The Mystery of Free Will

My Understanding

PART I – Definitions, Presuppositions, and Starting Points

  1. God is all powerful (omnipotent). He is also all-knowing (omniscient). There is nothing that He is not capable of doing. God possesses ultimate and total sovereignty over the entirety of creation.
  2. Mankind has been made in God’s image. Men and women therefore have some attributes of God. These are not necessarily physical attributes, but rather spiritual ones. Some examples include:
    1. Humans are eternal beings (Matthew 25:31-46)
    2. Humans possess intelligence and the ability to reason.
    3. Humans are self-aware and are aware that they experience reality.
    4. Humans DO possess free will.
  3. Free will is defined as the following:
    1. The ability to make choices independently from direct external influence.

Part II – Discussion

All these things being said, I want to begin by drawing one line in the sand: human beings do indeed have free will. There are many people (both in the religious and irreligious communities) who hold that there is no free will. Those who are religious (in this case, we will focus entirely on Christians) maintain that mankind CANNOT have free will because God DOES have free will. For them, there can be no logical reconciliation between the sovereign will of God and the free will of man. If man has free will, they argue, then God is not all-powerful. Omnipotence is defined as control and sovereignty over all creation, which includes every molecule that makes up a man. By its very nature, free will is an apparent lack of control over someone’s ability to make decisions or decide for themselves their own course. Therefore, if God is omnipotent, He actively controls all things. If He actively controls all things, then mankind’s own decisions are a product of this control. There is no free will, only the illusion of free will, since God is directing a person’s every minute choice at all times.

Now, I would like to turn to the irreligious argument for a lack of free will. Those who disbelieve in God (atheists) must NECESSARILY affirm the idea that all life – including the consciousness and mind of man – is a simple product of chemical and physical reactions. Therefore, all activity in the universe, including human personality, thought, and mind, can be explained by the fundamental physical laws of nature. Allow me to put it this way: the laws of nature dictate how events unfold in our world. For example: gravity pulls down. An object which is released from my hand will, with complete certainty, accelerate downwards until it strikes the ground. Physical laws create order in the cosmos, and it is possible (with enough data and computing power) to predict exactly how an event will unfold before it ever does so.

Because of this, a computer only knows and does what it is told. It is a vast system of electrical components, each of which only act in ways that are entirely consistent with physical laws. Similarly, without the concept of a soul, the human being’s mind and experience of reality are solely a result of the chemical processes of the brain. The brain responds to stimuli (either internal or external), which in turn dictates human behavior. Therefore, all a person’s thoughts, actions, beliefs, and deeds are a product of their experiences and genetically-encoded instincts. If this is true, we are nothing more than hyper-advanced biological computers. This negates any possibility of free will, since all of our decisions will be determined by the sum total of our prior experiences, beliefs, and thoughts.

Boom: no free will.

However, we know that God does exist, and we know that mankind possesses a soul. Therefore, we need not waste time on the atheistic argument that our brains, mind, experiences, and feelings are entirely products of predictable chemical reactions.

Now, earlier I said that we have free will. I assert this conclusion against the conclusions of a) some Christians, and b) the irreligious community.

But why?

Here is how: because the Bible routinely mentions choice and individual accountability. I will not go into an explanation or argument for the validity of the Bible here, as my target audience will already affirm that the Bible is entirely valid and trustworthy. If the Bible is entirely valid and without flaw, then we cannot assign to it anything more or less than what it says. And all over its pages, we find concepts of “choice” and “decision” written in the text.

I also cannot but help coming back to the scripture set forth in Genesis: “…let us make man in our image.” When God says that, He is saying, “I am who I am. I will create beings who resemble me, as a master craftsman creates models who resemble him.” In other words, we are made in God’s image – not made to BE God. We bear His image in our being, including the ability to experience life, have thoughts, have beliefs, and, yes, make decisions. Do we bear these things in full? Absolutely not. God did not make anyone equal to Himself. But He did essentially make us “like” Himself, with the ability to know good from evil, right from wrong, and the ability to be self-determining beings. We are not puppets, nor are we super-advanced computers. We are beings who make our own decisions within the context of creation.

But doesn’t that conflict with the sovereignty of God? How can He be ALL-POWERFUL and not have absolute control over us?

I will make a suggestion: part of God’s omnipotence is that He gives us the ability to act in our own free will. Our free will exists because God, in His omnipotence, declares it so.

If I am a master craftsman, I can make my creation in any way I choose. If I am all-powerful, I can give my creation (or parts of it) the ability to act with a will of its own. Does that mean I am not still all-powerful? No. Rather, it proves that I am all the more.

Consider this: God created the universe and all things within it. All of the universe behaves by physical law. There are no exceptions. All actions have necessary, inevitable outcomes. But there is one case in which science fails us: the human case. Human beings, as image-bearers of God, are the ONLY thing in all of creation which cannot be described entirely by physical laws. And why is this so? Because God decreed it thusly. God, in His infinite omnipotence, created beings which could act – experience, reason, feel – independently of the rote physical order of the universe. Because God exists, we exist. Because we exist, we bear the image of God. And because we bear the image of God, in His infinite power, He granted us the quality of free will, which is the highest mark of omnipotence.

Now, you might say, there are still issues with sovereignty. What if God wills one thing, but a person does another? Does that not trump His will? My answer – I really do not know how it works. But let me put forth a possibility.

Consider all of temporal existence as a flat piece of paper. Now, consider each person as a point on that paper, each one tracing out a path as time wears on. Earlier times are left, later times are right. Here are five people’s “paths” traced out through time.

The Timeline 1

Here is where things get trippy. This makes perfect sense in my mind, but how shall I convey it? Well, here goes: a person traces his/her own path. The person has free will as he/she does so. That person is born, lives, and eventually dies. Now, imagine that the left side of the picture above starts in the year 2000, and the right side ends at 2100. This shows the complete “life paths” of all 5 people.

At any one point on the map, each person is only able to see that which is, or already has, taken place. In other words, you cannot see ahead, but only behind and to your sides. The past is what once was, the present is what is, and the future is what will be. But here’s the kicker: how do we define “past” “present” and “future?”

It’s all by our own reference point.

As you read this, December 2, 2019 is in the past. It’s already come and gone. But to the you of December 1, 2019, that date was in the future. Now, the events that happened on December 2, 2019 still exist – on December 2, 2019. Those events help to shape our reality now. We say that they have already taken place, but guess what? To an observer three months ago, they hadn’t. Yet because they have happened, they exist in a definite form.

You see, your future already exists… you just cannot perceive it. To us, February 10, 2025 is in the future. We don’t know what will happen then. But to someone on September 10, 2030, that same date is in the past. It has already occurred. Because the years 2025 and 2030 will be real years, they must be preceded by real events. Therefore, the events which will occur on February 10, 2025 have already occurred, but to us, they remain in the future.

Therefore, we can say that events are “predestined.” Future events do exist, it’s just that we haven’t ‘done’ them yet.

But does that negate free will?

No!

Free will is the engine by which decisions, actions, and occurrences are made. In my own free will, I decide to make a sandwich at 2:37 am on October 3, 2021. Was that choice predetermined by God? Not necessarily. I, with my God-granted free will, chose to do that. Yet that event does take place, which therefore makes it predestined, since it exists in the past for those that live in its future. That event was always going to happen, but it’s because I exercised my free will to make it happen. Therefore, all events are both predestined and acts of free will. Free will is the architectural tool of predestination.

As to the sovereignty of God, I believe that God uses our free will to bring about His plans. He is not so bound by logical laws as to need to personally structure every single human event and decision. In fact, perhaps the greatest demonstration of His omnipotence is that He uses our free will as a prime tool by which to bring about His perfect will. After all, light behaves as both a particle and a wave. It is two seemingly contradictory things at once. This is a mystery known, but not fully understood, but even our best scientists. Similarly, God can maintain total sovereignty over all creation, yet still grant human beings the full exercise of their free will, since He can use their free will to bring about His own will.

Is it predestination or free will? Both.

Author: Jacob Vanderpool

I am a 19-year-old who loves science, writing, music, and most of all, God.

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