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    April 19th, 2012 @ 4:10 pm by Kevin

    As regular readers of this blog know, my investigation into the doctrine of hell has made me rather skeptical of the notion of free will. That is, I find it virtually impossible to conceive of how a being that is neither omniscient nor omnipotent can ever make a choice that is not to some degree constrained by fear, ignorance, deception, emotional wounding or bondage to self-destructive desires. Therefore, I can’t accept the idea that any of our choices are free in the sense that most people imagine them to be. Instead, I see our decisions as the product of a complex web of influences and experiences, most of which we are not consciously aware. So the notion that God would condemn anyone to an eternity in hell as punishment for decisions made under such circumstances seems the height of injustice.

    Now, you might want to challenge this assertion by arguing that history offers overwhelming evidence that human beings are free to do pretty much anything their minds can dream up. For example, you might argue that I’m perfectly free to commit murder right now, just as millions of people before me have done. And I would have to agree with you that, yes, despite various hockey-related injuries, I am physically capable of taking the life of another human being at this moment. But this is where the agreement ends, because to my way of thinking, ability does not equal freedom.

    Think about it: Could the decision to carry out a murder ever be considered a free choice? If so, we would have to point to someone like Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik as a paragon of freedom. But I don’t see anyone doing that. Instead, the more Breivik describes his motives, the more we realize the depth of his depraved thinking. His killing spree wasn’t an example of freedom in action. Instead, his actions merely confirm that murder is always driven by one or more of the following factors: fear, ignorance, emotional wounding, deception, self-destructive desires or mental illness. I would argue that the same can be said for virtually any destructive or self-destructive behavior you can imagine. None of these acts are the product of a free will. Instead, they are symptomatic of a will in bondage.

    A few other objections typically come up at this point:

    1) If our choices aren’t free, then they aren’t actually choices. Everything we do is determined. We’re just playing out a script.

    No rational person can deny the fact that human beings make choices. We make hundreds of them each day. So jettisoning the idea of free will does not require us to ditch the idea of choice. Instead, it’s a matter of asking what might be influencing or even determining our choices. Once again, I’m suggesting it’s virtually impossible to answer that question in an ultimate sense or to come up with an example of a choice that isn’t somehow constrained by fear, ignorance, deception emotional wounding or bondage to self-destructive desires.

    Think back to the story of the Fall in Genesis, for example. The decision to eat the forbidden fruit was the direct result of deception—which was made possible by ignorance. When the serpent initially tempted Eve by casting aspersions on God’s motives, apparently she didn’t know enough about God to counter his accusations, so she trusted the serpent more than God and ate the fruit. You could also say that the serpent played on the couple’s self-destructive desire for autonomy—ironically, upon their desire to be “free” agents unconstrained by God or each other! As soon as they realized what they’d done, fear entered the picture, prompting yet more irrational behavior. Would you really want to call any of these decisions free?

    Another example, one of the most important choices we ever make—the decision to get married. What motivates this decision? And what motivates the choosing of a particular spouse? At the most fundamental level I can say that you probably don’t recall choosing your sexual orientation. Instead, for as long as you can remember, you were simply attracted to one gender or the other—or in some cases, both. (And this is to say nothing about whether sexual orientation is a product of nature or nurture. Either way, the choice was out of your hands.)

    Second, I can say your choice of a spouse was definitely constrained by ignorance of all the potential people you could have married—seeing as you probably didn’t take the time to speed date with every potential candidate on the face of the earth. I’m not sure if I want to comment on how fear, deception or self-destructive desires might bear on such a decision, but I’ve already demonstrated that even though this choice isn’t completely free, it’s still a real choice. You made a decision. You got married. For better or worse.

    Incidentally, by rejecting free will, I’m not going to the other extreme and arguing that every choice we make is done in a state of complete bondage. Clearly, some choices are better than others. The freer you are from fear, ignorance, emotional wounds, deception and self-destructive desires, the better your choices will be. So it’s not an either/or case here—total freedom vs. total bondage. It’s a matter of recognizing that all choices are made along a continuum of freedom. As psychologist Richard Beck puts it, rather than talk about free will vs. no free will, it’s better to think about it in terms of strong vs. weak volitional capacity.

    2) If our choices aren’t free, then they don’t really matter.

    Try telling that to your spouse! Even if our choices aren’t free, they still matter, because every decision we make affects not only ourselves but others as well. This is why I find abandoning the notion of free will so helpful, because instead of diminishing the consequences of our choices, it actually gives us a far greater understanding of their meaning. Rather than see ourselves as islands floating out in the middle of the ocean, we are able to dive down deep where we see that even islands connect to the mainland eventually. The appearance of separateness is merely an illusion. In the same way, we are all connected through a chain of cause-and-effect that stretches back into the past, forward into the future and in every direction in the present. There’s nothing we can do that won’t somehow enhance or disrupt the flow of energy and information across this vast web of relationships. With so much riding on every decision, there’s even more reason to ensure we are making the best possible choices—creating the best possible causes—so that our actions produce the most constructive effects. That means doing everything we can to minimize the distorting effects of fear, ignorance, emotional wounds, deception and bondage to self-destructive desires. The less bearing those influences have on our decisions, the freer our decisions will be.

    3) If our choices aren’t free, then we don’t bear any responsibility for them.

    I’ll concede this objection in part, but only to prove a larger point. It’s true that once we begin to see ourselves not as autonomous agents acting independent of our environment but as interconnected nodes in a vast network of influences, the notion of holding individuals solely responsible for their behavior begins to break down. Instead, we start to see sick individuals as the product of a sick system. This isn’t to excuse individual acts of deviance. It seems reasonable to hold those closest to the deviant act most responsible for the deviant behavior. But I fear we have gone too far in the opposite direction, where our entire legal apparatus has become a systematic denial of responsibility for the welfare of our fellow human. When someone commits a crime, rather than ask how our actions or indifference may have helped create an environment conducive to the deviant behavior, we focus almost exclusively on seeking retribution against the offender. By vilifying individuals, we can conveniently look past our own moral failings, which pale in comparison to the monstrous behavior of the offender, thus enhancing our sense of self-righteousness.

    This leads us back to the traditional Western doctrine of hell. Rather than recognize the interconnectedness of humankind and the complexity of causation that goes into each and every decision, it seems to be premised on the notion that human beings are isolated monads who will be held solely responsible for their actions in some eternal sense. As I’ve sought to demonstrate above, such a doctrine is very difficult to square with reason and experience. And that should motivate us to ask whether or not we’ve interpreted the Bible correctly on these matters.

    As I’ve no doubt illustrated more than once, I’m not much of a philosopher, but I do recognize a good argument when I see one. Perhaps the best version of the argument I’ve tried to make above is put forward by philosopher Eric Reitan in the book Universal Salvation? The Current Debate. Eric’s contribution is called “Human Freedom and the Impossibility of Eternal Damnation,” and its by far the best rebuttal of the free will defense of hell I’ve ever read. I can’t recommend this book or Eric’s chapter enough, so I’ll leave you with a taste to whet your appetite:

    In order for a choice to qualify as truly free, the person making the choice needs two things: First, a full and adequate understanding of the nature of the choice (as [Thomas] Talbott puts it, freedom from all ignorance and deception); second, freedom from any bondage to desire (more precisely, bondage to sinful desires that the person is powerless to resist). But anyone who understands the options and is free from bondage to desire would have no more motive to reject God’s offer, and every motive to accept it. Furthermore, we never freely choose what we have no motive to choose and every motive not to choose. Hence, it is incoherent to speak of someone freely choosing damnation. Anyone who does choose damnation must therefore lack genuine freedom. God could save them by removing their ignorance, deception or bondage to desire—thereby restoring (not interfering with) their freedom.

leave a comment on this post (9 Comments)

  1. Check out the correlation between Eric Reitan’s definition of a truly free choice, and this request to God in Proverbs 30:7-9
    “Two things I ask of you, LORD;
    do not refuse me before I die:
    Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
    give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.
    Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
    Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonor the name of my God.”

  2. I don’t understand why all the emphasize on freedom, as if this determines whether we are guilty.

    My understanding, and even ltd awareness, is that we are all guilty as we are born into a sinful state.

    Like it or not, all men are in a pitiful state — they have been born condemned.

    Sure it’s not mankind’s idea of justice, but I don’t need to fault God for that as so many seem to do.

    • David,

      Freedom is the usual crutch most Christian lean on in order to promote a logical reason why God damns them and has the objects of his love tortured for all eternity (yes that’s the amrinian persuasion). So if freedom (volition) is the reason God has people tortured without end, then one has to question such freedom. Of course people could simply abandon it and say, men are not free and God will damn them anyways, but now a logical reason has to be drawn or abandoned. In this case it seems you choose the latter – Accept the bible at it’s literal face value and leave logic and reason behind. I think Kevin is right, if freedom of choice is the component that makes men damnable then we need to know how it works in order to accept it as a premise.

      Also, our state as condemnable creatures is not where the bible rests at, rather it’s God reconciling condemnable creatures against their will that puzzles us.

      • Gene,

        Wasn’t Adam and Eve’s willful (?) choice to disobey God what condemned us, apart from what we personally do? Don’t we inherit that sin nature? Aren’t we born condemned, but for faith in God for redemption?

        So I guess I am still tweaked a bit by all the emphasis on personal free will.

        This tangent (red-herring?) seems born out of a Western hyper-individualistic view of the world whereas many other cultures appreciate a collective identity (and guilt… and redemption) much more easily.

        (For a simple scriptural example look at the Centurion and his household who come to salvation in Acts 10.)

        If our tribe, species, race (human), even our planet, has already been condemned because of one couple’s willful choice, why do we need to keep asking if we personally have free will?

        • David,
          Yes, of course that’s the way people have traditionally held the idea but I don’t interpret the creation account like most. For example, I would not articulate that Eve disobeyed willingly. I would say she disobeyed unknowingly (deceived) as Paul states “Eve was the one deceived…”.

          I think the reason people use free will as the primary component of their theodicy is because, as you point out, on one hand we’re condemned for something someone else did, on the other hand most Christians believe God does not judge people for the sins of others – each for his own sins.

          So people take the latter and realize then free will must be the difference that allows us to disobey.

          But I appreciate your point of view because most Christians also recognize that everyone’s condemned because of the 1 act of disobedience.

          Anyways, thanks for the response 🙂 God Bless.

      • the path seems to be something like this: first you learn (maybe i suhold say remember ), then you realize the complexity of it all, after that you try to forget or ignore (perhaps to make everything easy), then you understand that forgetting or ignoring is not possible, and only after then you find out that there’s something called simplicity . we are all simple creatures. the basic human needs and feelings are in fact simple. no matter how much we know, we are all hurt or or annoyed or disappointed because of similar reasons and in similar ways. maybe that is why we do not need choices. the result does not change much. but you are right: it is too simple to be easy. yet who likes to follow the easy way?

  3. Western philosophy prefers a metaphysics that operates only by forces both hidden and obvious. Things work the way they do from laws of mind and matter due to laws of necessity. It is ultimately impossible to sustain a philosophy of freedom of choice within such a framework. It results in an inevitable determinism and a mere illusion of free will.

    Indeed it creates an all or nothing debate of Free Will versus Determinism. And I, typical of my humbug attitude, reject both determinism AND Free Will.

    Only God has free will. But He did not use His free will to create a universe that runs only on determinants. But by His free will, God can and did create a universe out of absolutely nothing. That is truly free will! (!!!!)
    You cannot do that on any scale that comes anywhere close. Furthermore, in His free will, God created a universe with multiple axis and multiple forces creating an environment filled with various opposing options held in perfect balance. Within that context human beings, created — not identical to God but rather — merely in His image. And I say “merely” as if that were not something awesome even thought it is unspeakably awesome. Being made in God’s image, we were NOT given free will, but FREEDOM OF CHOICE. We cannot create options in balance like God does, but we can choose from among the options that do exist and tip the balance.

    There is no way to prove or disprove the following statement: We cannot determine if the biology of the human body represents the entirety of our conscious entity or of the human body is merely the physical apparatus that houses our conscious existence and sustains its interface with the physical universe. It is possible that the soul is a non physical existence not subject to the laws of physics but housed in a physical biological body subject to all the laws of physics. This is something we cannot determine as true or false. If it is true, that has astounding implications; if it is false, that too has astounding implications.

    Indeed this is how God is sovereign. He does not over rule or control our free choices. Instead He controls the options held in physical balance and the outcomes if tipped settle into a new balance — PERIOD. God created a universe where it is inevitable that reasonable conscious people will eventually run out of agreeable evil options from which they can choose and will eventually see the need to be voluntarily won over to love and arrive at a place where love will win over the unreasonable heart and our freedom of choice will then be used to fully and freely participate in the options that remain in full force of our own faculties while in concert with the love of God. Freedom of choice is NEVER violated and God’s sovereignty is never in danger. Full and entire reconciliation IS the only inevitable destiny. It arrived at both by the determinants of the physical world and the freedom of choice of the non physical soul.

    God does not cause all things, He causes all things to work together. Do not say yes to determinism. Do not say yes to free will. Say yes to freedom of choice to tip the balance determined by physics tipped by love or its absence.

    -Bob Greaves “The Unconventional Pastor”

    • I tend to think there are times that God does over-ride our free will. How he does so is only up to speculation. But I’m not convinced he ALWAYS is over-riding our wills.

  4. goodto see u in apolagetics still

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