It's the question that every Christian parent knows is coming sooner or later. I'm driving when six-year-old Thomas pipes up from the back seat. We're alone, which doesn't happen often in a family of six, so it's a precious time for us. Deep thoughts are clearly running through his head: “Mummy, why do some people believe in Jesus and not others?”
It's a question my older son and daughter have never thought to ask. But Thomas is a theologian in miniature, and he's been puzzling over complex doctrinal issues since he was three: “Mummy, why can't I see God?”; “If I wave my hand like this, am I touching God?”; “How long is forever?”; and now, “Why do some people believe in Jesus and not others?”
There's a moment of silence while I consider what to say. I could play it down. I could talk about the human factors—our choices, our backgrounds, our opportunities. I could even do some fancy theological footwork and talk about how God's choice and ours fit together. But I decide to start from first causes: “We believe in Jesus because God chooses us.”
That's not the end of it, of course. It never is with this child! We throw around ideas about total depravity (“Some people are just really bad, aren't they Mummy?” “No, honey, we all do bad things every day. We all need God to forgive us.”) and unconditional election (“God doesn't choose us because we're better than anyone else, but because he loves us.”).
As we talk, I think of my own parents. I thank God that during my childhood, they didn't avoid the hard questions. They talked about the Trinity. They talked about hell. And they talked about predestination.
I remember grappling with the implications of predestination when I was about nine years old. I stared at the countries scattered across the double page of an atlas, wondered about all the people who didn't believe in Jesus, and felt scared and overwhelmed. It could have been the stuff of nightmares, but it was actually the stuff of theological formation.
It put big thoughts in my young mind. It gave me a firm foundation for when I was at university, facing doubts and hard questions like the gleeful public challenge of a philosophy lecturer: “If God made the world good, then where did the snake come from?” It developed my theological muscle, readying it for the tough issues of adulthood. Above all, it taught me to think great thoughts about our great God.
So when I answer my son's question, I tell him how it is. But I also give him the good news. I share the beautiful side of predestination—the wonderful, startling, incredible reality of God's grace given to the undeserving: “Did you know that God decided to love you before he even made the world? Isn't that amazing? Isn't that fantastic?!”
I look at my son and smile to see his smile.