Summary: There is a debate in religious circles between two theories concerning God’s plan for us. One is known as predestination that says our life is preplanned before we are born and there is nothing we can do to change it. The other theory is called free will, which says that we decide what our life will be like based on the decisions we ourselves make. One says that God controls every aspect of our life and the other says God interferes very little in our life. However, there is a third possibility that most people don’t consider. This article examines the details of this theory.
The apostle Paul wrote, “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11).
Among Christians, there are two theories about life. One is called predestination which says that our life has already been determined by God before we were born and that everything that happens to us is what is supposed to happen and that there is nothing we can do to change it. This theory explains why God knows the future.
There is another theory called free will, which says that God has placed us on earth and allows us to live our life anyway we want. According to this theory, whatever happens in our life is either the result of our own decisions or the decisions of others. Because this theory believes that God interferes very little in our life, it has difficulty explaining how God can know the future, since there is no accurate predictability to what man will do. Yet, this raises the questions that since God knows what will happen in the future, then how can it be said that we have free will in making our own decisions?
Since these two theories seem to contradict one another, Christian faiths tend to accept one theory while denouncing the other as being false, however, more often than not, truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes. That is to say, God has given us the agency to decide for ourselves what we want to do, but he directs the affairs of our life much more frequently than most people realize.
We can illustrate this principle by comparing life to going to college. When a student is in their last year of high school and wants to go to college, they meet with their school counselor and discuss what they want to do in furthering their education. Since not all colleges offer the same degrees, the school guidance counselor gives the student recommendations on which college is best for them to attend, and explains what courses they’ll need to take in order to get the kind of degree they’re interested in.
When the student gets to the particular college where they’ve been accepted into, there are a number of subjects they are required to take that are relevant to the degree they hope to receive. In addition to these, they also have to take subjects that seemingly have nothing to do with their field of learning. For example, almost all colleges require taking a foreign language, a higher math class, English, and other general kinds of courses.
Then, before school starts, the student is given a schedule of their classes for the current semester, that includes which building, and room, they need to go to, at what time for a particular subject. When they get to class, the professor gives a structured lecture as well as provides specific dates for when assignments are due and when tests will be given.In addition to this, each semester brings a change in subjects, physical locations, and times. In all of these things, the student has absolutely no say or input but is required to follow the curriculum exactly the way it has been arranged for them.
However, in doing this, the college had not violated the student’s ability to choose for themselves. The student exercised their agency when they selected which college to attend and which degree they wanted to major in. They still retain their agency in deciding whether to attend class during the appointed time or not, whether to listen attentively to the teacher and take good notes, or whether to use their time in class doing something else, and they have the freedom to either study hard or to spend their study time doing other things.
In addition to this, they have the freedom to choose to belong to a particular fraternity or sorority, and whether to join one of the many different extracurricular activities, such as sports, music, theater, etc. They can choose to live in a dormitory on campus, or live off campus. Therefore, even though college is a very structured environment, it also allows for a great amount of freedom.
Although college life does have strict requirements, some of them allow students flexibility in adhering to them. For example, the cost of the college is non-negotiable, but there are scholarships that can help offset the out-of-pocket expense. Some professors require students to have a specific textbook, or other kinds of material that will be needed for a particular class. However, the student may have the option of either buying these items at full retail, or purchasing them used, at a lower cost from students who have formerly taken that class.
It generally takes four years to receive most college degrees, and with each succeeding year, the material being taught becomes more in-depth and is based on the information learned in previous years. During this time, the student has the freedom to decide whether they want to continue on towards their chosen degree, whether to switch their major or even switch schools, or whether to quit their schooling all together.
What this illustrates is that life can be very structured and predetermined without taking away our freedom to choose. To see how this applies to our life in general we need to understand what mortality is all about.
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that we were born in heaven as spirit children to a divine Father and Mother, and it’s for this reason that we call God, our Father in heaven. While we lived there, God taught us his ways, as all good fathers do with their children, and in doing so we were learning what he knows, which in turn helped us to become more like him.
It was at some point in our education that our Father presented us with a plan whereby we could learn things we couldn’t learn in heaven, but to do that would require us to leave our heavenly home and continue our education at another location. For that reason, we can think of our time here on earth as being at college, away from our heavenly parents.
What most people assume is that after we made a conscious decision to accept our Father’s plan, we anxiously waited for our call to come to earth with no idea when or where we would go. This conjures up a situation where two brothers are waiting their turn to enter mortality and one finds out he’s going to America in the year 2000. Both brothers are excited that one of them has gotten such a great assignment. But then the other brother finds out that he is next in line to go to earth, except he’ll be born to an impoverished family living in Ethiopia. The brother who’s going to America turns to his friend and says, “Tough luck. I feel sorry for you.”
In a scenario like this, our coming to earth is merely the luck of the draw, where we have no say in the matter and have to accept whatever place we’re sent to. Of course, such a situation doesn’t allow for free choice, but if everyone wanted to be born in America and no one wanted to be born in Ethiopia, that wouldn’t work out very well either. If free will is an eternal principle, and we were allowed to exercise our agency in heaven before coming to earth, then the time and place of our birth, and even the length of time we’d spend on earth would be something we’d at least have a say in, and have the choice to either agree or disagree with the decision.
Since each of us is different, both in physical, mental and spiritual talents and weaknesses, then it is highly reasonable to suspect that each of us have both common and unique things we came to earth to learn and develop. Therefore, it seems unlikely that we were sent to earth to face a life of uncertainty. That would be like going to college with no idea what we wanted to do once we got there.
As members of Christ’s restored church, we’ve often been told that we were held in reserve to come forth at this time in the world’s history to help prepare for the second coming of the Lord when evil would be at its worst. That means the timing of our entrance into mortality was not a random chance but a calculated decision based on our abilities, what we wanted to get out of earth life for our own personal development, and to accomplish a task we agreed to perform.
For example, prior to the creation of the earth, Jesus Christ was chosen to be our Savior. We not only had the agency to accept that decision, but Jesus also had the choice to accept or reject such an assignment. Adam, Abraham, Moses, Joseph Smith and the other prophets of God were also chosen for their roles in the salvation of God’s children, and each of them had the freedom to either accept or reject the assignment they were asked to fulfill (see Abraham 3:22-23).
But were they just sent to earth with no preparation or were they prepared ahead of time to accomplish the task for which they were given? We can gain some insight into the answer to this question by looking at how God’s earthly church functions.
The scriptures tell us that the purpose of the church is to help perfect us so that we can measure up to the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). What that means is that the purpose of the church is to prepare us to be worthy and capable of someday exercising all the powers that God possesses. Therefore, if earth life is a school, then part of its purpose is to prepare us for the next level of our divine education.
Therefore, it seems only reasonable to conclude that before coming to earth we were also prepared to come here while still living as spirits in heaven. Perhaps, back then, we might have had something similar to an interview with a spiritual guidance counselor who asked us what we wanted to learn or develop during our time on earth, and based on our answers, a unique, personal improvement plan, or PIP, was developed and tailored specifically to meet our goals.
However, such a plan wouldn’t have been forced upon us because that would have violated the principle of free will. Therefore, we can safely assume that the PIP ultimately decided upon for our earthly education was one we agreed to. As such, that plan would call for us to have certain experiences where we could not only have the opportunity to develop certain talents, but to use them for the benefit of others. This is one of the reasons why we are given callings in Christ’s church. In addition to this, our PIP would also include having experiences that would give us the opportunity to discover and help overcome certain personal weaknesses, thereby helping us to become spiritually stronger.
But what about all of the righteous spirits who came here to earth when the true gospel of salvation wasn’t available to them, or who were born in a part of the world where the gospel wasn’t being preached? Were they forced to come here knowing there would be no opportunity for them to partake of the saving ordinances? If that were the case, then it would have violated their agency, therefore, it’s certain that those spirits chose, of their own free will, to come to earth at that time and place, knowing the spiritual limitations they would be living under.
Since the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about serving others, then our PIP would no doubt also include being given assignments to fulfill. As stated before, the scriptures tell us that God chose many of the most noble spirits to be his rulers here on earth, and we’re taught that many of the most righteous spirits were held in reserve for this time because it would take people of that caliber to help prepare the earth for Christ’s second coming. However, just like we do in Christ’s restored church, the decision to either accept or decline any calling is ours.
Therefore, the time, place, and circumstances of our birth didn’t happen by random chance, but was well planned for and had a specific goal in mind for each one of us individually. Take for example, Moses. It was no accident that he was born to a Hebrew woman but raised as Pharaoh’s son, because if he was going to lead the Israelites for forty years, he needed to learn leadership skills.
But before he could lead the Israelites out of slavery, he had to learn his true identity as a Hebrew, then he had to be taught how to live in the desert, because that’s where he would spend the last forty years of his life. All the experiences Moses had – including murdering a taskmaster, fleeing into the desert, meeting Jethro and marrying his daughter, where he became a sheepherder, which lead him to seeing God – didn’t happen by accident, but had already been planned out before Moses was ever born. In this sense, his life was pre-arranged, or pre-determined, prior to his birth into mortality, and God saw to it that Moses had the experiences he needed when he needed them in order to fulfill the task he had agreed to take before he came to earth.
The reason why God can predict the future with such accuracy is because he is actively engaged in making sure that certain events happen that are necessary in order for his plan to work. This is why the scriptures tell us “The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught” (D&C 3:1).
The prophet Isaiah wrote about the life of Jesus in stunning detail, telling us that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, that there wouldn’t be anything extraordinarily beautiful about his physical appearance, that he would be whipped, leaving stripes on his body, that he would be wounded for our transgressions, that he would die among the wicked (the two thieves on the cross) and be buried with the rich (Arimathea’s grave). How could Isaiah know these things with such exactness? The answer is, because all of these things were part of Jesus’ PIP. In other words, these things didn’t happen by accident. They were deliberately planned for and purposely made to happen.
To some, that sounds like predestination, except predestination doesn’t allow for free will.
Jesus repeatedly told the people that what he taught was not his own doctrine but the words of his Father. He repeatedly taught that he came not to glorify himself but to glorify the Father. That was his assignment, and that’s what he was predestined to do. but no one forced him to do it. Instead, he purposely and deliberately chose to follow the commandments his Father had given him, even though he had the ability to behave differently.
When he was in the garden of Gethsemane, there was a point where the pain was so great that as he bled from every pore, he longed for some way for the pain to stop. At that point, he had the opportunity to choose to either finish what he started, knowing that it would take him to the cross, or walk away and go back to living the life of a preacher. Although Jesus was predestined to die for our sins, it was his choice to make and he had the freedom to make it
According to the theory of predestination, no matter what we do, it’s supposed to happen. In other words, nothing we do, whether it’s good or bad, is under our control because every thought we have and every action we take was already planned and there is absolutely nothing we can do to change it. What the theory of predestination says is that we are no more than robots who can only do exactly what we’re programmed to do.
However, just because there is a plan for our life doesn’t mean we are forced to follow it. God places us in situations that are designed to help us grow spiritually, but it’s left up to us how we react to the situations that are placed before us. Just like in college, the professor provides instruction, gives homework, and administers tests, but students can choose to skip their classes, not do their homework, or not prepare themselves for a test.
It’s our choice to either take advantage of the opportunities God gives us or ignore them. This was exemplified when Jonah chose not to go to Nineveh as God had commanded. What this shows is that our PIP isn’t written in stone. It can be altered, changed, or even abandoned according to the decisions we make.
Sometimes, like in the case of Jonah, God intervenes and says, “Oh yes you will do what I say, because I’m not going to allow you to frustrate what I plan to do,” But more often than not, God allows us to go astray, not because it was part of our PIP, but because he intends to teach us an off the script lesson, which is usually one we learn the hard way. Sometimes that brings people back to him where they can resume following their prior PIP, and other times people keep going further away from God. But either way, it’s our decision, and God is flexible enough to adjust to what we decide to do with our life.
Just like there are four years of college, there are also four different seasons in our life. The first season is when we’re living at home with our parents. The next season is when we move away from home and have a family of our own. The third season is when our children have moved out and we’re in our late middle years as empty nesters, and the fourth season is when we’re in our older, retirement years.
Each season of our life teaches us different lessons, and sometimes we learn those lessons in different locations. Just like we move to different classrooms each semester, God can move us from place to place so we can have the experiences we need at the time we need them. And just like college courses, each season’s lessons build on what we’ve learned in previous lessons. Yet, regardless of what those experiences are like, they are all ultimately for our good (D&C 121:7).
But what about those who don’t complete all four seasons of mortality? There are those who die in their fifties, forties or thirties. There are those who die in their teens, and there are babies who die when they are only a few months, or days or even hours old. What about their mortal education?
The scriptures tell us, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,2). Although this is true of earthly things, it is also true of heavenly things. God is a God of order and our time on earth as well as its length doesn’t happen by chance.
If we came to earth to have certain experiences necessary for our spiritual growth, and we had a say in what those experiences would be, then the same principle applies to how long we wanted to live on earth. If this is not so, then the only conclusion we can make is that our death is so unpredictable that not even God knows when it’s going to happen.
What we have to realize is that death is nothing more than going from one environment to another, or to follow our college analogy, going from one school to another. When we left the spirit world to come to earth, we left behind all of our former friends. Even if we meet them here on earth, we don’t recognize them because we’ve lost the memory of our prior existence. In that sense, when we are born into mortality, we truly became dead to our former way of life. But in reality, all we’ve done is moved from one world into another one .
The same thing happens when we lay our mortal body in the grave. What we call death is nothing more than us leaving our earthly friends and relatives behind in this world and have become “born” or entered into another world.
Just like the timing of our birth into mortality doesn’t happen by luck or happenstance, so also, in the great majority of instances, the number of days we’ll spend on earth is likewise pre-planned. Since we have always had our agency to decide what we want to do, we had a say in whether we wanted to live a long or short life on earth, depending on what we wanted to gain and learn from our time in mortality.
If this is not so, then we have to conclude that those who die young, were robbed of their spiritual education on earth, often through no fault of their own. And if that is so, then God is not fair, because it’s unjust to allow some people to get a full education while others are denied the opportunity to do so. But we know that God is not only the epitome of fairness and justice, but everything he does is perfect, and you can’t do things perfectly by leaving them up to chance.
Of course, there are exceptions to everything, but by definition, “exceptions” don’t happen very often, which means that the great percentage of deaths happen by divine decree. To do that, God uses a wide variety of ways to move people from one environment to another. It could be by natural causes such as sickness and disease, or he can do it through war, famine, disasters, or accidents.
To our mortal eyes, when we see someone die, we wonder why God didn’t intervene to save their life, especially when there are many instances in the past where he’s done just that. But if God could do that and didn’t, then we have to conclude that he wanted that person to die at that point in time. Otherwise, we’d have to say that the time of our death happens strictly by random chance and that God has no interest in how long we live on earth.
And yet, when a person dies, we blame God for taking them. From our limited viewpoint, we wonder how God could be so callous as to take the life of a young person. Therefore, either God is responsible for our leaving mortality or he isn’t. If God is a God of order and he cares about his children, and he sent us here to learn to become more like him, then it’s inconceivable to believe that the length of our time on earth is of no concern to God.
What we see then is that by pre-planning the kind of experiences we want to have while living on earth, our agency to decide for ourselves what we want to do is not infringed upon in the least. It’s like pre-planning a road trip where we want to go on vacation. Such a plan would include things like what kind of places we want to visit, which activities we want to engage in, and how long we want to spend at each place.
But such a plan isn’t so rigid that it can’t ever be changed. If it was, that would be called predestination. Yet, if we were to go on vacation with no plan of where we wanted to go, what we wanted to do, or how long we wanted to spend on the road, that would be what free will would look like.
God’s work is to bring to pass both the immortality and eternal life of all his children, but since each of us are different, he not only has a general plan that covers all of us collectively, but he also has a plan that is specifically tailored for each one of us individually. Although we have no say in the details of the general plan of salvation, we do have the freedom in deciding on the details of our own plan.
Related articles can be found in The Nature of Spiritual Growth