Thursday, April 17, 2008

Free Will and God's Will: Mutually Incompatible

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.


D.R. Brooker said...

Hi Scott...

Probably would be in agreement with most of what you wrote.

Here are some biblical passages for further consideration:

Gen 50:20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.

While Joseph's brothers were responsible for the evil they committed, it occurred within the broader scope of God's sovereign plan. So no, they were not free in the libertarian sense of the word as some use it.

Prov 16:9 A man's heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.

The Lord has a plan for us and He directs us according to His plan, not our plan. When we are being lead by the Lord, we will plan according to His will and not our own. Those who think, as you mentioned, that certain things are not God's will for us are obviously those who do not see Him as sovereign over all things. He is either sovereign over all things, or not sovereign at all.

I'd also suggest reading Romans 9:17-23 for it is the clearest passage, IMO, dealing with God's sovereignty over His creatures.

I think a way to look at humans and the concept of free will is to define it as something like, 'man is free to act according to his nature.' This was the way Jonathan Edwards defined it in his classic work, The Freedom of the Will. For example, as much as I'd like to play in the NHL, I'm limited by my inability or nature. Now the part we will most surely disagree on is that our nature, as the bible teaches, is corrupted by sin. Apart from a work of God to release us from that bondage we are incapable of doing anything that pleases Him. Therefore, we believe only because God has first regenerated our hearts by His Spirit.

I could say more, but that's all for now.

Darrin (GW)

Scott said...

Hey GW, thanks for reading and responding. I appreciate your insights and comments.

Rick said...

Hi Scott,

I ran across your post while googling for articles and wanted to respond.

Ninevah was under God's judgement and was about to be destroyed until Jonah prophesied to them. Ninevah repented from its wickedness which, in turn, caused God to spare the nation. This is one account of God's mind being changed because of the acts of men or at the very least it shows that the Ninevites had a choice which directly affected their existence.

If I can make a choice that will alter the course of my life from destruction to salvation then it seems that I have some charge in the matter. And, would God's will be served by my destruction and salvation in the same instance?

I know this isn't much of a response to your post and you raise some good points. But, ultimately, we will be held accountable for the choices we make and God will be righeous in His judgement; and if the bible is used as the standard for our discussion the we can probably agree on this point.


dan said...

great writings, really enjoyed them. can't find a way to contact you other than this. Would love to email questions, thanks.

Scott said...

Rick and Dan: Thanks for your comments.

Rick: I appreciate you taking the time to give your opinion on the matter. Indeed, one can find evidence in the Bible of both apparent free will, and apparent suspension of free will. But this sort of goes to my point...if free will can ever be suspended, then it's not really free will. Therefore, how can we know if we're acting on our own autonomous choices, or acting out God's own will, like puppets on a string? Furthermore, doesn't this issue of free will vs. God's will sort of negate the common idea of prayer? What is the point of praying for something if only God's will is going to be done? Even the prayer "Not my will, but yours" becomes pointless, because does God need us to encourage him to enact his own will?

Dan: If you've got questions, you can feel free to post them right here in this comment section, and I'll be glad to address them.

dan said...

I would post my questions here, but they may be off topic from the original blog post. I noticed that your interests are egyptology, study of religions, history, etc.. And then after reading several of your posts I realized you're covering some of the major themes I've come to realize in the last year or so. My first question for you is whether or not you've read Thomas Thayer's paper on eternal punishment (available freely online). He references Egyption culture as a major influence on todays modern "church" views. I thought you might have some interesting insight to how accurate his claims might be. Thayer's paper is on the topic of "hell" specifically, but I'd be very interested to find out what else the Egyption culture contributed to today's traditional doctrines.

Scott said...

Dan: Sorry for the delay in responding to you. I had not heard of Thayer's paper before, but I found it online and have skimmed through it. It appears that a lot of what he is saying is similar to a blog post I made last year on the doctrine of hell. The fact remains, for something that has such a prominent place in so much Christian theology and Christian consciousness, hell is hardly ever mentioned in the Bible. And, as Thayer seems to point out very clearly, when hell is referenced, it's not the same kind of place we imagine today. Our modern images of hell come from medeival Christianity, not the Bible.

I didn't find the part of his paper that discussed Egypt. However, if you have read my most recent blog post, you'll know there is a popular Internet movie going around that attempts to show that Christianity is almost exclusively based on Egyptian astrology.

In my studies over the years of both New Testament scholarship and ancient Egyptian history, I have never heard any reputable scholar argue for major themes shared by both ancient Egyptian religion and Christianity. The ancient Egyptians imaged their gods dramatically differently than the Jews or the Christians.

Now, there is no question that many pagan (that is, polytheistic) religions that were still around in the early days of Christianity (Roman paganism, Egyptian paganism, possibly even the Greek gods and goddesses) were used to help develop Christian doctrine after the time of Constantine in 300 C.E. December 25th, for instance, was the day of a pagan winter solstice festival in ancient Rome. When Christianity came onto the picture, they simply replaced this celebration with the celebration of Jesus's birth. Virgin births and miracles were certainly common stories in the pagan world as well. The idea of Jesus being the "son of God" and divine in his own right may likely have been drawn by 1st century Christians from Emperor Caesar Augustus, who had been lauded as the divine son of God after his death. Of course, these images were also drawn from Judaism as well.

In my opinion, the writers of the Bible drew primarily from Jewish tradition when remembering and describing Jesus, but probably also were influenced by Roman paganism. Roman paganism, on the other hand, may have been influenced by early Egyptian paganism. In that sense, one might argue that Egyptian paganism was at least indirectly influential on Christianity. But all in all, I think it's most accurate to simply describe Christian beliefs as springing out of Jewish expectations, and Jewish understandings of the world.

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