A while back I had rented the movie “Next.” For those of you who haven’t seen it, it is a movie starring Nicolas Cage about a man (Cris Johnson) who can see the next two minutes of his life. The conceptual part of this was pretty cool and allows for a lot of contemplation about what such a skill might do for a person.
I’m pretty much entertained by anything, so I thought it was a good – but not great – movie. It was entertaining in some respects, flawed in others, and overall a bit of a feeling like they could have done a bit more with the idea. But worth a rental if you like action/adventure with a little twist.
The purpose here is not to critique the movie, but to focus on a particular scene that left a thought-provoking question lingering in my mind. First, I’ll recap the scene, and then move on to what I think is thought-provoking about it in a Theological sense.
Key to this is that he can adjust his own actions to affect the outcome of the next two minutes. So, if he doesn’t like what he sees, he can choose to act differently than he intended to try and change the outcome. He has the ability on a moment by moment basis of always knowing the outcome of the next two minutes based on his current course of behavior. He can only see the next two minutes of his own circumstances – not anyone else’s.
The scene takes place in a café. Cris Johnson is infatuated with a female customer. We see him walk up to her and say something and get a negative response, and then we see a rewind back to the current moment. He had just seen the next two minutes based on his approach to her, and it didn’t work out. So now we see the next two minutes play out in a different way. As it turns out, she has an estranged boyfriend show up and give her a hard time. Johnson plays out a scenario where he comes to the rescue and beats the guy up. She doesn’t like this. Rewind again. Finally, after a number of scenarios, he finds the one scenario that engages her interest in him – he allows himself to take a punch from the boyfriend. Since this works towards his desired outcome, he allows it to happen and the story goes from there.
So, what could I possibly consider worthy of Theological musing with respect to this scene?
A lot! The more I thought about this, the more I developed it in my mind, and the more I was excited about how it helped me to reconcile some interesting questions we have about how God works in our world and in all our lives. Not just as individuals, but as an entire community.
Consider the scene above. The woman had perfect free will in every single scenario that played out. She rejected him, and rejected him again. Over and over and over. And yet, he was able to determine a way that he could act that would elicit a free response from her that was different from all the other scenarios. He did everything he could to get her to see him, love him (OK, maybe not immediately, but at least be interested in him), and respond to him in a positive way. But ultimately, it was her choice. There may have ultimately been no scenarios he could dream up, no words to be said, no actions to be done, that would ever achieve a positive end. At least on that day. On a different day, at a different time, under different circumstances, he may have come up with something.
Now, consider his own limitations: He has a limited ability to imagine different things to try. He has limited ability in his ability to try them. He can only see out for the next 2 minutes. He can only see the things that happen as it relates to him. He can only impact what is physically associated with him in immediate space and time. And yet, even with all those limitations, two minutes of foreknowledge allows him to assess how he deals with every situation in order to greatly increase the possibility of positive outcomes. But he doesn’t actually control anything in the way of behavior of others. Assuming he doesn’t use his ability for illicit means, this foreknowledge is used to avoid certain circumstances, most certainly, but also to evoke the best possible response of the people around you.
By now, I’m guessing you can see where I’m going with this.
Let’s remove the limitations. Let’s talk about God.
Imagine the ability to consider an infinite number of scenarios at every moment of all time. Consider the fact that there is no limitation on how far in advance one can see the outcome of every scenario. Consider no limitation of space and the number of people that can be impacted at every given moment. However, consider all this in the context of free will and freedom of response to any and all scenarios for each individual at all moments of all times.
It does not take long to see the complexity of this. But before getting into the complexity of what this all means, we can quickly form some conclusions.
We can conclude that, from the very first moment of time, God knows exactly how everything in all of human history will play out. He knows because He already knows every moment’s reaching out to every person and how they responded, and He has done so in the way that maximizes the salvation of souls in a way that protects the dignity of free will.
We can see how God can know how all of human history unfolds, and how He could intervene (or not) and how He can call out to us or assist us and do all of these things, while at the same time knowing that every response we made along the way was ours and ours alone. The very fact that God tries everything possible to get us to respond in the best way for our soul and salvation does not compromise our free will. Just like a terrific marketing campaign may compel a person to make the decision to buy a product, nobody is forcing the purchase of that product. It would cheapen God’s work to say He is “marketing” salvation, but we can at least see the analogy. God is trying to compel us to Him, and there is no shame in saying that He is doing so.
This also, in my mind, helps to clear up misunderstandings about any references by St. Paul to being “predestined.” In this sense, predestination is not something we are bound to from the beginning. It means two things: (1) that we are all created for salvation, and thus predestined to be called to it; and (2) God already knows the choices we will make, but our choices are a response to His very best efforts to get us to make the right choice. Just as in the example of the movie, there simply may be no scenario in which God can bring some people into the fold without compromising the dignity of free will.
Where things get complex is when one starts to consider the question about why we go through a lot of the things we go through if God is really trying to save souls.
First of all, we must keep in mind the sheer enormity of what we are talking about. Infinity times infinity does not begin to encompass the complexity of it all. Every impetus at every moment that God provides is a seedling to every subsequent moment of the response of those impacted. And it does not take long to realize we all impact each other on a continuous basis, so much that whatever happens in my life at any given moment will ultimately potentially impact every person in the world to some extent or another. Second of all, we need to set aside our individualism for a moment. By this, I do not mean that God does not consider us uniquely and individually. Certainly, He does, and He desires that we all be saved. But that’s the key: He desires that ALL of us be saved. To think we are any more worthy of being saved than anyone else is folly.
So, let’s follow this to a logical conclusion, which may be a bit unsettling to some: if we are all created in God’s image, and if God loves us all equally, and if we are all created equal, then a logical line of thought is that God will do whatever He needs to do at every moment in time to maximize the number of souls to be saved. While He desires that all be saved, we know that not all respond to Him and many people will not –through their own choices and actions and non-response – be saved. But if God has played out every scenario and sees X souls accepting Him in the first scenario and Y souls in the second, and Y > X, then it seems only logical that He chooses scenario 2. It would be hoped that every person who responded in the first scenario is included in the second, but that is not guaranteed. And while this seems disturbing, it is important to remember that in all cases, we chose freely.
This also perhaps helps us explain a few of the difficult things to comprehend in the world about suffering. As Christians, I think we can all agree that the number one priority of life is the attainment of salvation, and incorporated in this are all the things that bring it about: love of God above all else, loving neighbor as yourself, etc. So to say this is not to diminish any aspect of Christian ministry, love, or action. But it does put certain things into perspective. We can look to the rise and fall of peoples and nations, and we can look to different areas of prosperity versus destitution and suffering and wonder why these things must be. But if it is to be believed that God has played all this out, then it must be believed that there is a reason for everything.
Given that nothing is more important than salvation, consider the scenario in which God foresaw a very prosperous African continent, with little suffering. Suppose that the entire continent lost its faith in that prosperity. Now consider the scenario where there is much unfortunate pain and suffering, and yet this draws people around the world to compassion and assistance, and touches peoples’ lives, and at the same time drawing many of the people suffering to God as their only hope. While it may be unfortunate that this must be the way salvation is attained, which do you think God would choose? It may seem difficult to an emotional created being who doesn’t like physical suffering, but it is not even a question to be debated to the God that considers this world a tiny passage on the way to eternal bliss. And after this life is passed, every one of those people will happily accept their salvific state and would say that it was worth much more suffering than the worst of their time on earth.
Consider the blessings we in the United States have realized, and look at the history of this country as it invoked God and spread His Word, and sent missionaries around the globe. Now consider the future that is in store for us as these blessings are perverted into self-aggrandizement and we fear acknowledgment of Christ as our Savior and involved in the design of all things. God will do what is necessary to maximize the salvation of souls – He always does.
One wonders, given the state of the world today, just how horrible the world would be in countless other scenarios in the way the world unfolded. Or maybe “horrible” isn’t the right word. Perhaps there are numerous scenarios where we would be awash in prosperity and wealth, with enough to eat and drink without worry. And maybe we’d all be fat and happy and on our way directly to hell.
Every action we take, every prayer we say, every last thing we do is the beginning of the rest of all moments in time. Do we let God inspire us to work towards an increase in the salvation of souls? Or do we, in every way He tries say “no”?
If you rent the movie, don’t expect delving into these concepts. The movie isn’t about that and you’d be sorely disappointed. But Since my mind rant with things, I thought I’d share.
Everything in this post is a philosophical exercise on my part. To the extent that anything uncomfortably might bump up against Church teaching, I defer in all ways to the magisterial teachings of the Church. I don’t think anything does, but it’s good to acknowledge that I’m simply human and imperfect. And yes, it’s all opinion. If you think I couldn’t be more deluded and wrong, then you may well be correct.