testament. Sodom was dramatically destroyed by Yahweh in Genesis 19. Yahweh said that all three of these cities were destroyed because of their great rebellion against Him. Naturally these comments by Jesus beg the question, “If God knew that certain kinds of miracles would drive rebellious souls to repentance, why didn’t He give them those miracles?” We’ve just listed three examples of times when our Gods describe intentionally damning souls who would have repented if they’d been given more time and certain kinds of conviction. So what’s going on here? Don’t our Gods want us to be saved?
In the Bible, Yahweh and Jesus make it quite clear that our Gods want all humans to end up on the happy side of eternity. But They make it equally clear that the salvation of humans is not the only thing that They want, nor is it at the top of Their priority list. It is the existence of multiple priorities which results in our Gods damning souls who They know would come to Them if more time had been granted.
Now to say that our Gods have only a few priorities would be quite misleading, for our Gods have many priorities. They are extremely complex Beings who are always working on many different agendas at once. If we try to start listing out all of the specific agendas that our Gods have, we’re going to get very overwhelmed and confused. So instead of drowning in particulars, let’s focus on grasping key principles, for understanding principles is what will help us the most.
To understand how having multiple priorities can impact decisions, let’s talk about a fictitious fellow named Joe. Joe has three things that he wants. He wants to work out at the gym from 9-10 in the morning, he wants to catch up with his buddy Mike, and he wants to be back at his house to meet with his two brothers, Steve and Bill, by 10:30. The gym is 30 minutes from Joe’s house, so he’ll need to leave at exactly 10 to be at home to meet with his brothers.
Now in this very simplified and very human metaphor, Joe represents the Holy Spirit. It’s important to note that Joe is not being forced to do any of the things on his list. When he woke up in the morning, he thought about how he wanted to spend his day, and these are three goals that he has chosen for himself. Joe would be quite pleased to have all three of his goals accomplished, so he calls Mike up and invites him to meet Joe at the gym in the 9-10 window of time that Joe will be there. Once again, Joe is not being forced to choose this period of time, and notice that he’s not letting Mike choose when they will meet. Joe tells Mike when he will be available, and he then leaves it up to Mike to decide whether Mike wants to meet with Joe or not. Joe’s three goals are being dictated by Joe’s personal preferences.
Now when Joe calls Mike and extends an invitation to hang out, he doesn’t tell Mike everything that’s on his mind. Joe has already decided that if Mike meets with Joe at the gym, then Joe will invite Mike to come home with him and hang out with Joe’s brothers, Steve and Bill. Joe knows that Mike, Steve and Bill would really hit it off, but he doesn’t tell any of this to Mike. All Mike receives is an invitation to meet with Joe at the gym—he doesn’t know that his coming to the gym could result in the opportunity to make two new friends. Joe is intentionally not sharing his plans with Mike because he wants Mike to come to the gym solely for the purpose of hanging out with Joe. In this analogy, Mike represents a human who is not saved, and this invitation for Mike to come and meet with Joe at the gym is like the Holy Spirit calling a soul to come to Him. Just as Joe isn’t sharing how he plans to respond to Mike’s choices, our Gods do not tell us how They are planning to respond to the choices we make. But like Joe, our Gods have already decided how They will respond to our various choices before They put those choices before us. If we turn down Their invitation, They have already decided whether They will give us another one or not. If we respond well to Them, They have already decided what Their next invitation to us will be.
Now in our metaphor, Joe is not letting anyone else arrange his schedule for him. He gives Mike a very limited timeframe to work with, and that timeframe is based on Joe’s personal preferences. In the same way, the choices that our Gods give us are defined by Their personal preferences. Our Gods do not revolve around us, but They force us to revolve around Them. This is how it works when you’re dealing with Almighty Creators. They lead, They do not follow.
At precisely 9:00, Joe shows up at the gym and starts his workout. This is very pleasing to Joe, because he likes working out. Everything Joe is doing on this day is what Joe wants to do, because pleasing Joe is Joe’s top priority. Now Joe has invited Mike to meet with him, and he would like Mike to come, but Joe is only interested in Mike coming if Mike is genuinely interested in hanging out with Joe. Joe has no interest in hanging out with Mike if Mike is going to feel coerced. Joe has strong opinions about the kinds of peer friendships he’s interested in cultivating. Joe only wants friends who want to be friends with him. When someone loses interest in being friends with Joe, it pleases Joe to cut ties with that person and rid his life of their negative attitude.
Now in our metaphor, Joe represents the Holy Spirit, Mike represents a human being, but Joe’s brothers Steve and Bill represent Yahweh and Jesus. Joe does not view his friends the same way that he views his brothers. While Joe really cares about Mike and would thoroughly enjoy hanging out with Mike at the gym, Joe will not let anything interfere with his meeting his brothers at 10:30. This means that Joe will be leaving the gym precisely at 10:00 in order to accommodate the plans that he made ahead of time with his brothers. And just as Joe’s brothers are far more important to him than his peer friends, our Gods are far more important to Each Other than any of Their creations. So when our Gods say that They greatly love human beings, They’re telling us the truth, but it’s also true that our Gods love Each Other even more than They love us. This means that They will not exalt human beings above Each Other in importance. It also means that the private plans They make with Each Other have a major impact on the way They are willing to interact with us. For example, in our metaphor, if Joe wasn’t planning to meet with his brothers until 2:00 in the afternoon, he would be willing to spend more time hanging out with Mike. But Joe has chosen to meet with his brothers at 10:30—not because he has to, but because he wants to. And because Joe has chosen to make meeting with his brothers a higher priority than meeting with Mike, the importance of Mike’s decision is affected. Because you see, if Mike doesn’t show up right at 9:00 to take full advantage of Joe’s availability, then Mike will have much less time with Joe than he could have had.
Now let’s suppose that when Joe had first called Mike to invite him to hang out at the gym, Mike had told Joe that he would be glad to hang out if they could push the time back to 11:00. Ah, but Joe already has plans to be hanging out with his brothers at 11:00, so he tells Mike that that time won’t work. Joe says that 9-10 is the only time slot that he is available. Now Joe could be more accommodating, but Joe refuses to be because there are other things that Joe wants to do which are more important to him than meeting with Mike. Now we’re getting closer to understanding what Jesus was talking about when He said that people would have repented in Tyre and Sidon if they’d been given certain miracles. To understand this correctly, we have to be careful not to leap to wrong conclusions. Jesus didn’t say that people in those cities couldn’t have gotten saved without the miracles—He just says that He knows the miracles would have definitely won them over. Well, Joe knows that Mike would definitely meet with him if Joe was willing to meet at 11:00. But Joe isn’t willing to bump his other priorities to accommodate Mike’s personal preferences. Instead, Joe is requiring Mike to align with Joe’s preferences or the relationship simply isn’t going to happen. This is how it works with our Gods: we have to conform to Their preferences if we’re going to get anywhere with Them.
Yahweh undoubtedly gave the rebellious souls in Tyre and Sidon plenty of chances to turn to Him, but those souls refused to align with God’s preferences. Instead, they wanted Yahweh to align with their preferences, by communicating with them in a way that they would find particularly pleasing. Today, both the saved and the unsaved continue to take this attitude with God. Many unsaved souls say, “I won’t believe in God unless He ‘proves’ His existence to me in a way that I choose.” And at the same time, Christians say, “I will refuse to recognize that God is talking to me unless He speaks to me when and how I want Him to.” When God then refuses to accommodate our preferences, we accuse Him of being uninterested, mean, unloving, and ungracious. And yet God is none of these things, He’s simply refusing to let us control Him.
The fact that our Gods refuse to revolve around us does not at all mean that They don’t love us, want us, or treat us very graciously. It just means that we are not the only ones They care about. You see, it is by exaggerating our own importance and oversimplifying our Gods that we end up in a huge muddle about how choice works. Yet choice really isn’t so hard to understand. Our Gods put certain options before us, we choose from among those options, and then we experience the consequences of our choices, and those consequences are either positive or negative.
Our choices are extremely important, because our Gods choose to make our responses to Them a major factor in how They will treat us in the long term. In our metaphor, if Mike shows up at the gym with an enthusiastic attitude and shows genuine interest in Joe, then Joe will invite Mike to join him when he goes to hang out with his brothers Steve and Bill. By submitting to Joe’s preferences and aligning with Joe’s schedule, Mike could end up with two more friends who really care about him.
Our Gods insist on dominating and controlling our relationships with Them. We will revolve around Them, or we will suffer severe consequences. Our Gods take our submission to Them so seriously that They will chuck us into Hell if we refuse to submit to Them in this life. If we do submit to Them, then They reward us by taking us to Heaven. These seem like very extreme responses to us, but our Gods see things very differently than we do. Heaven and Hell serve many different purposes for Them. To us, these places are primarily about having a certain quality of existence. But to our Gods, things are far more complicated. Just as Mike doesn’t know about all of Joe’s plans for the day, we are totally oblivious to most of what our Gods are up to. They keep us in the dark on purpose, because They simply do not consider it necessary to fill us in on all the details of Their many affairs. But while They are withholding so much information from us, They do tell us certain things which They say are very important. They say that They love us dearly, and that They want us to experience Their best. They also say that They will be glad to help us make right choices if we fully submit ourselves to Them. It’s really very easy to succeed with our Gods: the key is to stop trying to control the relationship.
This is the big mistake that we see people making over and over again in the Bible: they try to control God by putting Him off until they decide it’s ultra-convenient for them to deal with Him. The folks in Tyre and Sidon, the folks in Sodom and Gomorrah, the stubborn Jews in Isaiah’s day, the rebels Jesus was preaching to: all of these souls were given chances to come to God, but they were not willing to submit to His preferences. Our Gods have always made it clear that They will not give us endless chances to come to Them. They will only give us as many chances as They want to give us, and the number of those chances will vary from human to human. Why the variation? Because our Gods have so many other things going on and so many other priorities that They are simultaneously satisfying. We are not at the top of Their list, and we really need to get this so that we will stop treating Their invitations like trivial things. If you blow off the Holy Spirit the first time He calls your name, He does not promise to call you again. Maybe He will, maybe He won’t. The point is that you don’t know what His plans are and He’s not going to tell you. He says that if you’re smart, you’ll hop to it when He calls, and not gamble with the fate of your soul.
Yes, our Gods want us all to be saved, but that does not mean They’ll give us all equal opportunities to acquire that salvation. Happily, They do tell us that no one will end up damned by Them for lack of understanding. They also say that it makes a difference how many opportunities we squander. One soul ends up in Hell after rejecting five invitations from God, but another rejected 5,000. Will their experience of Hell be the same? Jesus says the fellow who squandered more opportunities will suffer a worse fate.
Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to Heaven? No, you will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.” (Matt. 11:20-24)
Choice matters. Choice is critical. Pretending choice doesn’t matter doesn’t save us from the consequences of the choices we make, and merely by extending invitations to us, our Gods force us to respond to Them. It is impossible to take a neutral stand with the Holy Spirit: He knows how to get through to you, and once He knows you’ve heard Him, your attempt to ignore Him is taken as the willful defiance that it is. So there’s no way to escape choice—we are constantly being forced to choose between alignment and rebellion.
If God controls everything, how is it fair that He punishes us for making certain choices?
God’s Will vs. Human Choice Q&A
The Complexity of God’s Will
Understanding Divine Judgment: Illumination, Empowerment & A God Who Delights In Mercy
Understanding Divine Election: Jacob I Loved, Esau I Hated (Malachi 1 & Romans 9)
Behind the Scenes with God: Human Variation, Lifespans, and the Mechanics of Salvation