How Free Is Free Will?

imagesQuestions of free will can often pose major stumbling blocks for skeptics and believers alike. How can God be omnipotent and omniscient and create beings who can somehow surprise him when they rebel? How can it be fair for God to punish someone he made to be stubborn and willful? As a recent email question put it:

“Even if we freely chose to follow him or not by exercising our free will, its as though we are predestined because he made me how I am, where I am…. It’s almost like going bowling. You were placed by God in a lane with the bumpers out and if you knock over a pin, you become saved. I was possibly placed in a lane where the pin placer machine is broken and I was created with a disposition to not ask for help. So I don’t get saved. Or was I was created as a stubborn person who would never accept Christ despite any and all evidence. In a way, I was made by him to never know him. Yes I could freely choose but why make a person and then place him in a place and time where he would never freely choose God?”

Sometimes, part of the problem lies in formulating the question. This writer has assumed the conclusion that he reached – that God’s act of making us equals predestination in some sense. But that is the very question that we want to answer – are we “predestined” in a way that actually overrides – or makes meaningless – this thing we call free will.

The question also assumes an “either-or” situation. But this bears examining; we don’t either have free will, on the one hand, or are predestined and lacking free will, on the other. There is a third alternative: God is an eternal, omnipotent being, for whom all events are in the “present.” Though he may interact in time, time is a creation of his and not something that binds him. Just as God can “see” all points in the universe at any given moment of our time, he can “see” all points in the temporal timeline as if they were presently occurring to him. Consequently, he knows how we will act, as to him those actions have already occurred. Viewed from this perspective, we are “predestined” in the sense that God knows how we turned out, even though his knowledge does not interfere with our choices.

Let’s say, for example, that I filmed an event that I participated in. The event consisted of a number of challenges that I faced in some type of obstacle course. The designers of the course were picked randomly and I had no knowledge of how they would set up the course, knowing only that it would involve a series of options that would require me to weigh moral issues, as well as to take some physical actions. Once I’ve completed the course, I watch the video. As I watch, I know exactly how I will respond to each challenge, and of course that is exactly what the film shows. But “knowing” the outcome does not alter the free will choices that are being depicted on the film. The outcome is “predestined” at the point that I am watching it – it is, at that point, too late for me to change anything.

The core question being posed by the writer is whether we are in fact free in any real sense. The bowling analogy is effective in making the point that the “game” may be stacked against us. What if I was made with a disposition to not seek help? Or I was created as stubborn? He concludes with the question “why make a person and then place him in a place and time where he would never freely choose God?”

This question helps clarify the real issue. Let’s take bowling. The point of the game is to get a perfect score, and if not that, then the best score possible. The game involves an element of skill and like most games, practice will improve performance. Scoring is not ambiguous – there are a set of rules that tells us exactly how we did, compared both against a perfect score and against other bowlers. My obstacle course analogy conjures up a similar image – there is a way to win, and winning is based on skill and performance.

The problem is that salvation is not a function of performance. The whole point of Christian theology is that none of us can get a 300 score; indeed, our best efforts to “win the game” or to impress God are futile. We simply can’t do it. Once we get our mind around that key fact, we have begun to understand the “bad news” that makes the gospels, by contrast, “good news.” Why? Because Jesus does all the work. He can bowl the perfect game; he ran the obstacle course without error or failure. He stands ready to do a work in us that will “perfect” us, so that reunion with God is possible. But there is one thing he will not do – override our free will.

So, let’s think for a moment about what really is at play regarding this issue of free will. It’s not, as I’ve tried to say above, our performance on tasks, our accomplishments, our value in the eyes of the world. And it’s not simply our character. After all, we are all sinners, which means that not one of us possesses a character that is, at present, pleasing to God. No, the issue is one of rebellion. Is my heart aligned against God, so that (to borrow from a famous author) I would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven?

But what if you were “created with a disposition to not ask for help,” as the writer asks? Let’s consider: What is it, exactly, that prohibits us from asking for help? What force is overriding our awareness of a problem and our need for help? It is, I would submit, our fallen human condition, the consequences of sin in the world. But this thing that tugs at us, that whispers in our ear that we should be God rather than serve God, is part and parcel of what free will is. It is simply another way of saying that we have been given the capacity to rebel against God. Rebellion does not take skill or practice; it is part of the fabric of the human condition. It means persisting in our views and our desire for power and control, and not, by contrast, seeking out God and submitting to his will, as best we can. When we persist in not asking for help, we are exercising our free will in precisely the way God expected. The ultimate choice we face, after all, is whether to choose to serve him, and let him thereby do his saving work in us, or to reject that. All other choices we make are lesser, and essentially irrelevant, ones.

So what does it take to have a heart in rebellion? Is it a special condition that only some of us are afflicted with? No, I would submit that the answer is simple – it takes membership in the human race. We are all in rebellion. God reaches out to all of us in a way that is meaningful. If you are stubborn by nature, he does so with grace sufficient to overcome that stubbornness. But, he does not force our conversion. He leaves us free to make that choice.

This view may cause some to hesitate. How can I trust that God really does act in this way. Well, his Word tells us that salvation is available to all – Jews and Gentiles, and that he desires that all are saved. Because he embodies perfect fairness, I trust that he will act in a way that is fair – salvation to those who place their trust in Christ and open themselves up to his saving work; separation for those who will it, who die with hearts hardened by rebellion.

The problem, in the end, is not whether free will is really free; it is instead what we choose to do with our will.

Posted by Al Serrato

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