Free will is generally defined as the freedom of human beings to make their own autonomous choices and decisions, and to reap the consequences of those decisions. While there is certainly room for philosophical posturing in regards to whether we truly have free will, or whether we are simply automated by our genes, most everyone can agree that, from a practical standpoint, humankind exhibits free will. We are free to make our own choices, and the various experiences that define who we are come from the product of our free will choices and the free will choices of those around us.
Yet while most people will agree that human beings have free will, many people also abide by the belief that God has a will, and that this will is frequently enacted within human history. Thus you hear folks say things like, “It just wasn’t God’s will,” or “I’m trying to follow God’s will for my life,” or “I decided to just sit back and trust God’s will.” When good things happen, many believers will give the credit to God, and if something does not turn out the way someone hopes, they will frequently remark that it simply “was not God’s will.”
But is this consistent? Can humankind have free will, while simultaneously living in world where God’s will is routinely in play?
In a word, no.
For God’s will to be enacted on earth, a suspension of human free will is required. This is seen time and time again in the Bible. The Old Testament story of the Exodus goes so far as to explicitly state that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” – implying that the pharaoh was merely a puppet on God’s string. The Jews did not escape Egypt by their own strength of conviction and good fortune, but escaped because God allowed them to. Later, Joshua defeated the Canaanites not through the excellence of his own military prowess, but because God made it happen. God even made the earth stop rotating so that there would be longer daylight to allow Joshua to keep slaughtering his enemies. In the New Testament, the entire story of Jesus’ life is an example of God’s will invading human history, with all of Jesus’ enemies acting out the grand plan of salvation enacted by God and predicted by the prophets. The Roman soldiers, for instance, did not choose of their own free will to cast lots for Jesus’ clothing, but did it like puppets on a divine string in order to fulfill scripture. Later, they pierced his side but left his legs intact, not because they made this decision of their own free will, but because this was in fulfillment of prophecy and scripture.
The Bible is not the only place that God’s will seems to come into play. Most traditionally-believing Christians will argue that the various doctrinal councils of the 4th and 5th centuries were doing “the will of God” when they determined which books would be in the Bible and when they settled on a set of doctrines and creeds. Furthermore, these same folks will argue that the texts of the Bible, while written by human beings, were divinely inspired, meaning that when these human beings were writing their texts, God was directing their pens – thus, they could not have been acting of their own human free will.
Even today, many Christians will argue that certain events are tinged with God’s intervention – such as when an ill person makes a miraculous recovery, a major disaster is narrowly averted, or a remarkably positive event occurs in a person’s life. Recently, Kansas defeated Memphis in the NCAA basketball tournament championship game. Memphis blew a late lead, and missed some key free throws in the last few seconds of the game. After the game, the Memphis head coach remarked that it simply was not God’s will for those free throws to be hit, or for his team to win the game. In other words, the team lost not because they got outplayed, and not because they missed some free throws, but because it was not God’s will.
Of course, many Christians would admit that the Memphis coach’s comments were absurd, and were simply an emotional response to a huge disappointment. But even in doing so, many frequently still hold fast to other ideas of God’s will being enacted in human life, and many would probably make similar comments in similar circumstances. I feel confident that whatever religious beliefs the Memphis head coach has, they are probably not unusual or out of the ordinary.
So how can believers reconcile God’s will with human free will? The most common answer would probably be that God chooses, from time to time, to invade human history and suspend free will as he sees fit. He is omniscient and all-powerful, after all. He can do what he wants. Yet if free will can be suspended, at any time, then free will does not truly exist. The very concept of free will demands that it exists at all times, unimpeded. If God can suspend free will at his whim, then we do not truly have free will. Instead, we are free to do as we choose only insofar as God allows it. That is not free will, by any definition of the phrase. As such, if we truly have free will, as most people seem to assume, then God must, by definition, not ever invade human history with his own agenda.
What I am getting at is this: one can not believe that human beings have free will, and also believe that God has a will which sometimes gets enacted on earth, without simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs.
Many Christians might respond to this by suggesting that perhaps we do not, in fact, have free will like we think we do. Doing so, of course, does in some ways resolve the problem that I have illustrated, but it opens a whole other can of philosophical worms. If we do not have free will, then what does this mean for our very existence? Furthermore, how does it affect our relationship with God? Does God, then, choose us, rather than us choosing God? What would make God choose one person over another? Why would a loving, merciful God send the majority of people (that is, non-Christians) to hell? Is anything we do actually determined by us, or does God control everything? If we determine some things, how does God decide when to let us make our own choices, and when to do his own thing? Why does God – who controls everything and leaves nothing to chance or free will – cause some people to get sick, and others to be healthy? Why does God make hurricanes and tsunamis and tornados exist, and why does he cause some people to survive those disasters, but causes others to get killed by them? These are the kinds of philosophical and theological questions one must face if they choose to reject free will.
The other option, of course, is to recognize that we do have free will, and the things that happen on this planet, for good or bad, are the result of that human free will, as well as chance and luck. As such, God has absolutely nothing to do with any of it, beyond allowing us to have free will in the first place.
The important thing to realize, and the entire point of this essay, is to raise to consciousness the fact that most of us hold contradictory beliefs regarding free will. We say we believe in free will, but simultaneously believe that God invades human history with his own agenda. It cannot be both ways, and this is the point that I would like to stress. Think on it.