How do you respond to Acts 17:26?

“From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.” (cf. Dan. 2:21)

In this passage Paul is preaching to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (17:18). His goal is to show them that, in contrast to their idols, God created and cares for all people (vss. 24–26). The reason why God gives time and place to nations, Paul says, is “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us” (vs. 26).

The statement certainly implies that God is sovereign in a general way over nations. But it also implies that he does not meticulously control people. God wants to be found and “now commands all people everywhere to repent” (vs. 30). Yet many people from every nation refuse to do this. Indeed, most of the philosophers Paul was preaching to rejected his message (vss. 32–34).

Though God controls the general parameters of human freedom he does not meticulously control humans and thus does not always get his way when it comes to the decisions they make. Thus Paul says that part of God’s goal in working in nations is for people to “search for God” and “perhaps find him” (26). Because he created free agents, God can’t guarantee people will find him. To the extent that the future is left open for free agents to determine, the future can only be spoken of as a “perhaps.”

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