Beyond “free will”

I’ve begun to conclude that the whole concept of “free will,” particularly in discussions about soteriology, is simply an unnecessary distraction from the truth, and that it might be time to leave the phrase out of such discussions altogether in order to focus on what really matters.

While believers within the body of Christ know that “free will” doesn’t actually exist, most Christians don’t even know what the phrase “free will” means, often confusing the idea of “free will” with the ability to choose or decide things. Nobody in the body of Christ, however, even while denying the existence of “free will,” would ever claim that we can’t or don’t make choices (at least from a relative perspective; from an absolute perspective, of course, we know that God is ultimately responsible for everything), but the ability to make choices is entirely beside the point.

Now, when Christians talk about “free will,” what they’re almost always really saying is that the fault for a bad decision or choice (almost always referring to the choice to not believe as they do when it comes to matters of salvation) lies entirely with the one making the choice, and that the choice couldn’t possibly have been predetermined in any way whatsoever. There are secondary reasons (such as self-righteousness and pride), but in my experience the primary reason Christians want to insist that “free will” exists is to make sure that God doesn’t get any of the blame for a person’s bad decision or for their refusal to “accept Christ” (or whatever it is one believes brings salvation), and to make sure that it’s clear the sinner in question is entirely to blame for whatever negative consequences this will result in.

The problem is, Christians rarely like to dig into a matter, and generally prefer to simply believe what appears to make the most sense “at first glance” rather than digging beneath the surface to find the foundation of the matter, so to speak. In this case it means that, because we make choices, most Christians believe we must be to blame for those choices because they think we could have theoretically made a better choice instead. The questions that really matter when discussing the topic of who deserves the credit or blame for a particular choice are, “What is the cause of the choices that people make?”, and, “Taking all the variables that were present at the time a choice was made into account, could a person have actually made a choice other than the one they did, and if so, how?”

In a recent online discussion with a Christian on this topic, when I asked those very questions, he simply responded by saying, “Nothing causes the choice except for the chooser.” Of course, this tautology tells us absolutely nothing about what really matters, which is why a particular choice is made, and it also ignores the second question altogether. (On purpose, I’m fairly certain, even if just on a subconscious level on his part, likely in order to avoid thinking about the topic from this perspective so that he couldn’t possibly end up discovering that he might be wrong about it.)

Even if we ignore all the passages in Scripture that seem to tell us God is ultimately responsible for everything, and put the credit and blame for choices entirely on “the chooser” instead, we’d then have to ask, “What is the chooser?” Well, a chooser is simply a person who makes choices using their brain, and one’s brain is made up of (among other things) neural connections which are wired differently in each person by a combination of their life experiences and their genetics (our nurture and nature, in other words). The different layouts of the neural connections in each of our brains result in different choices by each of us, and none of us chooses the way our brains are wired, nor do we choose the life experiences and genetics that caused our brains to be wired the way they are. This means that, at the end of the day (presuming God or other spiritual beings don’t interfere), it’s ultimately our life experiences and our genetics that determine what choices we make.

Although there’s no scriptural or logical reason to do so, at this point some will try to evade these facts by claiming that our mind isn’t actually generated by our brain, but instead somehow exists on a spiritual level (some will also get into pseudo-scientific talk about quantum realities as well, although I can guarantee you that few to none of them have any idea how quantum mechanics actually works). The problem is, none of this actually helps back up their ideas so much as it simply pushes the problem back a level. A supposedly “spiritual mind,” whatever that actually is, still has to be “made” out of something (out of whatever it is that spirit, or whatever it is they’re claiming a mind comes from, consists of) and still has to make decisions or choices based on what its “structure” is, so the questions of why a particular choice was made over another, and whether that other choice could have actually been made instead, are still the relevant questions that need to be answered.

Basically, to simply stop at the level of “the chooser” without reducing things further to find out what the chooser consists of and why the chooser makes the particular choices they do is essentially to say that a specific chooser is simply either naturally good or naturally bad (or perhaps naturally intelligent and/or wise or naturally unintelligent and/or foolish).

In fact, along those lines, someone else who was observing the aforementioned discussion added to the conversation by saying, “I believe Scripture is clear that is not about ability… but about the inner motives of the heart. Some people choose to not believe because they are lovers of themselves and not of God. They don’t wanna let go of their way of living life. They don’t want to believe. Evil suits them better. Or ignorance. This is not an ability. It’s a choice. And it’s reflecting the inner motives of the person.” (I corrected the punctuation of the quote, which I’m noting here in case she happens to see this post.) She is actually very close to the truth with her response, but like the person I was having the discussion with, she stopped just short of the important questions.

Yes, some people prefer to love themselves over God, and don’t want to let go of their current way of life. These facts don’t help the common Christian arguments either, though, since it’s still getting down to a matter of the nature of the chooser and ignoring the question of why the nature is what it is, with the ultimate blame (again, presuming God doesn’t interfere) being on that particular selfish and/or evil nature. And if it comes down to just that nature, it means they still couldn’t have ever made any other choices than the ones they did since that would go against their nature, which means the choice was ultimately predetermined by that selfish and/or evil nature.

At the end of the day, there are two options and only two options, which is that our choices are predetermined by one’s nurture and/or nature — and, perhaps, by outside influences such as God — or that our choices are random. Nobody has ever been able to give a third option that works within the realm of reality, and until they do, those remain the only two options available for us to work with.

But since this whole topic is almost always about salvation, let’s take this a step further and look at it from that specific perspective. I’ve written about this before, but instead of arguing about “free will” as it relates to this topic, the actually important question is, “What is it that exists within you that made you able to choose to accept Christ or believe the Gospel (in whatever way it is you believe one must) that is missing from everyone who doesn’t choose to get saved? Was it your superior intelligence that they don’t possess, superior wisdom they don’t possess, superior righteousness they don’t have, or superior humility they don’t have, or was it just plain dumb luck that you were able to do so when they weren’t? Bottom line, if you’re able to choose to get saved (however it is you believe one gets saved) and they weren’t able to, what gave you that ability that they lacked?”

Well, let’s break down the options:

  • If it’s because you were smart enough to do so, it’s the intelligence you have — which the unsaved don’t have — that saved you, which means that we’re ultimately saved by intelligence (what Christ did was only step 1, while we have to complete our salvation through step 2: making the right choice to believe the right thing, making us our own, at least partial, saviours).
  • If it’s because you were wise enough to do so, it’s the wisdom you have — which the unsaved don’t have — that saved you, which means we’re saved by our wisdom.
  • If it’s because you were righteous enough to do so, it’s the righteousness you have — which the unsaved don’t have — that saved them, which means that we’re saved by our own self-righteousness.
  • If it’s because you were humble enough to do so, it’s the humility you have — which the unsaved don’t have — that saved you, which means that we’re saved by naturally having the right amount of humility.
  • And if it’s because you were simply lucky enough to happen to do so, it’s the good luck you have — which the unsaved don’t have — that saved you, which means that we’re saved by good luck, or simply by random chance.

Whichever of those it is, though, it means that your superior nurture and/or nature is responsible for you making the right choice, and those who don’t choose to get saved must have an inferior nurture and/or nature because something inside them keeps them from making that right choice. So, which is it?

If anyone involved in the online discussion I mentioned happens to see this and wants to discuss it further, or if anyone else wants to as well, feel free to do so over on my ecclesia’s subreddit where I’ve also posted this article:

https://reddit.com/r/ConcordantBelievers/comments/ny9vqs/beyond_free_will/