Romans 9 presents us with a bit of a paradox. Paul clearly teaches in verse 18 that God has mercy on whomever He will, and hardens the hearts of whomever He will. Yet verses 19–24 teach us that we are still responsible for our actions. Election is never presented in Scripture in a fatalistic manner; we retain at least some measure of “free will.”
So how do we reconcile God’s election with Man’s responsibility? One way is to suggest that God’s election is based on His knowledge of the choices we will make. In particular, God elects those whom He knows will ultimately choose to follow Christ. Possible evidence comes from Romans 8:29:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
It certainly seems that foreknowledge precedes predestination! Yet there is a snag in the very next verse:
And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Here the calling, so effectual that it precedes justification, is contingent upon the predestination. So the only ones that God could possibly foreknow are those whom He first predestined, then called.
I think there might be another way to reconcile predestination with free will, but before we explore it, let us become acquainted with Schrödinger’s cat. This classic thought experiment has been described in a variety of ways, but the general scenario is the same. A radioactive atom is placed in front of a particle detector. Over the course of an hour, there is a 50% probability that the atom will decay, emitting a particle and triggering the detector. A cat is placed in a box, along with a canister of cyanide gas, and the detector is connected to the the canister in such a way that if the atom decays, the gas is released, killing the cat. We wait one hour, don a gas mask, and open the box to see whether the cat has survived the experiment. It will either be dead or alive.
The question before us is: what was the condition of the cat before we opened the box? This is not as simple a question as it seems! The cat was dead or alive, depending on whether or not the atom decayed. But the state of the atom is actually a superposition of states of both having decayed, and having not decayed, until an observation pins it one way or the other—many experiments have established this result. The state of the cat depends on the state of the atom, so it too apparently is both dead, and not dead, until an observation is made.
As far as I know, no one has every really conducted this experiment with a cat. But while it is an established physical reality that the atom must be described, prior to observation, as a superposition of states, few people are willing to allow the cat to remain in this condition. And does the cat have a free will in the box?
The Copenhagen interpretation essentially says the state of the cat is unknowable until we make an observation, at which point the “wave equation” collapses. The many worlds interpretation says that alternate universes arise when an observation is made, one with a living cat and one with a dead cat. Then there is the alternate histories interpretation, which is essentially the many worlds interpretation, except that only one actually exists, the “real world.” Other interpretations are possible, but the alternate histories interpretation gives us a new way to look at the paradox of predestination and free will.
Suppose, at any point in which we may make a free will decision, multiple universes arise, one for each alternative we may have chosen. Of course, other people are making other decisions, and still other people are experimenting with Schrödinger’s cat, so we very quickly get a huge tangled mess of alternate universes. But suppose God gets to choose which one of these is “real.” Then the “real” universe has a couple of interesting properties. First, at any given time, its state can be said to have been determined by God. Second, at any given time, it state can be said to have been determined by human free will (to the extent that human free will can affect the universe). For any given person, his or her actions can be said to be the result of his or her own free will, and simultaneously said to be determined by God.
We do not wish to rule out that God can have further interventions with His universe beyond creating it and choosing which of many possible histories is true history. We read in Hebrews 1:3 that:
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
God is involved in His world, both in the breathtakingly mundane aspect of keeping us existent, and in sometimes spectacular miraculous interventions, often as answers to prayer.
Nor has this article touched upon His role in bringing people to have faith in Christ. But beyond such questions, there are a couple of consequences that come from understanding that God can be sovereign over all things, while we retain at least some measure of free will.
First, we grasp the great promise of Romans 8:28:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Whatever happens to the Christian, whether good or seemingly bad, can be seen as the hand of God working our ultimate good. This includes the actions of other people. If someone blesses me, it is the hand of God. If someone curses me or hurts me, that too is ordained by God, though not caused by God, and I learn from this verse that even that hurt will ultimately prove beneficial to me.
Second, we have no ground for passivity. In some way, my future does depend on my decision. Our prayers do make a difference, because God has ordained they will, though the answers may not always be what we are looking for. Our labors are important.