Free Will and Theology

Free will is the ability to create decisions through conscious thought processes, and then effectuate them, free from being overridden by determinative effects from all sources other than consciousness — independent from such factors as coercion, environmental history, genetics, and causation.

Most Christians think we have free will to believe in God and Jesus or not, and free will to obey God and Jesus or not. The doctrine that we have it is theologically necessary for most forms of Christianity on at least two major fronts:

(A) It’s a standard part of the apologetics of why evil and suffering exist in the world. That apologetic typically goes something like this: “God is perfectly loving and good, so God doesn’t create evil. God gave us free will, because He loves us. Adam and Eve (and humankind, in general) freely chose to disobey God, thereby bringing evil and suffering into the world.” For an example of this apologetic, click here. (For today, we’ll put aside that God repeatedly and explicitly says in the Bible that He creates evil, such as here, and we’ll put aside any logical of theological issues with this apologetic, and we’ll stick strictly to the topic of free will.)

(B) Free will is considered a necessary foundation for a morally viable system of sending the saved to Heaven and the damned to Hell. That apologetic goes something like this: “If God damned people to eternal torment in Hell when they had no free will over their actions, He’d be an evil monster — but we know God is benevolent and loving and righteous, not an evil monster; therefore, we must have free will.” (Again, we’ll put aside any problems with this reasoning, for today, and stick strictly to the topic of free will.)

In addition to the points above, the most common argument Christians give for why God does not simply reveal Himself unequivocally to us is because revealing Himself would remove our free will to reject or disobey God. For an example of this apologetic, click here. (Once again, we’ll put aside that the Bible tells us God revealed Himself unequivocally to Satan, Adam and Eve, and a number of others who were still quite able to disobey Him, which undermines this argument. It is nonetheless the primary explanation offered for the lack of evidence for God.)

And so, many Christians insist that we have free will, out of theological necessity. However, their assertion does not seem to hold up well under scrutiny. Let’s examine some of the issues.

(1) Coercion

Coercion is defined as “the practice of forcing another party to act in an involuntary manner by use of intimidation or threats or some other form of pressure or force. It involves a set of various types of forceful actions that violate the free will of an individual to induce a desired response… In law, coercion is codified as a duress crime.”

Duress,” in the term duress crime, “…has two aspects. One is that it negates the person’s consent to an act, such as sexual activity or the entering into a contract; or, secondly, as a possible legal defense or justification to an otherwise unlawful act.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, “Coercion is typically thought to carry with it several important implications, including that it diminishes the targeted agent’s freedom and responsibility….”

Suppose, for example, that a married man got anally raped at gunpoint. Most judges would agree that raped man did not thereby break any wedding contract of fidelity, and most Christians would likewise agree that he did not commit sins of sodomy and adultery. Through the circumstances of life-threatening coercion, his free will was violated, his consent was negated, he was compelled to act involuntarily, his actions were justified, and his responsibility was diminished.

In the Old Testament and New Testament of the Bible, God uses coercion. He frequently threatens those who might disobey him with ruination of crops, thirst, drought, cattle pestilence, hunger, starvation, nakedness, loss of property, losses in battles, invasion by hostile nations, rape, cruel enslavement, cruel enslavement of descendants, incurable itching, inflammation, hemorrhoids, leprosy, blindness, confusion, insanity, mutilation, plague, death, destruction, and much more. He kills those who disobey him, over even the smallest infractionseven when they are only trying to help, or commands others to kill those who disobey him, over even the tiniest trifles. He arranges for His followers to kill unbelievers and those who don’t seek or don’t worship God. And, of course, He threatens those who don’t believe or don’t obey with eternal torture in Hell — which is literally one of the most coercive threats possible.

If you think that threatening someone with a gun to compel him tampers with his free will, then how could you not think that God’s far more extreme threats cause at least as much interference? It should be obvious that such behavior violates free will, and also that any God who engages in such behavior does not care about people’s free will.

(2) Mind Control

God doesn’t stop at mere coercion. The Bible also tells us over and over that God actively exerts mind control over people to get them to act as He wants.

I’ve already previously discussed the case of God exerting mind control over the Pharaoh.

If we’re to take the Bible at its word, it is standard operating procedure for God to control the minds of rulers: “The Lord controls the mind of a king as easily as he directs the course of a stream.Proverbs 21:1

But it’s not just rulers. According to the Bible, God exerts mind control over you, too. Here are a couple of many instances where the Bible says so:

“And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My Laws and be careful to do what I tell you.”Ezekiel 36:27

“God is working in you to make you willing and able to obey him.”Philippians 2:13

Furthermore, the Bible tells us that divine mind control is why believers believe: “No one is able to come to Me unless the Father Who sent Me attracts and draws him and gives him the desire to come to Me….” — John 6:44

And likewise, the Bible tells us that divine mind control is why nonbelievers do not believe:

“But despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him. This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet had predicted:

“Lord, who has believed our message?
To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm?”
But the people couldn’t believe, for as Isaiah also said,

“The Lord has blinded their eyes
and hardened their hearts—
so that their eyes cannot see,
and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
and have me heal them.”
Isaiah was referring to Jesus when he said this, because he saw the future and spoke of the Messiah’s glory.”John 12:37-41

Mind control clearly contradicts free will.

(3) Omniscience

It’s a standard part of most versions of Christian theology that God and Jesus are omniscient, i.e., they know everything. This claim comports with a number of Bible passages, such as 1 John 3:20: “…God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” This omniscience is typically asserted to include knowing everyone’s futures. Again, this claim comports with a number of Bible passages, such as Psalm 139:15-16: “Nothing about me is hidden from you! I was secretly woven together deep in the earth below, but with your own eyes you saw my body being formed. Even before I was born, you had written in your book everything I would do.”

If God knows everything you will ever do, before you are born, then everything in your life is predetermined, and you can’t change it — which excludes the possibility of free will.

(4) Inability to will ourselves to believe or disbelieve things.

Either something is believable to us, or it isn’t. Believability might be based on things like evidence, likelihood, and congruence with other data, but it’s not based on things like desire and decision. Our inability to control what we do or don’t believe can be easily demonstrated. Let me show those of you who insist that we can indeed control belief through will.

By the end of this sentence, will yourself to believe that a centaur and a pegasus are copulating with each other in my backyard, right now.

At the end of this sentence, will yourself to disbelieve you just read this sentence.

Now that you’ve failed to believe a centaur and a pegasus are copulating in my backyard, and you’ve also failed to disbelieve that you read the previous sentence, you know that you do not have the ability to will yourself to believe things or disbelieve things.

We do not control our beliefs.

(5) Unconscious decision-making

This might be hard to fit into our world views, but a growing body of neuroscience experiments seems to disconfirm that our “conscious decisions” are actually decided consciously. For example, the first in the series of Soon et. al experiments used a set up with people hooked up to functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines to show that people’s decisions could be  determined from their brain activity up to ten seconds before their decisions were “consciously made.” Indeed, the researchers were thereby able to predict what people were about to decide, before they consciously made their decisions.

It turns out that our experience of conscious decision-making is often really just our consciousnesses reporting what we unconsciously decided, then confabulating rationalizations for these unconsciously made decisions.

So, if your conscious self isn’t making your decisions, then do you really have free will over those decisions? Without consciousness, there’s no volition, and without volition, there can be no free will.

(6) Determinism

As far as science can tell, every occurrence happening around us, except for subatomic occurrences, is the consequence of prior events and conditions, along with the way nature works. From this, everything that will happen is the inevitable result of what has already happened; and (with sufficient knowledge) we can even make predictions about what will occur, based upon events and conditions. For example, whenever we throw a ball: the weight, the angle, the direction, the force, the air pressure and turbulence, the gravity, and so on, determine the exact trajectory the ball will travel, and precisely where it will land. The world seems consistent in this regard, and we rely on it all the time for everything we do.

If everything that occurs is the consequence of prior events and conditions, then this also includes everything we do. If we are subject to the same laws of nature and physics that everything else appears to be, then the states of our brains — and thus, our decision-making processes — appear to be the consequences of prior events and conditions. If our decisions and actions are the inevitable aftereffects of prior events and circumstances, then we do not have freedom to do otherwise (even if it feels like we do), and we are not truly acting with free will.

The hypothesis that our brains behave independently of causal factors is testable and has been refuted. Alcohol, LSD, and other drugs affect our thoughts, decisions, and behaviors. Geneticists have demonstrated that our psychological experiences in given environmental conditions are linked to genetic factors, such as adolescent girls with a specific oxytocin receptor genotype feeling more lonely when exposed to judgmental friends than people without that genotype. Psychologists have demonstrated that people can be “primed” — predisposed toward certain opinions and behaviors — through prior environmental stimuli. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that electrical brain stimulation can induce specific thoughts, feelings, and sensations, such as stimulation of the amygdala producing rage, fear, and aggression.

For our decision-making processes and our actions to be independent from the laws of causation would mean some magical kind of dualism that does not appear to apply to anything else we can see. If such free will were occurring (i.e., if we were able to operate our minds and bodies outside of the bounds of physics and nature through the choices we make) this would have detectable consequences — which we do not see.

Some people argue that quantum randomness could still be a source of free will, but this doesn’t really work. Even if we are affected by quantum randomness, random is still random, not voluntary. Even if quantum randomness were part of the factors affecting our decisions and actions, we’d still be reacting to external factors, rather than acting independently of them. Adding quantum randomness doesn’t do anything for an argument that we can act independently of overriding determining factors.

We appear to be operating deterministically, which contradicts the notion that we are operating with free will.


For all of the reasons above, the Christian notion that we have the ability to decide and act solely upon our conscious thought processes, free from having our choices determined by outside forces, is untenable, no matter how theologically indispensable. Of course, the concept of free will is also integral to many other religions, and most of these arguments apply to free will doctrines in those religions, too. It is incumbent upon believers to honestly re-examine the issue of free will, and, if necessary, adjust their theological stances accordingly.


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