reason for living



The case against free will?


The apparent conflict between freewill and predestination has been difficult for many people to understand.  In this article we will consider some of the aspects of the issue and, it is hoped, clarify this whole area for those who presently find it beyond their comprehension.

First of all let us look at the meaning of predestination: According to Chambers 20th century dictionary the verb “to predestine” means to decree beforehand, or to foreordain.  This is not in the sense of making a prediction that might or might not come true, but in the sense of determining exactly what will happen.  Thus the act of predestining can only be performed by someone who actually has the power to bring about the result that has been decided upon.

Let us now look at free will; what exactly do we mean when when we demand or claim to have free will?  To have free will is really nothing more than being able to choose between two or more alternatives.  It is very important that we are aware of two limitations of our free will — two things that are not affected by our choice:  First, our choice on any occasion does not determine what the options for that choice are.  Our choice might, to a greater or lesser extent, influence what our next set of options includes or excludes but on each occasion that a decision is required we can only choose from those things that are on offer or that are apparently possible.  The second limitation on our free will is that what we choose might not actually come to pass because of some other factor that is beyond our control.  These two limitations are demonstrated in the following short example:

A culinary example of freewill

Imagine being in a country town late in the afternoon; we are feeling hungry and have to decide what we want to eat.  Nobody is pressurising us in any way about what we should eat and so to that extent we have a free choice.  The options however are limited; perhaps there are only two restaurants in the town, one of which is a curry house and the other serving traditional English fare.  Immediately our choice is less free because, for example, we cannot meaningfully choose to eat Chinese food tonight because it isn't available.  Let us further imagine that we now exercise our “free-will” and decide to go to the traditional English restaurant.  Note, we really did have free will; we were not forced to choose either restaurant.  Now we arrive at the restaurant, sit down with the menu and proceed to choose our meal.  Once again we have a completely free choice, but only between the items on the menu.  We choose from the menu two items that we think we will enjoy, say a a main course and a starter, and wait in anticipation.  The starter arrives but does not have exactly the flavour we hoped for and we do not enjoy it quite as much as we had expected to.  Disregarding this disappointment, we settle down and await the arrival of the main dish.  Before the main course arrives, however, smoke pours from the kitchen, the fire alarms start ringing and the restaurant is evacuated; our meal has come to a premature end.  As we are still feeling hungry we walk to the Indian restaurant but there find that it has now become fully booked and cannot accommodate us tonight.  We therefore remain hungry. 

Now in this imaginary scenario we made a series of free will decisions, none of which reached fulfilment: we decided to have a full meal, we decided to have our meal in the English restaurant, we decided to have a starter and a main course. 

Note that at each stage there were only a limited number of possibilities for us to choose between: the number of restaurants, and the dishes on the menu.  These limitations did not affect our free will.  Now note that although we exercised our free will in anticipation of a particular set of results, we did not actually attain the results expected.

Some important principles

From this example we can draw several important principles:

The actual scope of our free will is therefore really quite limited; there are a great many things that we simply cannot choose regardless of how desirable they might be to us.  Not only that but even the outcome of the choices that we do make is constrained by what is happening around us: even a decision to commit suicide (perhaps the ultimate in personal decisions) could be foiled by other people or circumstances: an accident that leaves us strapped up in hospital, a crime for which we are arrested as the suspect and imprisoned, or a murderer who kills us first!  Even a decision to make a cup of tea is reliant on the water company continuing to pump water through the pipes and the electricity or gas company continuing to supply the energy for heating. 

If we can't even sort out a simple matter like choosing dinner, what about the rest of life? 

Now let us move these principles onto the divine scale.  Here our very mode of existence has been decided for us in advance.  Every decision we make is made within the confines of our existence as human beings living as human beings must live (eating breathing, sleeping etc) on the planet earth.  Our entire existence depends on God's continual support and we operate only within the limits, known or unknown, that God has already set.  Our control, in the sense of being able to absolutely determine the outcome of anything, is nil. 

When the Apostle called Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, he included the following passage:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified he also glorified. 

Paul's letter to the Christian in Rome, chapter 8, verses 28-31

Some people who have read this passage have concluded that there can be no freewill because God has already predestined the outcome of their lives and they do not see how there can be any real choices to make in a world that is controlled, past, present and future, by an all-powerful god. 

In addressing this conclusion and the problems that it causes, let us look again at this passage, perhaps more closely, and discover what it actually says as oppose to what we assume it says: The first clause to explore is “For those god foreknew ...”; what exactly is meant by the word foreknew?


Lets get a bit technical... 

The following definition of the meaning of the word "foreknew" is to some extent speculative.  The meaning should really be checked with someone who has a very good command of New Testament Greek.

A god who knows everything must know of every person, and a god that resides outside time will have a knowledge of all events that happen in all times.  To we who live within time, God's knowledge of events which (according to our viewpoint) have not yet occurred, can be described as foreknowledge.  However the Bible suggests strongly that not everyone will be justified and that justification depends to some extent upon the choices that we make, such as the choice to trust in the redeeming work of Jesus.  It is apparent then that simple knowledge of each person is not what the Paul had in mind when he spoke of God's foreknowledge of people.  The other kind of “knowing” a person is the kind that comes from being intimately acquainted with a person and having detailed and comprehensive communication with that person.  This is the sort of knowledge that two close friends might have of one another or members of a family will have of each other; the people involved know one another's strengths, weaknesses, habits, traits, foibles and so forth.  It seems more likely that it was this type of knowledge that Paul was speaking of when he spoke of God's foreknowledge. 

The passage continues to say that these, the people that God foreknew, were then “predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, ...”.  Here it is important to understand what the likeness of his Son actually entails.  There are some possibilities that we can discard readily: It is unlikely that God wants us all to be exact atom for atom replicas of Jesus, it is unlikely that God wants us all to be similar in terms of appearance or strength or even intellect, it is unlikely that God wants us all to perform the same tasks.  What then is likely?  The only answer that seems reasonable to me is that God wants us all to have the same sort of inner attitudes, desires and motivations and the same sort of inner qualities as his Son.  Thus we would all be motivated by a desire to serve one another, to love one another, to serve and obey God, to be honest, and to try at all times to do our best.  In this way we would all have a likeness of Jesus but would all still be different in our abilities, skills, physical appearance, and even in our emotional balance.  We need not even be perfect in the sense of always succeeding at whatever we try to do or even at always being honest.  The important things would be first, that we always aspired to to our best and to be honest and second that we were truly disappointed or remorseful if we failed to do our best or if we were dishonest.  It would be motivation and aspiration that would count rather than actual results. 

These two clauses then could be taken to show that God, who views everything we have done and will do, knows (foreknows from our perspective) which of us will actively choose, within the limits of our own free will, to form a relationship with God and will therefore become known (foreknown from our perspective) by God in the same manner that the members of a family know one another.  At this stage the outcome of our choice is not determined; desiring to be like God does not of itself make us like God.  However God, recognising the choice we have made, decides that he will help us become like his Son, and because God is all powerful the outcome of his choice is guaranteed; he does have the ability to predestine events because, unlike us, he can control all of the variables.  God can therefore work on events around us to provide us with circumstances in which we can choose between a holy or unholy response — a Christ-like or unChrist-like response.  God can presumably also work on our inner selves, which I don't think we ever have full control over anyway, to bring about any necessary healing and the maturity and desire within us that his own Son had.  In ministering to our inner self, which we never controlled, and in affecting our circumstances, God at no point removes our free will.  All that he does do is change the range of things that we can choose between; that is to say, he writes the menu.  God does not, at least not according to Romans 8:28-31, predestine every last event in our life; he does not determine what our every step will be.  According to the passage, God only determines what sort of people we will become and not what we will do.  God does however know what we will do because God can see all events in all of time.

It can be seen then that free will is in no way reduced or restricted by God's action.  Indeed our free will is not changed by anything God does.  Whatever God chooses to do or not to do, each of us still has to decide how we will respond to God's action.  Although our response does not absolutely determine what will happen next, our response is nonetheless a freewill choice.

To conclude, because God created the world and us, our free will always operates only on the circumstances presented to us by God.  God, for his part, acknowledges our (free) choice to be close to him by presenting us with circumstances that, as we continue to choose (freely) to get close to God, will allow us to choose to become like his Son and thus close to himself.

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