The Bible teaches that there is no free will. Examining Exodus, Ecclesiastes 7, Ephesians 1, Ephesians 2, Matthew 5:45, Acts 13, Romans 8, Roman 9, 2 Timothy, 2 Thessalonians, Titus 3:4-5 and Revelations, we see that God's plan overrides our free will; those that do good do the specific good that God predestined them to do, and all others are ruled by Satan because God sends "powerful delusions" to them. The Christian Bible frequently states that God creates our future and decides our fates, no matter what our own will is. It constantly denies that we have free will. Some of the foremost Christians in history have taught that there is no free will, including St. Augustine (one of the four great founders of Western Christianity1), Martin Luther (founder of Protestantism) and John Calvin.
'Ephesians' in the Christian Bible is a letter written around 61CE or 62CE by an unknown author claiming to be Paul. Some historians believe the author based this letter on the letter of Paul to Colossians. [Roberts, 1990]
“Praise be to [God], who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will, to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”
Ephesians 1:3-6 [NIV]
It is only through Jesus Christ, say Christians, that Human beings can enter heaven. (Hence why Christianity is called what it is). The verse above says that God has blessed "us" with Christ. The "us" are those who God chose, before creation, to be "holy and blameless". You can only enter heaven if you are blameless, without sin, and to do that you need Jesus. But you only have Jesus if God has chosen you as one of the ones who is blessed with Jesus. It specifically says, next, that God has predetermined particular chosen people to be sons of Jesus. To this lucky people God has "freely given" Jesus. To the others, there is no access to heaven. All of this is chosen, predetermined, before we have had any chance to exercise free will. The cause and effect is not that our free will determines out fate; but that we will act in a way that will save us, if God has chosen us to act that way. It clearly denies free will.
But the Bible is voluminous and confusing sometimes, written by multiple Human beings, and it is odd to argue that something "must be true" from one mere verse. It helps if we have multiple versus behind any Biblical argument. Sometimes when Christians argue amongst themselves it turns into a verse-by-verse punch up!
“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. 6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — 9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."
Ephesians 2:4-10 [NIV]
Ephesians continues. Versus one to four talk about how particular people once lived in sin, but that 'the spirit' comes to work in particular people to reform them. These people, who become reformed, are those who God has chosen to reform, as we have seen earlier in Ephesians. Here, the author of Ephesians explains that it is not by personal effort that you are saved. It is 'not from yourself' but it is 'the gift of God' that saves people. Specifically, then, God chooses some people and grants them the gift of God, those who are chosen before time, according to God's plan, to conform to Jesus. Those who are chosen by God are automatically destined to 'do good works' which 'God prepared in advance for us to do'. It's not that people choose to do good, and are therefore accepted into Heaven, or even that people choose to do good and therefore come to accept Jesus. The Bible clearly states that God makes specific people do specific 'good works', which God has chosen that certain people will do.
Those who do good works are those who God has predetermined to do good works. There is no free will involved.
Much of the New Testament after the gospels are the letters (epistles) of Paul to various Churches, plus numerous epistles written in the name of Paul, such as Ephesians as we saw above. Romans is written by Paul himself, and is also heavily deterministic.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”
Romans 8:28-30 [NIV]
Note the logic here... God has called certain people according to what God wants to get done, and these people love God. God then "works for the good" of these people. It is not that these people have acted well and have then accepted God: People are predestined to be "conformed" to Jesus. These people are predestined to love God. It doesn't matter about their free will or whether they wanted to accept Jesus, or even if they believe in Jesus or not. God "predestined, called, justified and glorified" those who it chose, not those who chose God. Their choice was irrelevant: If God predetermined them to be accepted, then they therefore behave in a way that makes them accepted, conformed to Jesus. In Christianity you only get into Heaven through Jesus, but in Christianity as we have seen, you are only blessed with Jesus, and you only conform to Jesus, if God has chosen you to be.
If your choices determine if you go to Heaven, then the Bible is constantly saying that such choices were chosen by God. Not by you. Specifically, clearly and definitely chosen by God. Your actions are not according to your will, but to God's, "according to his will and pleasure" and "according to his purpose". Not your will or pleasure, not your purpose, and certainly not your choice!
So far we have seen that God has chosen some people to be predestined and predetermined to be blessed with conformity to Jesus' will. What of the others, then, who God has chosen not to conform to Jesus, who God has chosen not to be blameless and holy? Presumably, they go on to make similar choices in life to those who are chosen, but they just don't get it right because God hasn't created them in that way. God has created them to fail.
This raises problems! If God is not just, unfair, what are Christians to do with their own beliefs? How do they make sense of it, if God itself is not the all-loving God that they believe it might claim to be? God is lying, or Christians are deceived! St. Paul saw these problems, too, and all the great Christian dialogues of history include long philosophical debates on the problem of the lack of free will and the resultant amorality of God itself. St Paul touches on such inquiry in Romans 9:
“Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad - in order that God's purpose in election might stand: 12not by works but by him who calls - she was told "The older will serve the younger". 13Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated".
14What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion" [Exodus 33:19]”
Romans 9:10-15 [NIV]
The answer given as an answer by Paul makes no sense... it doesn't even address the question: Is God just? How can a just God predetermine people to sin, to be hated by God, and predetermine them not to 'conform to Jesus', and then judge those people for that predetermination that was beyond their control? None of these are answered by Paul's quote from the Jewish Scriptures. Thankfully Paul does not leave his attempted discussion there. He goes on to affirm that free will does not affect our fate, and then he asks finally and directly: If our actions and nature are determined by God, how can god blame us for those actions? The Biblical text runs thusly:
“It does not therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed on all the earth." [Exodus 9:16] 18Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
19One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?"”
Romans 9:16-19 [NIV]
And that is the clincher; the ultimate question. Paul has asked "Is God unjust?" for its denial of free will, for its disregard for what our choices and intentions are. Paul now has a mortal present that same question. His answer is a shocker:
“But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'"[Isaiah 29:16, 45:9] 21Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?”
Romans 9:20-21 [NIV]
The answer is: Tough! God is unjust, simply because it can be! There is no justification, God makes some people "for noble use", chosen and predestined to do good works 'which God prepared in advance' 'according to his purpose'. If you're not lucky enough to be created for a noble purpose, then you are for common use, relegated to hell and torment, a life without conformity to Christ, and not only is this unjust and painful situation created by God, Paul then says that you have no right to even raise a concern! You can't ask, "Is God Just?" or "How can God still blame us for our actions?", Paul simply states that it doesn't matter, it is tough, God 'hardens who he wants to harden', those who were not noble are waste, space-filler, used, abused... and this unholy mess was all created by God, according to the Bible! No free will is involved, no Human volition can change whether we were made for noble purposes to do pre-planned good acts, or whether we were made for common use, to be discarded and "punished" simply for not having been created right!
It is true that God is not just and unfair: And according to The Bible, God definitely doesn't like being quizzed on this matter! But when pressed to answer, Paul is honest about God's lack of justice. Paul states multiple times, in accordance with the rest of the scripture we see on this page, that free will and personal choices are not the important factor in salvation: Paul then goes further in Romans 9 and admits that God is arbitrary, and it's simply tough that people were created for 'common use' as slaves of Satan, and that only some are created for 'noble purposes'. The God of the Christian bible is amoral... do Christians know that they don't worship a good God? Since the very inception of Christianity, since before the Bible was written, Christians and Humans have been questioning whether the God portrayed is a good God. Paul admits that it isn't a good God, merely a God that has lots of power! A God that owns us and can do as it wants... but not a moral or just God. Such is the God of the Christian Bible.
“The two letters to Timothy and the letter to Titus are known as the "pastoral epistles", being largely concerned with the care and running of the Church. Though traditionally ascribed to Paul, some scholars now believe the letters to have been written some years after Paul's death.”
"Bible Facts" by Jenny Roberts (1997)
Paul is writing emotionally to Timothy, his close friend. His letter talks of their faith and work. He describes himself as a "prisoner" of God:
“[God] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.”
2 Timothy 1:9 [NASB]
Once again, it is not their choices that have led to them 'called with a holy calling'. It is God's will that has caused this, irrespective of what 'choices' the person made, or is to make, during their lives. Free will doesn't enter the equation.
“When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.”
Acts 13:48 [NIV]
Saying "all who were appointed for eternal life believed" only makes sense if, before time, before choices were made, and before humans existed, God knew who it was going to create and save. But God didn't merely know who was going to make the right choices, and therefore be saved, God appointed those who were to believe. Again, this is not a matter of free will, but of God's plan. Those who believed were appointed (made) by God to believe. This ties in with 2 Thessalonians 2:13:
“But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.”
2 Thessalonians 2:13 [NIV]
Here we see that, again, 'from the beginning' God had chosen who was going to be saved. Adding another circular layer to the mechanism of determination, it also explains that those who were chosen to be saved needed to believe in the truth. So, Acts 13:48 says God predestined certain people to believe, and 2 Thess. 2:13 says that certain people were predestined to be saved, and that they also had to be predestined to believe the truth. In addition, Titus 3:4-5 confirms that the saviour saves us "not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy". If we cannot choose to believe the right things, and cannot do righteous things to be saved, what else is there? There is no way out of the predestinationism of the bible! Free will is irrelevant within its harsh theology.
There are other verses that are not directly to do with salvation, but rather with justice. In Matthew 5:45 we hear that God makes the sun and rain afflict both the good and the evil amongst us. Salvation, nor suffering, is the result of free will.
“All people living on the Earth will worship [The Devil], except those whose names were written before the creation of the world in the book of the living which belongs to [Jesus].”
Revelations 13:8 [NIV]
“Consider God's handiwork; who can straighten what He hath made crooked?”
The answer to Ecclesiastes, as we have seen, is that no-one can. God creates people and the world 'crooked'; not due to free will or our choices, but because god has made the good times and the bad times and it has made them "well". There is no changing what god has made crooked, because there is no free will.
Those who worship the Devil, who are not saved, suffer punishment, pain, torment and an eternal life in hell. God, therefore, has created two types of people. Those who conform to Jesus and those who don't. It doesn't matter what your actions in life are, what your choices are, what your purpose or will is: If God has chosen you, then it is predetermined that you will behave in a certain way. The Bible makes it clear. All others are created to be punished. God specifically creates people with personalities that do not, and will not, conform to Christ. It creates specific people who will. Those who are chosen are chosen and act according to God's plan (not their own) and those who are not chosen have no way to be chosen: They cannot be chosen. Only those who are chosen, as we have seen, become 'blameless', 'conform' to Jesus and therefore enter heaven.
“The work of Satan [...] in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. 13But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.”
2 Thessalonians 2:9-13 [NIV]
There are those who are not chosen by God, who God has created to not conform to Jesus, and who God has not chosen before time to become one with Jesus, nor even to understand Jesus. These people cannot accept the truth, because God has not chosen them as ones who will understand it. In addition, to make sure, God sends these 'walking dead' "a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie". We have seen that God selects, in advance, who will perform well and who will not. God selects in advance who will be blessed and God chooses who will choose to conform to Jesus. All of this is God's choice. In addition, those who God does not elect to be saved are condemned, but also have powerful delusions sent to them that make them believe lies. It is God's will that these people are not chosen by God, God's will that they are not blessed with Jesus nor are they 'conformers' to Jesus (because God didn't choose them to be), and in addition it is God's will that they believe lies. The disbelievers and the believers are all, as we have seen multiple times, acting in accordance with the way God wants them to act. Those that do good, God has chosen to do good and even chosen what 'good works' they will do! Those who God has not chosen to be good, God deceives with powerful delusions. No element of free will exists in any of this scheme; it is not personal choice that affects fate, it is only God's will.
In addition to all this arbitrary cruelty and unfair allocation of grace, the author believes that we should thank God for its choice to save some people, and not others. God makes people do good, the Bible says, and then rewards those people: "those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified". And others he punishes. Not because they've done wrong, but because God has chosen them to do wrong. God makes them to wrong, just like it makes the chosen perform specific good works.
The author of Thessalonians says we ought to thank god for this state of affairs: Thank God that many of our friends are made to make bad choices, and thank God for sending powerful delusions to trick those who God has not predestined to save. It seems the author of Thessalonians believes in a deeply immoral god, and has no concept of right or wrong. Does Thessalonians represent the word of a loving God? Is there a loving God, or only an arbitrary, amoral God? Judging by what we have seen so far, God has no concept of justice, morality or mercy: God rewards in full, or punishes in full, and our free will and choices in life can never change what God wants with us.
Apologies if the text on page seems repetitive: But I am only repeating what the Bible says, and The Christian Bible repeatedly denies free will or choice to us.
The concept of strict determinism is very hard to fathom, and for many people, even harder to accept. Even those who understand predestination, who know that all effects have causes, cannot readily say in their emotional daily lives that the concept lives in their hearts. For this reason, and because most people simply assume that the Bible teaches that we choose to go to heaven or hell through our actions and/or beliefs, I am fairly sure that most Christians believe in free will. They don't have any strong lines of reasoning, and, they have not got worked-out solution to the theological problems with free will as presented on this page. They just feel that because they make conscious choices all the time, that there must be a thing called free will. Based on such assumption and emotion, it is sometimes official Christian doctrine that free will exists. Take the following declaration made at the great Council of Trent (1545-1563):
“If anyone says that man's free will, moved and stimulated by God, cannot cooperate at all by giving its assent to God when he stimulates and calls him... and that he cannot dissent, if he so wills, but like an inanimate creature is utterly inert and passive, let him be anathema.”
In plain English, it says: if you don't believe in free will, then, we reject you as a Christian. They certainly sound sure about this belief... but note that what lacks in their statement is any philosophical or logical argument as to how free will can sit alongside God's omnipotency and the rules of cause and effect. So although many in the world believe in free will because it seems natural to believe in it, the reality is that the arguments against it are insurmountable, especially for a bible-believing Christian.
The history of Christianity is complex and wide. Since the very formation of Christianity, different Christian groups have competed with different ideas, reflecting the fact that converts to Christianity were from Roman, Jewish and Pagan descent. Christianity itself is derived from a mixture of elements of Roman religious myths, Pagan myths and god-men stories, sun worship and gnosticism. From these sources came different initial opinions on free will within Christianity. These issues were debated in the first few centuries and since then, nothing new has been said on the issue. No new opinions have been expressed on the subject in two thousand years. It is an old debate, and one that is in my mind clearly settled by the determinists. Christianity has no room for free will, but for psychological or other reasons, many Christians (perhaps most) have believed in genuine individual free will.
St Augustine of Hippo is one of the four great founders of Western Christianity1, 'few men have surpassed' him in influence on Christianity. He strongly believed in predestination, and Calvin and Luther both owe a great part of their doctrines to St Augustine.
“[No-one] can, of their own power, abstain from sin. Only God's grace enables men to be virtuous. Since we all inherit Adam's sin, we all deserve eternal damnation. All who die unbaptized, even infants, will go to hell and suffer unending torment. We have no reason to complain of this, since we all wicked. [...] But by God's grace certain people, among those who have been baptized, are chosen to go to heaven; these are the elect. They do not go to heaven because they are good; we are all totally depraved, except in so far as God's grace, which is only bestowed on the elect, enables us to be otherwise. No reason can be given why some are saved and the rest damned; this is due to God's unmotivated choice.”
St Augustine believes that "damnation proves God's justice" (because we are all created wicked, and deserve to be punished), but that also "salvation, his mercy", that as God saves some people, after creating them wicked, it is actually a good-gods scheme overall.
“Today many thoroughly-instructed Roman Catholics may be surprised to learn that the same appalling doctrine of Divine predestination has been, and presumably still is, an essential element in their faith. Thus Aquinas' Summa Theologiae contains a Question of 'Predestination' in which the Angelic Doctor lays it down that:As men are ordained to eternal life through the providence of God, it likewise is part of that providence to permit some to fall away [... and] so He also not only gave things their operative powers when they were first created, but is also always the cause of these in things. Hence if this divine influence stopped, every operation would stop. Every operation, therefore, of anything is traced back to Him as its cause.”
Prof. Antony Flew (2003)4
Prof. Flew examines two later chapters of the Summa Theologiae where Aquinas argues against those who say that God merely influences our wills in order to promote what God wishes to be done, he says "these people are, of course, opposed quite plainly by authoritative texts of Holy Writ". Aquinas asserts in those two chapters that God moves us directly to do as it wants, even including, as the quote above shows, operations the 'falling away' of agents. In other words, sin is, just like virtuous behaviour, directly controlled by God. Aquinas then quotes from Scripture: "For it says in Isaiah (xxxvi, 2) 'Lord, you have worked all your work in us'. Hence we receive from God not only the power of willing but its employment also (Bk III, Chaps 88-89)."
“A leading feature in the teaching of the Reformers of the sixteenth century, especially in the case of Luther and Calvin, was the denial of free will. Picking out from the Scriptures, and particularly from St. Paul, the texts which emphasized the importance and efficacy of grace, the all-ruling providence of God, His decrees of election or predestination, and the feebleness of man, they drew the conclusion that the human will, instead of being master of its own acts, is rigidly predetermined in all its choices throughout life. As a consequence, man is predestined before his birth to eternal punishment or reward in such fashion that he never can have had any real free-power over his own fate. In his controversy with Erasmus, who defended free will, Luther frankly stated that free will is a fiction, a name which covers no reality, for it is not in man's power to think well or ill, since all events occur by necessity. In reply to Erasmus's "De Libero Arbitrio", he published his own work, "De Servo Arbitrio", glorying in emphasizing man's helplessness and slavery. The predestination of all future human acts by God is so interpreted as to shut out any possibility of freedom. An inflexible internal necessity turns man's will whithersoever God preordains. With Calvin, God's preordination is, if possible, even more fatal to free will. Man can perform no sort of good act unless necessitated to it by God's grace which it is impossible for him to resist. It is absurd to speak of the human will "co-operating" with God's grace, for this would imply that man could resist the grace of God. The will of God is the very necessity of things. It is objected that in this case God sometimes imposes impossible commands. Both Calvin and Luther reply that the commands of God show us not what we can do but what we ought to do.”
Christian theology in this sense is quite abhorrent: The Christian God is a monster, imposing its hellish will upon Human Beings who have no choice but to suffer.
The Church of England has also embraced the doctrines of determinism, at the expense of the idea of free will, although few today ponder these issues:
“Those who know the Church of England only in its present secular decline will perhaps be surprised to learn once upon a time its Commission on Doctrine unhesitatingly affirmed "that the whole course of events is under the control of God" and appreciated that "logically this involves the affirmation that there is no event, and no aspect of any event, even those due to sin and so contrary to the Divine will, which falls outside the scope of His purposive activity." (from Doctrine in the Church of England, Church House Publishing, 1922 p.27.)”
Prof. Antony Flew (2003)4
“In 1595 the Lambeth Articles asserted that 'God from eternity hath predestinated certain men unto life; certain he hath reprobated.' In 1618 the Synod of Dort decided in favor of this view. It condemned the remonstrants against it, and treated them with such severity, that many of them had to flee to foreign countries. Even in the Church of England, as is manifested by its seventeenth Article of Faith, these doctrines have found favor.”
"History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science" by John William Draper (1881)5
We have comprehensively shown that The Christian Bible denies free will and any element of choice in what good works we do. God has picked who will do what good deeds, and God also punishes and rewards people on account of what God has chosen, in accordance with God's plan and purpose. This is all very unfair, immoral by any standards, and evil. If the Christian God exists, it is evil. A good god would simply choose everyone to conform to Jesus, to be blessed, to be 'blameless'. This must only amplify the grief of those who are not chosen! The scheme of God, according to the Bible, has nothing to do with free will. It has everything to do with God exercising power, with no concern for morality or free will.
What a breath of fresh air it would be to then revert to pagan beliefs in free will! Socrates, four hundred years before Christianity was even born, thought up a much more moral way for the universe to run: "the good go to heaven, the bad to hell, the intermediate to purgatory"6. It is so much more moral that those who behave well go to heaven, than the Christian doctrines of baptism, original sin and predestination. It is no wonder that such pagan ideas found themselves accepted by most Christians. It's just lucky that they don't know they're pagan in origin!
By Vexen Crabtree 2005 May 02
(Last Modified: 2013 Jun 09)
Originally published 1999
Parent page: Christianity
Philosophy Now. Philosophy Now, 41a Jerningham Road, Telegraph Hill, London SE14 5NQ, UK. Published by Anja Publications Ltd. www.philosophynow.org
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
Draper, John William. (1811-1882)
(1881) History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. 8th edition published by D. Appleston and Co, New York. Digital version accessed via Amazon.co.uk.
(1995) The Dark Side of Christian History. Published by Morningstar & Lark, Windermere, FL, USA.
(1997) Bible Facts. Hardback. Originally 1990. Published by Grange Books, London.
Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
(1946) History of Western Philosophy. Quotes from 2000 edition published by Routledge, London, UK.