Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
About three hundred years after this letter was written, some people began to teach that God predestined, or picked in advance, that certain people go to heaven, while other people are destined for hell. Greek philosophical ideas had become a significant influence around this time. While we often define God as love, these philosophical ideas took precedence, and love became interpreted through those lenses. God’s expansive love was sealed up to a select few.
This kind of teaching, based on interpretations of passages like the one I just read, have influenced certain circles of Christian theology and thought for a long time. It’s not uncommon to hear this teaching in many places today, but I have strong reservations of it, and believe it fails to stand up to criticism for several reasons.
First, it infers a duplicity about God in regards to his love. Second, it negates the choices given to people, as inconsequential. Third, as I say a lot, the good news is for everyone, not a few someones. Lastly, while I can applaud the intellectual heritage of Greek philosophy, its heavy influence adds a layer that doesn’t gel with the context from which people like Paul wrote.
When Jews, like Paul, thought of predestination, they thought primarily of Israel. As a nation, Israel was chosen to be the people who would serve God and serve the world by telling the story of God’s love for all people. But this didn’t mean that every person born in Israel did this. This was their story, a chosen people still choosing to be chosen. Often, they chose not.
Notice that Paul says God chose us to be holy and blameless. That’s the emphasis. Holiness, or wholeness, is about being restored to what we are meant to do, to serve God as part of his family. Blameless was most often used in the context of sacrifice. Paul would later talk about giving our lives as a sacrifice. Throughout the story of scripture, God desired for His people who choose his way. Ultimately his way, the way, was made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul taught that God’s people were not only the Jewish people but because of Jesus, included all people. Paul is again leaning on this idea that all people have a role to play in the story God is telling. It’s a story written here and now. This is not about a select few being chosen, but all people being called to a life that follows God.
When we put a hyper-focus on the idea of eternal destiny or damnation, we lose focus on this reality, and on the important part of the Lord’s prayer where Jesus taught for us to pray for God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. As in, if it’s only about where we’re going after we die, we lose sight of what God wants to do in, and through, us, ALL OF US, today.
The argument for predestination fails on two important rules of interpretation. It fails to interpret the Greek of the original letter, and it fails to take into account the Jewish context from which the passage was written.
The writers were writing from a Jewish context in the Greek language of their culture. While utilizing Greek ideas, they adopted and adapted, but they didn’t always apply those ideas with their full force. Paul and others knew Greek philosophy, but they weren’t trying to fit God in the confines of the box of that system. The scriptures reveal a richer understanding of God that shows an interplay of choice, free will, God’s guiding hand, and humans ability for good and evil. Predestination adherents continue to try to push God into a box in which God doesn’t fit.
Making sense of issues like this is a difficult task. We have to work hard at peeling back the layers and understanding what’s going on in the context of scripture and the people who wrote it.
What’s really going on is a God who loves all of us, who has chosen all of us, and has given all of us an invitation to follow the way of Jesus. You have been chosen. We’ve all been chosen. The invitation is available to all people, not just a select few.