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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?