7 – Flatland

The Bible speaks of Christ as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). It says that God calls us, not according to our works, but “according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began” (2nd Tim. 1:9). Yet salvation was actually secured for us by His death and resurrection that occurred through the course of history. The Scriptures tell us that Christ was slain because men chose to crucify Him at a point in time. But they also tell us that He was slain because God determined that it should come to pass from before time began (Acts 2:23). Jesus was delivered up by the sovereign, predetermined choice of God, and yet He holds those accountable who crucified Him.

These are not ideas that can simply be written off as poetic speech. But how can this be? How can something happen because of consequences of my choices and actions, and yet at the same time be something that happened because God decreed that it would happen way back in eternity past? Perhaps the way to resolve this difficulty is to try to understand that God is outside of time. For Him all times are now.

There is a fascinating little book called Flatland15 that is an essential read for everyone (if you can find it). It is a good story for illustrating a lesson about faith. I’m not sure if it was written for that purpose at all. If you can find one in your local library, it will be in the physics section. But its point is good for our purposes here. It introduces an idea which, if grasped, is very helpful for trying to get an understanding of a very difficult concept; namely, the idea that God is able to transcend time, and yet He can interact with us while we are captive in it.

We think of our world as a three-dimensional world. We know ahead and behind, side to side, and up and down. A box has three dimensions: length, width, and height. But Flatland is the story of a little guy who lives in a world of two dimensions. Flatland has no height, no “up and down.” Think of it like a world that is the thickness of a piece of paper; a world that has front to back, and side to side, but no over and under. In fact, these people do not even know and cannot even understand that there is up and down, or above and below. For those still struggling to try to picture it, think of the 3D-Maze screen saver on your computer. You have walls around you, on all sides, but there is no concept of anything existing above the ceiling or below the floor. In fact, you don’t even perceive that there is a ceiling or floor—just the walls.

I don’t remember if the main character in the book actually has a name. But for the sake of telling the story, I will refer to him as “Flatlander.” One night Flatlander is in his bedroom, when suddenly another being appears in his room out of nowhere. Flatlander is terrified. How did this stranger just show up like this? The visitor then announces to the little fellow that his name is Sphere. He comes from a world of the third dimension. His mission is to let Flatlander know that there is more to the universe than his piddly little two- dimensional world.

To understand how Sphere appeared, think of it this way: if Flatlander lived within a world the thickness of a piece of paper and had no concept of the vertical dimension, then all that Sphere would have to do would be to pass through the sheet of paper. As he did so, he would at first appear, grow gradually larger, grow smaller again and then disappear. This is easy for us to grasp, yet it is totally baffling for the little guy in Flatland. He asks Sphere how he appeared from nowhere. Sphere told him he just came in from up above. Sphere tries to explain it, but Flatlander doesn’t get it. “What does ‘up’ mean?” he asks.

So Sphere moves around to Flatlander’s underside and touches him. Flatlander says, “I feel you touching me on the inside.” Sphere replies, “But I wasn’t touching your inside, I was touching you from underneath.” Now Flatlander wonders, “What is ‘underneath’?” Flatlander now has to grasp the concept of “up.”

After some confusion because of the obvious differences in perception, Sphere gets desperate. He finally decides to get underneath Flatlander and to lift him up. And all of a sudden, Flatlander understands. It is now the most amazing revelation. And now try to imagine how different the world looks from “up” for the first time!

The trick here is to take this illustration to the next step. We tend to think of our world as three-dimensional. But things are not always as they appear.

There is a modern development in the field of physics called “string theory,” that has determined that there are likely as many as eleven dimensions in the universe! But for us mere mortals who are “scientifically challenged,” physicists tell us that in some ways you can think of time like a “fourth dimension.” When Jesus appeared to the disciples after His resurrection, He appeared out of nowhere in the upper room. They thought He was a ghost. But He very clearly told them that He was not. In fact, He said to them, “Handle me and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:39). Quite simply, if Jesus’ resurrected body was not limited by space and time—if He is able in His resurrection body to move in a fourth dimension— then perhaps all He would have to do is to move in that extra dimension (for instance, move ahead slightly in time, walk into the room, and “wait”), and He could appear and disappear just as easily as Sphere did in Flatland.

As an interesting little twist, after Sphere had lifted Flatlander up, Sphere said it was now Flatlander’s mission to go into the world and tell them all that there is a third dimension in the universe. But he was eventually locked up as insane. They were constantly saying that he needed to describe “up” in terms of north, south, east, and west. Otherwise, they could not understand his wild ravings. Similarly, in the Christian experience, those lost cannot come to a saving faith in Christ unless God sovereignly “lifts them up.” As His sovereign act, He imparts a new, spiritually alive nature as part of the gift of salvation. At the instant of the new birth, people are transformed into a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Only then are they able to experience the joy that comes from worshipping God as a redeemed soul.

Interestingly enough, the story ends on a humorous note with Sphere being awakened out of a sound sleep in his bedroom. A visitor suddenly appeared to him out of nowhere. When Sphere questioned how he got there, the visitor said, “I have come to you from the fourth dimension. I have come to show you that there is more to the universe than your piddly little three dimensions.” Sphere said he was crazy and rolled over to go to sleep!

I believe that the Jews and Greeks of Jesus’ day were quite comfortable with the concept of God being outside of time. As Peter says, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day” (2nd Pet. 3:8). Or as David says in the Psalms, “For a thousand years in thy sight are like yesterday when it passes by” (Ps. 90:4). For them it was a non-issue, and so it was not specifically addressed in the Scriptures simply because, for its original audience, it was not worthy of the price of the parchment on which it was written.

But we, in our modern times, often tend to think of time as something that is flat and linear. We know that God has existed from eternity past. But we have a hard time wrapping our minds around that. We read the Scriptures that speak of us being chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). And when we think of our being chosen, we marvel at God’s working in our lives.

But when we ponder the destiny of those around us who are not believers, we can become very distressed by another side of this concept of God choosing us. What if our lost loved ones are not chosen from before the foundation of the world? Does it do any good to pray? Should we simply resign ourselves to accepting God’s will that our child or mate is maybe just not chosen?

Perhaps we need to think of it this way. God, being outside of time, knows the end from the beginning. He knows what you are going to do. When the Spirit of God prompts you to pray for the salvation of someone who is lost, He knows whether or not you will do so. If you are moved in your heart to pray and you do, then tomorrow it will be that God knew in eternity past that you would. And tomorrow will show that He sometimes chose to intervene in the lives of others as a response to your prayers. If He prompts but you do not respond, tomorrow may show that He did not choose that one in eternity past. And yet it may turn out to be that God will not have chosen because you did not respond. Consider the parallel concept of Ezekiel and his calling by God to preach (Ezek. 3:16-21)

Ironically, as an interesting thought regarding this view of time, and how God is outside of time, notice that most of those Scripture passages that say God chose us do not say specifically that He chose us in eternity past. They merely indicate that He chose us before we came to Him or cared about Him. For instance, Acts 14:38 says, “…and as many as had been ordained to eternal life believed.” This is a proof text, typical of many (such as Acts 11:18, 16:14, 2 Tim. 2:25-26) that are commonly used by the Calvinist to re-enforce the idea that people believe because they were ordained to do so—in eternity past, strictly by God’s choice, apart from any intercession from the saints. But this is a meaning that is read into the text. The passage doesn’t specifically say all of that. All it has to say is that God moved, imparted grace to them at that moment, for whatever reason, and they believed. Romans 8:28-29 is another passage used to support the Calvinist concept of unconditional election. Again, this passage says nothing about God’s foreknowledge from eternity past. It only has to say that for the ones that He sovereignly decided to set His love upon, at some point in time, these He will continue to love until He receives them into glory. And even those few that expressly state that He chose “before the foundation of the world” (such as Eph. 1:4) do not exclude the possibility that it was a choice He made because of what He knew His church was going to do throughout time. Christ was “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8), but the crucifixion occurred as an event during the course of history because of choices made by men at that time.

As I said before, I see great virtue in accepting things by faith simply because God said they are so. But with regard to your lost friends and loved ones who need to be saved, perhaps God has not yet said anything at all, except for the possibilities He has spoken into your heart! God is shaping us into Christlikeness. Part of His process of shaping a Christian is imparting His passion to seek and save the lost. He wants to develop a passion in us that can become an effectual part of the process of bringing others to salvation. Think of the possibilities this has, for those we want to see come to Christ as we respond in faith to love them and pray for them. God, because He is not limited by time as we are, knew beforehand what would occur, and how—all times being present to Him at once. But at times through history, as we mark and understand time, He chooses to set His love on some, in response to our prayers and in response to events as they occur. So His choosing us can be from “before the foundation of the world,” even though, also, He chose in response to the intercession of His saints throughout the course of time.

Romans chapter 9 would probably be the first and strongest passage that comes to mind supporting the Calvinistic concept that God’s electing some to salvation has nothing to do with anything that anyone does, but is based strictly on the eternal decree of God before the foundation of the world.

For though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:11-13).

Be careful to note some things about this passage. First of all, Paul was not writing here about the election of individuals. He was explaining God’s reason for setting Israel aside to bring the fullness of the Gentiles into salvation. I believe that a direct application of the concept here to people on an individual level cannot be made without some difficulty, and here is why. In this particular instance, God was speaking to Rebekah about the twins in her womb as a unique, pivotal case in history. God was creating the start of two nations through these twins, and this special revelation was given to her when He chose them as the beginning point for two nations to be raised up (Gen. 25:22-23).

While the Bible does tell us that God chose special roles for these two people (Jacob and Esau) before their birth, this passage does not necessarily imply that in every case he must. Again, it seems to be a theological assumption easily, but inappropriately, read into the text. Consider, for example, a parallel concept. John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). But the Scriptures do not state that God did this for everyone in the time before Christ’s birth and sacrificial death, under the dispensation of law; neither does He do this now for every believer, after Christ’s resurrection, under the dispensation of grace. For the rest of us, the Spirit is given at the time of salvation.16 And interestingly enough, in a similar way, John’s mother was given special revelation to confirm this unique situation for her son, as well.

Also, note that God’s use of the words “loved” and “hated” here are not any different than when Jesus said, “He who does not hate his own mother or father…”(Luke 14:26), or when He said, “He who hates his life in this world will keep it in the next” (John 12:25). It is a term showing preference. We don’t take this to imply that we should hate our parents. One of the Ten Commandments is to honor our parents. Nor are we to hate ourselves. Jesus told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In a similar way, this was merely a statement about a preference of position—the older shall serve the younger.17

And finally, notice Paul’s primary point in this passage. Paul was trying to show his readers that God’s purpose was shown by choosing these twins before they were born—before they had done any works, good or bad. He was making the point that believing what God says (believing on Jesus to be saved) is not a work. Indeed, in this context in Romans, the very thing the Jews were criticized for by Paul was not coming to God by faith. Faith is specifically contrasted here to works—in other words, faith is specifically pointed to as not being “a work done to be saved”—because Paul was making the point that we are saved because we believe, rather than by what we do. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited unto him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).

And so ironically, as much as this passage proves (as the Calvinist says) that we are not saved by what we do, but because of God’s electing choice, the Calvinist should recognize that it expressly says that we are saved because we believe (i.e., belief comes before salvation). To see this passage as a statement that God set Esau up to be an object of His wrath (with “hatred” taken to mean “being despised”) before his birth, might certainly be God’s prerogative. However, it also seems to contradict the idea that God desires that none should perish, but that all would come to repentance and salvation. And it is secondary to Paul’s main point of trying hard to convey the idea that we are saved because we exercise faith, rather than by works.

I would like to offer an illustration here to make the point that God’s will does change depending on whether or not people obey. Let us suppose that it is Saturday morning. You are engaged to be married, and today is the big day. But you are a Christian, and your future mate is a non-Christian. From the Scriptures it is clear that God’s will for you today (Saturday) is that you break off the engagement and not be married to that person (2 Cor. 6:14; 1st Cor. 7:39). But when you wake up on Sunday morning, God’s will is different for you depending on whether or not you were obedient on Saturday and broke off the engagement, or were disobedient and got married anyway. If you were obedient Saturday and cancelled the wedding, God’s will on Sunday is still that you should not be married to that non-believer. But if you were disobedient on Saturday and married that person anyway, then God’s will for you on Sunday is that you should be married to that person (1 Cor. 7:10-11, 7:21). God’s will depends on your actions. God knew from eternity past what your choice was going to be, to be sure. It was, however, still a real choice you made. And you are still accountable.

Where you are in your life today is partly because of choices you have made. It is also partly the result of influences on your life made because of other people’s decisions that ultimately affected you, as well. But more specific to the point of this topic, the effect your life will have for others’ salvation depends very much on whether you choose to respond to God, when He prompts you to pray and intercede for the lost, or choosing instead to ignore God’s promptings. Aren’t you glad that someone prayed for you? God changes the way He acts depending on people’s hearts and actions (Jer. 18:7- 10). Notice a specific example in the Old Testament. Jonah was sent to preach to the people of Nineveh. Notice the third chapter of this little book— especially verses 4, 9 and 10. What we see is that God said He was going to wipe them out. But they repented, thinking that God may change His mind. And He did.

So perhaps the problem with election is resolved not so much by a different theology, but by a different concept of time, and what eternity looks like from God’s perspective. I offer the thought in this chapter as a way of conveying the concept that there is room to see a real cause and effect in our praying for people. Even if God did know from eternity past whether or not I would pray, it doesn’t mean that He sovereignly decreed that I would, leaving me only with the false impression that it was really a decision I made. He knew whether I would or would not pray and intercede for the lost. But it is my real decision. And it will have real eternal consequences.

For those who feel that this concept slights the sovereignty of God, I would say this: recognize that if God chooses to limit the way He works in the world, then it is a self-imposed choice. As such, even this self-limiting choice is still a sovereign act. So why could God not choose to limit Himself to working through the instrumentality of the prayers and actions of the saints?

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