9 Mar 2016

When God's in the details

12:42 pm on 9 March 2016

Different faiths mean different views on how we should, and do, make choices. 

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Photo: Image: Lucy Han

Image: Lucy Han

This feature is part of our two-week series on choices. Click here for more.  

Who we turn to for guidance when we find ourselves at a crossroads varies from person to person. Some of us consult a best friend or parent or mentor, while others look beyond the human realm for spiritual guidance. After all, what if our destiny has already been written in the stars, and what looks like a choice is actually a predetermined path?

We asked five religious leaders how free will, fate and destiny are understood within their faith.


Ajahn Chandako, Vimutti Buddhist Monastery

The natural law of karma in no way implies a sense of fate. Karmic influences and personality traits are never fixed.

How is the idea of predestination understood in Buddhism?
In the teachings of the Buddha, there is no such thing as predestination. There are influences from the results of past karma that we have made, but there is always a choice on how we react to those results. Certain events or trends may be predictable, but nothing is absolutely fixed.

The natural law of karma in no way implies a sense of fate. Karmic influences and personality traits are never fixed, and always in flux, depending on the choices we make.

Are we responsible for the choices we make?
Nothing has been decided for us; we are fully responsible for the choices that we make.

Is a higher power in every decision we make?
No. The Buddha’s teachings, the Dhamma, are independent of a god, gods, or a higher power.

Rabbi Brent Gutmann, Beth Shalom synagogue

How is the idea of predestination understood in Judaism?
Judaism does not include a belief in heaven or hell in the same sense as within Christianity. Traditional Jewish theology posits that every soul, even those of evil individuals, will require some cleansing in purgatory, not to exceed twelve months’ time, and then they will re-join God.  

We are responsible for our own choices. We don’t know the future to come. God didn’t “decide” what we will do in any sense.

Therefore, an idea that an individual is predestined for salvation or damnation is impossible according to Judaism. God, being omniscient, may know our future, but that knowledge is complete inaccessible to us and, therefore, irrelevant. Of greater concern to us is that every individual possesses free will to behave morally or immorally and determine their future, regardless of whether that ultimate future is known to God.

How much free will does a person really have?
We are radically free. This was God’s intention in creating us “in the image of God” (Genesis 1). Our role on Earth is to help God “complete” creation by observing God’s commandments, which were revealed on Mount Sinai to the Children of Israel through Moses. We are responsible for our own choices. We don’t know the future to come. God didn’t “decide” what we will do in any sense. We have free will.

Is God in every decision we make?
No. We should strive to be “God-conscious,” to be guided by our Yetzer HaTov, our Good Urges, as we make decisions during our daily life. God does not influence our behaviour, except through the consequences of our actions.

Please share a passage from the Torah that highlights the beliefs around predestination in Judaism.
There is no description of predestination in Torah. I suggest this from the teachings of the early rabbis, [in which] Rabbi Akiva teaches, “All is foreseen, yet [free] choice is given. By [God’s] goodness is the world judged. Yet all things follow the larger portion of [human acts].” (Pirkei Avot 3:15). The last line, “all things follow…” teaches us that as human beings we are not required to be perfect. That is why we are so dependent on God’s goodness. We want to act so that our good deeds outweigh our sins. The consequence of this isn’t that we be sent to heaven or hell as a result, but rather that by acting sinfully, we create hell on Earth, or by acting according to God’s wishes, we create our own salvation.

Dame Lyndsay Freer, The Catholic Diocese of Auckland

Our deliberate acts belong us us. Responsibility for an action can be diminished or nullified by ignorance, fear, or other psychological or social factors.

How is the idea of predestination understood in Catholicism?
God created us to be rational beings, giving us the freedom and dignity to initiate and control our own actions and to make our own choices. And God makes available to every person the “grace” to learn to differentiate / distinguish between good and evil. Our response to that grace determines the choices we make but at the same times does not deprive us of our freedom to co-operate, or fail to co-operate, in terms of our genuine understanding of right and wrong. Our deliberate acts belong us us. Responsibility for an action can be diminished or nullified by ignorance, fear, or other psychological or social factors.

If our destiny has already been determined, how much free will does a person really have?
Our destiny is not determined by god but in terms of the choices we make. It is determined by us. When faced with a choice, we decide what alternative or option we wish to choose. The consequences of that action are our responsibility, not God’s. Everything has not already been decided for us by God, but by our own co-operation with the knowledge God gives us to choose good or evil.

Is God in every decision we make?
No, because that would be at odds with the freedom that God gives us to make our own individual choices in the light of our knowledge and our acceptance of what is good and right, and what is not. There are many references to our freedom in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Sirach 14:15, in speaking about God, it reads: “It was He who created humankind in the beginning and He left them in the power of their own free choice.” In the New Testament, in his Letter to the Galations 5:1, St Paul writes: “Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”


Sheikh Mohammad Amir, Chairman of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand

If our actions are willed by Allah, someone might say, then they are in fact His actions.

How is the idea of predestination understood within Islam?
God Almighty knows before He creates anything that He is going to create it, and that it will be of such and such magnitude, quality or nature, etc. He also specifies the time of its coming into being and its passing away, and the place of its occurrence.

One who believes in the true God should believe that there are no accidents in nature. But if Allah Almighty predetermines everything, which includes our so-called free actions, in what way are [people] free, and how are we responsible for our actions?

It is not difficult to reconcile divine predestination and human responsibility. Allah decided to create man as a free agent, but He knows (and how can He not know!), before creating every man, how he is going to use his free will; what, for instance, his reaction would be when a Prophet clarifies Allah’s message to him. This foreknowledge and its registering in a ‘book’ is called qadar (predestination).

The Qur’an answers this question by reminding us that it was Allah who willed that we shall be of free will, and it is He who allows us to use our will.

But men would not be so free if whenever any of them wills to do evil, Allah prevents him from doing it and compels him to do good. “If our actions are willed by Allah,” someone might say, “then they are in fact His actions.”

This objection is based on a confusion that Allah wills what we will in the sense of granting us the will to choose and enabling us to execute that will, i.e., He creates all that makes it possible for us to do it. He does not will it in the sense of doing it, otherwise it would be quite in order to say, when we drink or eat or sleep for instance, that Allah performed these actions. Allah creates them, He does not do or perform them.

Another objection, based on another confusion, is that if Allah allows us to do evil, then He approves of it and likes it. However, to will something in the sense of allowing a person to do it is one thing; and to approve of his action and commend it, is quite another. NOT everything that Allah wills He likes.

He has granted man the choice between belief and disbelief, but He does not, of course, like men to disbelieve (to be thankless). Allah Almighty says, “If you art ungrateful, Allah is independent of you. Yet He approves not ungratefulness in His servants; but if you are grateful, He will approve it in you.” (Az-Zumar: 7)”


Ravin Kotak, Religious Committee Chairman of the Bharatiya Mandir Temple

Bhagavad-gita, [the 700-verse Hindu scripture in Sanskrit that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata] explains that state of consciousness in critical moment of death is crucial for the choice of new body: "Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his present body, in his next life he will attain to that state without fail."

At the moment of death, the soul together subtle body leaves the gross, physical body. It is the subtle body and our desires and thoughts recorded therein and recalled by us at this moment which are decisive as to the destination of our next body. This transmigration of soul from one body to another is called external reincarnation.