What About Free Will? (Part 3)

I am writing a book on the ever thorny, controversial, misunderstood topic of free will.  Over the course of several weeks, I am blogging about the issue.  I invite your feedback, as this will help me fine tune the contents of my book.


In this third post, I present the most common reasons libertarians give in support of their position and show why these reasons are flawed.

Libertarianism Establishes a Meaningful Relationship with God

According to libertarians, only if we are free to accept or reject God can we have a meaningful relationship with Him.  If our love for God is determined it must mean it is either mechanistically programmed or coerced against our will.  If either notion is true then love would be stripped of its value.  Greg Boyd says, “If love is the goal” of God’s creation of us then love “must be freely chosen. It cannot be coerced. Agents must possess the capacity and opportunity to reject love if they are to possess the genuine capacity and ability to engage in love.”

The argument seeks to counter a caricature of what a determinist God would have to do in order to get His creatures to love Him.  Thaddeus Williams in his excellent book Love, Freedom, and Free Will has answered this charge.  Suppose someone is necessarily compelled to say “I love you” to God.  Williams indicates this can only be the result of three possible conditions.  In each condition, the subject says “I love you” because they can do no other.

The first condition is the result of mechanistic programming. If God determines our love, then we are like the old Chatty Cathy dolls that say “I love you!” when God pulls the string. Such a person is no more than a computer-like entity programmed to perform automatic functions.  The Second condition posits that saying “I love you” is the result of sheer divine coercion.  In this case a person is forced to mouth the words against their will.  This is tantamount to theistic totalitarianism.  The third condition indicates the expression of love is the result of a powerful heart desire.  Here the person says “I love you” because they have such strong internal desires and affections for God that they cannot fathom acting any other way.

Libertarians and compatibilists agree that the first two scenarios are illegitimate responses for a truly loving and meaningful relationship with God.  To suggest either is the view of Calvinists is a straw man.  However, that is not true of the third scenario.  Such a person loves voluntarily and without coercion and yet does so as a necessary result of deterministic causes.  Libertarianism rejects this because it says we must be free from the compelling force all desires, motives, inclinations, passions, etc.  Thus, as Williams argues, libertarianism entails freedom from our own hearts.

Libertarianism would have us believe that such indeterminate choices are the basis for meaningful relationships.  But true love does not act with indifference to options but with headlong devotion in a single direction.  In fact, all meaningful choices spring from such singular zeal to pursue the one choice that is clearly better than any other.  In the doctrine of regeneration God changes our hearts producing a compelling desire to love God.  To love Him is a necessary result of God’s determination but in no way can it be construed as a mindlessly indifferent or a forced response against one’s will.  In fact, the powerful voluntary nature of the response is what makes love meaningful not that one could act otherwise.

Libertarianism Provides the Foundation for Moral Responsibility

Libertarianism teaches only free will can explain moral responsibility.  When a person acts with moral good he is deserving of praise.  When he acts with moral evil he is deserving of blame.  Libertarianism believes that praise or blame is only meaningful when a person is able to act in a contrary way.  If someone breaks the law they bear responsibility only because they could have acted otherwise.

This argument is not persuasive.  People bear responsibility for breaking the law because they do so intentionally not because they had a choice to act otherwise.  In this regard, libertarians confuse necessity with coercion.  People always act according to their most compelling motive.  But acting necessarily as a result of compelling motives is not in most cases coercive.

The problem is, in the libertarian scheme motives don’t determine choices.  Every act is free only to the degree that it is free from motives, intentions, etc.  But that is not how the law works.  If a person commits a crime with no discernible motive or reason, but it appears to be an arbitrary act, then it is hard to assess liability for the crime.  In a court of law, usually such individuals make an insanity plea.  Guilt and culpability are only applied when a motive is uncovered.  Unfortunately, in the libertarian perspective of free will everybody would be insane.

In libertarianism, to be free is to be wholly indifferent about the choices one makes.  You can choose one action or its opposite with equal ease and neither action carries any particular preference.  If this is true then no action carries any consequence worthy of notice either.  Bad choices could not be justly blamed and good choices could not be justly praised because neither is preceded by a causal relationship to the nature, motives or intentions of the person making the choice.  The fact is, we praise a man’s good actions because they proceed from a good intentioned heart.  Likewise we blame him for his wicked actions because his heart harbored wicked intentions.

God holds sinners liable because of their intentions not due to their freedom to choose otherwise.  The global flood was divinely orchestrated to destroy mankind because “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).  Consider David’s counsel to his son: “As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind; for the LORD searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts” (1 Chron. 28:9).  Solomon is held responsible for the intentions of his heart and the degree of his willingness to serve God.  God is not interested in mere obedience.  He wants our hearts.  True Christianity is exercised via the affections of the heart not mere conformance to a standard of ethics.

Ought Implies Can

Norman Geisler writes, “Moral obligations imply that we have self-determining moral free choice.  For ought implies can.  That is, what we ought to do implies that we can do it. Otherwise, we have to assume that the Moral Lawgiver is prescribing the irrational, commanding that we do what is literally impossible for us to do.”  But suppose a person borrowed $500 from a friend and was unable to pay her back; that certainly doesn’t excuse him from his obligation.  Likewise, God is not obligated to dismiss our debt to Him simply because we cannot repay it. Humans are in rebellion against God not just because we are under a curse (Rom. 5:17) and can do no other but also because we heartily approve of our rebellious actions (Psa. 2:2-3; Rom. 1:32).  One’s inability to act contrary to his sinful nature does not abrogate his culpability since he also acts voluntarily (intentionally).

Libertarianism Rescues God from Culpability for Evil

Libertarianism charges that if God is the ultimate determiner of human action then He must be culpable for sin and evil, thus making God evil.  The problem is illustrated this way.  Imagine the senseless beating of a homeless man to death on the streets of the city.  In this case, the Calvinist God is likened to a Mafioso styled mayor who calls for this sort of evil.  Even though the mayor didn’t directly conduct the beating, he is responsible because he called for one of his thugs to do it.

Conversely, Roger Olson seeks to show how libertarianism rescues God from evil: “Because he values the liberty he gave his human creatures, and he will not abrogate it even though it means sin and evil enter creation.  God permits, but does not will or cause, sin and evil.”  In other words, evil was a risk God had to allow in order to preserve human freedom and responsibility.  But Olson’s account doesn’t solve the dilemma.  If God merely “permits” evil and knows it will take place, then the Arminian God is like a police officer who stands by idly while the homeless man in our illustration is being beaten to death.  He didn’t order the killing, but neither does He stop it.

It is important here to understand that Arminianism doesn’t deny God’s omnipotence.  Olson says, “God is sufficiently powerful to stop anything from happening, but he does not always exercise that power, because to do so would be to rob his free and rational creatures, created in his image, of their distinct reality and liberty.” Thus, libertarian freedom is a greater virtue for God to maintain than to prevent evil from happening.  If the police officer is asked why he doesn’t stop the beating, he would have to say, “I am sorry, I can’t do that, otherwise I would violate the perpetrator’s free will and that would be a greater crime than stopping his senseless violence.”

Libertarianism doesn’t exonerate God from liability for evil.  To permit evil is equivalent to not preventing it and therefore to concur with it happening.  The point is inescapable for both Arminians and Calvinists: if God permits evil then at some level He concurs with its existence.  Now maybe God is powerless to prevent evil.  But then evil or the source of evil would be more powerful than God.  If evil prevails unabated and God is powerless against it then we are a race to be pitied.  Thus, if God doesn’t prevent evil then He must have some purpose for its existence.

So how can God be exonerated from culpability for evil?  First, since God is absolutely and perfectly benevolent we can know He cannot think or act in any evil manner.  Subsequently, the best way to respond to the question of who is culpable for evil is to return to what has already been stated.  Evil proceeds from the motives and intentions of one’s heart (James 1:14-15; cf. Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9).  God never has evil motives or intentions therefore He cannot think or act with evil (1 John 1:5).  Note carefully this is not the same thing as saying God can ordain evil to take place. God can ordain evil without having evil intentions.

This is expressed in Joseph’s iconic statement to his slave selling brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).  Joseph’s brothers acted with evil intention (“you meant evil”).  However, God brought about the same result but with a different intention.  His motive was good – “God meant it for good.”  Culpability can be attributed to Joseph’s brothers because they intentionally purposed evil.  God sovereignly purposed the same event, but his intention was good and therefore has no culpability for the evil that occurred.

The mechanics of how this can be remains a mystery Scripture doesn’t explain.  D. A. Carson says God’s causal relationship to good and evil is not identical or symmetrical as though He was amoral (i.e. neither good nor evil).  Since God’s fundamental nature is good not evil, His relationship to good and evil must be asymmetrical.  God stands behind what is good in such a way that it is always directly attributed to Him.  He stands behind evil only in a distant secondary way so that it cannot be directly attributed to Him, only to secondary agents or causes.

We must be content in knowing God doesn’t always provide answers for every instance of evil.  This is difficult because prideful creatures demand answers. The message of the book of Job is very sobering on this count.  When Job cries out “why?” in the midst of his intense suffering, the essence of the divine response takes our breath away – I am God and you are not.

15 thoughts on “What About Free Will? (Part 3)

  1. I am always reminded of the classic argument that if God makes us love Him we are just programmed computers. He wants us to love Him like our children love us. If we do not have the liberty to choose then it is not really love. The argument/illustration actually refutes the point the person is trying to make. Which one of us got to choose our parents? Yet somehow, we do love them!

  2. The force of the libertarian argument is that forced love is not love. And of course the compatibilist would agree. But if God softens cold, hard recalcitrant hearts (Ezek. 36:26) and through His kindness leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4) so that we come to love Him with singular devotion, this is not coercion even though our love was necessarily determined by God and willingly exercised on our part. What libertarianism fails to acknowledge is that all our choices have reasons, which are always causal in nature. Those causes include God’s sovereign decree but never in absence of secondary causes on our part (i.e. especially internal heart desires).

  3. Frankly, I cringe whenever I hear the term “libertarian” used in discussions of morality. The political party opposes any government assistance to the poor and the sick. They seem perfectly willing to let Lazarus die outside the rich man’s gate, which is an anti-Christian ideology.

    But that’s not what we’re here to discuss. The “libertarian” version of free will probably does not actually exist. As you point out above, reasons are causes. Therefore the only way to be free of causation is to be literally “free from reason”.

    Since that position is, again literally, “irrational”, it is easily dismissed. Therefore, it is unlikely that anyone actually holds that position. It is a straw man. And it cannot be what the advocates of free will actually mean, regardless of what they are saying. So perhaps we can dispose of the term “libertarian free will” (relegate it to a history of philosophy textbook) and assume it is simple “free will” at issue.

    Which brings us to the silly paradox: “If all events can be traced back to their causes, and each cause can be traced back to its causes, then everything that happens must be inevitable, and could be no other way. And if every thing I do is inevitable, how can I have any freedom of thought or action?”

    The word “inevitable” usually implies “beyond our control”. And since everything is inevitable, it “feels” as if we are no longer in control.

    But deterministic inevitability incorporates ALL causes. Some of these are automatic, like the force of gravity. But another type of cause is the willful choices of intelligent minds and the willful actions of thinking beings.

    There is never any separation between determinism and free will. We are not merely effects, but also the causes of changes to ourselves, our environment, and each other. Within our sphere of influence, nothing is inevitable except we make it so. And our sphere of influence includes building schools and hospitals, landing rockets on the moon, and threatening our own extinction with nuclear weapons and global warming.

    It is the mental process of considering alternatives, imagining outcomes, and making choices that express our intent, our will. And when we are free to make the decision for ourselves, rather than have it imposed upon us by the will of another, we call it “free will”.

    The paradox is silly because it is false. Free will is not an illusion. Determinism is not an illusion. The only illusion is the silly idea that they conflict.

  4. Libertarianism in these posts is not the political philosophy. Furthermore, the libertarian view of free will is very much alive and well and is embraced by virtually all Arminian and Open Theist scholars. Furthermore, many astute philosophers endorse this view with rigor such as Alvin Plantinga, Robert Kane and Peter Van Inwagen. But of course I do not believe it comports with the data of Scripture.

    • I do not believe that anyone can distinguish “libertarian” free will from ordinary free will.

      For example, you describe three alternatives posed by Thaddeus Williams: programming, coercion, or “strong internal desires and affections”. Ordinary free will precludes coercion and programming, but requires instead a free choice according to one’s own will. Assuming there is rational cause for the “strong internal desires and affections”, then love is given according to one’s free will.

      The statement, “Libertarianism rejects this because it says we must be free from the compelling force all desires, motives, inclinations, passions, etc. Thus, as Williams argues, libertarianism entails freedom from our own hearts.” proves my point. One cannot be free from one’s own heart, therefore the position is absurd, and cannot be held.

      Do any of the people being called “libertarian” actually make that claim? Do any of them actually distinguish their definition of “free will” from everyone else’s?

      • Marvin,
        Read my second post to understand what libertarianism teaches. I think you are confused. I have not canvased the the compatibilist definition of freedom of choice yet (I like to avoid the term “free will” when speaking of compatibilism since that phrase is most commonly associated with libertarianism). Nonetheless, here is a summary definition:

        Compatibilism believes God sovereignly determines the choices of individual persons, yet this fact is compatible with human freedom and responsibility. In this model of freedom, people choose freely (i.e. voluntarily) what they most want to as long as one’s choices are unconstrained. In either case, what they want to choose is determined by a matrix of causes both within and without. Compatibilism says our choices proceed from the most compelling motives and desires we have which in turn is conditioned upon our base nature whether good or evil. The more voluntarily and unconstrained our choices are made, the more freedom and responsibility we have in making them.

        Thus, libertarianism teaches that we can make choices contrary to any compelling motives, desire or force either internally or externally (circumstances, people and God, etc.). If anything other than the sheer power of the will determines our choices, then then the choices are coerced and therefroe not free. In contrast, compatibilism says we chose what we most want to choose and that this proceeds from the most compelling reasons/ causes that inform our choices including God (the primary cause) and secondary causes (i.e. our own nature, beliefs, desires, motives, etc.) which can also be influenced by other people and circumstances outside of us.

        I hope these distinctions help. I will go into compatibilist beliefs in more detail in future posts.

      • You’ve summed up my problem nicely when you said, “I like to avoid the term “free will” when speaking of compatibilism since that phrase is most commonly associated with libertarianism.”

        I am concerned with the destruction of meaning. Some supposedly “deterministic” arguments against “free will” are also arguments against “will” and against the idea of “self”.

        If you feel you can no longer use the term “free will” in a meaningful way, then you have been damaged by the current confusion out there.

        For example, compatibilism, by definition, means that free will is compatible with a deterministic universe. Therefore free will cannot be said to be “most commonly associated with libertarianism”. There is no compatibilism without both free will and determinism.

        Both the “libertarian” and “compatibilist” definitions of free will must be functionally equivalent, because they must be objectively confirmed. And all that we can objectively confirm is that (1) at the beginning we are uncertain what we will choose, (2) we consider alternatives and imagine their outcomes, (3) we weigh our feelings, desires, reasons, values, and other criteria, and (4) we make a choice. Finally, if we are free to act upon our own will it is called an act of “free will”.

        If we are compelled to act instead according to the will of someone else, then we do not act of our own free will.

        All of the other influences are incorporated into the mental process, and are therefore a part of our will, freely choosing. Your distinction between libertarian and compatibilist seems to be that you say one is calling these influences “causes” while the other is calling them “coercion”. Is that correct?

        The ability of the will to weigh and choose among alternatives is not a “sheer power of the will”, but simply what will does. Will chooses a future to construct.

      • To really summarize: libertarian freedom of choice is “contrary choice” whereas compatibilist freedom is “voluntary choice” or “choosing what you most want to choose.” The two definitions are diametrically opposed to one another.

      • There is no choice “contrary” to will. The choice is, a priori, the will at that moment. The choice can only be contrary to other influences, such as choosing what we really need over what we really want, or choosing what we really want over what we really need.

        Once you dispose of the straw man of “libertarian freedom”, which is always described in a way that cannot logically exist, then you no longer need to refer to an alternate as “compatibilist”.

        The simple truth is that there is no rationale for supposing a conflict between free will and a deterministic universe. Our free will is a cause, and not merely an effect.

        And this should remain the case whether God is in that universe or not (and I’ll assume that it also applies to any “metaphysical” universe as well as the “physical” one).

  5. These are good posts so far, Scott. I am probably overly simplistic in my understanding of libertariansim but doesn’t the power of contrary choice directly oppose the doctrine of original sin? Also, when addressing God’s supposed culpability for evil I find it helpful to remember that in addition to the fact that God is void of evil intentions, as the creator He also has ownership rights to each and every individual. As creator/owner it is perfectly within His right to sovereignly purpose events for His glory. His glory always comes from perfect intentions and results in my good. It is not within my right to purpose events in mine or someone else’s life for my own glory or gain. That would come from an evil, or at the very least, selfish intention because I do not have the right to ownership.

    • Yes, you are perceptive about the fact that contrary choice contradicts original sin or the doctrine of total depravity. Most (not all) Arminian scholars affirm total depravity in agreement with Calvinists. However, total depravity is mitigated by introducing a doctrine called previenent grace. This is a grace that God’s bestows upon all men that restores to them libertarian freedom so that they can freely accept or reject further grace for salvation. Although these further effusions of saving grace are necessary in order to believe, it can still be resisted. Calvinists say the unregenerate person is so steeped in sin that they are never willing nor able to believe unless the Holy Spirit changes their hearts through regeneration. This grace is irresistible. It is the “I” in the TULIP acronym.

      The ownership rights concept is an important corollary for the problem of evil. Excellent insight.

    • And if you now get into ownership rights, you have linked into the political ideology. This is the danger of using the word “libertarian”. The political ideology embraces the idea of property as the source of all rights. The moral source of all rights is actually the best possible Good for all, not who owns what.

      • Marvin,
        You continue to think that the political philosophy is somehow connected to the philosophical/ theology issue of freedom of choice. I assure you that even though they share the same name, they have absolutely nothing to do with one another. This is like saying that the word “bowl” as it is associated with the recreational sport of bowling has some kind of connection with the word “bowl” as it speaks of a round container in a kitchen used to carry food. The two words, although having the same spelling and pronunciation, have nothing to do with one another. Just a thought!

  6. Pingback: Sunday’s Sermon: On Evil | Episyllogism

  7. Pingback: Why think that (4) … God would reveal himself in words | Stepping Toes

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