The theme of fate or destiny and free-will ran throughout this week’s episode of Lost. In both “realities,” the character John Locke (who is actually the mysterious “Man in Black” in the island track) says, “No one call tell me what I can’t do.” The “Man in Black” Locke says this defiantly about obeying the rules of the island about killing the leader Jacob. The real Locke quotes himself in retrospect when he told the Walkabout adventure company that they couldn’t tell him that he can’t go on the adventure trip in the Australian outback (Locke is paralyzed from the waist down). The difference is that the real Locke realizes that they were right and seems to be on a path of accepting the reality that has been handed to him through the accident that paralyzed him and living the best life he can with it.
On the island track, the MIB Locke brings Sawyer to a cliff-side cave where the names of all the flight survivors are written into the rocks. They were written by the spiritual leader Jacob who presumably orchestrated each of them coming to the island. Of course, they never knew someone was pulling their strings to guide them to the island. They were just going about their lives, making choices like the rest of us about the direction of their lives. The MIB says to Sawyer, though, that “the choices you made really weren’t choices at all.”
This episode raises a number of questions about the relationship between fate and freewill that the Bible speaks to. The show, or at least one of the characters on the show, suggests that choices are illusory: we might believe we are making choices, but really we are being manipulated by hidden forces. Our pseudo-choices are not real because they do not and can not change what fate has determined. The Bible teaches that our days are numbered by God and that events in our lives unfold according to a divine plan. Does this also imply that our choices are illusory and therefore that self-determination is a mirage?
As divine image-bearers, people have a will and purpose just as God has a will and purpose. We have an undeniable ability to make plans for the future and act in ways to fulfill these plans. Genesis 2 records the earliest activity of the first human beings. Adam is placed in a garden and given a mandate to tend to it. He and Eve are given liberty of what to eat in the garden except for one tree: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” In the giving of this command, God affirms that they have a choice that is very real and with real consequences. We see in this narrative that self-determination – the choice to obey or disobey God’s law and experience the ensuing consequences – is an essential characteristic of the human condition.
So how then can the reality of self-determination be reconciled with the Bible’s teaching of God’s sovereign control over our lives: “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11)? Does God’s plan unfold regardless of our choices? While the Bible teaches a kind of determinism, I do not believe it teaches fatalism in which human choices do not matter. Rather, God’s plan and purpose include our choices. Our choices are part of the “everything” God works out in conformity with his will – good choices, bad choices, neutral choices. Choices are part of God’s plan and he mysteriously and powerfully, in a way that is totally inscrutable to us, uses them to accomplish his plan (without his plan being somehow contingent on them).
One of the clearest examples of this dynamic is in the choice of Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus (I’ve been reading the gospel of Luke lately so this is fresh on my mind). Having foreknowledge of Judas’ choice, Jesus announces to his disciples during the Last Supper that one of them is going to betray him. He then explains why: “For it has been determined that the Son of Man must die. But what sorrow awaits the one who betrays him” (Luke 22:22). Betrayal is a choice to change loyalties or allegiances. Judas was a loyal disciple of Christ but changed his loyalty from Christ to money. There are two levels of interpretation Jesus offers here. In the higher sphere, from the perspective of God’s purpose, Judas makes this choice to fulfill the divine plan for Jesus to die and thus save humanity from our sins. In the lower sphere, from the perspective of human morality and responsibility, Judas acts contrary to the moral law and sells out not only a friend but the Son of God, the Messiah, for a small amount of money. Though his choice helps accomplish God’s good purposes for our salvation, he is still held liable for his immoral choice and promised negative consequences. He faces negative consequences because he makes a real choice, even though God works out that choice “in conformity with the purpose of his will.”
This relationship between human responsibility and divine sovereignty is a mystery and therefore impossible to explain fully. The best metaphor I have read is the relationship between an author and the characters he creates. Ponder how an author’s purpose and will is related to his characters’ choices. I’ll write more about this relationship soon!