Determinism vs. Fatalism

Determinism vs. Fatalism

Question

What’s the difference between determinism and fatalism?

Answer

It’s very important to distinguish between determinism and fatalism.

Determinism

In biblical determinism we observe that God determined every single event in eternity past. At each moment there is only one possible future—the one that God has predetermined.

One of my favorite Bible examples of determinism is found in 2 Kings 20. King Hezekiah became sick to the point of death, but he repented and God granted him fifteen more years to live. After Hezekiah died, Manasseh took over (2 Kings 20:21) at the age of twelve (2 Kings 21:1). This means that Manasseh was born within the fifteen extra years that Hezekiah had been granted to live.

“So what?" we may ask, but the Bible makes these points for a purpose. In Matthew 1:9-10 we read of part of Jesus’ lineage:

…and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah, the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh, the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah…

Do you see the beautiful chain of secondary causes? If Hezekiah had not prayed and repented, he would not have lived another 15 years and Manasseh would never have been born. This means Jesus could not and would not have been born. But Jesus had to be born because he was predestined to die for his people (Acts 2:23; cf. Acts 3:18; 4:28). God used secondary causes to bring about his primary cause: he worked in Hezekiah’s life so that he would repent. Repentance is, after all, a gift of God (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25). And although ordained by God, Hezekiah’s decisions really mattered!

Fatalism

Determinism shouldn’t be confused with fatalism. Fatalism is the false philosophical view that one’s choices don’t affect the future. We can see this isn’t biblical just based on our example above; Hezekiah’s prayer and repentance most certainly affected the future. Because of Hezekiah’s repentance and place in the lineage of Jesus, our Savior was born, died and rose again!

Fatalism maintains that God fixes some but not all future events. In other words, there are things God doesn’t know that are left to chance. R. C. Sproul said this about chance:

The mere existence of chance is enough to rip God from his cosmic throne. Chance does not need to rule; it does not need to be sovereign. If it exists as a mere, impotent humble servant, it leaves God not only out of date but out of a job. If chance exists in its frailest possible form, God is finished. — “Not a Chance: The Myth of Chance in Modern Science and Cosmology” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994).

The Bible teaches us that God not only plans our destination but our journey as well. Each and every step of man is ordered by the Lord (Psa. 37:23; Prov. 16:9). Isaiah wrote of God “declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isa 46:10; cf. Psa. 33:11; 14:24; Isa. 25:1; 40:8; 48:3; 55:11).

From Genesis 3:15 forward, we observe God determined the events of his Son’s birth (Gal. 4:4-5). As Matthew 1:22 states, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.” For instance, Matthew references a 700-year-old prophecy (Isa. 7:14) when he wrote, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1:23). And just as foretold, the virgin [Mary] conceived a Son who was called Immanuel (Matt. 1:21). When the Magi were questioned by Herod (Matt. 2:1-4), they responded using an ancient Old Testament prophecy saying Jesus would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2; cf. Matt. 2:5-6). Herod later responds by massacring a number of young boys of Bethlehem (Jer. 31:15; cf. Matt. 2:18). Then Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt (Hos. 11:1; cf. Matt. 2:15). Everything was prophesied and happened; absolutely nothing was left to mere chance. [1]

Jesus’ ministry was ordained as well. A messenger would prepare his way (Isa 40:3-5; cf. Luke 3:3-6), but God’s own Son would be rejected by his own people (Psa. 69:8; Isa. 53:3; cf. John 1:11; 7:5). He would be preceded by Elijah (Mal. 4:5-6; cf. Matt. 11:13-14), be a prophet (Deut. 18:5; cf. Acts 3:20-22), and be declared to be the Son of God (Psa. 2:7; cf. Matt. 3:16-17). He would be called a Nazarene (Isa. 11:1; cf. Matt. 2:23), bring light to Galilee (Isa. 9:1-2; cf. Matt. 4:13-16), and speak in parables (Psa. 78:2-4; Isa. 6:9-10; cf. Matt. 13:10-15, 34-35). He would come to heal the broken hearted (Isa. 61:1-2; cf. Luke 4:18-19) and be praised by little children (Psa. 8:2; cf. Matt. 21:16). Messiah would be a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Psa. 110:4; Heb. 5:5-6) and be called a king (Psa. 2:6; Zech. 9:9; cf. Matt. 27:37; Mark 11:7-11).

Jesus would be betrayed (Psa. 41:9; Zech. 11:12-13; cf. Matt. 26:14-16; Luke 22:47-48) and the Messiah's price would be used to purchase a potter's field (Zech. 11:12-13; cf. Matt. 27:9-10). He would be falsely accused (Psa. 35:11; cf. Mark 14:57-58) and yet remain silent before his accusers (Isa. 53:7; cf. Mark 15:4-5). Jesus would be spat upon and struck (Isa. 50:6; cf. Matt. 26:67), be hated without a cause (Psa. 35:19; 69:4; cf. John 15:24-25), and crucified with criminals (Isa. 53:12; cf. Matt. 27:38; Mark 15:27-28). He would be given vinegar to drink (Psa. 69:21; cf. Matt. 27:34; John 19:28-30), his hands and feet would be pierced (Psa. 22:16; Zech. 12:10; cf. John 20:25-27), and he would be mocked and ridiculed (Psa. 22:7-8; cf. Luke 23:35). Soldiers would gamble for his garments (Psa. 22:18; cf. Luke 23:34; Matt. 37:35-36), but his bones would not be broken (Exod. 12:46; Psa. 34:20; cf. John 19:36). He would be forsaken by God (Psa. 22:1; cf. Matt. 27:46) and yet pray for his enemies (Psa. 109:4; cf. Luke 23:34). Soldiers would pierce the Messiah's side (Zech. 12:10; cf. John 19:34), but he would be buried with the rich (Isa. 53:9; cf. Matt. 27:57-60).

Jesus would be resurrected from the dead (Psa. 16:10; 49:15; cf. Matt. 28:5-7; Acts 2:22-32), would ascend to heaven (Psa. 24:7-10; cf. Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51), and be seated at the right hand of God (Psa. 110:1; cf. Matt. 22:44; Mark 16:19). And Jesus would be the sacrifice for the sins of his people (Isa. 53:5-12; cf. Rom. 5:6-8).

Do you see this wonderful chain of God’s providence? Do you see his determinism coming to fruition in his time? There is one Creator and one plan at work in “his” world. Since there is only one God, one sovereign and one plan, absolutely everything is interconnected within it. Every event is connected to every other event. If God governed the largest event in history – the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:22-24) – then he must have governed each and every small event leading up to and after it as well. Think of the 100 quadrillion things that had to happen before Jesus could live and die just as God had ordained. [2] Every decision of every person had to perfectly timed and aligned. Everything had to happen in the fulness of God’s timing (cf. Gal. 4:4). Therefore, no matter how small, every decision matters. Thus, Fatalism is false.

Footnotes

[1] Chance doesn’t exist; it’s a myth. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov. 16:33). Even randomness is ordained by God. In Genesis 30:37-31:16, we observe that at first Laban thought he made a pretty good deal. More than likely the majority of Laban’s flocks were pure white sheep and pure white or black goats. He had very few streaked, spotted, and speckled animals and once removed from his solid colored animals he probably figured that his flocks would continue to breed true to their solid color coats. But Jacob had the advantage. While he wasn’t a geneticist, he did hear from God who controls randomness; the streaked, spotted, and speckled flocks (Gen. 31:10-12). God controls randomness! God, through Christ, preserves all things (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). J.C. Ryle once wrote:

Just as the telescope and microscope show us that there is order and design in all the works of God’s hand, from the greatest planet down to the least insect, so does the Bible teach us that there is wisdom, order and design in all the events of our daily life. There is no such thing as “chance”, “luck”, or “accident” in the Christian journey through this world. All is arranged and appointed by God: and all things are ‘working together’ for the believer’s good (Rom. 8:28). “Compassion”, (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2004).

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 5.2-3, Of Providence, sums it up nicely, “Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. God, in His ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure."

[2] The possibility of one man fulfilling only 8 OT prophecies is one in 10^17. That is a 10 with 17 zeroes after it! Imagine the state of Texas covered entirely with silver dollars, two feet thick. But only one of the coins is marked and then hidden somewhere among the other coins. Now imagine sending a blindfolded man to search throughout the coins until he thinks he's found the coin that is marked. What are the odds that he will find the correct one? His chances are 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000 = 10^17. Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, (Thomas Nelson, 1992).

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).