As regular readers of this blog know, my investigation into the doctrine of hell has made me rather skeptical of the notion of free will. That is, I find it virtually impossible to conceive of how a being that is neither omniscient nor omnipotent can ever make a choice that is not to some degree constrained by fear, ignorance, deception or bondage to self-destructive desires. Therefore, I can’t accept the idea that any of our choices are free in the sense that most people imagine them to be. Instead, I see our decisions as the product of a complex web of influences and experiences, most of which we are not consciously aware. So the notion that God would condemn anyone to an eternity in hell as punishment for decisions made under such circumstances seems the height of injustice.
Now, you might want to challenge this assertion by arguing that history offers overwhelming evidence that human beings are free to do pretty much anything their minds can dream up. For example, you might argue that I’m perfectly free to commit murder right now, just as millions of people before me have done. And I would have to agree with you that, yes, despite various hockey-related injuries, I am physically capable of taking the life of another human being at this moment. But this is where the agreement ends, because to my way of thinking, ability does not equal freedom.
Think about it: Could the decision to carry out a murder ever be considered a free choice? If so, we would have to point to someone like Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik as a paragon of freedom. But I don’t see anyone doing that. Instead, the more Breivik describes his motives, the more we realize the depth of his depraved thinking. His killing spree wasn’t an example of freedom in action. Instead, his actions merely confirm that murder is always driven by one or more of the following factors: fear, ignorance, deception, self-destructive desires or mental illness. I would argue that the same can be said for virtually any destructive or self-destructive behavior you can imagine. None of these acts are the product of a free will. Instead, they are symptomatic of a will in bondage.
A few other objections typically come up at this point:
1) If our choices aren’t free, then they aren’t actually choices. Everything we do is determined. We’re just playing out a script.
No rational person can deny the fact that human beings make choices. We make hundreds of them each day. So jettisoning the idea of free will does not require us to ditch the idea of choice. Instead, it’s a matter of asking what might be influencing or even determining our choices. Once again, I’m suggesting it’s virtually impossible to answer that question in an ultimate sense or to come up with an example of a choice that isn’t somehow constrained by fear, ignorance, deception or bondage to self-destructive desires.
Think back to the story of the Fall in Genesis, for example. The decision to eat the forbidden fruit was the direct result of deception—which was made possible by ignorance. When the serpent initially tempted Eve by casting aspersions on God’s motives, apparently she didn’t know enough about God to counter his accusations, so she trusted the serpent more than God and ate the fruit. You could also say that the serpent played on the couple’s self-destructive desire for autonomy—ironically, upon their desire to be “free” agents unconstrained by God or each other! As soon as they realized what they’d done, fear entered the picture, prompting yet more irrational behavior. Would you really want to call any of these decisions free?
Another example, one of the most important choices we ever make—the decision to get married. What motivates this decision? And what motivates the choosing of a particular spouse? At the most fundamental level I can say that you probably don’t recall choosing your sexual orientation. Instead, for as long as you can remember, you were simply attracted to one gender or the other—or in some cases, both. (And this is to say nothing about whether sexual orientation is a product of nature or nurture. Either way, the choice was out of your hands.)
Second, I can say your choice of a spouse was definitely constrained by ignorance of all the potential people you could have married—seeing as you probably didn’t take the time to speed date with every potential candidate on the face of the earth. I’m not sure if I want to comment on how fear, deception or self-destructive desires might bear on such a decision, but I’ve already demonstrated that even though this choice isn’t completely free, it’s still a real choice. You made a decision. You got married. For better or worse.
Incidentally, by rejecting free will, I’m not going to the other extreme and arguing that every choice we make is done in a state of complete bondage. Clearly, some choices are better than others. The freer you are from fear, ignorance, deception and self-destructive desires, the better your choices will be. So it’s not an either/or case here—total freedom vs. total bondage. It’s a matter of recognizing that all choices are made along a continuum of freedom. As psychologist Richard Beck puts it, rather than talk about free will vs. no free will, it’s better to think about it in terms of strong vs. weak volitional capacity.
2) If our choices aren’t free, then they don’t really matter.
Try telling that to your spouse! Even if our choices aren’t free, they still matter, because every decision we make affects not only ourselves but others as well. This is why I find abandoning the notion of free will so helpful, because instead of diminishing the consequences of our choices, it actually gives us a far greater understanding of their meaning. Rather than see ourselves as islands floating out in the middle of the ocean, we are able to dive down deep where we see that even islands connect to the mainland eventually. The appearance of separateness is merely an illusion. In the same way, we are all connected through a chain of cause-and-effect that stretches back into the past, forward into the future and in every direction in the present. There’s nothing we can do that won’t somehow enhance or disrupt the flow of energy and information across this vast web of relationships. With so much riding on every decision, there’s even more reason to ensure we are making the best possible choices—creating the best possible causes—so that our actions produce the most constructive effects. That means doing everything we can to minimize the distorting effects of fear, ignorance, deception and bondage to self-destructive desires. The less bearing those influences have on our decisions, the freer our decisions will be.
Alternatively, if you want to hold onto the notion of yourself as a free agent—an “un-caused cause,” so to speak—then you’re really seeking the same thing Adam and Eve were after when they ate the forbidden fruit. You’re also arguing that you can make decisions that are completely independent of your history and your environment—in other words, decisions that are completely isolated from the two biggest shapers of your identity. That hardly seems rational, because what exactly is motivating those choices then?
Also, seeing as you’re arguing that you are capable of making choices that are completely independent of your history and environment, then everyone else must be in the same boat. That means you also have to argue that your choices couldn’t possibly influence or determine the behavior of others, which is essentially a denial of reality.
3) If our choices aren’t free, then we don’t bear any responsibility for them.
I’ll concede this objection in part, but only to prove a larger point. It’s true that once we begin to see ourselves not as autonomous agents acting independent of our environment but as interconnected nodes in a vast network of influences, the notion of holding individuals solely responsible for their behavior begins to break down. Instead, we start to see sick individuals as the product of a sick system. This isn’t to excuse individual acts of deviance. It seems reasonable to hold those closest to the deviant act most responsible for the deviant behavior. But I fear we have gone too far in the opposite direction, where our entire legal apparatus has become a systematic denial of responsibility for the welfare of our fellow human. When someone commits a crime, rather than ask how our actions or indifference may have helped create an environment conducive to the deviant behavior, we focus almost exclusively on seeking retribution against the offender. By vilifying individuals, we can conveniently look past our own moral failings, which pale in comparison to the monstrous behavior of the offender, thus enhancing our sense of self-righteousness.
This leads us back to the traditional Western doctrine of hell. Rather than recognize the interconnectedness of humankind and the complexity of causation that goes into each and every decision, it seems to be premised on the notion that human beings are isolated monads who will be held solely responsible for their actions in some eternal sense. As I’ve sought to demonstrate above, such a doctrine is very difficult to square with reason and experience. And that should motivate us to ask whether or not we’ve interpreted the Bible correctly on these matters.
As I’ve no doubt illustrated more than once, I’m not much of a philosopher, but I do recognize a good argument when I see one. Perhaps the best version of the argument I’ve tried to make above is put forward by philosopher Eric Reitan in the book Universal Salvation? The Current Debate. Eric’s contribution is called “Human Freedom and the Impossibility of Eternal Damnation,” and its by far the best rebuttal of the free will defense of hell I’ve ever read. I can’t recommend this book or Eric’s chapter enough, so I’ll leave you with a taste to whet your appetite:
In order for a choice to qualify as truly free, the person making the choice needs two things: First, a full and adequate understanding of the nature of the choice (as [Thomas] Talbott puts it, freedom from all ignorance and deception); second, freedom from any bondage to desire (more precisely, bondage to sinful desires that the person is powerless to resist). But anyone who understands the options and is free from bondage to desire would have no more motive to reject God’s offer, and every motive to accept it. Furthermore, we never freely choose what we have no motive to choose and every motive not to choose. Hence, it is incoherent to speak of someone freely choosing damnation. Anyone who does choose damnation must therefore lack genuine freedom. God could save them by removing their ignorance, deception or bondage to desire—thereby restoring (not interfering with) their freedom.Miller/Hellbound?
Check out the entire book of Universal Salvation. Eric Reitan and Jerry Wall's responses to Talbott, and his concluding remarks in return are worth their weight in the $19 I paid for them. Of course, reading Marshall and Talbott spare was a treat as well.