What does the Bible say about fate / destiny?
Question: "What does the Bible say about fate / destiny?"
Answer: This is a very complex issue, and we will start with what the Bible does not teach. Fate is usually thought of as a predetermined course of events beyond human control. A typical response to a belief in fate is resignation—if we can’t change destiny, then why even try? Whatever happens, happens, and we can’t do anything about it. This is called “fatalism,” and it is not biblical.
Fatalism is a major premise of Islam, which demands total submission to the sovereignty of Allah. It is widely held in Hinduism, too; in fact, it is a fatalistic view of life that helps keep India’s caste system in place. Greek mythology told of the Moirai, or the Fates, three goddesses pictured as weavers of men’s lives. Their decisions could not be canceled or annulled, even by other gods. Again, fatalism is not a biblical concept.
Fate and Destiny - Our Free Will
The Bible teaches that Man was created with the ability to make moral choices and that he is responsible for those choices. The Fall of Man was not a predetermined event in which Adam and Eve were hapless victims of a Puppet-Master God. On the contrary, Adam and his wife had the ability to choose obedience (with its attendant blessing) or disobedience (with its consequent curse). They knew what the result of their decision would be, and they were held accountable (Genesis 3).
This theme of being held accountable for our choices continues throughout Scripture. “He who sows wickedness reaps trouble” (Proverbs 22:8a). “All hard work brings a profit, / but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23). “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you” (Romans 13:3).
Often, when the Bible speaks of destiny, it’s in reference to a destiny people have brought upon themselves: “Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction” (Philippians 3:18-19). “This is the fate of those who trust in themselves” (Psalm 49:13). “A man who commits adultery lacks judgment; / whoever does so destroys himself” (Proverbs 6:32). “Each person was judged according to what he had done” (Revelation 20:13).
We sin because we choose to. We can’t blame “Fate,” kismet, predestination, or God. James 1:13-14 says, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.”
Interestingly, many people who choose to sin are annoyed by the negative consequences of their sin. “A man's own folly ruins his life, / yet his heart rages against the LORD” (Proverbs 19:3). This is a very insightful verse. When a man foolishly wrecks his life, he may yet insist on blaming God, or perhaps “Fate.” In this way, he persists in his folly.
Scripture also teaches that we choose to have faith. The oft-repeated command in Scripture to believe implies that we do have a choice in the matter. “Be not faithless, but believing” (John 20:27; see also Acts 16:31; 19:4).
Fate and Destiny - God’s Sovereignty
Lest we get the wrong idea, we are not the sovereign masters of our fate. Only God is sovereign. His sovereign control is called “providence.” He has chosen to give us a free will, and He has created a moral universe in which the law of cause-and-effect is a reality. But God is God alone, and there are no “accidents” in the universe.
An all-wise, all-powerful God must have a plan, so it should be no surprise that the Bible speaks of a divine plan. God’s plan, since it belongs to God, is holy, wise, and benevolent. The providence of God is working to bring about His original plan for creation.
God speaks in Isaiah 48:3, “I foretold the former things long ago, / my mouth announced them and I made them known; / then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass.” What God announces, He does (and He may announce it centuries ahead of time!).
Fighting against the plan of God is pointless. “There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan / that can succeed against the LORD” (Proverbs 21:30). This is why the Tower of Babel was never completed (Genesis 11:1-9), why Daniel’s detractors were thrown to the lions (Daniel 6:24), why Jonah spent time inside a fish (Jonah 1:17), and why I get in trouble when I sin.
Even what we would normally call “chance” or “fate” is under God’s control. “The lot is cast into the lap, / but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33). In other words, God does not take a “hands-off” approach to running the world.
Everything that happens in the world is made to work out according to God’s purpose. Evil exists, but it is not allowed to thwart God’s providence. God uses even sinful men for His purposes. “The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; / he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (Proverbs 21:1). God worked in the hearts of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:36) and King Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:27) to bring about His purpose. Even when Man’s intent is purely evil, God can still bring about His will, as in the case of those who crucified Jesus (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).
God’s plan includes a reward for those who trust in Him, and He promises to glorify His children. “We speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. . . . As it is written: ‘No eye has seen, / no ear has heard, / no mind has conceived / what God has prepared for those who love him’” (1 Corinthians 2:7-9). Note the use of the word destined in this passage—and that it’s a destiny based on our love for the Lord.
Fate and Destiny - An Individual Plan
God’s sovereignty reaches even to a plan for our individual lives. This is illustrated in God’s calling of Jeremiah—before the prophet was even born. “The word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, / before you were born I set you apart; / I appointed you as a prophet to the nations’” (Jeremiah 1:4-5).
David also recognized that the Lord had a plan for him. “Your eyes saw my unformed body. / All the days ordained for me / were written in your book / before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16). Because of this knowledge, David sought the Lord’s specific guidance in many situations, such as in 1 Samuel 23:9-12.
Fate and Destiny - Putting It All Together
In Acts 9, Jesus appears to Saul of Tarsus with an interesting statement: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (verse 5). Jesus obviously had a plan for Saul, and Saul had been (painfully) resisting it. Exercising our freedom against God’s plan can be painful.
Later, Jesus tells Saul that a man named Ananias would come to visit —and then Jesus tells Ananias (verses 11-12)! Obviously, Jesus had a pre-arranged plan for Ananias as well. Now, Ananias didn’t want to visit Saul (verse 13-14). He could have been like Jonah and run the other way. If that had been his choice, God would have had a “fish” prepared to bring him back. Fortunately, Ananias obeyed (verse 17). Exercising our freedom to follow God’s plan brings a blessing.
In summary, the Bible teaches that God is in charge. At the same time, He has given us the freedom to obey or disobey Him, and there are some things that God does only in answer to prayer (James 4:2).
God blesses the obedient, and He is patient with those who disobey, even to the point of seeming laxity. He has a plan for our lives, which includes our joy and His glory both in this world and in the world to come. Those who accept Christ as Savior have accepted God’s plan (John 14:6). From then on, it’s a step-by-step following of God’s best for us, praying for His will to be done (Matthew 6:10), and avoiding the sidetrack of sin (Psalm 32:1-11; 119:59; Hebrews 12:1-2).
Recommended Resource: Chosen But Free, revised edition: A Balanced View of God's Sovereignty and Free Will by Norm Geisler and The Potter's Freedom by James White
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Topical Bible Questions
What does the Bible say about fate / destiny?