CHAPTER 2 – HUMAN FREE WILL: A GREAT GIFT OR AN ILLUSION?

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”. Jeremiah 29:11

Holy Scripture presents two apparently contradictory and competing visions about how humans function within God’s created order—as the beneficiaries of free will versus vassals of predetermination [i]:

  • I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life. Deuteronomy 30:19
  • For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. Romans 8:29-30

Predestination

Holy Scripture contains many verses that appear to support determinism or predestination, the doctrine that God decided from the beginning about everything that will happen, especially who goes to heaven or hell, and that humans can do nothing to change the course of events. [i] God, through continuously executed prearranged purposes, meticulously controls what will happen to each person and nation. In essence, God must have the characteristics of an infinitely powerful computer capable of coordinating and integrating all events.

In keeping with their implicit, if not explicit, acceptance of predestination, some sincere Judeo-Christians often express their faith with affirmations such as If God closes a door, he will open a window; We didn’t pray hard enough, so God didn’t give us what we asked for; and God has a plan for me. These types of expressions reflect an underlying trust that our all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), and everywhere present (omnipresent) God “sees” time—past, present, and future—as a unified whole or continuum in order to exert control at all levels of creation. We may, therefore, legitimately ask if humans actually possess the ability to act as free and autonomous beings? Put another way, do God’s designs preclude human free will, which at best could be only an illusion?

Primacy of Free Will

Reading “between the lines” reveals free will as a constant theme that runs throughout Holy Scripture: God tells us what is expected and says what will happen as consequences of our actions, although divine edicts do not force us to select obedience or disobedience, good or evil. At our beginning, God permitted Adam and Eve the option, even when tempted by the Serpent, to eat or not to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Similarly, God told the Israelites to choose life or death, blessings or curses, with respect to obeying the Ten Commandments. Later Jesus firmly proclaimed what God wants us to do (Love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, and minds. And . . . love our neighbors as ourselves.). Yet, no evidence shows that we are coerced onto this specific pathway. God did not form us as mindless automatons, rather God implanted the capacity for free will within our genetic makeup. I confidently make this last statement with full awareness of the continuing controversy over the relative importance of heredity versus environment (nature versus nurture) and the contention of some scientists that the codes in our DNA predetermine who we are, what we think, and how we act in all circumstances.

Many theological treatises and discussions have attempted to reconcile the two concepts of predetermination and free will, including the proposition that human and cosmic realms are separate. That is, we may have free will on some aspects of our existence so that we may, of our own volition, brush or not brush our teeth today whereas we cannot affect cosmic phenomena or God’s original judgment as to which individuals were pre-selected or “elected” to receive salvation.

Judeo-Christians with expertise in physics postulate that the statistical uncertainty embedded in Quantum Mechanics might produce a reconciliation or synthesis between free will and determinism. I prefer a simpler approach to cut through the discourses that mask the real issue: If we do not have free will, we cannot make choices because all is predetermined; if all is predetermined, we have no accountability; without accountability, we have no guilt for our sins; in the absence of guilt, we do not need the saving grace of Jesus Christ; and, hence, the entire structure of Judeo-Christianity collapses.

To my mind, an additional simplifying consideration argues for human free will: Suppose an individual human being faces a decision about future actions limited to only two choices, A or B. If God has the ability to foresee the future and already knows the individual will choose A, then God cannot be all powerful because God cannot direct the individual to make choice B. The only way God can be all powerful (or, at least extremely powerful) requires that the individual must have unrestricted free will to choose A or B. This line of reasoning argues that God cannot be (or, chooses not to be) both all powerful and all knowing with the ability to foresee the future. Accordingly, we can rationally infer that God embedded human free will into creation. [ii]

I believe God created and maintains the cosmos and all therein according to principles that, as our knowledge and understanding develop, we define as scientific laws. These laws apply not only to the “hard” or mathematically based sciences such as physics but also to biology, which is becoming increasingly and appropriately mathematical. I can resonate with calling these laws, “God’s Design or Plan”. I firmly reject, however, any notion that God violates the gift of human free will with a “program” that spells out in precise detail how I will react in every situation and, further, specifies my ultimate fate through foreknowledge and predestination.

Some Judeo-Christians experience traumatic insecurity when their belief that God directs all human activities is challenged. I cannot contemplate worshiping a tyrannical, loveless, and merciless deity who fashioned me without free will. At best, this deity would be indifferent to human affairs, much like the Creator envisioned by the Deists. Rather than anxiety-provoking, I find the preeminence of free will liberating, albeit sobering. In summary, I think free will must be an integral component of God’s plan or predetermined design. That is, God designed and created humans from the beginning with the capacity for free will.

Free Will Allows Humans to be Co-Creators With God

The above comments will neither resolve the differing views on predetermination versus free will nor do they offer an explicit way to reconcile the two perspectives. While I come down squarely in support of free will, reframing the question might possibly yield answers that will enable us to move forward together: Living our lives in accordance with which concept, predetermination or free will, better allows us to be co-creators with God?

If all in the cosmos is preordained, we have no obligation to work or co-create with God because we cannot influence events. We may then logically withdraw and, in effect, tell God: “Hey don’t bother me, everything is your responsibility.” If humans have free will, we can be co-creators with God by our own choosing. What role, then, would the Community of Believers have in our co-creative endeavors? Teaching and helping us to make truly informed choices that will bring the Kingdom of God to fruition here on earth.

The struggle for worldwide domination between Fascism and the Western Democracies illustrates the economic and political implications arising from the contrasting views of free will and determinism. Some people believe this confrontation is, or inevitably will evolve into, a war between civilizations.

Islamofascicsm Exemplifies Pre-Determination

Fascism refers to an ideology that rejects ideas such as freedom and individual rights. Fascists advocate the elimination of elections, legislatures, and other elements of democracy. Under Fascism, the state or religious authorities direct and attempt to control all human activities through central planning and, if necessary, harsh application of force to implement the government’s dictates. Heretofore, Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler and Italy under Benito Mussolini best exemplified Fascism. Socialism and Communism can be regarded as offshoots of Fascism because of their similar commitment to central planning at the expense of a free market.

Today, Islamofascism is an extreme manifestation of repressive Fascist ideology. Islamofascists come from a perverted branch of Islamic fundamentalism, consider themselves the moral guardians and saviors of their societies, and profoundly mistrust all notions of human progress as contrary to Allah’s divine action and intervention in the world. All nations must fulfill the will of Allah, which only Islamofascists possess the qualifications to interpret. Islamofascists intend to use all means possible, even violence and military conquest, to form a one-world government under Islamic authority.

Free Will Embedded Within Democracy and Capitalism

Democracy and capitalism foundationally incorporate and rest upon principles derived from the doctrine of free will. In these systems, humans have the right to make choices—hopefully informed ones—and must live with the outcomes of those decisions. Neither democracy nor capitalism can exist without freedom of choice. Although some persons contend that many Western Democracies have been “tainted” by socialism, I argue that these societies, especially the democratic republic of the United States of America, provide the best current examples of free will in the political and economic spheres. The U.S. Constitution can be easily viewed as a document producing a political system designed to ensure that the will of the majority is carried out through fair elections.[iii] As in the moral and theological arenas, participants in democratic and capitalistic societies have the right and responsibility to exert their free will, sometimes with beneficial outcomes and sometimes with less than desirable results. Nevertheless, free will rather than coercion drives the process.


[i] Although theologians and philosophers can sometimes usefully distinguish among determinism, predetermination, predestination, pre-ordination, pre-selection, and pre-election, I will use the terms more or less interchangeably. As a bottom line, these terms relate to the idea that, at the beginning of creation and perhaps before this mighty act, God specified all future events, including who would receive salvation, and the ultimate fate of the cosmos. Thus, God has a macro design for the cosmos and micro plans for each individual. In each case, no matter what humans do, the divine design and plans will be carried out.

[ii] Greg Easterbrook in Beside Still Waters, pp. 160 – 187, gives an elegant exposition of this concept, and how God appears to grand and majestic, even infinite but is not all powerful.

[iii] As presented in Chapter 3, a major task of the Community of Believers in a democratic republic focuses on bringing the majority of citizens into that Community through proclaiming, professing to, witnessing to, and serving the risen Christ so that the free will of the electoral process produces a government and society completely consistent with the precepts of the Kingdom of God.

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