God, God's Will, Predestination, and Evil

By James A. Long

From a discussion with a Young People's Church Group

Part I

Question -- There are so many questions we'd like to discuss with you -- about God, and free will, and Adam's Fall, that we don't know where to start. Of course we can say everything is "the will of God," and for some in our group that is enough, perhaps because they have more trust than I. But I would like to ask, what is your creed or formula of belief?

Comment -- Before I say anything else, let me make one thing clear: as far as I am concerned, you and I, and everyone, are all searchers for truth. It matters little whether a person is twenty, fifty or eighty years of age -- we all seek knowledge and understanding in our own individual way. Therefore no one has the right to speak with 'final authority' on truth, or to attempt to give the last word on the laws of nature.

You ask, what is my creed or formula of belief? I have no creed, no organized formula of faith, no dogma of belief. Just as every blade of grass is different, so every human being is different. While the principles of truth are unchanging, the manner in which those principles have found expression has varied considerably with every world teacher. This is not only natural; it is essential to growth, for one of the most prevalent tendencies in human nature is the inclination to crystallize, to settle down comfortably with a tidy set of beliefs, and think: "Now, at last, I have the truth. There is no need to worry any longer about seeking it." That attitude is to me one of the greatest stumbling blocks to the spiritual progress of anyone sincerely seeking to expand his understanding of life.

I don't like the word creed one bit, for the reason that it usually connotes an authoritative summary of religious doctrine, or some formal statement of faith. That is precisely what I object to -- regardless of how lofty or true such may be. The most important thing in my opinion is not the attainment of truth (or of any aspect of it, since we never could arrive at truth per se), but the searching after and the reaching toward a greater and greater understanding of it. If I had to have a creed, that would be it: the absolute conviction of the soul's need for a free avenue of research within its own range of consciousness.

Question -- But you must believe in something. For example, do you believe in Jesus?

Comment -- Certainly I believe in Jesus -- though not necessarily as you do. I believe that Jesus was an incarnation of a Divine force, God if you prefer. But I also believe that Jesus was not unique in this, because every man potentially is a "son of God," an incarnation of his own inner divinity. Did not Jesus say to us that what he did we could do also, and even greater things? What did he mean by this except to remind us that we too are "temples of the Most High"? Those were not mere words of comfort; in them he left a message of immense hope and confidence in the spiritual destiny of man.

Question -- You seem to believe in God, but would you tell us exactly how you feel about Him?

Comment -- Do I believe in God? That all depends upon what you mean by God. If you mean, do I believe in a Personal God, a Deity outside of man, then I would have to say that my belief in God extends far beyond the usual orthodox view. God has become for me that Divine Intelligence which is the background and foreground of all creation. In other words, to my mind nothing could exist except it were a part of God, an expression of that divine force. Using our Christian terminology, this is what seems true to me:

First, that the Waters of Space of Genesis not only are boundless and infinite, but are the divine Source of all manifested creatures; second, that when God or the Elohim breathed on the Waters of Space the Void became a Fullness, and God burst forth from the Darkness on the face of the deep into Light -- and a universe with its hosts of life forms came into being. And third, that because the Elohim (to use again the Hebrew term for Gods plural, not God singular) impregnated every atom of Space with the divine essence, every facet of the universe must be an expression, however infinitesimal, of God -- which means, further, that every creature in the heavens and the earth has the opportunity to become self-consciously godlike. Obviously such self-conscious at-one-ment with God isn't accomplished in a day, but must take long ages through time and space until every aspect of God has had the chance to find expression in all the kingdoms. Then when the Great Day comes, all that was emanated from the Darkness of the Void will once again be indrawn into the bosom of God for its period of rest.

Question -- When you say it like that, it makes everything so big, so awesome. It almost scares me, though, because it's hard to get back into the orthodox view if you really let yourself go along those lines. You've made it pretty clear, however, that your school of thought isn't trying to replace anything that we've been taught.

Comment -- I am glad you expressed yourself just as you did, because the intent is not to replace anyone's beliefs, but rather to try to help an individual interpret his own faith in a fuller and richer way. The only 'dogma' that I adhere to is that there should be no dogmatization of thought. Truth is open to all, but the way thereto is a strictly individual affair. We shouldn't take anything as true unless it feels right deep down inside. Tomorrow any one of us may see things quite differently, have a greater understanding than we have today. Then today's belief will seem limited. So it is with growth on every plane of experience.

Question -- I like that, because the one thing I can't abide is to have somebody say: "Now this is the way things are, and that is all there is to it." I don't think anybody has the right to say that. So I have just been plodding along, trying to pick up what I could, a little here and a little there. I suppose everyone can have his own brand of truth. Is it possible that certain ideas in our Christian belief are somewhat similar to other beliefs?

Comment -- Not only is it possible, but you are absolutely right; and as you study the world's great religions and philosophies, both of the Occident and the Orient, you will find that all of them spring from a common source. The Christian Scriptures contain many of the same doctrines that Buddhism and Hinduism teach, though differently expressed; so too can you trace in the Gospels Hebrew and Greek influences. All postulate a divine source, whether called Jehovah, Brahma or Allah; the special Incarnation of God or Deity through Christ is directly parallel to the Hindu Avataras; and, as we know, the Golden Rule of moral and spiritual behavior is universally found. But just as with our Christian faith much dogmatism has entered in, so is this the case with the Eastern beliefs, and it is not always easy to see through these distortions.

Through comparison of the literatures, myths and traditions of other lands, we discover that the Creation story of Genesis, for example, is but one aspect of a universal tale, sacredly preserved in one form or another by every people the world over, whether civilized or primitive. Even though scientific and archaeological discovery has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that our earth is millions of years old instead of a mere 6,000 years, these Creation stories are not mere fantasy or childish imaginings. But how explain the creation of the heaven and the earth in six days, with God resting on the seventh! Taken literally, it is absurd; but it was never so intended. The Days of Creation, whether of the Christian Bible or of the Hindu Puranas, the American Indian legends or the Persian, are meant to symbolize Days of manifestation or activity, followed by Nights of withdrawal or rest -- each of these Days being a life-cycle of terrestrial experience, ranging from a few thousand to perhaps hundreds of thousands of years.

All of which leads us to the conclusion that man too must be very, very old. In fact, some scriptures assert that at least eighteen million years have elapsed since he became a self-conscious unit! Whatever his age, whether millions of years or only a few thousands, the fact remains that it has been the untiring effort of all the great spiritual reformers of the ages to help us grasp the larger picture of man's divine potential.

Question -- If every one of us, as you said, is an "incarnation of God," at least in degree; and if when God breathed on the Waters we all came into being, don't we have to go through all sorts of experience before we can join God again? But what happens between the first and the last step? How does it work out from the beginning until the end?

Comment -- As far as I know, there is only one process, one modus operandi of becoming like unto the god within, and that is through repetitive experiences until we learn completely the lessons that our earth has for us.

Question -- Are you referring to reincarnation? I was reared in a very orthodox family, and it's difficult for me to accept the idea. Still I can't quite throw it out, so I wish you'd say more about it.

Comment -- There is no need for anyone to believe in reincarnation. On the other hand, there is no need to be afraid of a new idea. But I will say this: the concept of rebirth is a very ancient one and can be recognized in every religion, even the Christian, despite the fact that great pains were taken in the early centuries to remove it as one of the cardinal doctrines of the Church.

For purposes of discussion, let us assume that the soul might need more time than just the seventy-odd years usually allotted to it. How would it manage this, if death ends all? I believe we will readily admit that we cannot fulfill one tenth of our deepest hopes in so short a period. Now let us assume further that in his divine wisdom God allows us another chance, another opportunity for development. Would it be sensible to go anywhere else but here on earth where we had already become somewhat familiar with this planet and its laws? There is another point equally important: haven't we set a number of causes in motion already and, if so, do we really believe we can reap the consequences of all our thoughts and acts before we die?

Question -- I have always thought that things are supposed to be a certain way, that nothing happens by chance. Yet I have also felt that man has a free will. I guess after all I am a fatalist, and yet I like to think we have some freedom of choice too.

Comment -- I don't think you are really a fatalist, but let me try to re-express the picture as I see it, without getting too far afield. If we believe that the law of cause and effect works not only physically but in our moral and spiritual relations as well, and that what we sow in the field of our soul we will have to reap somewhere at some time, then we see that nothing could "just happen" by chance, or contrary to the laws of nature. Yet this law of harmony is so delicately balanced that each individual finds it manifesting in a different manner, precisely according to his own soul-background.

Question -- What do you mean by "soul-background"? Is the soul the same as the spirit?

Comment -- Perhaps before I go further I had better briefly comment on this point concerning the soul. You are all familiar with St. Paul's division of man into three: body, soul and spirit. Now it is difficult for many people to understand that the soul and the spirit are not the same; but they arc not. You and I arc human souls, gaining experience here in a physical body, but we are directed or urged into this experience by the spirit that resides within us. I am sure none of you believes that your body is you; or that even your emotions and brain or soul are all there is to you. What motivates your aspirations, your deepest feelings, unless it is your divine spark, that essence of God which is at the root of every living organism? So, let us think then of the permanent part of us as the spirit, stirring into action the human soul, which again uses a physical body as its temple here on earth.

Now that permanent element in us has managed to guide us into the positions in life from which we may learn the most. Yet as each of us is a facet of the Divine Intelligence, with our own portion of free will, it is up to us to exercise the right of choice, to choose which path to take, what thoughts to entertain, what actions to perform. You can see therefore that the soul stands on a battleground between spirit and body, between aspiration toward God on the one hand, and material desire on the other. Ours is an animal body, a highly developed one, but still it comes from the matter side of nature. Our soul partakes of strength from above, the god in man, but it also is sensitive to the pull of our physical nature. Here is where we have freedom of choice and also where we learn.

Question -- I don't see how we can get around the idea of fatalism or predestination. Doesn't God have a will for our lives? And when we don't follow it, then we aren't in His will and have to search it out, don't we?

Comment -- In one sense, and a very true one, we are portion of Deity which is at the heart of each one of us. That means that within us is the strength and potency of individual, because it is the will of our own inner god whose divine force is impinging upon our soul. In that sense you could rightly say that man is "predestined" by his own inner god: to come into life and to experience the pain and pleasure of earthly existence.

But let us not confuse this with the old dogma that asserted that man is preordained before birth to suffer punishment or reward, according to the whim or caprice of an extracosmic Deity. No man is predestined or preordained by any God outside of himself. Nor could he be predestined by anything other than the force of his own past experiences, the energies stored up by himself in the permanent portion of his being. In other words, man comes into life "preordained" by himself, and himself alone, to unfold and develop that which he has accumulated in his own soul-life; also stored there is his own individual quality of free will which he can utilize to make of himself whatever he chooses. We are prone to become fatalists because for centuries we have tended to view life and the circumstances around us through the narrow perspective of one lifetime. But once man awakens to a self-conscious knowledge of his full humanhood and responsibility, then fatalism is out of the picture.

Can any one of you possibly believe that you were "born in sin" literally, and that you are preordained to error unless God so wills it that you shall follow goodness? If we approach the question solely from the standpoint of the body, we could say that man is "born in sin" -- if we mean by this born into matter, into a material animal body. But man is not his body. The soul is free, as near to freedom as it is near to its own innate godhood. That is the great challenge: man has within him the power through his portion of free will to become the willing helper of his own inner god.

Part II

Question -- I'm still unsatisfied about the matter of God's will and predetermination. How much leeway am I allowed, or am I absolutely bound by the will of God?

Comment -- In the ultimate sense, every entity in space is within the realm of the divine will, under the impulsion of the divine energies that flow through and permeate the universe. We are not the marionettes of some all-powerful personal God, but free-willing agents, however unconscious we still are of our innate potential. Yet while each has a unique destiny, no man is an island apart and distinct from every other, but part of a great continent of experience and growth that encompasses the whole of humanity.

But how far you will be allowed to go off course, just how wide is your stretch of deviation -- that I cannot answer for you. No one could. The only one who can answer that is yourself. We all make mistakes again and again, but that is not the deciding factor. What counts is the motive of our lives -- the quality of aspiration that governs the whole of our thoughts and acts. However, we play with fire the moment we try to figure out just how far we can go wrong and "still get away with it."

Question -- I didn't mean it that way. This is what I had in mind. Yesterday several of us were in Los Angeles for the ball game, and we had to wait quite a while before catching our bus home. Skid Row, as you know, is not far from the bus terminal; you see all sorts of people there, and you can't help wondering how they ever got so low down. Then you think to yourself, "But for the grace of God, there go I." I had always felt that no one would be permitted to get so far out of line, even with our free will, because I figured there would be something that would predetermine our going just so far and no farther. But there apparently wasn't anything to stop those people. That is where it is difficult to discern the line of cleavage between fatalism and free will. So my question is: how far can one go without having some kind of brakes take hold?

Comment -- Anyone can go completely off course, if that is what he wants to do more than anything else. Fortunately, there is generally plenty of interference somewhere along the line, usually from within. Not only do we have our conscience, and a lively one once we start to heed it, but we likewise have the continuous presence of our guardian angel, which protects us more often than we know. How far can we go without having the brakes take hold? Just as far as our conscience will allow. We are perfectly aware when we go against that warning voice, which will never tell us what to do but will always stand ready to give us a "prick" when we even so much as think about doing something that for us, individually, would be a deviation from our true course.

Question -- Would you call conscience then an instrumentality of God's will?

Comment -- You could say that conscience is an instrumentality or working tool of the god within, for if the voice of conscience is born of long ages of trial and error, it must be closely linked with the tireless effort of the god part of ourselves to bring us into line with its divine will. Moreover, we are as near to our guardian angel as we are near to our own skin; but this relationship is two-way. Unless we earn that protection, we shall not receive it. "God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." It is the very reaping of sorrow and pain, of frustration and loneliness, that is the surest brake against our going too far downhill. But when a person deliberately chooses to stifle the prickings of conscience, he will have to learn the hard and often brutal way.

So let us not condemn others too quickly. Except for help along the way, or other factors not easily seen, any one might find himself heading toward Skid Row, for there are no brakes against a man's willful corruption of his divine quality of free will excepting those which he himself applies. Most individuals, whatever the tragedy of their present life, have deeply rooted within, seeded there by past experiences, untapped resources of strength and nobility; and once the will is quickened to turn in the upward direction, there are no heights so great that the basest man cannot, if he will, achieve.

Question -- It surely looked as if the scales had been weighted against some of those people, as though God really had predetermined for them a course of evil. You don't believe that, do you?

Comment -- I certainly do not. It may look that way, viewed from the closed circle of a one-life experience; but don't forget the continuity of consciousness that spans both birth and death. I realize how difficult it is for us who have been schooled to think of one short term on earth to welcome this idea of the rebirth of the soul again and again. I am not asking you to accept this idea, but only to consider it well before you cast it out.

The pattern of growth is not a hit-and-miss affair, but is the inevitable effect of the initial drive in the seed of godhood that is at the heart of every creature within the universe. Therefore the scales could not possibly be weighted against man. On the contrary, if they were weighted at all, it would be in his favor, for the pressure of the evolutionary current is ever forward, with the entire life-wave of humanity being slowly but surely carried along in its stream. There is nothing static in nature -- either we go forward, or we go backward, and that is where the challenge comes in. In the kingdoms below man, the urge is ever upward toward the human kingdom, and growth there is automatic and without self-conscious direction. But in the human kingdom we must decide which way we want to grow -- for it is possible to go downward, and way down; it is equally possible to make great strides forward insofar as the quality of our consciousness is concerned.

After all, it is consciousness and what we do with it that is the core of our problem. We have today a certain horizon of consciousness that represents the sum total of what we are, which horizon is for us at this moment a Ring-pass-not, beyond which we cannot go. But the Father within is pushing and prodding us all the time, however unaware we may be of his attentions, to expand that horizon and go beyond our Ring-pass-not toward a more distant goal of understanding and wisdom. In the process of growth we make errors, naturally, but we learn in time what is right and what is wrong; and if the current of our aspiration is flowing toward the light, that is all that is required. Either we go forward with the life-wave of humanity toward our goal; or, if we prefer, we can deliberately go downwards and break our link with divinity -- but this happens so very rarely that we can discount it for the general run of mankind.

It is impossible for us to stay exactly on the same level of consciousness, because every moment of the day we are moving, hopefully, toward a greater field of vision and experience, and with each forward step we find a new Ring-pass-not. When the moment of death comes, the quality of a man's innermost thoughts through his lifetime will reveal him to be either a weaker or a stronger character.

Question -- Would you explain where the Devil fits into your scheme? This isn't merely a hypothetical question, it's a very real one for me right now. You see, my father was for many years a minister, and quite broadminded I used to think; and he's a grand person too. But with the development of nuclear weapons, he has become quite rabid. He is convinced that it's all the work of the Devil. Nothing I say will change his mind. What do you think?

Comment -- I can appreciate your problem, because it goes to the very heart of a man's inmost beliefs. Let me say first that I sympathize deeply with the horror your father feels at the use of nature's secrets for destructive purposes. Yet I for one cannot consider the birth and growth and present rapid development of nuclear physics as the work of the Devil -- if there is one -- or of any of his hosts of darkness. The usage of power for evil is always a devilish and fiendish thing -- but it is not the work of Satan.

There is a big difference here. It may appear trivial, but it goes right to the core of the theological problem of good and evil: good as the manifestation of God, and evil as that of the Devil. To me there is no devil who willfully leads human beings into ways of evil; nor is there any personal God who as willfully leads human beings into paths of rectitude. However, good and evil, just as heat and cold, day and night, and all other bipolar manifestations, are always with us. But they are relative conditions of living beings, and not inherent entities in themselves. Therefore good and evil in human relationships are seen as relative states of consciousness. Good, we can say, represents that which is in harmony with the upward trend of progress; evil, that which tends to retrogress, to distort and upset the natural equilibrium. What seems good to some aborigines in Australia and Africa may seem frightfully evil to us -- and, perhaps, vice versa!

Question -- If, as you say, there is no Devil, do you think God allowed man to discover the secret of the atom?

Comment -- I don't believe God had anything to do with our discovery of the atom, nor that God would stop us from exploiting its use. It will be man himself who will put the brakes on its destructive use. Also I believe so firmly in the law of cause and effect, that to me the discoveries of nuclear physics are all part of the greater opportunities that we as a race have earned. I think we need have no fear that headlong destruction will eventuate.

Question -- Then you believe that man will go only so far, that he won't deliberately commit race suicide? You said earlier that if someone really wanted to go wrong and followed that way long enough, he would eventually go down and perhaps even break contact. Why wouldn't the same thing happen to humanity which, after all, is just a couple of billion human beings all together?

Comment -- It could very easily, if there were sufficient desire in enough human beings to follow the path of destruction and evil. But I am as sure today, as I am sure of anything in this world, that the balance is strongly on the side of right. Why do I say this? Take a cross section of any city, community, nation or group of nations. You will find outstanding examples of the best and finest in human qualities, as well as the very worst; but alongside these will be the vast number of men and women whom no one ever knows by name but who, literally, are the "salt of the earth." In their simple way they are exemplifying qualities of courage, dedication to their particular duties, however humble and seemingly unimportant, and a natural understanding of their neighbor. All of which is weighed in the balance of destiny, as accurately as are the more brilliant virtues and qualities of character displayed by prominent men. That the scales are likewise heavy with inertia, selfishness and greed there can be little doubt.

Viewed in perspective, I am convinced that history will look back on this age as one of the most perilous, yes, but also the most remarkable for spiritual as well as material advancement. For the discovery of nuclear fission has focalized an intensive and direct inquiry into essential values. This in itself, plus the prevalence of a common danger, is bringing about a subtle yet tangible consciousness of our oneness as humanity.

Question -- I'm with you all the way there, and I guess most young people are. But there's another angle my father takes up. He says not only is this atomic age the work of the Devil, but it proves that we're all "born in sin." But I think this is a pernicious idea. Would you talk a little about this concept?

Comment -- This is no criticism of the individual who may believe sincerely that man is born in sin, but I cannot agree with it any more than you do.

Let's take the first three chapters of Genesis, and see how unsatisfying they are if taken literally, but if understood as an allegory of the birth of man how truly meaningful they become. After creating the heavens and the earth in the first chapter, it came time for God, or the Elohim -- literally 'gods' in Hebrew -- to fashion man. So in the second chapter Adam was created out of the dust of the earth, and then the Elohim breathed into him "the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Then a garden was planted in Eden, in the center of which was placed the tree of knowledge of good and evil. After all the animals were formed, the Lord God realized that Adam had no companion, so he caused him to fall into a deep sleep and he took out a 'rib' and formed woman. Thus we have Adam and Eve now, in the garden of Eden, naked and unashamed, and warned not to eat of the tree of knowledge.

Now the third chapter: here a serpent appears and entices them to eat of the forbidden tree, for they "shall not surely die," but "shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Eve listens, and sees that not only is it good to eat, and a lovely thing to look at, but a tree "to make one wise"; so she decides to try a piece of the fruit and shares it then with Adam. We read further of the terrible curse the Lord God put upon Eve for beguiling Adam, and that there would be sorrow and labor and strife through all the days. Now listen to the final part of chapter three concerning the tree of life: "And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever" . . . Therefore, Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden and the Lord God put cherubims and a flaming sword at the entrance to guard the tree of life from man.

That in essence was the Hebrew way of stating the genesis of our evolutionary growth from a state similar to the innocence and irresponsibility of the animals, to a self-conscious recognition of our humanhood. Originally androgynous, that is, containing the potency of both male and female, Adam entered a "deep sleep" during which the Elohim removed one of his ribs -- note in Hebrew the word also means "side" -- which brought about the natural division of the sexes into two, and infant humanity wakened then as fully sexed men and women. With the tasting of the forbidden fruit came awareness of their "nakedness" or responsibility, and a desire then to "sew fig leaves" -- to do something about their new-won knowledge.

Moreover, the serpent in almost every land was not originally a symbol of cunning or deception, but rather of wisdom and a bringer of light and understanding. If we consider the serpent of Genesis in the role of a "Light-bringer," which is what Lucifer means, we can see how amazingly different will be our whole concept of man's origin.

Question -- Then how did we ever get this idea of being "born in sin"?

Comment -- That is one of the destructive effects of literalizing the supposed Word of God -- of taking a truth and making a dogma out of your understanding of it, which understanding might be completely wrong. You see, when Adam and Eve, representing infant humanity, were cast out of Paradise, they literally did "fall" from their former state of peace and blissful unconsciousness into one of struggle and turmoil, and the confusion of choosing between good and evil. However, Adam's so-called Fall from Grace was not a fall backward but truly a fall forward into expanded experience. Man was "born in matter," but not in "sin"; while he is "cursed" to toil and suffer, yet with the pain and struggle of every birth there comes always the beauty and triumph of creation. That is the heritage left by the Fallen Angel, who taking the form of a serpent brought about that glorious bit of white magic, quickening latent mind into dynamic activity, and thus giving us our conscious connection with the breath of Divinity when the Elohim breathed into this lump of clay and made of man "a living soul."

Question -- I have a question about God's will again. What is the best method to get into line with the will of God?

Comment -- That is a beautiful question. Perhaps the most sublime rule of conduct is to be found in the Master's cry at Gethsemane: Not my will, but Thine, be done. Let not the will of the personal man take over, but, O my Father, work through me and bring thy divine will into function. If we can aspire toward the will of our Father, no matter how many times we fall or how seriously we may deviate from our inner ideals, we shall find that ultimately we will be doing not the will of the erring human self, but truly God's will, because it will be the will of our own inner divinity. God's will is not the same for you, or for me, or for anyone else; it is the divinity within each one of us, our own portion of God's essence, our own individual Father, which alone can make clear to us the will that we individually must follow.

You ask how best to get into line with our divine will? Not my will, but the will of the Father, be done -- insofar as we are able to attune our prayers and our aspirations unto the Father and abide by his injunctions, we shall receive guidance in abundance. But, I repeat, no one can predefine for another what the will of the Father is. Each individual has the responsibility to determine that for himself. Nor are his commands spelled out in so many words that we can hear. But they are there.

Thus you can see that man is his own monitor and guide, and he need have no fear because, though fashioned of the dust of the earth, he has the breath of the Elohim flowing through him, and as a "living soul" he can indeed "judge the angels."

  • (From Expanding Horizons by James A. Long. Copyright © 1965 by Theosophical University Press)

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