Tuesday, September 27, 2011

God Doesn't Care About Free Will

One of the most common notions within Christian apologetics is that God places enormous value on human free will. The free will defense is used as an attempted solution to the problem of evil: it's argued that God has no choice but to allow the possibility of evil if he wants us to make real choices. It's also used as an attempted explanation for why God doesn't show himself to the world: doing so would supposedly rob of us of our ability to freely choose to follow him. Those two defenses have serious problems of their own, but here I'll argue that the very premise that God treasures free will is flawed, both due to the nature of our world and according to Christian doctrines themselves.

Free Will in the Bible
Looking to the scriptures in support of the idea that God values free will is not just fruitless, but counterproductive. Exodus says that God repeatedly hardens the hearts of Pharaoh and the Egyptians so he could exalt himself by showing off his power. 2 Thessalonians says that God will send sinful people "a strong delusion" so that they will be damned. Romans and Ephesians say that God predestines certain people to be saved or condemned for his own glorification. This doesn't sound like a God who values free will. It sounds like a God who uses people as playthings.

There are a few other ways that God limits free will in the Bible. I don't accept the apologist's idea that God revealing himself to us removes our free will to choose or reject him. However, if we do accept this, then a serious problem arises: in the Bible, God unleashes a barrage of miraculous phenomena even in the presence of unbelievers. For example, in 1 Kings Elijah calls on Yahweh to send down a pillar of fire, consuming an offering in the presence of hundreds of Baal- and Asherah-worshippers.

God also kills an awful lot of innocent children in the Old Testament—well before they would be mentally capable of choosing to follow him. In the tenth plague of the Exodus story, God strikes every Egyptian firstborn dead on the spot. The flood story is even more egregious: he systematically kills every human on earth except Noah's family, children included. And this doesn't even begin to cover the problem...

Free Will in Reality
...Because if humans gain souls and personhood at conception as many Christians claim, then over 70% of us die before we're even born. That's billions upon billions of people who never got the chance to choose or reject God. If he does care about free will, his incompetence in preserving it is nothing short of breathtaking.

If we define our ability to make informed, unbiased decisions as part of what constitutes free will, then the structure of our world impairs our free will at every turn. Our religion and worldview are determined to a large degree by our parents and surrounding culture. Someone growing up in Saudi Arabia, for instance, will almost inevitably become a Muslim. They will seldom choose Christianity because it's not a readily available option. Even if they encounter a Christian missionary, they're still likely to reject this new faith, because central tenets such as the Trinity doctrine will be completely alien to them.

Our brains also obstruct our attempts to make free choices. Cognitive biases over which we have limited control alter our perceptions, memories and thought patterns. Brain damage is even worse. Disorders like frontotemporal dementia can reconfigure your personality and rewrite your belief system, while akinetic mutism can erase your will to move, speak or even think.

If God cared about free will, he could easily have structured the world to solve these problems. We don't need to have high rates of miscarriage, exclusivist societies or immensely fallible brains. If God is omnipotent, he could easily have prevented these hindrances. It doesn't matter whether these phenomena are the result of sin entering the world at the Fall of Man: God could still remove these effects with a snap of his fingers if he wanted to. Since he hasn't, he either doesn't value free will or values some other factors (Fetal death? In/outgroups? Mental bias?) even more.

Free Will in the Afterlife
Finally, let's shuffle off our mortal coils for a moment and consider what would happen to believers once they enter heaven. Supposedly Christians who choose to follow Jesus are rewarded with an eternity free from evil and full of bliss in the presence of God.

So, then, are Christians in heaven capable of sinning or choosing to leave the presence of God? If they are, then their presence in heaven is not guaranteed, but contingent on their continued compliance with God's standard of perfect obedience. (It does no good to say that they have free will, but won't want to use it in this way: if Satan and his followers did, then why not others?) If they aren't, then they have lost their free will: their only path is steadfast servility. They are automatons, machines frozen in a permanent state of ecstatic worship.

Neither Christian doctrine nor the observable world supports the notion that God cares about free will. God supposedly hardens people's hearts, predestines them to an eternal fate, reveals himself to unbelievers, kills innocent children and demands complete submission in heaven. Meanwhile, fetuses die by the billions, people take on the religion of their parents and culture, and their fallible brains impair or even destroy their ability to make free choices. Christians should either explain why God permits and perpetuates these phenomena, or stop using free will as a defense against the problem of evil and the problem of nonbelief.


  1. Aww come on man! The fall of man covers all the bases that you left uncovered. You know this.

  2. Heh, I guess I didn't really address that in the post. That would indeed be the response I would expect for many of my points.

    The thing is that God would presumably have full control over the effects of sin on the world. Sure, a fallen world could be the cause of brain damage and fetal death, but if free will was truly important to God, he could remove those effects with a snap of his fingers.

  3. I updated the post with an extra sentence to address what you mentioned. Thanks, curious cuber.

  4. This also about the fall of man through original sin: God could have kept his word 'on the day you eat of it you will surely die', struck down A and E, tweaked the brain design a bit toward more obedience/less sin (He hates sin, right?) and replaced the beta humans with a better finished product. But the great sin hater instead decrees that not only will the beta humans not be replaced, but will all be inherently sinful. This makes so little sense, I don't see how people buy it.