It would not be an exaggeration to say that, for most Christians (especially those outside of the "Reformed" branch of Christianity), the doctrine of free will is vitally important to their theological system. Whether they realize it or not, this doctrine is one of the primary pillars upholding their particular religious worldview. Without this doctrinal pillar in place, their entire religious worldview would begin to collapse. Because of its great importance to so many Christians - as well as its bearing on the conflicting doctrines of eternal torment and universal salvation - I believe it behooves us to carefully examine it.
Before I begin, however, a few words of clarification are in order. Among philosophers, the kind of free will in which most Christians (and many non-Christians) believe is known as "libertarian free will" or "libertarian freedom." This rather redundant-sounding terminology is intended to distinguish the kind of "freedom" in view from notions of freedom that are thought to be compatible with "determinism" (a philosophical position which holds that everything that happens is caused by a prior event or state of affairs, and thus has a sufficient, antecedent cause and an understandable reason for its taking place).
In contrast to the freedom that is thought to be compatible with determinism (i.e., "compatibilistic freedom"), libertarian freedom is understood to be "indeterminist" in nature, meaning that the outcome of a future choice that is free in a libertarian sense is thought to be a probability rather than a certainty. To most people, the commonly-used expression "free will" basically means what philosophers mean when they speak of "libertarian free will." Thus, I will be using the expressions "free will" and "libertarian free will" interchangeably.
I will also, on occasion, refer to the theological position held to by Christians who affirm free will as both the "Free Will" position as well as the "Arminian" position. The theological position known as "Arminianism" is named after 16th century Dutch theologian, Jacob Arminius, who, in contrast with the French theologian and Protestant Reformer, John Calvin (a near-contemporary of Arminius), affirmed that human beings have the free will to either believe the gospel or not, and taught that God elected people for eternal salvation on the basis of his foreknowledge of their faith. Because of his (and especially his followers') opposition to the theology of Calvin, any Christian viewpoint which affirms and emphasizes free will is commonly labelled as a form of "Arminianism."
What is "Free Will?"
After coming to reject the Reformed theology I'd grown up believing, I began exploring the non-Calvinistic branches of Protestant Christianity, hoping to discover and know the true God, and to quench my thirst for truth. I was thrilled by the idea that such a large number of Christians believed that God really did love everyone, and that Christ had died to save everyone. Having already become convinced that God truly desired that everyone be saved - and that he had sent Christ for this purpose - I decided to make the "Arminian" theological camp my home. At the time, I didn't know of any other option; I had come to believe that if one wasn't a Calvinist or an Arminian, then one was either just uninformed, inconsistent or confused.
Despite my eagerness to get as far away from Reformed theology as I could, I never quite felt at home in the free will-affirming camp of evangelical Christianity. While I found the emphasis that Arminian theologians tended to put on the universal love and mercy of God refreshing, I often found their interpretations of certain verses and passages (e.g., those which I'd formerly viewed as affirming God's complete sovereignty over all people and their destinies) somewhat strained and contrived. I also found the concept of free will extremely puzzling, and always thought I was missing something whenever I would read free will-affirming Christian theologians attempt to explain and justify their belief in it.
For instance, in his book Most Moved Mover(2001), the late Clark Pinnock wrote (p. 127),
What I call 'real freedom' is also called libertarian or contra-causal freedom. It views a free action as one in which a person is free to perform an action or refrain from performing it and is not completely determined in the matter by prior forces - nature, nurture or even God. Libertarian freedom recognizes the power of contrary choice. One acts freely in a situation if, and only if, one could have done otherwise. Free choices are choices that are not causally determined by conditions preceding them. It is the freedom of self-determination, in which the various motives and influences informing the choice are not the sufficient cause of the choice itself. The person makes the choice in a self-determined way. A person has options and there are different factors influencing us in deciding among them but the decision one takes involves making one of the reasons one's own, which is anything but random.
In this passage we read of "contra-causal freedom" and of "choices that are not causally determined by conditions preceding them." And then Pinnock goes on to say that such a choice is "anything but random." But is this really the case? In response to Pinnock, one could ask, "Why does a person choose one reason over another when 'making one of the reasons one's own'"? According to Pinnock, the answer to this question cannot be because of any given factor or influence. It cannot be because of the circumstances in which the person happens to be at the time they're making their decision. According to the Arminian position, two people could, hypothetically, share the same exact motives and have the same exact influences operating on them when faced with the same exact decision, and yet they could still use their "libertarian freedom" to make two completely different decisions.
Is there any rational explanation that could be given for why two different decisions could be reached in this hypothetical situation that does not involve pure randomness? I can't think of one. To say that a person has the "power of contrary choice" means that, given the same exact influences operating on them, and the same exact motives being present, a person could have made a different choice than the one that was actually made. But what, other than a purely random and inexplicable event taking place in a person's mind, could possibly account for a different outcome resulting?
Consider the conversion of the apostle Paul. All Christians will agree that, as a result of his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul became a changed man. Instead of continuing in hard-hearted rebellion against Christ, he became humbly and joyfully submitted to him. But let's say that Paul's decision to submit to Christ was "free" in the sense that Arminian Christians believe our choice to believe the gospel is "free." If that were the case, then it would mean that Paul could have chosen otherwise. That is, in an identical state of affairs and with all things being equal (i.e., with the same exact influences being present and operating on Paul), a different outcome could have resulted.
Think of it this way: if God were to "rewind the tape" of Paul's life and allow him to choose again, he could've made a completely different choice, given the same exact circumstances. But how could such a change in outcome be explained and accounted for? If nothing new enters into the equation immediately prior to Paul's decision, then this theoretical change in outcomes would be completely arbitrary and random. The only thing that could account for a different outcome taking place would be a purely random event occurring in Paul's mind. Thus, it follows that, if the choice Paul actually made was "free" in this sense, then it, too, was a completely arbitrary and random event.
In Why I Am Not A Calvinist(2004), Arminian philosopher Jerry Walls writes (p. 103):
The common experience of deliberation assumes that our choices are undetermined. When we deliberate, we not only weigh the various factors involved, we also weight them. That is, we decide how important different considerations are in relation to one another. These factors do not have a pre-assigned weight that everyone must accept. Part of deliberation is sifting through these factors and deciding how much they matter to us. All of this assumes that it really is up to us how we will decide.
In response to Walls, one could very well ask, "But why does a person 'weight' one factor more or less than another factor when coming to reach a decision?" When "sifting through the factors," why would a person decide that one factor means more to them than another if they have no "pre-assigned weight"? According to his view, Walls might answer, "Because I chose to weight this factor more than the others." But in response to this, one could then ask, "But why did you choose to weight one factor more than the others?" And I believe the answer to this question exposes what the doctrine of free will really amounts to: things being determined by random, irrational and inexplicable events. For what non-circular answer could Walls give that is consistent with his position except, "I chose to just because."
It would be circular (or else lead to an infinite regress) to respond with, "I chose to because I chose to." That's no different than saying, "It happened because it happened." According to his position, the real "reason" for his choice would ultimately have to be, "just because." But to say that something happens or occurs "just because" is simply to say that there is no reason for its occurring, and that it has no explanation. It's just a random, irrational and inexplicable event. And that is what a "free" choice (in the libertarian sense) would essentially be: a random, irrational and inexplicable event.
In his book Making Sense of Your Freedom (1994), philosopher James W. Felt writes (p. 81):
After the antecedent conditions have all been considered, as well as the temperament and motives of the agent, there is still room for freedom inasmuch as there is no strict necessity that one of the possible outcomes rather than another must emerge. Yet there is an outcome. A choice is made; a decision is reached. The mind in its drive toward intelligibility asks, "What is the ultimate reason why this rather than that outcome has resulted?" (Why did Lee, for instance, decide to go ahead and attack entrenched Union forces at Gettysburg?) If the act is free, then the only possible answer - admittedly still perplexing, yet perfectly adequate - is this: the sole, ultimate reason, given a variety of enabling motives, is the acting person, the agent. There is no possibility of looking farther, but then there is also no need. Given all the requisite circumstances, it is the agent who is explanation for the act and its outcome, in such a way as not to stand in need of further explanation.
Here Felt asserts that the sole, ultimate reason why one outcome results rather than another is the person making the decision. In view of his answer to the question he poses, let's imagine a teenage girl asking her mother, "Why did you and dad get divorced?" According to Felt, a "perfectly adequate" (yet "still perplexing") answer to this legitimate question would be, "Your dad and I. We are the only explanation, and there is no need for any other." But what exactly does this mean? According to the libertarian free will position, it would mean that their decision to get divorced has no rational explanation. It "just happened," inexplicably.
When we keep in mind that a choice that is free in the libertarian sense is essentially an inexplicable, random event, we can conclude that what Felt calls the "acting person, the agent" is (at least, at the time a decision is made) akin to a "random number generator," with the only difference being that what's being randomly generated are choices rather than numbers. Thus, when Felt says that "there is no possibility of looking farther" for an explanation, he is correct. If the choices that we make are being randomly generated by us (as the free will position entails), then the only possible explanation for any "free" choice is the "random choice generator" itself - i.e., "the acting person, the agent."
Does Love and Moral Accountability Require Free Will?
It is often argued by free will-affirming Christians that without free will human beings couldn't love, and that it is for this reason that God gave us free will. Christian author and theologian Dr. Gregory Boyd sums up this position in the first thesis of his "Warfare Worldview" as follows:
By definition, love must be freely chosen. We are able to program computers to obey our commands perfectly, but we don’t consider them "loving." They lack the capacity for love because they have no choice but to do what we program them to do. Humans would be in the same category as computers if God merely "programmed" our actions. In order for creatures to be loving, they must have the freedom to do otherwise (to not love).
By "freely chosen," Dr. Boyd does not merely mean that a person loves because their heart is such that this is what they truly want and desire to do, and is (for this reason) what they choose to do. Rather, the kind of "freedom" that Dr. Boyd has in mind is libertarian freedom - i.e., the "power of contrary choice." That is, Dr. Boyd believes that, whenever something is "freely chosen," it means that a different outcome could have been effected given the same exact circumstances in which the choice was made, and given the same exact influences the person was experiencing at the time.
In other words, if my decision to propose to my wife was "freely chosen" in the sense of which Dr. Boyd speaks, then I could've chosen not to propose to her. If God were to "rewind the tape" of my life, I could've made a different decision if my decision was "free" in the libertarian sense. But if everything leading up to my choice (i.e., the various influences and factors involved in the circumstances) remained unchanged - if everything else remained the same - then the only possible, non-deterministic explanation for a different outcome being realized is that a truly random event took place in my mind and changed the outcome. So if love truly "requires freedom" (i.e., libertarian freedom), then it would mean that what love actually requires is the occurrence of an inexplicable, random and irrational event. Thus, for Dr. Boyd, our love for one another is actually a result of pure chance.
In addition to asserting that love requires free will, it is commonly claimed by Christians that free will is the only basis for which people could be held morally accountable by God for their choices and actions. But as we've seen, a choice that is free in the libertarian sense is actually a completely random event - and how such bizarre randomness can possibly be a prerequisite for a person's being held accountable for their actions is just as inexplicable as "free will" itself.
Ironically, then, it is the Free Will position which, by ultimately reducing our choices to random, irrational and inexplicable events, eliminates any meaningful way of accounting for moral accountability. To quote philosopher J.J.C. Smart, "Indeterminism does not confer freedom on us: I would feel that my freedom was impaired if I thought that a quantum mechanical trigger in my brain might cause me to leap into the garden and eat a slug."
Is the God of Free Will Christianity Loving?
According to Arminian Christians, the faith by which believers are saved and avoid being "eternally lost" is the result of the exercise of their free will. Thus, they can blame the unbeliever - rather than God - for the lack of faith that (they believe) will ultimately send them to hell if they die in their unbelief. For most Christians, it is mankind's God-given free will that "lets God off the hook," so to speak, from being responsible for people dying in unbelief, and for the supposed eternal consequences of their "free" decision. However, as we've seen, the kind of free will in which most Christians believe is akin to a random number generator. It is a mysterious power by which choices are randomly and inexplicably generated by a person. A choice that is free in the libertarian sense is essentially an irrational event that has no explanation for its taking place. Whether one outcome results rather than another would, if the free will position were true, be a matter of pure chance. But remarkably, it is on just such a chance event that most Christians believe God has suspended the eternal destinies of all of his human and angelic creatures.
For most Christians, that which will determine where and how people will "spend eternity" is how they exercise their free will during this relatively brief lifetime (with some lifetimes being much briefer than others)! At some point - either sometime before death, or at the point of death - the "window of opportunity" closes, and there is no "second chance" to make the right decision and be saved. And according to those Christians who believe this to be how things really are, whose ultimate decision was it that this would be so? Who is responsible for the existence of such a bizarre and nightmarish state of affairs in which the eternal destinies of billions of created beings is essentially left to chance? Answer: the God who chose to give his creatures free will, of course! Thus, the "loving" and "wise" God in whom most Christians profess to believe would, if he existed, actually be a depraved being who has decided to let chance determine the eternal destinies of his human (and angelic) creations.
If this seems too hard to believe, simply ask any Christian who believes in free will the following question: "Why did you make the eternally-significant decision to believe the gospel, while so many others don't?" If the free will-believing Christian is being consistent, he or she will not be able to answer in any of the following ways:
"God gave me the desire to know him, but he has not yet given this desire to everyone."
"God drew me to Christ, and Christ made God known to me, but he has not yet drawn all."
"God opened my heart so that I could believe the truth, but he hasn't yet opened the hearts of everyone."
"God granted me repentance so that I could come to a knowledge of the truth, but he has not yet granted this repentance to all."
"God gave me the faith to believe the truth, but he has not given faith to all."
What do all of these responses have in common? Answer: They all acknowledge God as the ultimate explanation and reason for why someone is a believer rather than an unbeliever. And this, I believe, is consistent with what Scripture teaches. According to Scripture, God is completely sovereign over all that takes place. We read, for example, that God "declares the end from the beginning" and accomplishes whatever he purposes (Isaiah 46:9-11). Paul sums up the extent of God's sovereignty when he declares that God works "all things according to the counsel of his will" (Eph. 1:11).
In view of God's sovereignty, it is evident that, apart from his graciously bringing about faith in our hearts, no one would believe. It is ultimately because of God's sovereign will and purpose that anyone becomes a believer or remains an unbeliever in this life. The faith that distinguishes the believer from the unbeliever is not something that the believer originates by his own "free will," and for which he or she can take any credit. According to Christ, no one knows God except those to whom Christ has chosen to reveal him (Mt. 11:25-27), no one knows the "mysteries of the kingdom" or can receive Christ's teaching except those to whom it has been granted (Mt. 13:11), and no one can come to him unless they have been drawn [lit. "dragged"] by the Father (John 6:44). We cannot receive even one thing unless it has been given to us from heaven (John 3:27). God alone is ultimately responsible for whether one receives the truth or not.
According to Paul, a person becomes a believer rather than an unbeliever because God chose them before the foundation (or "disruption") of the world and predestined them for adoption as sons through Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:4). Those who believe were chosen beforehand as the "firstfruits" to be saved (Rom 8:28-30; 2 Thess. 2:13). It was granted to them by God that they should believe (Phil 1:29), and thus God graciously assigned to them a measure of faith (Rom 12:3). In order for one to come to a knowledge of the truth and escape the snare of the devil, they must be granted repentance by God (2 Tim. 2:25-26; cf. Acts 11:18). Paul understood that it was God's grace - not his own innate goodness or willingness - that was the source of his faith and love (1 Tim 1:13-14). When a person believes and becomes a "new creation in Christ," this is no less the sovereign work of God than the creation of the heavens and the earth. It is all God's doing (2 Cor. 5:17-18).
Although God certainly works through the instrumentality of human beings in reconciling people to himself, it is God alone who "gives the growth" (1 Cor. 3:5-9). There is nothing that we contribute to our salvation that does not ultimately have its source in God. Apart from God's Spirit at work in one's mind and heart, one would have no interest in spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). Our hearts must be opened by God just so that we will pay attention to what is being said when the gospel is proclaimed to us (Acts 16:14), and those who hear and believe the truth do so only because they were appointed by God for this (Acts 13:48). No one becomes a believer or remains an unbeliever apart from the divinely-controlled circumstances that God is using to accomplish his redemptive purpose in the world.
Now, let's return to the question we posed earlier to the free-will believing Christian: "Why did you make the eternally-significant decision to believe the gospel, while so many others don't?" If they are consistent, they will have to answer something like this: "Because I chose to, and they didn't." In other words, "I chose to because I chose to, and they didn't because they didn't." And if you then ask them, "But why did you choose to, when so many others don't?" they will most likely either shrug their shoulders or say something along the lines of, "I don't know why; I just did, and they just didn't."
And they would be correct. For if their faith (and someone else's unbelief) was a result of a choice that was free in the libertarian sense, then the choice was a completely random event that simply can't be explained or accounted for. The fact that they chose one way (to believe the gospel), while someone else chose another (to remain in unbelief), would be due to chance alone. And so it is chance which their "loving God" decided would determine who will, and who won't be, eternally saved.
But it gets worse. Not only has the God of Arminian Christianity left the eternal destiny of all people up to pure chance, he (according to most Arminian Christians) foreknew before the creation of the world who would and who wouldn't choose to believe. In other words, the God of Arminian Christianity - before he ever created anything - knew full well that billions of his creatures (both human and angelic) would fail to exercise their "free will" properly, and yet he callously brought them into existence and allowed them to "freely" damn themselves for all eternity.
Consider the following argument:
1. The God of Arminian Christianity foreknew before creation how every created person would exercise their free will in response to his grace if he were to create them.
2. The God of Arminian Christianity foreknew that some (most) created persons would fail to meet the requirement(s) of salvation if he were to create them.
3. The God of Arminian Christianity created - and will forever sustain in existence - those whom he foreknew would never be saved, and who will spend eternity in hell.
4. Any being who would do this is depraved and malevolent.
5. The true God is not depraved and malevolent, but perfectly good.
6. The "God" of Arminian Christianity is not the true God.
But let's be generous and say (as some Arminians do) that God does not have foreknowledge of any choices that are free in the libertarian sense, and thus did not have certain knowledge of who would and who wouldn't be eternally saved. This position within the Arminian camp is known today as "Open Theism." But with this view, we still have a God who has suspended the eternal destinies of his creatures on pure chance by giving them "free will" and making them the arbiters of their eternal destiny. And there is absolutely nothing "loving" about this. Only a depraved God - a "God" who was completely indifferent towards the best interests of his creatures - could gamble with their eternal destinies in such a way.
For God to actualize such a state of affairs would be entirely inconsistent with the best interests and ultimate well-being of his creatures, since he would have no way of knowing which of his creatures (if any) would exercise their free will in such a way that they would become eternally happy rather than eternally miserable. A truly good and benevolent God would never actualize a state of affairs having a possible outcome that is inconsistent with the best interests and ultimate well-being of his creatures.
Consider now the following argument against the Open Theism position:
1. Before creating, the God of Open Theism would've either expected that all would be saved or he wouldn't have had this expectation.
2. If it was his expectation before creation that all would be finally saved, and all are not finally saved, then he would be a fool for expecting this outcome, and would not be worthy of our trust and confidence.
3. If it wasn't his expectation before creation that all would be finally saved, then the God of Open Theism would be malevolent for bringing persons into existence whom he had no expectation of being saved.
4. The true and living God is neither a fool nor malevolent, but is worthy of our full trust and confidence.
5. The "God" of Open Theism is not the true and living God.
So what's the final verdict? In view of the above arguments, I cannot help but conclude that the "God" of Arminian Christianity - no matter how attractively he may be presented by those who profess (and desire) to love and trust him - is just as much a fraud as the "God" of Reformed Christianity. Although he is said to love everyone and to genuinely desire that everyone be saved, the reality is that he is no more loving (and no more sane!) than the depraved, tyrannical being whom the Calvinists believe has predestined a select few for an eternity in heaven while the vast majority of his human creatures are doomed to an eternity in a place of eternal conscious torment. The "God" of Arminian Christianity (who so callously gambles with his creature's eternal destinies and lets chance decide their fate) is neither Christ's God nor Paul's God, and he should not be our God, either.
The most well-known exception to this widely-held belief in human free will within the post-apostolic church was Augustine of Hippo, who (in famous opposition to the free will-affirming theology of the British monk, Pelagius) believed that it was God - rather than man - who decided who would be eternally saved and who wouldn't. If Augustine's position sounds familiar, it's because John Calvin was heavily influenced by the works of Augustine, and the "Reformed" theological position that bears his name is really "Augustinianism," repackaged.