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    June 15th, 2012 @ 9:32 pm by Kevin

    I got in a bit of hot water with some Christian friends a couple of months back for posting a video of Sam Harris (an atheist) in which he denies the existence of free will. This is an important topic, because if you’re a Christian and you’re not a Calvinist, chances are your theology of hell rests on the idea of free will. That is, you believe God doesn’t send anyone to hell–we choose to go there.

    This seems like a nifty way to get God off the hook. However, as I’ve mentioned before, I have some serious problems with this view. Namely, like Harris, I simply don’t believe that free will exists.

    If you want to be biblical, think of the story of the Fall in Genesis 3. Was Eve’s choice the result of a free will? Let’s see: She starts out in bondage to ignorance–or why else would she believe what the snake tells her about God? Then she falls victim to deception–the snake’s promise if she partakes of the fruit. And then she and Adam descend into fear–which gives way to rivalry, animosity and then murder among their offspring.

    Do we see any evidence of free will in this picture–a will that is able to recognize good and evil and then “freely” chooses evil? I certainly don’t. And if you can’t find evidence for your theology of hell in this story–which lays out the “bad news,” thus setting the stage for the “Good News” to come–perhaps you should reexamine your theology.

    One of the first people to help me think through this is psychologist Richard Beck. He’s a Christian, and guess what? He also agrees with Harris. He doesn’t believe in free will either. So if I’m going to go to hell for agreeing with Sam Harris, at least I’ll have Richard [and Sam] for company.

    Here’s a theological objection from Richard:

    If hell is a matter of choice then so is your salvation. You damn yourself. You save yourself. Salvation pivots off an act of human volition. This, as many of you know, is the classic criticism Calvinists make of Arminian soteriology. And, in my opinion, the Calvinists have a point on this score (though it pains me to admit it).

    And now for a psychological objection:

    Basically, to be blunt about it, there is no such thing as free will. I’m not saying we are automatons, just that “will” is highly contextual. You just can’t make a plausible case for free will in this age of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, cultural analysis, learning theory, and behavioral genetics. Our choices are the product of genes, environment, nature, nurture, culture, reinforcement, and simply if we got enough sleep the night before. Who we are at Time 2 is highly correlated with (if not determined by) who we are at Time 1–historically, culturally, biologically, socially, and psychologically. We are embodied, finite and contingent beings. And so is our willpower.

    The point is, I while I might choose, right now, to damn myself I don’t damn myself by myself. There’s a whole lot of context and history behind that damning. Cultural history. Family history. Genetic history. Personal history. All mixed up with a dash of randomness, quantum indeterminacy and chaos theory.

    We can’t, in short, localize human choice in space and time within the human actor. Human choice is deep, wide, and old. Human choice is a distributed and evolving matrix of which the individual is but one tiny part.

    You don’t have to agree with Sam, Richard or me. But before you build your theology of hell on free will, perhaps you should consider this question:

    Why would you build your entire theological system upon a non-biblical, philosophically contested, scientifically disputed, and perennially controversial anthropocentric abstraction?

    You can read more on this topic from Richard here and here.

leave a comment on this post (4 Comments)

  1. I wholeheartedly agree, but I think the divide is exacerbated by a misunderstanding of the word “free”: instead of claiming that free will doesn’t exist, it might be easier to argue more forcefully that a dispassionate, impartial, decontextualized will doesn’t exist—it is true that this doesn’t accurately describe the human will. However, when I say that free will *does* exist, I mean (in the patristic sense) that the human will is not manipulated by God on one hand whose love refuses to coerce nor by death on the other hand, which has been conquered, and that the human will is free in the sense that it is vulnerable to a cacophony of arbitrary social, cultural, political, economic, biological, psychological, and genetic forces that are outside of our control (like a feather in the wind is free—this is the patristic understanding that informs the ascetic disciplines of the noetic tradition [i.e., “watchfulness,” “attentiveness” to external distractions and internal passions]).

    I hope this helps — if it doesn’t, just ask a Christian to sincerely *not* believe that God exists for about an hour, since their free, dispassionate, impartial, decontextualized will can allow them to do this and then easily go back to believing that God does exist after (s)he’s done not believing; if they can’t do this, we have to wonder how free their will actually is…

  2. This is another tension in which we live and too which we can (and in fact must) hold to both ends at the same time. The fact that are wills are at once “free” and at the same time “determined.” Andrew’s explanation is particularly apt here. Our wills are influenced by a variety of factors (cultural tradition, biological traits, libidinal desires, economic position, education level, etc…) Each of these plays a role in determining many of our decisions so in that sense our wills are far from free. However this does not mean that we must then go to the next extreme of “no free will” for we exist in relationship with a God who (as Andrew so eloquently put it) refuses to coerce. Influenced but not manipulated that is how I would put it. I hope I made sense here. For some great reading on free will try “Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain” by Michael S. Gazzaniga who says this; “Even with all the fantastic comprehension gained about the mechanisms of the mind, with all the knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and all the rest of the disciplines that have conceptualized a deterministic universe, none of it impacts human responsibility – one of the deep core values of human life. When these parts are seen as a dynamic system there is an undeniable reality. We are responsible agents.”

  3. The Free-Will debate is a tricky issue. First It’s clear that our wills are not bound to God, we are not controlled like Robots, at least in our initial design. Yet it is also clear that there are social, biological, cultural, etc. influences that are influencing us. But the Bible also tells us not to follow the world system, seemingly indicating that to at least some degree we can choose not to follow the influences of some of these factors. Of course there are also the influences of evil Spirits and Holy Spirit on human beings and thus through this, cultural systems ect, which in turn influence us.

    But this is all related to the human mind, it’s inherited aspects, and also how it processes and is influenced by the systems around it. Some have said that the human being isn’t truly free until he/she is completely aligned with God….which leads me to another part of the human equation, that to my mind is missing in Dr. Beck’s thought. This is the Biblical truth that the human being has the light of Christ inside that the darkness can never put out, and a conscience deep down that is attuned to Christ’s laws (as mentioned in Romans), however scathed over it may become. This is seemingly separate from the biology of our minds and how they process the world.

    So then there is also something deep down inside human beings that isn’t influenced by these various aspects such as culture, ect… that is also an influence on our thoughts and behaviour, to varying degrees. Of course the conscience’s degree of influence is dependant on how scathed over the human has let it become, and thus to what degree the person has tuned into their conscience, which in turn can be related to outside influences. But to add to this Holy Spirit is also working in peoples lives to various ways.

    Then there is the truth that God has written pointers to him in his creation, that is clearly speaking of his divine attibutes, as mentioned in Romans. This is separate from any worldly systems and the Bible is clear that it is, at least in part, there to lead us to God.

    This Bible also clearly says that “Life and death are before us CHOOSE life”. It does indicate in several places that we have choices to make and are responsible for those choices.

    So this is all not easily understood or resolved. But I’d think that it’s also clear that any choices a person makes against choosing God are at least in part influenced by negative influences or deceptions in their lives, beginning in the garden of Eden. When one enters the afterlife they will be without these negative influences, yet with a conscience that deep down is attuned towards God and his laws. There is no reason to believe that God’s love (in the sacrament of his divine correction) wouldn’t eventually burn away the lies and dross that scathe over a persons conscience, and therefore there will eventually be nothing to stop the person from responding to what has been written deep down inside them all along. That is to choose God and his laws, and therefore to be fully convicted, realizing ones need for his redemption.

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