There is one short paragraph at the end of Exodus 34 in which Moses is described as glowing after he has been in the presence of the divine. It may be hard to imagine what that looked like, since no one these days seems to get close enough to God to come away from the experience with radiation poisoning, but there are people who visibly exude authority, power, even spiritual depth. Some of this may be good acting, but some people genuinely "shine" when they walk into a room. They attract attention because of the intensity of their presence. It's much easier to imagine Moses radiating an intimidating sense of authority and power, even spiritual understanding that surpassed the average Israelite. After all, Moses was chosen by God.
This may be an opportunity to compare the integrity of radiating from the divine within us with the fleetingness of radiating because we got close to some external source of divine power. However, I believe that by this point the premise is clear that what we call "divine" is a part of ourselves that we often keep hidden and of which we may even be unaware. The divine is something we can discover and develop within ourselves rather than an external intelligence who acts to aid or hinder us. The idea of Moses being "chosen" does provide an opportunity to address one of the logical fallacies about God many people hold to be true, namely the connected concepts of omniscience and predestination. This topic has been addressed by many others, but that's no reason to avoid it here.
Not all people who claim the label "Christian" believe in predestination, and there are some people who believe in a form of predestination and don't consider themselves to be religious at all. They call it something else, like Fate, but they mean more or less the same thing, that some force has already chosen a path for our lives. There is a prevalent belief that if one lives according to this predetermined plan, then one will be happy and successful, and if one goes against this plan, it leads to misery. In the sense of the Christian concept of God, this idea of predestination springs doctrinally from two sources. The first is the belief that God is omniscient, or has complete knowledge of everything. The second source is a handful of scriptures which specifically mention predestination. We'll take a look at the actual biblical passages first.
Although there are many scriptures which suggest that trusting the guidance of the divine is better than ignoring it, there aren't many scriptures that specifically say that everyone's path has been determined in advance by a divine being. One oft-quoted passage comes from the first chapter Jeremiah: 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. Taken in context, it is clear that this is intended to credential Jeremiah specifically, not as a universal message to everybody. As a part of his final words to his disciples, Jesus is quoted in the book of John as saying, "You did not choose me, but I have chosen you." Again, in the context of that phrase, it's clear he's talking specifically to the men gathered around him at the time. So, it's important to recognize the context of biblical passages, even if one chooses to believe that the Bible is completely infallible.
The clearest support for the idea of predestination comes from the letters of Paul and Peter, who make mention of the concept that before time began, God already had chosen those who would believe in him and have salvation. Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Romans (8:29-30):
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son . . . And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.In his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote:
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.Other mentions of predestination by Paul and Peter are along the same lines. God supposedly selected at least some people ahead of time to be called into religious service.
Again, I want to be very clear that this perspective is not one I espouse as an atheist. It's one of those concepts that I found difficult to accept even when I considered myself to be a "believer," and there are many different interpretations for the concept even among Christians. While there are some ways to interpret this that make some theological sense, let's start at the other extreme. There are some who reason that if God knows all things, then God knows the future of every person. This would mean that God already knew, before you were born, what job you would have, who you would marry, what your kids would be like, what kind of relationship you would have with your parents, who you would vote for in every election, and, of course, whether you would go to Heaven or Hell when you die. By this reasoning, God already knew that I would be writing these words and that you would be reading them, before time began. This perspective eliminates any illusion of personal choice or freedom. Not only does it make the idea of "saving" or "redeeming" anyone ridiculous, it eradicates the entire concept of personal responsibility.
"Wait a minute," you say, "just because God knows what I'm going to choose doesn't mean I don't have a choice!" You can't have it both ways. If God is infallible and knows all things perfectly -- past, present, and future -- then no person has any choice about anything. If God knows what will happen, every decision has already been determined in advance. This can be comforting on a certain level. Whether your job is crappy or sublime, it isn't because of anything you did -- it was foreordained by God. No matter what kind of spouse or parent you are, there's nothing you could possibly do to change -- it was all determined in advance. This also means that there's no point in getting bent out of shape about other people's behavior or decisions, since God's foreknowledge prevented them from doing anything differently. When someone bombs an embassy, drives drunk, drowns a child, overdoses on drugs, or flies a plane into a skyscraper, God knew all along that they would do that, and therefore they had no real choice in the matter. If they had a choice, then God would have been wrong, and a perfectly omniscient God cannot be wrong.
If this is true, then God also knows far in advance who will believe in him and who won't. He knows who will go to church for a spiritual experience and who will use religious institutions as fiefdoms of personal power. He knows who will become Buddhist, who will be Wiccan, and who won't be anything at all. You can't change what God knows. There is no point in trying to evangelize if God already knows who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell. If God is perfectly omniscient, there is no real hope for the hopeless, and there is nothing that the "chosen" can do wrong. It's great if you consider yourself to be one of the chosen, I suppose. There is simply no way that this definition of predestination can coexist with the concept of free will.
So maybe God's omniscience is not a past-present-future kind of thing. Maybe God knows all things that can be known. So, people still have freedom of choice in every moment, but as soon as the decision is made, God knows. People always have the opportunity to change course, to reconsider their beliefs and their actions, and thus free will is restored while God's omniscience is preserved. But what about the idea of predestination? If God has "chosen" some people, predestined an elect group out of the whole of humanity, then there would still seem to be some limit to human choice in spiritual matters. You can choose where you're going to work and whom you're going to marry, but God has already decided where you'll spend eternity? Any level of predestination suggests a certain amount of futility on the part of those not "chosen" while justifying a certain amount of superiority among those who consider themselves to be "chosen."
If you are going to choose to believe in an eternal soul which can be rewarded or punished, and if you are going to choose to believe in a benevolent external intelligence who oversees spiritual matters, there are not many definitions of "predestination" that make sense in the context of a larger belief system. Incidentally, some Christian theologians conclude that God has predestined everyone for salvation. Some Christian ministers have been ostracized for preaching a "gospel of inclusion," teaching that all people are destined for Heaven. It can be comforting to believe that God is working things out according to a plan, that when tragedy strikes, there is still someone in control of everything who loves you. I would suggest that it's still important to examine how that belief plays out in terms of taking personal responsibility for your decisions and the way that you treat other people. When concepts like predestination become tools for justifying one's bad behavior or dehumanizing other people, though, they become disconnected from anything divine. I am confident that our eventual examination of the biblical character of Jesus will bear out that assertion.
Moses was considered to be the divinely-chosen leader for the Israelites. The leaders of the early church also viewed their positions as divine appointments. There are plenty of people today who believe that God has "called" them into positions of authority, and who can argue with that? People in churches do not always view their pastors with the same level of respect, but there is literally no way to refute the claim that a divine power is behind the scenes working to place specific people in positions of authority. There is also no way to definitively prove that such activity is taking place. It comes down to a matter of belief without conclusive evidence.
From my perspective, it makes more sense to conclude that every person embodies divinity, that every person is worthy of my respect, and that I am likewise worthy of respect. I don't believe in fate or predestination, but I do believe that there is an inner drive that gravitates toward the things that will nurture and fulfill me. Part of me wrestles with that pull, because the things that I am drawn toward do not always line up neatly with societal expectations or lessons I learned in childhood. Sometimes I am afraid of where I will end up if I follow that inner drive. But when I am willing to acknowledge that guidance from within and quiet the obstinate chatter of my fears and the perceived judgment of the world around me, it can look very much like a path is laid out before me. It is a path of my own design, determined by my own passions and abilities.
If someone wants to believe that those passions and abilities were bestowed upon me by some outside source, I gain nothing from arguing against that belief. My own understanding of who I am simply doesn't require any external source. I am confident that anyone -- regardless of faith tradition or spiritual beliefs -- who fearlessly seeks that guidance from deep within will eventually find it. I would only qualify that with the assertion that the character of the divine within us embodies an awareness that all people have value and are worthy of respect, ourselves included. It isn't predestination. It is always a choice. And it is, in the deepest sense, true.