Minority Report: Unconditional Election and the PreCrime Department

Minority Report is a blockbuster movie (based on a Philip K. Dick short story) that examines determinism and free will. In the movie the PreCrime Dept. is tasked with identifying and arresting criminals before they commit a crime. They do this based on information provided by the Precogs, three humans who have the ability to see into the future. Danny Witwer of the DOJ  is evaluating PreCrime and questions the premise on which it is based:

Danny Witwer: I’m sure you all understand the legalistic drawbacks to Precrime methodology. … let’s not kid ourselves: we are arresting individuals who have broken no law.

Jad: But they will.

Gordon Fletcher: The commission of the crime itself is absolute metaphysics.

The questions that the movie wrestles with is whether the future can be changed or not. Are the Precogs, who are similar to Laplace’s Demons, accurately seeing the future because all future events are determined? And what does determinism mean if it is possible for a future event to be prevented by the choices made be PreCrime agents. After all they arrest a criminal prior to the crime thus the determined event is never committed.

I couldn’t help but think that the PreCrime Dept. makes for an interesting (though imperfect) analogy to consider the Reformed doctrine of unconditional election.


Catching the ball before it falls (source: Wikipedia)

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1). If we consider the moment that God created the universe and all that is in it and call this “day 1” then we need to step back into the “time” (if we can refer to it as time) that occurred before “in the beginning”. We will call this “Day Zero” and this will stand for some point in eternity past prior to the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4) . On Day Zero nothing we know exists.There is no space, matter, or time. Only the Triune God exists.

We need to think about what occurred on Day Zero because it is then that the eternal decrees of God were made. That is when God elected or decided who would be saved and who would not.

According to the Westminster Confession (Chapter 3.iii):

By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death

R.C. Sproul succinctly summarizes the Reformed view of election in Chosen By God (link):

From all eternity, before we existed, God decided to save some members of the human race and to let the rest of the human race perish.

On Day Zero all the people that would ever be created were divided into one of two groups. Some of the people were chosen to be placed in the group known as the elect. Those who are in this group are the ones whom God will show mercy and grant eternal life. The rest of the people, often referred to as the reprobate, were placed in the group that will be hardened, condemned, and will perish (Romans 9:22; 1 Peter 2:8; Jude 4). God’s placement of people on Day 0 is considered an unchangeable decision. It resembles what we see Jesus doing upon His return (Matt 25:31-33) when He separates people into two groups based on this eternal decree (sheep/elect and goat/reprobate).

On what grounds are the reprobate condemned?

Most Calvinists hold to infralapsarianism, Under this view they would assert that on Day 0, when God divided humanity, He saw all of the people that would ever be created as criminals (fallen and sinful) because He knows that they will commit crimes (sin). God is judging all people as guilty before the creation of the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1) and before anyone has been born or done anything (Rom 9:10-13).

The identification of the reprobate who are marked for condemnation for their future sins is where the resemblance to the PreCrime Dept comes in.

Angel #1: I’m sure you all understand the legalistic drawbacks of sentencing people before they are born or have done anything. We are condemning individuals who have broken no law.

Angel #2: But they will.

How does God know that these individuals will break the law?

We might offer the answer that God foreknows all future events. He can “see” the sins that each person will commit ahead of time. This would be similar to the Precogs in the Minority Report who had visions of the future.

Those who don’t hold to a Reformed/Calvinist view would hold to something similar to this idea. God sees in advance the free will choices of people. His foreknowledge of the future is contingent on the choice that is made by the person.

C.S.Lewis (see this post on his theology) writes in Mere Christianity:

Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow. … But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call “tomorrow” is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call “today.” All the days are “Now” for Him.

and in The Discarded Image:

Strictly speaking, he never forsees; He simply sees. … He sees (not remembers) your yesterday’s acts because yesterday is still ‘there’ for Him; he sees (not forsees) your tomorrows acts because He is already in tomorrow.

However, Reformers would argue that God is not like the Precogs. He does not know the future because He can see things ahead of time. God knows the future because He has planned it. His foreknowledge of the future is contingent on the plan that He made.

A. W. Pink, the Reformed theologian, writes:

God foreknows what will be because He has decreed what shall be.

Charles Hodges, also a Reformed theologian, states it this way:

By the decrees of God are to be understood the purpose of God rendering certain the occurrence of future events.

God knows His plan and therefore knows the future. Going back to Day 0, God condemns the reprobate for the future crimes they will commit because they are rendered certain by His plan.

In the movie Witmer wants to know if the Precogs are ever wrong. Unlike the Precogs, God’s vision of the future would not be considered flawed. However, if the events in God’s plan are certain it does open up questions on how God insures that His plan will play out just as He has determined. If the plan determines what will happen, then in what way does God cause the plan to happen? If He does not look ahead to future contingent choices then it doesn’t seem that “permission of acts” could be an accurate description of what is happening here.

It is your destiny?

According to the Reformed view, the eternal fate of every person that will be created was decided on Day 0. Before they were born. Before they did anything. The decision was not based on what they would do in the future. But rather on what God planned that they would do in the future.

How is this different from fatalism – which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is defined as “a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them“?

It’s not.

Unless you redefine fatalism. Hodge notes the similarity of the Reformed view on decrees to fate:

There is only one point of agreement between these doctrines. They both assume absolute certainty in the sequence of all events.

To avoid being called fatalism, Hodges asserts three differences:

  • fate has no purpose but the decrees of God are ordained to accomplish His purposes.
  • fate is determined by “unintelligent causes and effects”, but the decrees are made by God who acts with wisdom and reason.
  • fate sees agents acting according to deterministic laws of nature, but God decrees while also preserving the freedom and responsibility of man.

The future commission of the crime is absolute metaphysics. How do you understand this challenging question?

12 thoughts on “Minority Report: Unconditional Election and the PreCrime Department

  1. Election is not based on what man does or doesn’t do. God does not ordain anyone to go to hell. Man condemns himself through sin. God knew that man would commit spiritual suicide — that all men would naturally rebel and choose death. He chose before the foundation of the world who he would make alive and save. Those who are not elect go on living their sinful lives and condemn themselves. God does not force them to sin.

    I think the mistake you’re making is assuming God’s election is based on anything man does (reward/punishment). It isn’t. God can “foreknow” the fall of man and decide to save some without being guilty of violating man’s free will. We don’t know why he chose certain people for salvation. But we do know it is not because of what we do. So punishment and reward have nothing to do with it.

    In my opinion, the Minority Report analogy doesn’t fit with election.

  2. Michael, thanks for stopping by. Appreciate your comments.

    Election is not based on what man does or doesn’t do. … I think the mistake you’re making is assuming God’s election is based on anything man does (reward/punishment). It isn’t.

    I totally agree. The Reformed position is that election is unconditional. This post primarily looks at the reprobates and how they were judged as such before they were born.

    God does not ordain anyone to go to hell.

    Isn’t the Reformed position – God ordains all that comes to pass?
    And that He ordained all that comes to pass before the creation of the world?

    God knew that man would commit spiritual suicide

    The Reformed view (at least as articulated by most Calvinist theologians) is that God’s knowing is based on God’s decreeing/ordaining/planning. Not on God “seeing” into the future. See Pink/Hodges in the OP.

    The question explored in this post is how did God know before the foundation of the world? Theologians holding many different views have explored this idea. And I think that the answer is one of the primary differences between Calvinism and Arminianism.

    Those who are not elect go on living their sinful lives and condemn themselves.

    This post jumps back to that point in time when the decree was made, which is before the foundation of the world. The question is how does God know they will go on sinning before they are born and have done anything (see Rom 9)?

    The OP basically asks those holding the Reformed position to think about how reprobation works.

  3. Mike, just curious how you resolve issues of logical priority on “Day 0” here. If God’s foreknowledge is logically prior to the act of creation, doesn’t that essentially invalidate the idea “His foreknowledge of the future is contingent on the choice that is made by the person?”

    If God actualizes (creates) a world in which he foreknows the free choices (and therefore, destiny) of persons before he creates them, doesn’t the act of creation imply causation in some way?

    I am working on my own tentative answers to these questions, but I feel that Lewis’ paradigm doesn’t quite address the point.

  4. Nice philosophical exercise, but you need to interact with the plain statements of Scripture. Nothing is served by vain speculation about what God knew and when he knew it. We don’t deny that he knows in advance or sees as present all that occurs. What we [or at least I] deny is that he is a quiescent observer who on rare occasions intervenes to save the day. Additionally, we do not deny his prior knowledge of all events and acts but that he has based his decrees on that knowledge.

  5. Mike,

    I need a favor. A while back you referred to Charles Stanley’s view that once a person is brought to a moment of decision has is saved forever even if he should later stop believing. Could you send me the exact quote and the bibliographical info? I would be very grateful.


  6. The OP starts with the premise that (to quote C.S. Lewis) “God knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow”. It then explores how God knows the future and the implications on the predestination of individuals, particularly the reprobate (or the “unchosen”).

    we do not deny his prior knowledge of all events and acts but that he has based his decrees on that knowledge.

    If I understand you correctly that would seem to differ from what Pink holds: “God foreknows what will be because He has decreed what shall be.”

    Nothing is served by vain speculation about what God knew and when he knew it.

    Don’t those holding to a to infralapsarian view differ from other Reformed view points by speculating about what God knew and when He knew it when they present a logical order of decrees?

    Nice philosophical exercise, but you need to interact with the plain statements of Scripture.

    All theology is a philosophical exercise since it is a search for the truth and the answers to life’s big questions. All systematic theological views should be grounded in the Scriptures. And all of them should be logically/philosophically sound.

    Don’t we rely on logic and reason to understand the Scriptures, interpret them, and work out how they fit together? When we enter in discussions about our differing views, don’t we rely on logic, reason, and our understanding of the Scriptures to present what we hold?

    My main point is that theology is a humbling and daunting task in which all of us (to some extent) use some amount of speculation and reason. May we always ground this in the sure truth of the Scriptures.

    Scripture is clear. God knows what will happen in the future.

    Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place;
    As for the former events, declare what they were,
    That we may consider them and know their outcome.
    Or announce to us what is coming;
    Declare the things that are going to come afterward,
    That we may know that you are gods;
    -Isaiah 41:22-23a

    Behold, the former things have come to pass,
    Now I declare new things;
    Before they spring forth I proclaim them to you
    – Isaiah 42:9

    I am God, and there is none like me,
    declaring the end from the beginning
    and from ancient times things not yet done.
    -Isaiah 46:9

    Scripture is also clear that God pre-planned (ordained) some of the things that must occur.

    this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. – Acts 2:23 (also Acts 4:27-28)

    For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. – Rom 8:29

    He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. – Eph 1:4

    And Scripture is clear that some acts of man were not planned by God.

    They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind.

    – Jeremiah 7:31 (also 19:5;32:35)

    And that what God plans to do can be changed according to the response of man.

    if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it.
    -Jeremiah 18:8

    These are the Scriptures that stand behind the many principles in this post. From these Scriptures it is clear that God knows the future. And that He has plans and a purpose. However, there are choices made by people that appear to be outside His plan that He permits to occur. There are also choices people can make that will affect what God has planned for them.

    From these I see the view that God’s foreknowledge is contingent on the choices of people in Time. That said we must also remember that the Bible does not explain how God knows the future. Just that He does.

  7. BJ

    If God’s foreknowledge is logically prior to the act of creation, doesn’t that essentially invalidate the idea “His foreknowledge of the future is contingent on the choice that is made by the person?

    I think what you are driving at is the concept of Time and whether it is “visible” to God prior to it being created.

    Time is part of creation. It has a beginning and an end. But God is not bound by Time. Nor does he experience the past, present, and future in a linear fashion. I assume that we both accept these premises as well as the one that states that on Day 1 God can “see” the FW choices that are made by people in what we would call the “future”.

    Now if God can “see” people making choices in the “future” even though they have not been born yet from a linear view of Time on Day 1 then I think we can apply that principle to Day 0.

    We can assume that God is able to “see” Time before it was created in the same way He can see the choices of unborn people. That is if we allow God to see all of Time , including the future after it is created, then it seems logical that God could see all of Time at once before creating it.

    Therefore, God’s foreknowledge could still be contingent on the choices of people in Time.

    If God actualizes (creates) a world in which he foreknows the free choices (and therefore, destiny) of persons before he creates them, doesn’t the act of creation imply causation in some way?

    The choices that God “sees” occur in Time. God knows them because He can “see” them. And b/c He sees Time clearly He knows what will certainly happen. But knowing something – even with certainty -is not the same as causing it. It is also not destiny in the sense that a person is an active participant in how the future unfolds.

    God knows for certain that you will chose an apple over a pear b/c in (what you perceive as) the future you chose the apple. However, if in (what you perceive as) the future you chose the pear God would know for certain that you chose the pear.

    This works in a similar way to how we know past events. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. We know that with certainty b/c it happened in the past. Our knowledge of this past event does not mean that we caused it to occur. But we still know it with certainty (albeit a different degree of certainty than God knows) b/c it occurred. The way we know about the past (in a linear sequence) is much the way God knows the future (because to Him it is non-linear).

    Like I mentioned to Randy, we are speculating b/c the Bible does not explain how God knows the future. Just that He does. Whether we hold to deterministic/compatibilism or a non-deterministic framework has major implications for how we understand God, good and evil, morale responsibility, and how we relate to God.

    What do you think? Where are you leaning the plane if you are not quite ready to land it?

    • Mike, your explanation was moderately helpful. The chain of reasoning I offered was a rough approximation of how I hear a classically Reformed view (all the future is based on God’s eternal decrees) defended.

      That there is a “logical chain of causation” seems reasonable to me, even if it lies outside the scope of time. I won’t plant my flag there just yet, but in rhetorical theological works, this idea usually gets presented as incontrovertible fact. People are then people are boxed into corners – either they embrace some form of determinism (compatibilitistic or otherwise) or begin a long road to Open Theism.

      I find Lewis’ construct (and your subsequent elaboration) to be helpful, but they seem to only indirectly address the issue of logical priority. The concept of middle knowledge (whether an Arminian or Calvinistic version of it) is attractive to me as a possible solution, so I sometimes allow my thoughts to wander in that direction if I have time to spare (I usually don’t).

      My “plane” might circle for the rest of my life, but if someone held a gun to my head I would probably land on something similar to what you posted. Biblically, I will always (1) affirm God’s perfect foreknowledge and (2) deny that he directly causes evil. How that works out logically might always be beyond my grasp.

      • BJ

        So you don’t have an issue with God “seeing” Time before it is created. The struggle is with how God’s foreknowledge can avoid being causative and ultimately a form of determinism.

        I think the issue is based on a presupposition that the Reformed view (and Open Theists) IMO wrongly make. The assumption is that foreknowledge must be causative because it occurs before the act. But that is not the case. It is actions that cause knowledge, not the other way around.

        I find Daniel Whedon helpful:

        The necessity lies not upon the free act, but upon the foreknowledge. The FK must see to its own accuracy. Pure knowledge, temporal or eternal, must conform itself to the fact, not the fact to the knowledge. Knowledge by its very nature, accepts the fact as it is; it does not shape the fact to itself, or require the fact to be configured to its own type. … The act is bound by no necessity to conform to, or be connected with, the knowledge. It is perfectly free to contradict the knowledge, and the knowledge must take care of itself. The act can be as it pleases, and the knowledege must conform. The act is under no necessity to agree with the knowledege.

        Regarding Middle Knowledge, if the way God experiences Time to achieve perfect FK and maintain LFW is speculative, then Middle Knowledge (which I have not dived too deeply into) must be even more so. If I understand MK it suggests that God has the ability to see all possible Time lines. Seeing all possible futures, God then picks one to actualize when He creates. That seems to make matters more complex and still IMO amounts to determinism.

        I think it boils down to this:

        How do you define Free Will?
        Do you accept LFW, the ability to actually choose differently such that all acts are freely determined by the agent.

        Or do you re-define FW so that it is compatible with determinism. Now all actions are determined by a person’s strongest desire. But these desires are in turn determined. This led Einstein to say: “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”.

        How do you understand Foreknowledge?
        Do you accept that future acts determine what FK must know and place the responsibility of getting it right on the FK.

        Or do you accept that any concept of FK must be causative because it occurs logically prior to the event.

        I think that the underlying problem in the Reformed view is that God’s sovereignty (as they understand it) is at stake b/c in the non-deterministic view God’s FK is “dependent” on the agent that acts rather than His decree. Of course the Reformed view strongly asserts that God determines everything (and is the First Cause) but with the diminished view of FW it then struggles when explaining morale responsibility and evil acts.

  8. Mike,

    Dialogue in this setting isn’t my favorite, which is why it takes me a while to respond. Maybe we could have lunch if you think fleshing it out more is helpful. (Also – couldn’t find the reply button on your last comment.)

    Yes – the heart of the issue is really the presupposition that “God’s foreknowledge must be causative.” This is the issue that I don’t think Lewis’ paradigm quite addresses, and I don’t know that Whedon or anything else I’ve read in this exchange adequately addresses it either. I know you disagree with the presupposition, so at least we agree on where the stress is. I’m not sure I’m ready to either accept or reject this claim.

    I think the paradigm you offer comes under stress when you try to emphasize God’s perfect foreknowledge exists outside of time, yet doesn’t address the many ways in which God’s actions in time shape time-bound reality (and even the decisions of free agents – Pharaoh heart? Paul’s conversion?). The locus of this stress is most intense at the point of God’s first action in time – Creation, because all subsequent time-bound actions (God’s or not) are dependent on this one. Unless you are saying that God’s foreknowledge only exists outside of time, and never within it, then I don’t really see how the underlying presupposition has been demonstrated as false.

    Perhaps we are meant to live in this tension, without ever fully explaining it?

    I feel middle knowledge may have some answers to these conundrums, but look at how far we have gotten from the text of Scripture at this point! I am fairly content to “not land the plane” and focus on the things more clearly revealed.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s