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#711 Historical Contingency and Christian Belief

December 12, 2020

Hello Dr. Craig Many thanks for your podcasts and writing, which, though (as yet) not a Christian, I nevertheless have enjoyed for many years. It seems to me that our important choices in life are products of what we understand to be good at the time and that this understanding is a contingent product of life experiences. Had Joseph Stalin lived 50 years earlier or in a different part of the world he'd have very possibly lived what in human terms would count as a good life. Or had we lived in Nazi Germany who knows what dubious actions we would have been drawn into?

The contingency of our understanding, and thus of our choices, tallies well with the Christian belief that salvation is a gift of God that cannot be earned, that nothing we can do can - per se - save (or damn) us. But if this is true then what's the theological point of the choice to become a Christian? As a lifestyle choice it has much to commend it, but whence any salvific or moral value? If it's our choice, it's entirely contingent and without salvific value. If, on the other hand, the choice is a response to the intervention of the "holy spirit", then it is ultimately God's choice and not ours, and thus arbitrary, since God has no obvious basis on which to choose whom to save: however apparently good or bad our choices, we're all just choosing what seems good to us based on our limited and circumstantial understanding.

The above line of thinking seems pretty hard to escape to me and leaves me feeling somewhat fatalistic. Am I understanding what Christians believe here correctly and if not can you put me on the correct path?

Many thanks,


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Dr. craig’s response


It is disorienting to realize that if I had been raised in Nazi Germany I might well have been a member of the Hitlerjugend or even a guard at a concentration camp. But I don’t think that such historical contingencies have the theological consequences that you imagine, Grant.

First of all, I don’t see that the historical contingency of our choices and actions has anything to do with whether they merit salvation. It could still be the case that performing good actions in whatever circumstances I happen to find myself are meritorious of salvation. Assuming freedom of the will, there are plenty of things I could do in those circumstances to save or damn myself. (If you’re assuming causal determinism, then that’s an entirely different question.)

Fortunately, God has chosen not to judge us by our good works when it comes to salvation. Rather He saves us by His unmerited grace, appropriated by faith. Christ’s atoning death redeems us from sin and its penalty, and we have only to gratefully receive God’s free pardon to be saved. So “the theological point of the choice to become a Christian” is that we thereby come to find forgiveness and new life.

I agree with you that our free choice to become a Christian is “entirely contingent and without salvific value.” We can imagine circumstances in which I would not have become a Christian, and my contingent choice to follow Christ is not meritorious and therefore of no salvific value. It has salvific importance in that by my free choice I receive God’s grace and am saved, but it has no merit vis-à-vis my salvation.

At the same time, my free choice is, indeed, “a response to the intervention of the ‘Holy Spirit’,” Who convicts me of sin and draws me to God. If the work of the Holy Spirit is resistible rather than coercive, then there is no danger that the choice “is ultimately God's choice and not ours.” It is up to you whether you want to yield to the wooing of the Holy Spirit or not. Nor is God’s choice “arbitrary,” as if God has elected to offer saving grace to some but not others. On the Molinist account of providence and predestination that I favor[1] God offers sufficient grace for salvation to every human being He creates and seeks his salvation.

Does it follow that “God has no obvious basis on which to choose whom to save”? Well, yes and no. As I said, God’s grace doesn’t pick out certain people on the basis of their merits and offer salvation to them alone. Rather God’s grace is offered indiscriminately and freely. But in another sense God does have an obvious basis on which to choose whom to save, namely, He chooses to save any and all who choose to receive His love and forgiveness. All who “receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” will be saved (Romans 5.17).

You complain that “however apparently good or bad our choices, we're all just choosing what seems good to us based on our limited and circumstantial understanding.” That’s true, but as I explained, God doesn’t judge us on the basis of such choices. Christianity is not the doctrine that if your good works outbalance your bad works, then you will saved! As for the choice to receive the gift of God’s grace, don’t forget that the circumstances mentioned include, as Molina emphasized, the various gifts and ministrations of the Holy Spirit convicting us and drawing us to God. Every person is given sufficient grace to come to salvation.

The doctrine sketched above is the very opposite of fatalism. While some Christians may believe that God arbitrarily chooses to save some and damn others, many other Christians believe that that is not biblical teaching, which holds that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2.4). Our salvation is up to our free choice.

[1] See Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers (Grand Rapids, Mich.:  Zondervan, 2011).


- William Lane Craig