The Paradox of Christian Free Will

When I came out as an atheist to my roommates last December, one question that they asked me was “Why do atheists like to argue with Christians and talk about God and religion so much?” It’s a question that, honestly, I think I’ve been wondering about ever since. I’m sure that it varies from person to person, but other than wanting to justify why my views are accurate, I simply enjoy pondering the arguments for and against God’s existence. It’s why I took Apologetics 101, why I love to write, and why I’m so fascinated by atheist books and YouTube channels.

One topic that has always fascinated me about Christianity is the problem of evil, and lately it’s lead me to consider various issues and explanations concerning free will, heaven, prayer, and God’s omniscience and omnipotence. Allow me to elaborate.

Firstly, I would like to shortly revisit an element of paradox in praying that I mentioned in a previous post. I said that if God is omniscient, then he already knows what is going to happen, so praying is useless, because we can’t change God’s predetermined course of action. Some might say, however, that if he is omnipotent, then he could change the future, although that begs the question of whether or not he knew what you wanted to happen before you prayed about it, and why he didn’t just put that outcome into action in the first place. If he already knows what you want, why would he need reminded?

You can read more of my objections to prayer in the link in the previous paragraph, but for now I’ll move on. Even if you did, say, want a specific outcome, and you prayed to God for it, and he could give it to you, that means you’re compromising someone’s free will. If God approves and decides to take your suggestion of making something happen, he’ll have to control the person making that action, such as the boy you like texting you, your mom buying you that kitten, or the oncoming driver swerving back into her own lane just in time.

With that in mind, let’s now consider the problem of evil. We all know it: if God is perfect and omnipotent, then why does he allow for evil? A very common response to this question is that God doesn’t create or commit evil acts, we do. What we do is out of his control; he didn’t intend for humans to sin, but Eve ate the apple of her own accord. It’s not his fault that we can sometimes be despicable, because we’re free agents and while he can steer us in the right direction, what we do is ultimately up to us.

So, what I ask is this: if you explain the problem of evil by saying that God can’t control our actions, then why would you pray to him to influence what someone does? Even praying for something like world peace would mean that he influences what happens in the minds of world leaders, which, as you tried to explain the problem of evil, you said he can’t do. The only thing worth praying for is safety from “natural evil” such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or other weather-related abominations.

Another paradox related to free will was summarized nicely by CosmicSkeptic (or Alex J. O’Connor) in his video The Problem of Evil: The Free Will Defense, and I’d like to relay it here. It seems as though the problem of evil and the concept of free will within Christian thinking are very closely intertwined. As I said earlier, a common explanation for why God allows for evil is because it inevitably arises out of our own free will (keep this in mind in the next paragraph). Free will was given to us by God, as many Christians say, so that he can have a real, meaningful relationship with us, as opposed to us acting as robots who only love him or do good because we’re programmed to.

Given these points, consider this question: can free will exist in heaven? In his video, Alex gives three possible answers and the reasons why none of them are entirely satisfactory.

  1. Yes, there is free will. Since evil arises out of free will, there’s also evil in heaven.
  2. No, there is no free will in heaven (neither #1 or #2 sound like a very ideal way to spend eternity, do they?)
  3. Yes, by some miracle (perhaps one of God’s mysterious ways), free will exists in heaven but evil does not.

Surprisingly, answer #3 actually gives us the biggest problem, because if there is an instance in which we can have free will, but commit no evil, then you can no longer use the idea of free will inevitably leading to evil in order to explain the problem of evil.

Ironically, the day after I watched Alex’s video, we discussed the problem of evil in Apologetics. My professor essentially shrugged it off using the “God’s Mysterious Ways” excuse by saying that God’s holiness is a more salient attribute than his lovingness, which means that he can do whatever he wants and we ought not to ask. He continually brings up how we ought to have faith and trust in God, which is honestly a waste of my hard-earned tuition money. Other professors I’ve had have come up with much more satisfying explanations for the problem of evil (mentioning this free-will-leads-to-evil phenomenon), but my apologetics teacher didn’t even try. At least without his direction, I’m still driven enough my curiosity to research these questions on my own.

What do you think of free will within Christianity? Do you agree that it’s paradoxical, or do you use another explanation? Let me know in the comments!


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26 Replies to “The Paradox of Christian Free Will”

  1. I for one do not like to argue with believers, mainly Christians in the United States, who want to convert those that are not, usually being of the evangelical type. This is mainly because I never hear anything new. I do not follow my usual approach of not replying to anyone when I feel it attacks who I am and/or what I value. Under these circumstances I will justified my beliefs. I do admit to giving into temptation at times; my critical instincts are just to great to overcome at these times. And, I too love to write and express my ideas about things. I have no where near the number of followers you do or the commentary traffic. I am a little jealous, but you have seemed to have hit a rich vein, and it attracts people to your blog. You are only one of three bloggers I follow and write comments on their posts.

    You make an intriguing issue with prayer and free will. I do not believe I have come across this before.

    I feel you left out god being all-good, unless you feel it falls within the concept of perfect, but then omnipotent could be include in the same fold. Anyway, I am just nitpicking, but again your overall point is good. It just brings out one more contradiction in the concept of god. To me this means this type of god could not exist, at least logically, and a good many Christians do not care if their beliefs are logical or not.

    I will say that evil is usually a religiously loaded word. I most often prefer bad, except for the most egregious actions. You mentioned natural disasters earlier. These cause great harm, and hence they can be labeled as bad.

    While you make a good point about the possibly of free will existing without evil, the fact that heaven does not exist makes this point rather moot. But, I think that the argument does not need heaven to be posed. If god is all-powerful certainly he could make such a world. But, this is not the world we live in, so either god is not all-powerful or he chose not to create such a world, which contradicts his all-goodness.

    There is the Calvinist possibility, that god is only good (this includes salvation) or grants peace (see Luke 2:14 in the English Standard Version) to those he chooses to. This indicates that Calvinists believe their god is only all-good to whom he chooses. Or, damnation is a good thing.

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  2. My blog site is named after Free Will (Freewill). I’m thoroughly non-theist. The primal thought of freewill paradox takes the freewill, as you mentioned is something that theology’s god gave us, clear back to their Jehovah’s 1st god-to-man chat where he warned Adam against using his freewill to opt for borrowed wisdom (Tree of Knowledge wisdom about everything from good to evil). How to use our “god-given” freewill in making the distinction between seeing the world’s nature as being impermanent or as allowing continuity is the most important decision (conditioned into subconscious recognition) a human makes. Theological notions are exactly the sort of wisdom that Jehovah warns against. Siddhartha left account of how he recognized his suffering, determined its cause, realized that the cause is fixable and left the pathway of how he gained an enlightened state of emotional bliss … while still … with no middleman.

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  3. Thanks for following my blog – hope you’ll enjoy it and find it stimulating. You and I will disagree about many things, but after reading this post i think we might agree about this: one can hold a position firmly without tearing down people who hold a different one. Logic and imagination (as Einstein reminded us), but not ad hominem attacks.

    This post is interesting. Thanks for your careful and thoughtful writing.

    Shayne

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You logic is faultless. But I would say that entering into a philosophical debate about the principles of Christianity is just flattering what is ultimately nothing more than a primitive, childish creation myth. And a lifetimes worth of clever analysis of how theology actually works isn’t going to make it any less ridiculous. What these people are doing is, to use a rather unpleasant analogy, putting lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig. I think ridicule works more effectively than philosophical debate.:¬]

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  5. I was taught as a Mormon that evil is allowed so god can test us between the good and the evil. What will we choose when out of his presence? It is another way to justify the christian view of gods infallibility. It’s bs but how can you know good without evil, bitter if there is no sweet, right if there is no wrong. Philosophically there is a point, but in the end another cleverly worded way to excuse god of any mess ups

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  6. Good and evil are a construct defined by society. The Bible outright condones slavery, yet, today, we would consider enslaving another person as evil. The Old Testament has a whole bunch of genocide, but, again, we consider that to be evil today. There is no “problem” with evil and some, like Sam Harris, would argue that there is no free will. The paradox is that religion even states that God gave us free will because it is largely contingent on us actually believing in a god – a god who says we MUST follow his laws or else we will be eternally tortured. And even if we do follow his laws and go to heaven, we must continue to obey him. The paradox is furthered in your Apologetics course – one of the points was that we don’t believe in god because we refuse to obey. So, god has given us the tools to disobey him, but he punishes us for not doing so? Seems pretty cruel to me.

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  7. The free will dodge can be avoided entirely if you consider “evils” (ie. unnecessary suffering) that is not of human design or error. What’s the point of cancer, and why wouldn’t god just get rid of it? Does he respect its free will as well? What about earthquakes? It certainly seems like making the earth a little more seismically stable in the first place would not have presented a big problem for him.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great analysis, including O’Connor’s comments. I’ll add a bit from my sermon, Graduates of Eden:

    Traditional theologians reply that part of God’s plan was to give us free will, and sometimes we use our freedom foolishly. But if every one of billions of humans commits sins worthy of eternal damnation, it doesn’t seem likely that we all just happened to use our free will so atrociously. It looks like either we all suffer from basic design defects – or we weren’t designed at all.

    Roger Schriner

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  9. My thoughts on what you’ve written:

    “…if God is omniscient, then he already knows what is going to happen, so praying is useless…”

    God “knows everything” in the sense that he knows everything that can happen, not everything that will happen.

    What will happen is up to us.

    “If he already knows what you want, why would he need reminded?”

    He wants you to humble yourself by asking.

    Having been to a wedding this weekend, I have marriage on my mind.

    With that in mind:

    If the woman knows the man sees marriage in their future, why should she expect the man to, one day, get on one knee and put a ring in her hand before saying the 4 words she’s been dreaming of?

    Because: Popping The Question is an act of humility and trust — humility and trust being a firm foundation for any relationship.

    And that is what God wants with us: A relationship.

    Imagine the kind of person you would be if you never had to make your desires known to someone else, or face the possibility of having those desires rejected — if everything was given to you as soon as you wanted it, how you wanted it.

    I don’t know about you, but for me that would be hell:

    “can free will exist in heaven?”

    Heaven is the result of free will.

    If, in life, you will what is good, true, and beautiful, Heaven is where you will be — among all that is good, true, and beautiful; all that you have freely chosen.

    And once you are in Heaven — once you are experiencing everything you ever wanted to experience, in ways that you didn’t even know you wanted to experience it — why would you wish for things to be any different? (1 Corinthians 2:9)

    “…he can do whatever he wants and we ought not to ask.”

    The Bible has more than one example of people questioning God.

    Even Jesus asked that is own will, not God’s will, be done. (Matthew 26:39)

    Granted: Jesus did submit to God’s will, but my point is: Jesus made is own will known.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Tony, I can see, logically speaking that a god-like being could be all powerful and / or all knowing at the same time. I don’t see how not knowing everything must make this being not all powerful. I think it could be all powerful, meaning it could do anything it wants to, and yet not know every possible thing. But maybe I’m not thinking it through clearly. Why do you think it can’t be one without the other?

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        1. I still don’t see how that is logically true. If a person can lift a 25 pound object, but is unaware of a certain 25 pound object that exists, it doesn’t mean that they can’t lift it. If they could still lift it if it was ever presented to them to lift, that means they can do it. Limited knowledge in this case, or any case like it, doesn’t limit ability. Right?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. These are entertaining notions. It depends on how you define your terms.
            Let’s say that the 25 pound object is a one of a kind cake. The deity loves cake, and is capable of instantly obtaining any cake of which it is aware.
            But the special cake is outside of the deity’s field of consciousness.
            Is it still capable of obtaining the cake? ‘Cause there’s the cake, and The Lord would if the Lord could…

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  10. On free will in Christianity’s heaven… We do know that free will certainly existed in the Bible’s idea of heaven, at least in the past. According to its own pages, Satan / Lucifer and 1/3 of the angels rebelled against God and as a result were cast out of heaven. The Bible clearly teaches that non-human beings could, and did, choose evil in heaven. It also demonstrates that this evil behavior was not tolerated. How would the future be any different? I don’t know, but I have thought about this one a LOT myself!

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  11. I can only observe my own experiences and comment on that. When I’m in the moment, in the fire of life free will seems absolutely real and what is driving my actions. I can chose good or I can chose evil, left or right, up or down, this or that. After some time, with 20/20 hindsight I laugh at myself for thinking I had any choice what-so-ever. Taking in all the factors of being human, which are immense and too lengthy to list, I realize whatever happened could not have happened any other way.

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  12. On free will:

    There’s a substantial literature on the argument about free will vs. determinism.

    Within Christendom, there is a similar literature about free will vs. predestination. Calvinists believe if predestination. The issues that you raise in your post are very similar to the issues in the debates on free will vs. predestination.

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  13. one question that they asked me was “Why do atheists like to argue with Christians and talk about God and religion so much?”

    In my case, I don’t.

    Yes, I occasionally reply to topic on God and religion, such as this one. But mostly, I am thinking and talking about other things such as mathematics, computers, science, human cognition, politics.

    If I meet a Christian, I won’t talk about religion unless he brings it up. There are many topics that are far more interesting.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Agreed. I will comment online, but the idea of back-and-forth pointless discussion wears me down, eventually. Religion in my own life is non existent, and I really don’t care what anyone worships, as long as they don’t insist I sing along in their particular choir. And this being New Hampshire, no one does.

      Liked by 3 people

  14. I suppose it is how one looks at prayer. If one views prayer as a way of getting God to make someone else to do something for you, or changing a situation that involves other people, or changing other people or any thing like that, then I think you make a good point. However, if one views prayer as a means of changing oneself, ones own character or the way one lives their own life, then I think prayer can be very useful. Basically we are talking about meditation and many non-religious people engage in that activity and find it meaningful.

    Most evangelical Christians don’t look at prayer this way, they look at it the way you described, but certainly not all Christian traditions.

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  15. I think that what they mean by there is free will in heaven, but no evil, is because people who would choose evil don’t get into heaven. So, heaven is made up only of people who God approves of. I’m surprised your professor doesn’t proclaim that most people are going to Hell.

    Personally, I get a sense of peace every time I remind myself that if there is a god who demands a Westboro Baptist Church type of hate towards the LGBT community, I will happily march my butt into Hell because I choose not to hate. Even more mainstream Christianity demands that LGBT folks deny everything that makes them them and I don’t accept that, either. I’m a deist, so I want to believe in A god, but it has very little in common with the god of the Bible. There is free will because god created the universe to function on it’s own and doesn’t interfere at all, so there is no reason to pray.

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    1. The great thing about that particular explanation is that it raises the question of why god didn’t make humans who would freely choose not to commit evil in the first place. Why would he knowingly make humans in such a way that they would inevitably choose evil? No Christian has given me a reasonable answer.

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      1. my only answer to that is, IF a god made humans, and IF he is omniscient, and IF he is all those wondrous things, why did he bother to set them up to sin in the first place? “don’t eat the fruit of that tree!” he thundered, and then left. He also left them with curiosity. And a snake. You just KNOW bad things are going to happen.
        And after all, why create evil at all?

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  16. Free will is a handy whipping boy for almost anything we do. If we sin, it’s because of free will (the polite version of “the devil made me do it”) and if we don’t it’s because we chose NOT to do something.
    It’s our choice, but paradoxically if God is all-seeing and all knowing and all-everything, that means, as you say, he knows what’s going to happen and isn’t planning on intervening. Or is. Or not.

    Christians turn themselves into pretzels with this stuff.

    On one hand, we claim that we have free will. On the other, when Bad Things Happen, “it’s god’s will.” That’s about as paradoxical as it gets. It’s like looking at watered silk, which changes color as it catches the light.

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