Did he really? He doesn’t mention it in his ineffable, infallible, inerrant Word and you’d think he would when it’s so important. It’s a favourite cliché of Christians whenever they’re challenged about why God has let the world get in such a mess, why he allows children to die, why there are hurricanes and earthquakes, that kind of thing. These are all, they like to tell us, the result of humans using the ‘free-will’ God gave them to make the wrong choices – which are anything that’s not God himself. When that happens, he deserts us, abandoning any idea of a duty of care. But that’s not his fault – oh, no – it’s ours for using the free-will he gave us… freely.
So even though we have free-will, we’re in big trouble if we use it any other than the way God thinks we should. Of all the options available to us, only one is any good; there are so many penalties for choosing anything other than him. It’s as if he says to us, ‘obey me or I’ll abandon you, make everything shit and ultimately torture you’. And you’d be right to ask how this is in any way ‘free’ will. Imagine a human father saying, ‘Now, kids, choose to do as I say or else I’ll throw you on the fire.’ Would children presented with a choice of this kind really be ‘free’ to make their decision?
Still, apparently we are, and wouldn’t you know it, we choose the wrong things. This might have something to do with there being far more ‘wrong’ things than ‘right’ ones, but that’s how God has set things up and who are we to point out the inconsistency of his mysterious way?
More than this, God has handicapped us by making us ‘slaves of sin’ and ‘servants to corruption’ (John 8.34 & 2 Peter 2.19) which naturally disposes us to use our free-will in such a way that almost always leads to the wrong decisions. How about that? Not only does he say ‘obey me or I’ll abandon you, make everything shit and ultimately torture you’, God has given us up to our base desires and so impaired our ability to make the ‘right’ choices.
Ultimately, the idea of ‘free-will’ is a Gordian knot created by Christians, who, finding themselves unable to explain why a loving God would allow everything to be far from perfect, added it to their already shaky theology. But free-will isn’t scriptural; as we’ve seen, the Bible teaches that God does the choosing not us. Nor does it stand up to scrutiny in the real world. Science tells us that free-will doesn’t exist, it’s an illusion. Our subconscious mind makes our decisions before informing our conscious mind of what these are. This means our decision-making is neither free – our subconscious mind is shaped and constrained by environment, genes and upbringing – nor the product of our conscious mind, our ‘will’.
Still, this is of little interest to Christians who cling tenaciously and blindly to the notion of ‘free-will’. They’ve made the right decision by opting for God and in so doing have surrendered the free-will they otherwise insist is crucial in explaining the state of the world. They’re not going to need it in heaven, I don’t suppose, sitting around praising God all day long. Given though that they’ve made the right decision, why is it the world continues to be such a muddle? Why is life for believers not noticeably better than for the rest of us? Why are they as subject to life’s tragedies and calamities – cancer, disease, death – just the same as the rest of us? Shouldn’t their free-will decision nullify the disasterous effects of rejecting God so that we can see some overall improvement in the state of the world, or at the very least in the lives of God’s Chosen themselves? Why doesn’t it? What good is ‘free-will’ which, even when exercised in the ‘right’ way, appears to make no difference at all?