Men can be masters of their fate. It is not destiny’s fault, but our own faults, that we’re slaves.
—Julius Caesar, Shakespeare
Fate fascinates us. It teases our imaginations. Whether on the silver screen in romantic comedies and time travel flicks, or on the page in young adult novels, we see fate and destiny played out at every turn. The idea that a power beyond ourselves orders the course of events in our lives brings comfort to many and intrigue to many more. But these ideas aren’t limited to the realm of fiction. A recent study by two Yale researchers revealed that among theists, nearly 85 percent of those surveyed believe in some measure of fate. You might expect such a response from those who believe in a god, but even a majority of atheists—54 percent—confessed a belief in fate. And if that weren’t enough, consider this staggering Gallup survey from the turn of the twenty-first century. When asked if they believed in astrology—defined as the belief that the position of the planets or stars can affect people’s lives—25 percent of respondents in the US and Canada responded in the affirmative.
In a post-enlightenment culture, why are we so enamored with fate? The reasons are many. The most obvious is that reason alone cannot account for everything in life, especially the experiential. How can a scientist account for sacrificial love, the perception of beauty, human consciousness, or the origin of the universe? No amount of scientific scholarship can explain these mysteries. Another factor is the comfort destiny provides in its explanatory power. Everything happens for a reason. It just wasn’t meant to be. We toss out these clichés as reminders that we aren’t in control of our own lives.
One could also point to the influence of Hollywood on pop culture. Of course, not every movie ends with good triumphing over evil, with love finding a way, and with life lived happily ever after, but even in dark films, the typical viewer is not satisfied without some type of resolution in the end. Yet another factor might be the influx of Eastern and New Age mysticism to the West.
Certainly the Bible teaches that God is all powerful and his will cannot be overcome. As Job said to the Almighty, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). Consider also this reminder from the proverb, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9). God is sovereign and can do what he wants, when he wants.
Yet I wonder about fate’s claim on humanity. Are certain outcomes just meant to be? Are the events of our lives simply out of our control? Is fate at the helm of our lives?
Raiders at the Gate
I ask these questions from a pastor’s perspective. A major problem lurks in churches, American culture, and even in my own community. Though it may suit the silver screen, in reality destiny has a dark side.
Fate seems wonderful when life is going well, but what about when everything goes wrong? When the protagonist doesn’t get the girl? When you don’t win the lottery? What happens when a white spot shows up on the Xray? Believing in fate when bad things happen flips our ordered lives upside down and inside out. A depressing and helpless mind-set descends upon us. There’s a name for this. It’s called fatalism—the belief that you can’t effect change in the world or even in your own life. And even if you don’t believe in fate, it’s hard not to succumb to fatalism, believing and acting as though nothing you do really matters.
Why is it so hard to avoid fatalism?
Because darkness seems to be winning. There are proverbial raiders at the gate of our culture. Injustice, illness, and other forms of suffering appear to be smothering any hope we have of redemption. Since the ejection from Eden, humanity has been no stranger to brokenness—from the biblical flood to Nero, Hitler, and beyond. But today’s ills seem more potent and prevalent than ever:
· Human trafficking
· Racial prejudice and injustice
· The relegation of people of faith to the fringes of culture
· The rise of atheism, nihilism, and hedonism in an increasingly secular society
· Attacks on the biblical view of marriage
· Gender identity confusion
One contributing factor to this breakdown in our society, communities, churches, and even our everyday lives is the decline of the family unit. In the past, when moral decay and uncertainty raged within society, we had our homes as a place of refuge. A place where Mom, Dad, Sister, and Brother formed the foundation of stability in our little world. But today, homes are often the source of violence, and divorce is embraced as a normal part of culture. An increasing number of children grow up in single-parent homes. The once traditional nuclear family is now considered uncommon. In tandem, America aborts three thousand babies every day, politicizes marriage, and distorts beyond recognition God’s design for sex. As a result, the foundation of society is crumbling and teetering on the edge of collapse.
Rather than stand strong against the shifting moral winds, many churches have untethered themselves from the gospel and embraced the world. When once the church was a moral compass, those who have relied on her find it harder every day to locate true north. Many churches have watered down the gospel, resulting in a biblically illiterate congregate. Is it any wonder that the masses are fleeing church? Despite the existence of numerous mega churches, fewer people attend religious services than ever before. Even in the most evangelized cities, the majority of the population claims no religious affiliation whatsoever. I minister in Norman, Oklahoma, a community on the southern edge of the Oklahoma City metro. Despite its residence in the Bible Belt, where the adage boasts “a church on every corner,” nearly 60 percent of the population in my city has zero religious connection, Christian or otherwise. So as anti-God thinking continues its assault on traditional values, dwindling attendance forces church after church to close its doors.
This is not meant to depress you, but rather to expose one root of fatalism. And when this mind-set invades our thinking, negativity, disheartening headlines, and violence cause us to despair because we can’t see a way out of it all. So we close ourselves off and grow numb to moral decay and social unrest. As my friend and philosophy professor Dr. Kuhn said, “Things seem to be changing so fast that many are feeling a real existential angst and helplessness to do anything about it.” Whatever you call it, a fatalistic viewpoint is a serious problem. It is one thing for the non-believing community to accept it as a worldview. However, when the church begins swallowing the poison of fatalism, her collapse becomes inevitable. Let me be clear: Christ’s church cannot fail (Matt. 16:18). She is the hope of nations and Jesus’s hands and feet on earth. But the ineffective faith resulting from fatalistic thought renders individual churches weak and useless.
Yet some would argue that today’s reality has unfolded exactly the way it is supposed to. Some may even argue that, like a Greek tragedy, no one can do anything about all of the terrible things happening in our country and communities. Seriously, what can any one person do about the collapse of Judeo-Christian values in America? Should we just accept the fact that we live in a post-Christian culture? Maybe all of this was supposed to happen this way.
These statements do well to articulate fatalism, but the dictionary is instructive too. Webster defines fatalism as the belief that “what will happen has already been decided and cannot be changed.” This is helplessness to its core, and while the overwhelming presence of evil is one source, another force is also a partner.
Dawkins, Harris, and Affluenza
New atheism is all the craze. Atheism is nothing new, but its most recent sect has become militant and almost evangelical. No longer are secular humanists satisfied to allow the religious folk to continue about their “misguided” way. New atheism seeks to destroy, discredit, and embarrass anything that betrays a naturalistic worldview. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is the forerunner of this movement, and his worldview is picking up momentum. Like all atheists, he thinks nothing exists beyond the natural world. In addition, he also believes all forms of religion, particularly Christianity, are a threat to human progress and should be stopped. He and others who believe like him seek to convert people to atheism and encourage them to join their secular crusade. Without question, an important feature of atheism—increasing in popularity thanks to the new atheists—is fatalism.
Perhaps one of the more concerning features of atheism is its position regarding ethics and morality. Whether atheists admit it or not, a naturalistic worldview requires deterministic ethics. In other words, if people are nothing but highly evolved animals, comprised of nothing but chemicals and matter, then the way a man or woman behaves is entirely out of his or her control. Still not convinced? Dawkins said, “DNA neither cares nor knows; DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” In other words, we humans are just an accidental product of evolution, and our genetic programming is driving every action we take. In the words of Carl Sagan, we are “star stuff.” Naturalistic, mechanical accidents. Therefore, people do whatever they do because they are supposed to do it. Like a lion on the Serengeti, we are simply living out our biological impulses and responding to stimuli.
You may be thinking, “That’s silly. I have free will.” Not so according to another famous atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris. In his book, Free Will, Harris argues that human freedom is an illusion. People are who they are and do what they do because of genetics and conditioning, nothing more. While it may seem like humans have a choice in the things they do and the people they become, that freedom is an illusion. A façade. That’s comforting, isn’t it? Such a worldview leaves us with a moral system in which people cannot be held accountable for their actions—no more than a lion can be held accountable for forcibly copulating with a lioness.
As an example, consider the chilling story of sixteen-year-old Ethan Couch. In the summer of 2013, Couch crashed his pickup truck into four people who were changing a tire on the side of a Texas road. All four were killed. At the time of the accident, Ethan’s blood alcohol content was almost three times the legal limit. But instead of receiving jail time, a juvenile court judge sentenced the teen to just ten months of substance abuse therapy. What was Couch’s defense? How did he get off? He claimed affluenza. Apparently, affluenza is a condition in which a young person is so spoiled by his parents that he cannot be held accountable for his actions. The affected suffers from being too affluent! This young man’s defense argued that because Ethan’s parents gave him everything he wanted and never bothered disciplining their son, they were actually responsible for the crime.
You heard that right. According to the judge, Ethan Couch couldn’t help but drink while underage and then get behind the wheel. (Never mind that he and his friends had stolen the very alcohol that filled his veins the night of the accident.) And it wasn’t Ethan’s fault he was driving seventy miles per hour on a two-lane road where the speed limit is only forty. It wasn’t his fault he plowed through good Samaritans who were helping a stranded young woman change a tire. Apparently, Ethan is just a mechanical organism capable of responding accordingly to stimuli and conditions that are out of his control. Apparently, he cannot really make decisions at all. What happened that night was fate—naturalism at work. It was just meant to be. Who are we to hold this poor kid accountable?
Get the picture?
For those outside of the body of Christ, fatalism seems to be the only viable mind-set amid such chaos; young Ethan was simply acting out his programming based on his environment. But too many churches have also allowed this deterministic thinking to infiltrate their pews, pulpits, and ministries. Why is this? Again, many Christians are simply overwhelmed by the evil in the world and therefore feel like nothing they do can effect change. For others, fate brings comfort because it relieves them of their responsibility to act. If everything is predetermined, then what good would it do to serve others? Why should one care for orphans and widows? God’s got this. If he wants me to serve, he’ll make me do it. Yet another reason is bad theology. Some churches teach fatalism as a core belief. They don’t call it that, but the logical outworking of their doctrine leads straight to despair.
No matter how one arrives at fatalism, the mentality is ungodly for the Christ follower. How do I know? Jesus taught something radically different.
Walking with Jesus
Believe it or not, Jesus addressed this very question in a series of parables, miracles, and object lessons directed at his disciples. Just prior to Passion Week, the Lord’s final week on earth, Jesus traveled on foot from Capernaum in northern Galilee to Jerusalem. This trip would typically take five to six days, and due to the uneven terrain of Israel, would require some zigzagging around mountains. First, the group would head south toward Samaria before turning east to cross the Jordan River. It was not uncommon to continue south through Samaria—doing so shaved off a full day of travel time—but the ultra-religious avoided the territory if at all possible. Jews and Samaritans did not get along, and the Pharisees preferred to bypass the region altogether. In addition, taking this direct route through Samaria, although shorter, yielded more treacherous terrain. Jesus, it appears, had planned to use the Samaria route, but the Samaritans rejected him because he had his eyes set on Jerusalem. So instead, they headed east to the Jordan River Valley. After crossing the river, they would travel due south through the valley until almost reaching the Dead Sea. At that point, they would turn back west, crossing the river again toward Jericho and then continuing through Jericho to Jerusalem where Jesus would enter riding a donkey and be greeted by hosannas and palm branches. A week later, he would be dead.
What’s interesting is that as Passion Week looms, and Jesus gets ever closer to Jerusalem, Luke includes multiple accounts related to faith. Jesus seems obsessed with the subject. Why? His ministry is coming to a close and his death is imminent. Soon, the kingdom would be in the hands of his ragtag group of disciples. Jesus knew his followers would soon face persecution, and they would need resilient faith to persist through such adversity. Their journey from Capernaum to Jerusalem was the last opportunity Jesus would have on earth to instill in his disciples whatever wisdom or instruction they would need. These were the last lessons of Christ, and they almost exclusively centered on faith.
In some ways, the disciples’ time with Jesus was practice for the mammoth task of carrying the message of Christ to the nations. He sent them out in twos as training for ministry. When they messed up, the Lord was there to correct them. Post-resurrection, it would be the disciples’ duty to move the kingdom of heaven forward on earth, and they would have to do so without Jesus present.
Certainly, Jesus had been teaching the disciples about faith all through his earthly ministry. Consider previous miracles like feeding the five thousand when he commanded his disciples, “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13). The Twelve were flabbergasted at this statement, insisting such a task was impossible. But Jesus demonstrated that with faith, feeding the crowd was indeed possible. In addition to miracles, Jesus told parables about faith like the analogy of the mustard seed. The smallest of seeds, he said, yields the largest of trees, just as a small amount of faith can lead to enormous results. Without a doubt, Jesus taught the disciples about faith for the duration of his three-year ministry. However, these last few moments before the triumphal entry were critical teaching moments Jesus used to help solidify their trust in their Lord before the storm of the crucifixion set in.
In stark contrast to helplessness and hopelessness, Jesus taught His disciples about the importance of faith. Too many of us, whipped by the world, have reduced faith to a passive belief in something beyond ourselves. But Jesus taught a faith with power and agency, faith that can move mountains. We submit that things can change and that we can change them. We believe your faith matters.
With this book, through the filter of these last lessons of Jesus, we intend to cast a new light on societal ills so that when faced with them, you will feel hope rather than resignation. That in the face of destruction and brokenness, you will see opportunities for advancing God’s kingdom rather than the powerlessness the world and even some theological approaches might leave you with. We’ll begin in Luke 17 and travel with Jesus and his crew, following him until just prior to his triumphal entry in Jerusalem in chapter 19. When we pick up with Jesus, he is somewhere between Galilee and Samaria—near the beginning of his trip. We’ll see parables, object lessons, and miracles from which we can glean truths related to living out a vibrant faith even in the face of brokenness.
So how would you live your life if you truly believed you could effect change? If you bought into the reality that the universe is not controlled by fate? That your actions, your decisions, your beliefs, and your faith do make a difference? What if I told you that you can be an instrument of change, a person who helps push back darkness and defeats evil?
The final chapter of Revelation has already been written, and Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. But what happens between now and Christ’s return is not written. Does God know what’s going to transpire? Of course He does, but foreknowledge does not equal causation. As with so many people in the Scriptures—Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Esther, Mary, and many more—God wants to use you to effect positive change for the kingdom. He can do it without you, but he’d rather have you on board. Just as Jesus concerned himself with building up the faith of his disciples, he also cares deeply about the development of your faith. God wants to use you to build his kingdom, but to be his instrument, it will require one thing above all: faith.
. Kelsey Dallas, “When It Comes to Fate, Even Non-Believers Believe,” Deseret News, December 5, 2014, November 1, 2005,20, 2017,led Abraham, bye.okay.ehow?e tub?nd impending death, I tremble as the structure around me quakes whi, https://www.deseretnews.com/article/865617028/Study-Believers-and-atheists-alike-believe-everything-happens-for-a-reason.html.
. Linda Lyons, “Paranormal Beliefs Come (Super)Naturally to Some,” Gallup, November 1, 2005, http://news.gallup.com/poll/19558/paranormal-beliefs-come-supernaturally-some.aspx.
. “County Membership Report: Cleveland County, Oklahoma, Religious Traditions, 2010,” The Association of Religion Data Archives, http://www.thearda.com/rcms2010/r/c/40/rcms2010_40027_county_name_2010.asp.
. “Fatalism,” Merriam-Webster.com, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fatalism.
. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 133.
. Dana Ford, “Texas Teen Ethan Couch Gets 10 Years’ Probation for Driving Drunk, Killing 4,” Cable News Network, December 12, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/11/us/texas-teen-dwi-wreck/.
. Traveling straight through Samaria shortened the trip by twenty-three miles, about a day’s journey. See Merilyn Hargis, “On the Road,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-59/on-road.html.
. Charles Ellicott, “John 4: Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers,” Bible Hub, http://biblehub.com/commentaries/ellicott/john/4.htm.
. See Luke 9:51–56.
. See Luke 17:11.