Free Will and the Bible

Some assert that man has free will. Some assert that all is determined. Some say (as I do) that free will is compatible with determinism. The debate has raged, unabated, for millennia.

Clearly, an interceding God presents problems for free will. However, a cosmic God - a Creator who does not intervene in human affairs - might be compatible with free will if he keeps his omniscience and omnipotence to himself. I, personally, believe that causality actually creates free will. Read my essay, "Free Will Explained" to find out how.

Despite the fact that most Christian denominations teach free will, the Bible itself is rife with determinism and predestination. Because we all live as if we have free will, it's highly unlikely that anything we author will not give lip service to free will. When we take credit for our actions or blame others for theirs, we're paying lip service to free will. Thus, the Bible has many verses consistent with free will but is, nonetheless, a largely deterministic tome. Here are just a few examples (for brevity, just the verses are listed) that clearly state that God determines who is going to heaven or hell and that there's nothing you can do about it:

Acts 13:48
Romans 8:29-30
2 Timothy 1:9
Ephesians 1:4-5
2 Thessalonians 2:11-13
Jude 4
Romans 9:11-22

Even the Lord's Prayer contains 2 instances of determinism:

1.) Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.
2.) And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

In an effort to discover why the Bible is so inconsistent on this issue, I tried many Google searches, using many keywords. I couldn't find dates for the concept of free will but I did find references to those who developed the concept. It appears that the concept of free will stems from the concept of freedom and that it grew very slowly, taking centuries to mature into a formal doctrine.

From the 4th century to the 2nd century B.C., the seeds of free will were being planted. Plato had a concept of rational governance which flirted with but skirted the concept of free will. Aristotle added an element of voluntary action but still skirted free will. The first, primitive, form of free will appears to arise with Epicurus, around 300 B.C. Determinism did not mesh with his observations. He diverged from the strictly deterministic Atomists of his day by claiming that atoms do not move in a pre-determined way. Making the motion of atoms random allowed him to break the perpetual causal chain of events kick-started by the Prime Mover. This opened the door for his assertion that man has free will. Epictetus later (circa 100 A.D.) denied free will, yet insisted we were responsible for our own actions.

It's hard to understand how the ramifications of free will would take centuries to fully reveal themselves to our ancient philosophers. With the introduction of Christianity and its morality, particularly after it became the state religion (Roman Catholic Church) of the Roman Empire in 326 A.D., the development of free will was given a boost. Free will matured into doctrine, thanks largely to St. Augustine. He began advocating free will, around 400 A.D, to promote good works and responsibility for our own actions.

That's 700 to 800 years of free will as a neglected, fuzzy, immature concept! It's hard to imagine when most of us are now familiar with the concept(s) of free will.

The Old Testament was sealed about 200 B.C. (others claim it was sealed between 500 and 100 B.C.) and the New Testament was written between 45 A.D. and 140 A.D. This means that the concept (much less doctrine!) of free will didn't even exist in the region while the Old Testament was written and was, at best, a primitive and fuzzy concept when the New Testament was written. Free will still hadn't been fleshed out when the Roman Catholic Church was created in 326 A.D.

So it appears that the Bible is so inconsistent with the application of free will because a formal concept of free will wasn't available to the Bible authors. The authors lived in a deterministic world, so that's (mostly) the way they wrote.

Views: 34

Comment by Atheist Exile on March 4, 2010 at 4:55am
I couldn't agree more, Johan. Well said.

What about a God who "used to" intervene in human affairs but stopped doing so millennia ago? Can God switch from deterministic tyrant to laissez-faire observer?
Comment by Mario Rodgers on March 4, 2010 at 12:19pm
Scenario A: God is casual observer. He is likely to be emotionally and morally distant. Prayers are useless. Free will is guaranteed.
This flies in the face of what religion tells us about God being "knowable and personal."
Scenario B: God is a powerful manipulator. He tweaks the timeline and possibly controls people's actions to influence chain of events. Prayers are useful. Free will is non-existent.
This flies in the face of what religion tells us about possessing free will and what we know about prayers being ineffective.
Scenario C: God is like a human. He has limits to his power and tries to help out how he can but without controlling people.
This flies in the face of what religion tells us about God being all-powerful.
Comment by Atheist Exile on March 4, 2010 at 6:05pm
@ Johan and Mario,

Everybody seems in agreement. I asked about a God who shifted from intercessory to observer because some people claim exactly that. The meddler of the Bible has been conspicuously absent since Jesus was (allegedly) here.

It's interesting to note that most Christian religions, beginning with the Catholic Church, developed doctrines of free will despite the Bible's deterministic verses to the contrary. The fatalism of the Bible is flawed and unhealthy for humanity: religion had to amend their scripture; usurp their source. This contradicts and indicts the church's own self-serving claims that the Bible is divinely inspired.


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