no free will

Free-will and choice confusion

In Commentary, Term Definition by Steve Wilkinson14 Comments

I’m writing this article as a plea for Christians and skeptics alike, but especially theologians and apologists, to use the term ‘free will’ more carefully. I hear mistakes and mis-speaks so often that it has become one of my pet-peeves. I’m also hoping that providing a bit of detail on the distinction will positively impact our theological and apologetics discussion. This distinction does, or should, have an impact on a number of topics such as ‘the problem of evil’ or the Calvin/Arminian debate. I also welcome discussion in the comments on the more technical, philosophical distinctions (which are probably a layer above, though helpful to the purpose of this article).

Will vs Choice

Many times when I hear the term ‘free will’ used, what the speaker or writer really means is choice or free choice. We generally have free choices when we make decisions. Our wills, however, seem hardly free. Christian theology aside, our wills are shaped and influenced by many internal and external factors over our lives. In fact, within a materialistic worldview, anything apart from determinism seems difficult to defend.

On a Christian worldview, the Bible seems quite clear about the fallen state of our hearts. When the Bible speaks of ‘heart’ we can often think of will as at least one component of what is meant. In other words, when we speak of will today, the ancient Hebrew would have spoken of heart. We basically can’t NOT sin, not because we can’t choose not to sin, but because of our fallen nature and our will’s inclination towards sin. Our choices, then naturally follow from the intentions of our will. This is often stated in theology as – non posse non peccare – or not able not to sin.

Even if we could somehow override our wills in our point by point decision making, such that we didn’t break the various moral laws, we would certainly fail on the big one – loving God with our whole selves. All the free choices in the world can’t fix a will opposed to God. We won’t love God, and therefore almost certainly, won’t make the right choices, no matter how free they may be.

In one sense, even God does not have free-will, as God can’t sin. Of course, this doesn’t mean God is not capable of carrying out a sinful action. If we can do it, God certainly can! But what we mean, is that God’s very nature, and thus will, is in opposition to sin such that God will never choose sin. As abhorrent as torturing babies for fun would seem to us (hopefully!), God can’t stomach sin, though He is capable of the actual action. So, the idea that God can’t sin really means that God won’t sin.

Even when we make the right choices, we often don’t make them for the right reasons. Much like a trained animal, we’re just carrying out behaviors based on social conditioning and tastes we’ve developed. Even if our wills are opposed to God, we still make choices which would be considered morally good at times. This is why it is false to claim, for example, that atheists can’t live in morally good ways. Of course they can. They were raised in a civilized society and are made in the image of God. Some of them make better choices than many Christians, at least on some things. The problem is, that this doesn’t get at what is really in the will. When our wills are conformed to God, we don’t just make the right choices (and hopefully more often), we make them for the right reasons.

I often hear a critique of the idea that our wills aren’t really free, being that God wouldn’t punish those who lack ability. This is a great example, as it highlights the confusion I’m talking about. If there were no free-choice, this might be true. Such a being would be essentially a robot. However, we are fully capable of making the right choices, the problem is with the driver of our choices, our will. We’re opposed to following God’s commands, which causes us to make sinful choices for which we are, justly, accountable. But those choices are freely made.

This brings to mind problematic analogies sometimes used in the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. (1)Note, I don’t yet have the following books, so I’m going from what I’ve heard concerning them. They are on my reading list if I ever get time! For example, Norm Geisler uses a salvation analogy of kids drowning in a farmer’s pond in Chosen But Free. The idea being that these kids, guilty because they ignored the posted sign, recognize they are drowning, and are offered ropes, but some refuse. While this might correctly portray choice, in that they are free to grab a rope tossed to them, or to resist being rescued, it doesn’t capture the correct state of the will (the real source of the problem). Unbelievers, it seems to me, don’t recognize they are drowning, and despise the rescue rope, among other problems.

James White offers a counter example in The Potter’s Freedom, where people are burning down the King’s castle. Despite their destructive (and self-destructive efforts), the Prince rescues some of them anyway. This, in my opinion, better captures the Biblical state of our wills, yet allows for free-choice to be a reality. But, since the will drives choice, once the will is inclined towards God, it would seem that (salvific) choice would follow, as well as better moral choices and our ability to love God as we are sanctified (a process).

Another point on which this has heavy bearing is in eschatology. Will our wills be free in heaven? After thinking about this for a bit with the common usage of this term, the answer becomes clear…. I hope not! I’m hoping to have a transformed will, which is conformed to Christ’s, not a ‘free’ one. I don’t want another Fall. I expect that I’ll have free-choice, I just won’t WANT to do anything sinful, and I WILL want to love God with my whole being. That doesn’t mean I will be any less ‘free’ than I feel I currently am. But instead of a fallen-will driving my choices, I’ll have a Christ-like one, which is, after all, how I was intended to be by my Creator. If you disagree, please explain how God is going to abolish sin and evil in the hereafter with ‘free’ beings (in the free-will sense commonly used).

I recently heard a great discussion (in terms of easy to understand, the best I’ve heard), which touched on this issue on Greg Koukl’s Stand to Reason podcast. “French Former Atheist Naturalist becomes Christian” (November 26, 2013 – play-time 01:32:47 through 01:44:00)

Whether you agree or disagree with my conclusions and applications, please do consider your use of the terms ‘will’ and ‘choice’ more carefully in these kinds of discussions.

Update: Wednesday, January 8, 2014

While listening to a podcast episode of Cross Examined (Jan 1, 2014 – “How Morality Proves God” 53:30 in), Frank Turek illustrated a commonly heard view I would like to critique. He said, “Everybody knows that God exists. You have to suppress the truth about it in order to say he doesn’t. But not everybody trusts in him. Why? Because God gives you the free will to go your own way. He will not force you into heaven against your will. If you don’t want God now, you’re not going to want Him in eternity.” I think C.S. Lewis popularized this view, saying God is a gentleman. He doesn’t force people to believe or not believe. I suppose I would agree, as far as it goes.

But, I think this example illustrates just such a confusion over will and choice. If you are in the fallen state, your will is hostile towards God. As Frank said, if you don’t want God, you won’t want God in eternity either. Given the free choice, man will “go their own way” straight to hell… EVERY time, shaking their fist at God the whole way!

Now, if God intervenes, our will is changed, as the hostility is removed. But we’re also given God’s spirit and started on a path of sanctification (being conformed to the will of Christ in the process). God doesn’t have to force the person into heaven, as they, in a regenerate state, want to be in right relationship with God. They will freely choose to do so.

It seems to me to be an either/or situation. The will is fallen and hostile towards God, and the person will freely choose hell. Or, the will is regenerate, being conformed to the will of Christ. This person is going to freely choose heaven.

Also, please see this excellent, thought-provoking article which call into question our typical understanding of what freedom is in the first place: Freedom of the Child vs. Freedom of the Adult by Dr. John Stackhouse, Jr.

Update: Saturday, September 6, 2014

Greg Koukl does it again with another great discussion on this topic on his Stand to Reason radio show and podcast. Here is a link to the episode entitled, “First Day of School (September 2, 2014).” The conversation with a caller, “How do you reconcile free will and Calvinism?” goes from time 02:31:48 – 2:57:38.

First, I like how Greg corrects the importance of this issue. Like he says, that unlike things like the age of the earth, you can’t help but deal with this issue if you study Scripture. And, it forms a foundation for all kinds of critical foundations of Christianity, like soteriology, the doctrine of salvation.

Second, I like how Greg stresses that we have to deal with actual WORDS and passages used in Scripture, like: election, predestined, chosen, etc. They have to mean something, and we have to deal with that.

Third, he again discusses the types of freedom and implications. This is important to understand in the discussion. Greg says ‘free-will’ is often used as a trump-card, as in… you have all these verses, BUT ‘free-will.’ However our choices work into the equation, Scripture is quite clear our wills are not free. (cf. Martin Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will) Greg talks about our compromised-will. Do we have free-will? Yes, and it is broken.

Image credit: The no free-will bus campaign by Travis Morgan