That's a Good Question: Are We All Predestined to Either Heaven or Hell?

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The reason the mind is endlessly troubled about God predestining everything is the vague generalization. Generalizations are cold as ice, without the warm Christ.

Long ago and far away, when we still wrote on paper, I would send letters recommending students to college positions that began, “To Whom It May Concern…” I didn’t know whom I was writing to. I knew the letter, in general, was going to be read by egghead philosophers who engage in musings about inane topics that Paul Tillich called “ultimate concerns.” For that reason, a great deal of generality and speculation went into such a letter. I had to guess (educatively) what some unknown committee wanted in a teacher and how to assure them that my student would win them over.

This question of predestination is like that. To whom it may concern! We don’t really know who is asking the questions and what answers they need. Somewhere in the blogosphere I have a group that wonders about such ultimate concerns as “are we all predestined?” As a teacher of the whole church I should be able to help them, but how? Can’t I refer you to a category, doctrine, or at least an article that answers this apparent conundrum? Indeed, there is a whole article in the Formula of Concord (XI) dedicated to God’s foreknowledge (preascentia) and election (preadestinatio). I recommend it to your reading.

Still, the question doesn’t die. It tries to answer a deeply individual question abstractly. The “we” in the question means someone out there is not kidding when he asks. Whoever you are, you mean it as a matter of life and death, and so far, the answer to this question only causes more trouble in your mind. If we all think it out (generally) for just a minute—sans preacher— what do we say about “all predestined”? What are the possible endings or destinations in life? One possible destination is heaven—which is eternal life in the favor of God. That would be good. However, there is another possible ending—and this one we unfortunately already feel. That end would be God’s wrath extended eternally. That is hell, and, as Luther says, you don’t have to wonder if there is a hell, you are already in it. All that we know about our final state—without a preacher—is by means of the divine law, and what do we conclude by projecting the law backward into the “pre” of God’s ultimate destination? What do we figure God must have been doing before all time, before Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”? Of all possible ends, what is most likely to be mine?

The man who thought this through most rigorously, impersonally, icely, was not Thomas Aquinas or even Augustine, but Augustine’s corrector in this matter: John Calvin. John Calvin recognized that no man could not be left in limbo about the question of eternity. Not knowing that end result is worse than knowing my future is hell. What would you say if the doctor asked, “Do you want to know if you have cancer, or not?” So, Calvin figured that Paul in Romans 8 must mean that predestination is like a military muster: God lines up all souls and commands certain yet-to-be-born souls to step forward and some to step backward. Why else would there be a law? Eventually we learned to call these folks “brass bowelled Presbyterians,” who, God love them, refuse to blink before the only reasonable conclusion of theology. Assuming God is almighty, and, of course, knows all things, then all of us are predestined to heaven or hell. Thus, we have the dreaded “double predestination” (rather then the idiotic, though heartfelt, teaching of universal salvation). Whatever lies you tell yourself have to end. We have to thank our Calvinist friends for that much. At least tell the truth! There is your “to whom it may concern,” abstract, general answer (purely intellectual) that is argued on the basis of universal, eternal law: “all of us are predestined either for heaven or hell.” There now, you have your answer, and it is just the one you expected to get. You are hereby freed from all the lies you tell yourself—except one.

You at least know one, sure thing now. Predestination kills—in general. Welcome to the purely speculative God who is figured according to his own gift of the eternal law. What follows this truth is the gruesome project of digging up the dead and determining which is which. Which are hell-bound and which are bound for glory? That job is like being assigned burial detail after the battle of Gettysburg. Such is theology, done properly, when all that you have is God unpreached. Even if you try to skip out of this tomb by using the very first theologian’s (Origen’s) attempt to prove that a good God would have to predestine all to heaven (including Satan), here is what happens: no one believes any of this doctrine or teaching. In fact, try as you might, even as John Calvin did, you cannot believe it. You cannot trust it so that your own heart is at rest and assured. It is impossible to get your own heart to believe in predestination—whether “double” (hell or heaven) or “single” (only heaven), or anything in-between.

Why can’t I believe in predestination? What is my problem? Predestination is not an object of faith (and remember, only faith saves). The reason the mind is endlessly troubled about God predestining everything is the vague generalization. Generalizations are cold as ice, without the warm Christ. They seek answers not by sure and certain hope (faith) but by an intellectual speculation based on the order of law. But intellectual speculations can’t get to your real issue: what will happen to me in the end?

What kind of God would run the cosmos this way? It seems to “we all” that the only way we all can be relieved from our collective trouble concerning the future in general (collectively), is by a reasoned argument based on something we solidly know. We need something that cannot change with time: the eternal, inner essence of God. Reason requires a definite foundation and a faultless argument from it. But that yields only one thing: double predestination, so get used to it.

But that is why I can’t answer this question with a letter or blog saying, “to whom it may concern.” Without knowing you, hearing your confession, and actually taking leave of the intellect in order to preach faith into you, this question is a total killer. If I knew who you were; if I knew who was asking the question, and if you knew who I was (and that I was capable—authorized—to speak on Christ’s behalf not only for this life but life eternal), then I could answer this in the only way it can be answered: not for the mind but the heart. I would then tell you: “I don’t deal in generalities, but in particulars, since the only answer that comforts a troubled conscience (asking such questions) is a promise—not an explanation.” You need a preached God rather than a brass bowel.

A promise has God’s actual name on it, and is attached to your particular name, precisely as baptism does: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” What would you say to me then? Would you say, “thanks, but I still don’t know what God thinks of me, or what his predestination plan is.” I would hope not, because then I would have to say to you: “But God just stopped electing you unto eternal hell and has elected you to eternal heaven. This promise trumps all else. What more do you want?” That is why Paul does not take up predestination as a topic in Romans 8 until everyone knows what he says in Romans 6: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, just so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too shall walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:1-4).

This is not just God predestining, but electing by preacher. Predestination is not just seen from a different point of view when you have a preacher. Your divine predestination changed at that moment from death to life, from hell to heaven. What kind of a God does that? A doctrinally and intellectually challenged God, no doubt. An outlaw God. You wonder, who could ever want that God? No one. But there he is, speaking to you and by that time it is too late. You might as well give up. Your quest for the answer to this question is now over.