Prophecy is an interesting thing.
It likes to show up in a lot of scripture and a lot of fiction. It catches our fancy. The idea that the future can be known tugs at our imagination, as we are caught in a life where only the past can be seen and understood – even the present is strange and confusing. That we could count the days between milestones, or know when the changes are coming, with some map that went through time as well as space, is deeply attractive. When things come out of the blue and hit me, I know that it takes time before I can grasp what just happened. I wish I could have known beforehand. I wish the shock could have been done away with already, so that I would not miss what is happening here and now.
And we explore the dark side of prophecy. We’re not sure if it would be better to know. Anticipation destroys a lot of things, and it is easy to be paralyzed by knowing what’s going to happen. How much time would I spend worrying if I knew that some terrible pain was going to hit me at a given day and time? Could I live my life if I knew just how many seconds were ticking away before the end, or what would happen in the meantime? I get disappointed when things don’t turn out the way I wanted them to, but would it be any better if I knew exactly what path my life was going to take and couldn’t change it?
When prophecy shows up in fiction, it tends to take a couple different forms. One is that the prophecy is inescapable, and that trying to stop it can cause it to happen in the first place. Another form is the prophecy that says that either one thing will happen or another will. Some fictional prophecies turn out in ways no one expected. I was impressed with the unusual way prophecy worked out in Harry Potter: the prophecy about the one who would defeat Voldemort did not mean Harry had to do it. He was free to walk away. The question was, did he want to?
At the heart of prophecy is the question of fate. Is it set in stone? Can it be defied? Is it fluid? Do we have a choice? Some scientists believe that even looking at an event changes its outcome – where does that fit? Are we stuck in some rut from which there is no escape, or are we in a roadless world where whatever we pick alters everything?
This is the heart of an old Christian question. The Bible has prophecy in it, and tells us that God is omniscient and omnipotent. Yet it assumes we have choices, telling us to take one road and not another, encouraging us to grow and become of our own will. We find verses that say “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and verses that say “Pharaoh hardened his heart.” And so we’re caught, wondering if the Fate of the Universe is some plan we’re forced into, or if, conversely, we have the power to thwart God himself. Or to put it another way, we either have a God that has written suffering into our story, or one that is powerless to stop it.
I believe God is sovereign. I believe he can’t be thwarted. And yet I believe he has given us agency, that we have a choice. There are many who object to a Sovereign God because they don’t like the idea of a God who has determined the way their lives go. Yet I wonder if, given the subtlety and profundity of his wisdom, they’re missing the point. I think of the fictional characters who defy their destiny, or of the heresy that Judas Iscariot knew he was fated to betray Jesus. I think Judas had every choice not to betray Jesus. He just didn’t want to. And Jesus knew it.
Well, all right, people say, Judas wanted to betray Jesus. Couldn’t God, being God, have stopped him? Why would God just let him damn himself like that? Perhaps because Judas was in such a state of mind that he would not be convinced otherwise, and God does not deny people their will.
Which leads to what is quite possibly the scariest thought I’ve ever had regarding the Christian faith: lots of people find the idea of an omnipotent, holy, and just God terrifying. I find it a lot more terrifying that there is an omnipotent, holy, and just God who lets us get on with what we’re doing. No matter how evil it may be. He may raise up people against that kind of evil, people who will undermine or destroy the evil works, people who will fight against the darkness and the cruelty and the hate, but he does not deny us our will. Pharaoh wanted his heart hardened – God let him have it.
What if Pharaoh had decided not to harden his heart? Personally, I think the book of Exodus would have been even more interesting, and a lot less Egyptians would have died. I don’t think the choice about his heart was ever denied him. Thing is, we only know what happened. We can’t know what could have happened.
And that’s the heart of it: we can’t know. The size of what we can’t know is huge. God may be sovereign, but with all that we don’t know, the choice still remains with us. Actual Biblical prophecy is at once specific and vague: we can guess what will happen, but never once does it say where any one of us humans will be standing when it does. The fate of our lives has not been revealed, and we cannot know where it will take us. I believe that, having chosen God, I can’t lose my identity as a Christian: I’ve picked my side. But I don’t know my role. And anyone who hasn’t chosen God might not have chosen God yet: since we can’t know what’s going to happen, it’s beyond any of us to say that it will or won’t happen.
We are not forced into our roles. They happen out of our own desires and beliefs. And they change because of the same. When we’re able to listen to God, he speaks to us, inspires us, moves us, but he does not “make” us do anything. The fact that he knows which choice we’ll make does not mean we don’t do the choosing. By not knowing, we are free. The steps are ours, forwards or back, one way or another. God has ordained us to stand where we choose to.