What Is Fatalism?
- Alyssa Roat Contributing Writer
- 2020 19 May
Most of us have probably been there: We feel like no matter what we do, we’re governed by the unfeeling hand of “fate.”
Or perhaps we feel like we have no agency. That all of our actions are predetermined, that we’re marching toward an inevitable future and that we only think we make our own choices.
These ideas are compatible with fatalism, a view that has been around since the time of the ancient Greeks, at least. However, this belief is an incomplete view of what the Bible has to say on the subject.
What Is Fatalism?
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines fatalism as “the view that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.”
This idea did not originate from Christianity. One of the oldest arguments for fatalism is in Aristotle’s On Interpretation (De Interpretatione). The idea is also common in Greek and Roman mythology, personified in the Fates.
Fatalism is often confused with determinism. Determinism is the idea that all events, including human actions, are determined by preexisting causes. Determinism is a bit different than fatalism since, in fatalism, actions and events are not causal, but predetermined.
Fatalism is also different than predestination, the idea that God chooses who will go to heaven before they’re even born. Predestination allows for at least some free will, whereas fatalism does not allow for any.
What Is Fatalism in Christianity?
If something is predetermined, then it must be predetermined by something. For example, in Greek mythology, this was attributed to the Fates, or in Norse mythology, to the Norns or dísir.
In Christianity, this something is God. When fatalism is merged with Christianity, it becomes theological fatalism.
The basic premise of theological fatalism is that, since God knows what is going to happen, it follows that it must happen.
For example, perhaps God knows that tomorrow you are going to bake bread. God is omniscient, and His knowledge is infallible. Thus, He must be correct that you are going to bake bread. If you did not bake bread, then God’s knowledge would be fallible, or imperfect.
However, we know that God is perfect. Thus, because God knows that you will bake bread, you must bake bread; you have no option but to do so.
This leads to an obvious conclusion: If, because of God’s foreknowledge, you have no choice but to do what He foreknows, you in fact have no choice in any matter but only operate according to a set path over which you have no control.
This is the essence of fatalism.
What Does the Bible Say?
The Bible doesn’t make things quite as simple as fatalism. Instead, it seems to point to both God’s power and foreknowledge and the human capacity for free will. Here are a few verses supporting each:
1. God’s foreknowledge and power:
Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely (Psalm 139:4).
Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:16).
Before I [God] formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:5).
This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross (Acts 2:23).
He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will (Ephesians 1:5).
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).
2. Human free will:
And the Lord God commanded the man, “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 from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15).
“Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (Ezekiel 18:30-32).
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love (Galatians 5:13).
Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own (John 7:17).
An Alternative to Fatalism
The Bible seems to indicate both that God knows everything and that humans have choices. So, what is correct?
The answer is both.
Fatalism is an oversimplification of the issue, clinging to God’s foreknowledge and not its compatibility with free will. Though in the case of predestination versus free will there is an entirely different debate, in the case of fatalism versus free will, the reconciliation is far easier.
This theological alternative acknowledges and embraces that God does indeed foreknow all things, and His knowledge is indeed infallible. However, this foreknowledge does not force anyone to do anything; He simply knows what they will do.
Going back to our bread analogy, God knows that you’re going to bake bread tomorrow. However, He knows it based on His foreknowledge, not because He is forcing you to make bread. He simply knows what the outcome of your choices will be. You will freely choose to make bread, and He knows this. You would be equally free to choose not to make bread, and He would know if you were going to choose that as well.
Fatalism makes the leap that since God knows something, He has decreed it. Rather, sound doctrine teaches us that God, in His infinite power and knowledge, gave us free will — which gives us the ability to disobey that which He desires, as in the Garden of Eden.
Knowing something is going to happen is not the same as causing it to happen.
The Dangers of Fatalism
Fatalism essentially eliminates responsibility for our actions. If our actions are predetermined, we are not responsible for any terrible things we do. It was all set out for us by Fate or God.
This also makes God exceptionally cruel, forcing us into sinful actions only to punish us for them. Not only that but if our sinful choices are caused by Him, then all of the bad things that have come into the world because of sin are also due to His whims.
This sort of thinking can quickly lead to anger with God, and understandably so; what sort of God would force us to do terrible things to each other? What sort of God would make sure the world would fall so there would be disease and hunger and disaster? Certainly not the God of love, perfection, and goodness the Bible proclaims.
Rather, if God gave us free will and foreknew what was going to happen but allowed us to make our own decisions anyway that we might choose love, He is instead astoundingly generous in allowing us to make choices and not controlling us as He is certainly able to do.
What Does This Mean?
The reality is that as fallen human beings, we are naturally inclined to choose evil over good, thus standing in opposition to God. However, He has provided a way of reconciliation through Christ, who enables us to choose what is right.
Let us praise God for His generosity and let us also use the choice that He has given us to choose Him.
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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. Her passions for Biblical study and creativity collide in her writing. Her debut novel Wraithwood releases Nov. 7, 2020. She has had 150+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.