Thursday, July 21, 2011

Christianity's problem with free will

Before I get into this, I'd like to ask you to forward this to any christian you know who might be able to refute this somehow, and send it to other atheists to use in online debates if you think it's a good argument against christianity. I mean, I implicitly ask you to send every blog post to your friends just by posting it, but here I'm explicitly asking because I want real discussion here.

I discuss religion with christians a lot. In reality, I sort of miss religion, and would almost like to be convinced the religion I was brought up in is true. One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in order to reach that point is theodicy, as in "the problem of evil" not the epic Greek poem (that joke works better if you're reading this out loud, and are aware of The Odyssey). The Problem of Evil, from a christian standpoint, is that the world has a lot of evil in it, yet the christian god is portrayed in the bible as all-loving, all-powerful and benevolent. As Epicurus said:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

The common modern christian response to this is the citation of free will, as in, god doesn't wish to force us to love him, so we're given a choice, and that choice allows for evil. However, this presents us with three fairly major problems. Firstly, the event that supposedly allowed human suffering, according to christians, is the fall ow man. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the fall of man only allowed for very specific aspects of evil and suffering. Now, let's say that christians are slightly mistaken on this. Let's say that some suffering (childbirth being painful, people being able to die, people needing to farm for food, etc.) was caused by the fall, and the rest was always out there, just not in Eden. Fine, that's a minor point anyway. There are still two very large problems with chalking evil up to free will.

Primarily, there's the fact the bible itself says that free will isn't possible. How, you ask? Well, there are many prophecies in the bible that apparently came true, and many others that have yet to be fulfilled regarding the end of days. There's even a website that lists 100 prophecies in the bible that have been fulfilled. Whether or not these prophecies really did get fulfilled is up for debate, but this does set up a reality where things are predetermined, and anyone who is familiar with the philosophical concept of freewill vs determinism knows that they're basically incompatible. If the future can be predicted, everything is predetermined, and if things are predetermined, we do not have free will, simply the illusion of free will. Our entire lives are governed by whoever determined how events will play out in the future, and all of our choices are laid out exactly so that there is no deviation from the plan.

But let's say that there is a way to get around that. I don't see how it's possible, but let's say that there is a way that we can legitimately have free will while having hundreds of prophecies that have come true, and several more that will. We still have a problem. Is free will a good thing in the christian worldview? On the one hand, god gives us free will so that we can choose him. After all, only a total evil tyrant would force people to believe in him and obey his every law. On the other hand, that's exactly what god does when you get to heaven. While we don't have a complete picture of what the christian heaven would look like, we know there's no sin. In other words, people who have shown themselves willing to obey god's laws and who love god enough to want to be with him forever have their free will taken away. Even if god simply "alters the programming" so to speak, to allow them to choose to do anything that isn't a sin, it's still a violation of free will. By christians' own admission, that would make god evil, at least towards residents of heaven.

And if this solution to the problem of evil doesn't work, then that brings us back to square one: Epicurus' old riddle.

So my questions for christians are these:

1: How do you reconcile your belief in free will with your belief that god has a plan for us all?
2: Is free will a good thing or a bad thing? If it's good, why does god not allow it in heaven? If it's bad, why does god allow it at all?
3: If you can't adequately solve the previous problems, how do you solve the Riddle of Epicurus?


  1. Very well thought out, and also very well written. Thanks for sharing this. :-)

    - T.W.

  2. Don't be surprised if you're given the card game analogy. "The hand dealt to you represents determinism, while the way you choose to play it represents free will." Problem with that is that your determined options are still determined. There is no wild card, and you have no real ability to choose your own future.

  3. I enjoyed your philosophical blog. Let's just hope that your average Christian remains ignorant, and doesn't start quoting Leibnitz (, who although was brilliant when it came to mathematics, but astonishingly dogmatic when it came to Christian theosophy. He'd be the best proponent for German, or in this case, Christian Optimism. Makes me wonder why they always shove Isaac Newton into the picture, when he didn't believe in the Holy Trinity.

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  5. As for the Problem of Evil in general my comments that I made under the name “Patrick (Christian)” in the following link may be of interest to you:

    My first comment there deals with the problem whether or not there is free will in Heaven. In more detail I went into this question in the following link, again under the same name:

    Comments of mine to the same issue as well as one comment to the question whether or not God’s foreknowledge violates man’s free will can be found in the following link:

  6. My theodicy, which I suggest to be called “Theodicy from divine justice”, can be formulated as follows:

    - God’s perfect justice prevents Him from helping sinners (Isaiah 59,1-2).
    - Unlike God Christians are not perfectly just. Therefore, unlike God, they are in a position to help sinners. By doing this they may make the respective persons receptive of God’s salvation (Matthew 5,16, 1 Peter 2,11-12, and 3,1-2), which in turn frees these persons from suffering in the afterlife.
    - The greater God’s beneficial power due to His love, the greater God’s destructive power due to His justice (see Matthew 13,27-29). Striving to prevent as much suffering as possible God can only interfere to such a degree that the beneficial effect of the interference is not neutralized by the destructive effect of it.
    - Someone who dies before he or she reaches the age of accountability, i.e. before he or she can distinguish between good and evil (see Genesis 2,16, Deuteronomy 1,39, and Isaiah 7,16) faces no punishment in the afterlife, as he or she would not have been able to commit sins. So, God may not be inclined to prevent such a person’s death.
    - A person’s suffering in this life may have a redeeming effect (Luke 16,25) and consequently contribute to a decrease of the respective person’s suffering in the afterlife; the amount of suffering in this life is so to speak subtracted from the amount of suffering in the afterlife. So, God may not be inclined to relieve this person’s suffering.
    - A person’s suffering in this life may make the person receptive of God’s salvation (Luke 15,11-21), which in turn frees this person from suffering in the afterlife.
    - Those people who suffer more in this life than they deserve due to their way of life are compensated for it by receiving rewards in Heaven.

  7. In a paper entitled “Evil, Freedom and the Heaven Dilemma” (2008) ( Simon Cushing deals very thoroughly with the question whether or not there is free will in Heaven and what the consequences of the answer to this question is with respect to the Problem of Evil. In the following I’m presenting objections to some of his arguments.

    From Simon Cushing’s paper “Evil, Freedom and the Heaven Dilemma”: “Saintly freedom (so named because it is presumably the freedom exercised by moral saints) is genuine freedom that in fact never results in evil. But if there can be a state of existence with truly free beings but no evil, then an omnipotent God could have given us all that saintly freedom here on Earth, thereby both giving us freedom and preventing evil, and a God who was both omnipotent and omnibenevolent would have done so.”

    According to Ezekiel 11,19-20, John 8,34-36, Romans 8,29, 2 Corinthians 5,17, and Galatians 5,16-18 God indeed provided us with the possibility to attain that saintly freedom here on Earth, at least to some degree (1 John 1,8). It the power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to be in such a state. But one must be willing to strive after this freedom (Romans 6,11-14, 12,2, 13,13-14, Galatians 5,16-18, Ephesians 4,17-24). God will give the Holy Spirit to anyone asking Him (Luke 11,13). We may even expect that one day the vast majority of humankind will be in such a state here on Earth (Isaiah 2,1-5, 11,1-10).

    From Simon Cushing’s paper “Evil, Freedom and the Heaven Dilemma”: “God is eternal in the sense that he is outside of time, able to see the beginning and end (should it have them) of the universe (or universes, if there are several) and all events in between simultaneously (or rather, atemporally). His omniscience includes knowing all that anyone who will ever live will ever do because in effect all time is to him as the past would be to the perfect historian with all events laid out.

    This view of God’s relationship to the world faces the problem of the apparent inconsistency of God’s omniscience and human free will, if free will requires that, for any free being considering action A at a certain moment, that person genuinely could either do A or not do A. If God already knows that that being will do A, then not-A is not a genuine option.”

    I’m not sure if I understand the argument correctly, but it seems to me that unless God explicitely tells a person what he or she will do in the future, God’s omniscience isn’t incompatible with human free will. One can imagine that from God’s perspective all our future acts have already happened. So, He is in the same situation as we are with respect to acts that have already happened. But clearly, the fact that I know how a certain person acted in the past doesn’t mean that this person’s free will is in any way violated.

  8. Here are two more objections to arguments from Cushing’s paper:

    From Simon Cushing’s paper “Evil, Freedom and the Heaven Dilemma”: “According to metaphysical libertarianism, my truly free action is genuinely undetermined by the sum of facts about me (and indeed the entire universe). That is, you could imagine two parallel universes with completely identical histories up to a particular point where I, a free being, am making a choice; the metaphysical libertarian insists that the nature of freedom allows that it is perfectly possible for me to make one choice in one universe and my counterpart another in the other, and that both would be rightly endorsed by the “me” in that world as the choice that he fully intended to make. But if this is so, then it does not matter which action I perform—whichever act I perform will be equally a free action. This point in itself could be enough to subvert the supposed relationship between freedom and desert that T12 seems to require. Surely I only deserve punishment if something about me determined my choice of evil. But if for every evil choice I make there is a good choice that I, with exactly the same history, beliefs, desires and current mental state could have made, then in what sense would I deserve condemnation for the evil choice or praise for the good? Neither is a product of me or a reflection of my character.”

    I don’t think that we can always at any time choose any act we want. In my view it’s more that by choosing to act in a specific way we create circumstances which gradually make it more likely that we act in a specific way. The following analogy can illustrate my point: Someone walking on a crest is deviating from the path. The further he goes away the steeper the ground becomes and the more difficult it becomes to walk upright, until there is some point of no return and consequently he is falling down the mountain.

    From Simon Cushing’s paper “Evil, Freedom and the Heaven Dilemma”: “However, even if the libertarian can block this apparent implication of his view, there are further problems for the theist who wishes to use this libertarianism to respond to the Heaven Dilemma. For it would appear that it implies that God could prevent all evil without disrupting freedom. Let us suppose, for example, that I am contemplating a heinous murder. I raise the knife. At this point I could genuinely go either way – stab or not. The future where I go ahead and kill is as possible as the future where I put the knife aside, and both are equally consistent with everything about me up until this moment (so that, on Swinburne’s view, not even God can predict which would happen). Suppose, at this point, God intervenes and ensures that I do not kill, and that therefore evil is averted. Has he subverted my freedom? I do not see that he could be said to have. This action is just as in keeping with all of my character and intentions as the evil action. I can endorse it as my choice just as willingly as the action of committing murder, and with just as much justification. It is possible that I would have done it anyway, but if I had, it would feel no different to me from the case where God intervenes. Nobody can claim that God has altered my character or intentions or made me do anything against my will. But if all that is true, then it is surely within the power of an omnipotent God to have a world of free beings without evil, provided he is prepared to intervene (which, as an omnibenevolent being, he certainly should be).”

    In the thread “Accounting for Natural Evil (part 3)” of the blog “Common Sense Atheism” ( I gave a reason, based on Matthew 13,27-29, why God may not be inclined to interfere in this world more conspicuously.

  9. From 1 Corinthians 13,12, 1 John 3,2, and Revelation 22,3-4 one can draw the conclusion that the residents of Heaven have perfect knowledge of God. In this life people change their mind about persons or matters when being faced with new insights that make them revise their views. In a situation however, in which one has perfect knowledge of God any decision concerning Him may be definitive; one cannot change one’s mind due to new insights. So, it may indeed be the case that for the residents of Heaven it is impossible to turn away from God. But this doesn’t mean that they have no free will. They made use of it when they freely chose to turn towards God and love Him. Moreover, from John 14,15 one can draw the conclusion that those in Heaven are willing not to sin, from Galatians 5,16-18 that they are able not to sin.