Free Will Does Not Exist

Free Will Does Not Exist

I imagine how most people will respond when seeing that provocative title. What do you mean free will doesn’t exist! Of course it does, isn’t it obvious? Actually, it isn’t obvious at all when we think about it, and I mean think very carefully about it, and not just react as if it’s unworthy of our thinking because it so obviously exists. As I mentioned in my last post, I was talking to a co-worker about Calvinist soteriology, how people are saved, that God chooses us; we don’t choose him until He first chooses us, and she brought up free will. This is a typical non-sequitur, as if God exercising his sovereignty in salvation des troys the nature of his creation. That does not follow because, well, God is God! As I told her, free will is a philosophical concept that comes out of Enlightenment rationalism and can’t be found anywhere in the Bible. It’s just not there. Certainly, the Bible assumes human freedom in some sense, that people have agency, that their choices matter and have both temporal and eternal consequences, and they are in some way accountable for those choices. Affirming this, however, does not indicate there is such a thing as the philosophical concept of free will.

First, let’s address why this is a discussion at all among Christians when discussing salvation and God’s sovereignty. The biblical writers see no need to explain how God’s sovereignty and human freedom and accountability can co-exist. They clearly do, and that’s that. Even reading Calvin you won’t find any disquisition trying to figure this out, or playing one off the other. This debate started when Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609), a Dutch pastor and theologian, objected to Calvin’s focus on God’s sovereignty in salvation. Calvinism became the Calvinism we know today because Calvin’s followers’ responded to the Arminians at the Synod of Dordt in 1618-19, out of which came the famous acronym TULIP, or the five points of Calvinism. Although Calvin would have largely agreed with the substance, I think his understanding of God’s work in the soul of man is more organic and dynamic, not to mention complicated or easily understood. Most people reject Calvinism because they think TULIP is Calvin. It really isn’t.

All Christians accept God as sovereign and human beings as free and accountable agents. The question on the table today is specifically free will. Are human beings truly free? And what exactly does that mean? The easiest way to approach the question, and it is a deep, complex, and controversial philosophical question, is to consider its opposite, determinism. One definition states:

Determinism means that, in a situation in which a person makes a certain decision or performs a certain action, it is impossible that he or she could have made any other decision or performed any other action. In other words, it is never true that people could have decided or acted otherwise than they actually did.

I would argue that while the biblical doctrine of man made in God’s image, male and female He created them, does not allow for absolute determinism, human beings are in very real ways determined and not absolutely free beings. In other words our choices are in some ways determined by things outside our control. If this is true, free will as a philosophical concept does not exist.

The examples of this truth are innumerable, even apart from the doctrine of original sin which clearly limits our free will and choices. For example, every person is born with a certain personality and dispositions. Some people by birth, for example, are more inclined to self-control and self-discipline; it comes easier to them. This has nothing to do with their choosing. Their choosing is of course involved, but it requires little willpower. It’s almost natural. For others this is a life-long struggle. Are the former more virtuous and moral than the latter? It’s a complicated question, isn’t it. If we take into account our naturally born penchant to sin like the crooked sticks we are, then what? Are we in fact “free” to choose? Or take cognitive capacity. Some people are smarter than others. Or drive. Some people are more driven than others. Others are “natural born” leaders, others are followers. How does free will play into all of this?

Or how about the family we are born into? Everyone knows the environment into which we are born and raised has a significant impact on who we become. Every sociological study proves it, but it’s just common sense. Consider a child born to married parents, yes mother and father, whose family life is harmonious, whose parents are caring and responsible in every way. Chances are that child turns out considerably different from a child born in “the hood” or some mountain hick town in Appalachia who has seven different siblings by seven different fathers. Is the former child more virtuous and moral than the latter? How about where someone is born. Does someone born and raised in Saudia Arabia or North Korea have the same opportunity to choose the gospel?

I could go on, but you get the point. Which is, we are not what the so-called Enlightenment insisted we are, cold, cool, purely rational beings whose choosing is undetermined and totally free. As I heard one person say it, we are not brains on sticks. Our choosing and will is a complicated business, which is why I thank God He is the ultimate judge and not me. It is why in humility I try my level best not to “judge” others as if I were inherently better than they are, and why daily I repent of my sin because, well, I’m a wretched sinner saved by God’s mercy and purely unmerited favor. And thank Him that He chose me!

Having said all this, biblically speaking we do have agency, our choices really do matter; we can change things and alter the course of history. We are also accountable for those choices, both the consequences and the guilt for what we think and do. We are ultimately responsible beings, and taking responsibility for our choices is what truly sets us free to be human. We have no need to play the victim, and wallow in self-pity, or grow bitter and angry because life doesn’t go “our way.” This freedom is the fruit of a biblical worldview, of God as our Creator, we made in his image as co-creators, in contrast to the pagan-secular worldview that insists we are purely material beings and products of random chance. With God we have hope, meaning, purpose, fulfillment, joy; without Him, well look at America today. God’s sovereignty over all things is what roots the Christian worldview in true human flourishing, that we are not merely free agents all on our own in a cold and lonely universe, but that God foreordains all things in his magnificent providence toward His glorious ends.  

God’s grace, speaking of salvation, is also sovereign, choosing on whom he will grant unmerited favor. In this regard, it is instructive to read about Moses when he asks the Lord to show him His glory (Exodus 33:18-20). The Lord tells him He will cause all his glory to pass in front of him, then says something that makes Arminians uncomfortable, or should:

I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.

The very essence of God’s being (name) is reflected in His absolute power and authority to pardon whom he will. And remember, all stand before him justly condemned. We are not free to pursue God because He is our judge, jury, and executioner, and like Adam and Eve we hide when He comes calling. He chose Abram out of all the people on earth to fulfill a promise to make his descendants like the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky, and he chose us in Christ! Even before the world was created! When my brain gets all discombobulated about this stuff, God’s eternal decrees and His sovereign purposes in election, I always go to Moses’ comforting words in Deuteronomy 32: 

I will proclaim the name of the Lord.
    Oh, praise the greatness of our God!
He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
    and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong,
    upright and just is he.

Amen and amen!


Secularism and the Myth of Neutrality: There is No Such Thing as an Unbeliever

Secularism and the Myth of Neutrality: There is No Such Thing as an Unbeliever

I’m currently working on my upcoming new international best-selling book, and the chapter I’m currently obsessing over is on secularism. In my research and study, the title of an article caught my attention: “Is That All There Is? Secularism and its discontents.” Published in the print edition of The New Yorker Magazine in 2011, it wasn’t quite what I expected because it’s written by a committed secularist admitting secularism has its challenges, but by golly, he ain’t giving up secularism! The reason I’m addressing secularism in the book is because it’s a lie, and the most pernicious enemy of Christianity and liberty in our time. There are numerous reasons for this on a societal and personal level, but I will only briefly address the personal level here.

The secular believe they are not “religious” therefore neutral regarding ultimate issues, and because they are not “religious” think they don’t need faith. Their definition of faith, however, is fallacious and biased, something along the lines of what Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, declared, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” Faith is basically wishful thinking, and not “scientific,” as if science can answer questions of meaning. That would be known as a category error; science and philosophy do two different things. The bias is specifically anti-supernatural because secularists are naturalists or materialists, i.e., the material is all there is. Even if they are not philosophically materialists, they are practical atheists. Believing they’re “scientific,” we religious appear to believe in myths and fairy tales. They are every bit as “religious” as the religious.

The fact is, there is no such thing as an un-believer. One of my pet peeves is referring to certain people as believers and others as unbelievers; even Christians do this, all the time. The word believer is biblical, but it’s a word we need to retire in our secular age. Using it allows the “unbeliever,” the secularist, to live in the illusion they don’t require faith just like every “believer.” All human beings by the nature of their finite created existence are believers and live by faith; the issue is what or who they believe in. In other words, they are just as religious as any Christian, and require faith like any Christian. Therefore, I encourage all Christians to refer to people either as Christians or non-Christians, not believers and unbelievers. I know getting people to do this is a Sisyphean task, but alas, rolling boulders fruitlessly up hills is something I can’t help but doing.

James Wood, the author of the piece, most definitely a non-Christian, gives us a good example how a secular person does this. He refers to “Both atheists and believers . . .” Ergo, atheists don’t have to believe anything. It’s almost comical how ridiculous the contrast is. Atheists believe without the slightest evidence all material reality basically created itself, something came from nothing. Talk about a leap of faith! This is why it’s so important in our secular age to stop using believer and unbeliever, not only because it’s a distortion and inaccurate, but because it allows atheists like Wood, and his readers, to think they are somehow beyond any need for faith. It’s why so many atheists (and there are not many) can be so arrogant toward the weak who they see needing the crutch of faith.

You’ll see throughout the piece something secularists are especially good at, begging the question. Most people use this phrase today to mean raise the question, but it is a logical fallacy meaning to assume the premise as the conclusion, a form of circular reasoning. A great example of this is early in the piece when he lays his cards on the table claiming, “God is dead, and cannot be reimposed on existence.” The bald assertion is never defended, just asserted as if it didn’t need to be defended. That is an article of faith. He obviously doesn’t understand his fundamental faith commitments, or that they are faith commitments. After all, he’s an un-believer. We should not let him think that.

He does more question begging later in the piece. Speaking of tormented metaphysical questions that remain, he asserts they “cannot be answered by secularism any more effectively than by religion.” Really? The stunning ignorance of such an assertion is breathtaking and utterly predictable, just assumed to be true. The secularists who read The New Yorker wouldn’t even blink at it because they’ve likely never met someone whose life has been utterly transformed by their relationship with the risen Lord Jesus, like, for example, Claire Dooley. I listened to an interview of this young women this week telling her story of being rescued from atheism on the Side B Stories podcast.

Remember stories like this are happening all over the world in every nation every day as Jesus builds his church, and the reason is because Christianity is true. It isn’t true because it works, it works because it’s true. Lies and wishful thinking don’t transform lives or civilizations, truth does, and the one who declared, he is “the way and the truth and the life.”