The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Free Will: Its Essential Nature and Implications

Arminians and other free will theists typically suppose that, if we are genuinely free in relation to God, then the following rejection hypothesis (RH) is at least possibly true:

(RH) Some persons will, despite God’s best efforts to save them, freely and irrevocably reject God and thus separate themselves from him forever.

Of course, these same theists typically acknowledge the logical possibility of (RH) being false as well, which already opens up the possibility for a “hopeful universalism,” as it is sometimes called. But for a variety of complex reasons, I think that (RH) is necessarily false (i.e., logically impossible), and I know of no one who has produced anything remotely like a plausible argument for its possibility. Accordingly, I here propose to begin a discussion on the nature of human freedom and to begin with a two-fold question: First, just what is the relevant concept of freedom that Arminians and other free will theists typically have in mind? And second, why should anyone think it follows that, if we have such freedom, (RH) is at least possibly true?

Although I have no desire to put any restriction on the content of this discussion, I do intend, for my own part, to proceed very slowly, taking one tiny baby step at a time, and to keep my own posts narrowly focused. From time to time I shall also try to summarize our progress at a given point in an effort to keep the discussion properly focused. But there is no need for hurry even though at times some of us, including myself, may have to drop out of the discussion for a while on account of other responsibilities and interests.

One final point. Let’s all try to be as fair as we can to the free will theists and try to make as strong a case as we can for their position before jumping in to criticize it or to throw potshots at it. I have two reasons for urging this: First, I agree with Bob3 that we universalists need to work on how better to explain our position to our Arminian brothers and sisters, and second, it is surely a waste of time to attack a caricature or a position we do not yet fully understand. As I used to tell my students, “You must earn your right to criticize an opponent, and this requires that you first try to state your opponent’s position even better than he or she does.” To see why this is important, we need only consider, perhaps, some of the attacks on universalism that fail to meet even the most minimal standards of academic competence. Even some first-rate scholars within the Evangelical community, it seems, have no clear idea of how a Christian universalist might put theological ideas together; hence, their criticisms too often miss the mark entirely. So let’s not make the same mistake ourselves.

Here again, then, is my two-fold question: First, just what is the relevant concept of freedom that Arminians and other free will theists typically have in mind? And second, why should anyone think it follows that, if we have such freedom, (RH) is at least possibly true?

Thanks in advance to all who contribute to this discussion.


Thanks Tom! My first impression is that “freedom” is thought to mean that one is always able to choose contrary to influencing factors that push in a given direction. Thus, we’d assume that even if God provided compelling factors toward not rejecting God, this ability to choose contrary to every rational motive would lead us to expect that some would indeed confirm that they can and will do that in practice (RH).

It’s great to have this post started. May as well jump right in.

Regarding question 1. The concept of freedom I would propose is this: the agent in question is able, at the particular time he has freedom (which may not be always), to do otherwise. This means that influences (at this particular moment) may be present to the nth degree and not actually cause or be the total explanation of a given choice. The person or individual is the one who, by exercising their “choosing part,” chooses between a source of alternatives. As such this freedom does not imply a “causeless act”, though it does imply an act not totally determined by anything outside the chooser. It is, as it were, an initiating event. It is also why some philosophers say that while free will choices are not infallibly knowable prior to their being made, they are nevertheless retroactively intelligible afterward. Such a choice requires a sort of ambiguity in which what is in the intellect does not determine the will (so, for example, one beholding God in beatitude would not possess this kind of freedom). I want also to emphasize the fact that this freedom need not always be present for it to be real or exist or be a meaningful part of God’s plan. Which leads me to question 2.

  1. I don’t believe that by having freedom it follows that we may be able to freely reject God forever. This would only follow if our freedom itself must be applicable to the idea of “rejecting God forever.” But I’m not sure this is a fact of reality that our freedom extends to. What lies behind this objection is the idea that exercising our freedom in a certain way - say by “accepting” rather than rejecting God - is necessary for our salvation. And hence a theodicy is often built upon this concept and as such only a “hopeful universalism” is possible. But I’m more and more inclined to believe that our freedom was not granted so that we could freely exercise it in a certain way; but rather that we could exercise it at all. To vaguely and shortly put what I mean, it seems possible that free will was given, not to get us into heaven by choosing certain things, but because without it we could not come to a knowledge of ourselves, other beings, God, and various concepts like causation and unity and individuality. It is only accidentally, as it were, that the consequence of giving creatures freedom is that they are also able to do evil. In other words, it seems it may be that we’re given freedom not because without it we couldn’t do good, but because we need it in order to understand various concepts which will make our perfection and beatitude intelligible. Relationships with others and God and our interaction with things seem to involve concepts that would be impossible to cognize without experiencing freedom. The fact that good and evil can be done as well is only, as I said, accidental. It also follows from this that though *experiencing *freedom may be necessary, actually committing evil is not.

So, as odd (and untraditional) as it may sound, I think it may be that the concept of freedom in theodicy may be much more asymmetrical, if you will, than is normally believed. I believe it can serve as an explanation of evil (and also some good), but good is still possible without it (though evil is not). To push further, I would suggest that our free will is not needed to be exercised in a certain way - but only simply exercised - in order to be perfected and, to use your language doctor Talbott, “trumped” by God. For the trumping does not take away from the good of the act, only its freedom, which at that point has served its necessary purpose in the formation of individuality and the understanding of various concepts in the rational creature. In short, I want to suggest that maybe free will is not necessary for good, but something else, and that this may be a way in which we can guarantee universalism, safe-guard our intuitions of “good” acts which seem irresistible to us though still fully chosen by us (such as Lewis’ conversion or our falling in love), and provide an answer to the origination of evil.

Tom, are we looking for an understanding of free will compatible with present day Arminian philosophical thinking? It seems to me that the average Arminian (who likely never heard of Arminianism) would have to do a bit of work to figure out what he or she means by free will, and of course that would yield varying hypotheses. As a person who only learned that there ARE such things as Arminians and Calvinists a few years ago, I can testify to this. To me, free will meant I could freely choose what I wanted to do or not do with the constraints of what I physically COULD manage to do (or not do), so long as I was willing to take the consequences. My thoughts have developed quite a lot since then, but I’m not sure I could write out my own personal philosophy of free will without quite a lot of work. I’m not even sure how to do a search for the question “How do Arminians view free will?” (Well, I do actually, but that particular search didn’t do me much good.) Any advice where to look?

Here’s something that seems useful. I don’t think most Arminians today believe what Arminius and Wesley wrote as quoted here though. Still, this seems to be pretty much what I believe – more or less: … iew=unread

Hi Tom

Although I very much dislike labels, I have described myself as a dogmatic Arminian Universalist - meaning I think the salvation of all is assured, despite our genuine freedom to resist the will of God (a freedom I believe is essential for theodicy). For me, the relevant definition of freedom in this context is simply that God does not determine, cause or control our actions - as, despite their compatibilist smoke and mirrors, hard-core Calvinists maintain.

This is not to say that our actions are ‘purely’ volitional. I think it’s quite obvious that our choices are subject to all sorts of internal and external influences - eg genetics, upbringing, environment, conscience, and the thoughts and wills of others - God being one - a very important one - of those others. It may be that for some - perhaps most - of our actions, when all these influencing factors are accounted for there is little or no volition left. Certainly there is no conscious decision about so much of what we do in our lives. This is just one of the reasons why we shouldn’t judge others - for we do not know what their influencing factors are.

So for me, the crucial question is how God can effect the salvation of all without overriding such ‘free will’ as he has endowed us with. I look forward to discussing that with all here. I’m tagging my mate Andrew [tag]WE ARE ALL BROTHERS[/tag] as I know this is a discussion to which he will be able to contribute, being someone who until recently was agnostic about Universalism because of his strong commitment to human freedom.

All the best


What an excellent thread! I look forward to it; I need some education in this area.
Somewhere along the way I hope to get some clarity on the following:

-Are we doing anthropology/psychology - that is, something descriptive; or are we doing conceptual analysis? Or both, or something else?
-Is our ‘will’ part of our material ‘stuff’, or is it a ‘spiritual’ substance that dwells in, but is not part of, our bodies? Or an ‘emergent property’?
-At root, is the difference of opinion between those that are anxious to guard the dignity and freedom of man, by attributing to him a godlike property that stands above all circumstances (which entails the ‘no excuse’ stance - no matter what the circumstances, the person could have chosen otherwise), and those who go the total depravity route (though still clinging, oxymoron-like, to the no excuse model).
-Why would anyone hold to either extreme of the spectrum - infinite free will on one end, or complete determinism on the other?
-It does seem to me that there is a spectrum of behavior and a spectrum of ways of explaining it, so I am very interested to see how this all sorts out.

I’m glad Tom is guiding this, and will be taking ‘baby’ steps. There is so much involved in the discussion, from genetics to the ‘Image of God’ - that herding about 10,323 cats would seem like an easier chore. :laughing:

Thank you all for your thoughtful responses. In my present post I shall restrict myself to the first four responses, those of Bob Wilson, Chrisguy, and Cindy (two posts). I say this because jonnyparker has made an extremely important suggestion that I plan to take up later, and DaveB has asked a question that I still need to think about. And, as already indicated, I plan to proceed very slowly here, so I shall try not to cover too much ground too quickly.

Anyway, Cindy wrote:

I think you are absolutely right about that, Cindy, and what is true of the average Arminian in the pew is also true, I believe, of Arminian scholars and libertarian philosophers: they too make varying (and often confusing) claims about the nature of free will, as your link to that warranted faith site also illustrates, so part of our task here is to clarify some of these different claims. For starters, however, it is perhaps enough to know that, according to the Arminians, God created us as free moral agents and has left us free to reject him forever, if that is what we freely choose to do.

Now even as you have rightly pointed to the necessity of sorting our way through varying hypotheses concerning the nature of free will, so Bob Wilson and Chrisguy have drawn our attention to one of the most important of these hypotheses. As Bob Wilson put it, “My first impression is that ‘freedom’ is thought to mean that one is always able to choose contrary to influencing factors that push in a given direction”; and as Chrisguy put it, “The concept of freedom I would propose is this: the agent in question is able, at the particular time he has freedom (which may not be always), to do otherwise.” If I have understood these remarks correctly, the suggestion here seems to be that freedom requires something like a power of contrary choice; that is, it requires a set of alternatives to choose between, each of which is a genuine psychological possibility for the one doing the choosing. So if I did some action A yesterday, perhaps we can say, along with certain libertarians, that I did A freely only if in the exact circumstances in which I did A it was also within my power to refrain from doing A; and it was within my power to refrain from doing A only if it was psychologically possible for me not to do A. Does that, Bob and Chrisguy, seem to capture your suggestions adequately?

Let us, in any case, accept these suggestions for now, since we can always revisit them if the need should later arise. Let us grant, in other words, that the power of contrary choice is an important necessary condition of someone’s acting freely. Even if this should be so, however, most libertarians would concede that such a power is in no way a sufficient condition of someone’s acting freely. Don’t let that philosophical jargon throw you, since the point is really very simple, namely this: A person might do A, have the power to refrain from doing A in those exact same circumstances, and still not do A freely.

Suppose, by way of illustration, that in a moment of delusion a schizophrenic young man, standing in the kitchen with a butcher knife in his hand and having forgotten to take his medication, should suddenly come to believe that his loving mother is a sinister invader from space who has devoured his real mother and is therefore not his real mother at all. Suppose further that the young man’s delusion should create for him a context of alternative possibilities that would not have existed apart from it; it creates, in other words, a context in which he finds it psychologically possible to slash his mother to death as well as psychologically possible to refrain from killing her (after all, other sinister invaders could easily turn him into their next meal as a punishment for killing his mother!). So whichever decision he makes, his irrational deliberation, as chancy as such things can be, could have produced the contrary choice under the same initial conditions. Here, at least, the presence of alternative possibilities seems incompatible with genuine moral freedom precisely because it entails a degree of irrationality that is itself incompatible with such freedom. Would you agree with that? If so, then we do not yet have a complete account of freedom.

Accordingly, here is a further question: If we suppose for now that the power of contrary choice is indeed a necessary condition of acting freely, what further condition might also be required?

Thanks again for these responses.


DaveB asked: “Are we doing anthropology/psychology - that is, something descriptive; or are we doing conceptual analysis? Or both, or something else?”

I’m not quite sure how best to answer your question, Dave. In general, we are all free to define our terms in any way we see fit, provided that we make our own usage clear to others. But it is essential that we do make it clear. Free will theists sometimes drive me crazy when they simply announce that they are using the term “freedom” in the libertarian sense without ever providing anything close to a complete account of what such freedom is supposed to be.

In any event, once we have a reasonably complete account before us, we can then ask such questions as: How well does the proffered account accord with ordinary usage? To what extent, if any, does it result in an artificial concept utterly divorced from our common sense view of the world? How theoretically useful is it in helping us to understand such related concepts as that of moral responsibility or that of rationality? But no definition, taken as a stipulation, is true or false; it simply clarifies how a given term is being used in a given context. So my own strategy is typically to accept any proffered account of freedom and then to start examining its implications, in this case its theological implications.

Thanks for all of your questions, including those I have not yet addressed.


An awareness of the power of contrary choice is necessary as well. A severely abused child MIGHT have the power of contrary choice - in the arena of doing ‘good’ or doing ‘evil’ (I’m not convinced of that) - but not ‘know it’, and thus follow a path of life that has been narrowed, by her abuse and subsequent perceptions of what is real and possible, to more and more degradation.

Tom, you indeed restated precisely my own impression of a common central definition that I glean from those who emphasize ‘free-will.’ I resonate with your implication that this would not provide sufficient conditions for a ‘freedom’ that we would value. I imagine another desired condition would be ability to rationally recognize the realties entailed in the choices that we face.

I didn’t read the original post until today, and I thought I would be the first respondent. But no, there was at least 6 others before me! People jumped into this discussion pretty fast! It must be an important topic, as indeed I consider it to be of paramount importance with relation to Christianity, or even morality. I am unable to believe in moral responsiblity in the absence of free will

That is precisely the way I define “free will”. But before discussing your statements which immediately follow, I would like to address your first words from the OP:

Arminians and other free will theists typically suppose that, if we are genuinely free in relation to God, then the following rejection hypothesis (RH) is at least possibly true:

(RH) Some persons will, despite God’s best efforts to save them, freely and irrevocably reject God and thus separate themselves from him forever.

First let me say that I believe in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God, and so I am not merely “a hopeful universalist”. And yet I believe in libertarian free will. I do not see these two positions as contradictory.

While I think that RH is theoretically possible, I don’t see it as practically possible. I would compare it with tossing a thousand coins and asking whether it is possible that everyone of them could turn out to be heads. As unlikely as that would be, it is definitely a possibility. But what if, when they didn’t all turn out to be heads, and one decided to continue tossing them until they did. It is likely that one might toss them for the rest of their lives and never get all heads. But what if they were tossed endlessly by someone until all became heads. Theoretically and conceptually, the coins could be tossed forever without turning up heads. But practically, the time would come when all of the coins turned up heads.

So it is with RH. Theoretically, some would never submit to God throughout eternity. But practically with God continuing to work on them, and possibly the perfected saints as well, the time will come when every last one of them submits to the authority of the Lord.

Dr. Talbott, the description of free-will actions which you so clearly stated is precisely how I see free will:

It is my belief that my abililty to have chosen contrary to the choice I actually made is both a necessary and sufficient condition of my acting freely. Indeed, this condition is what DEFINES “acting freely.” This would not be the case, only if “acting freely” is understood differently, and if “acting freely” is understood differently, then exactly how is it understood?

That would mean that “doing A freely” has a different connotation.

As I see it, your illustration may not fit the case, since the young man is delusional. In my opinion, mentally ill people, or brain damaged people, or people of a very low level of awareness, in some cases, do not have free will. But ordinary persons without such a condition—those whom we regard as “normal” do.

Is the discussion about free will in general, or is the focus on our free will before God? Is it the moral aspect that is the concern here only? And if so, how legitimate is it to bifurcate a person’s will? I would argue, I think, that everyday will and a special aspect of it are really talking about the “same” thing.

If, as Paidion points out, we limit ourselves to ‘normal’ people - and I see the point he’s making - it will be tempting to explain one difficult concept - free will - by another - ‘normal’. If as traditionally taught, we are a fallen race, then normal is what we are not; some of us just fit in better with the crowd, are more ‘normal’.

Is the ‘will’ of the libertarians a different ‘will’ than humans exercise on a normal basis?

I think I agree with several of the things already said, but to draw them together . . . In order for an action to be freely taken, it seems to me that the actor must understand the implications of his action. For example, if he, intending only to start his car and drive to the corner drugstore, unwittingly sets off a car bomb that kills him, we couldn’t reasonably say that he has committed suicide even though he acted freely in turning the key. No, not even if he had been warned and had not believed the warning. If a sinner who doesn’t understand the truth of the gospel for one reason or another, whether he’s heard it and not believed, or heard it amiss, or has never heard it, refuses or fails to accept the salvation of Christ and repent from his sin, can we fairly say that he’s acted freely? Had he been able to take advantage of all the information that is available (for example) to you or me, would he have acted differently?

Furthermore, if he is delusional or irrational for any other reason – if he is organically or emotionally or otherwise unable to act as he would act were he possessed of normal human faculties, can we say he’s acting freely in choosing or failing to choose any action at all? I do think that sanity and reasonable disclosure of information is necessary in order for a person to act freely. In addition, I might also petition for a certain degree of maturity as a prerequisite to being able to make use of information and sane thought.

Maybe there are other things as well, but I can’t think of any at the moment.

Looking forward to hearing more from all the others as well. :slight_smile:

Paidion wrote:

That seems to me exactly right, Paidion. So if someone suffering from an irrational delusion, or from severe mental illness, or from serious brain damage should do A in a context where it remains psychologically possible for this person to refrain from A, such a person would not, I take it, do A freely, despite having the power of contrary choice. Are not you and I in perfect agreement on this matter?

Bob Wilson seems to agree with us as well. For Bob wrote:

And so does Cindy, who wrote:

Wonderful discussion! :smiley:

The idea of a fully informed decision to reject God eternally brings to mind the concept of “informed consent” that we use in the medical field before performing a “healthcare intervention”–usually an invasive procedure or operation. Here’s part of the wiki entry:

The main difference, I think, between “informed consent” and a “fully informed decision” (at least as I see it) is the degree of certainty in the consequences. When informing patients about a possible procedure or treatment, we are dealing with possibilities with a certain statistical likelihood of happening whether these possibilities involve a “good” result or a “bad” one. The patient is asked to make a decision without knowing what the actual outcome of their decision would be. If for example, they knew for certain the planned by-pass surgery would result in a major stroke or death, they would be insane to elect to make a decision to undergo the surgery. If they* only* know that the odds of a good outcome are, say, 85% and a bad outcome 15%, a decision to undergo surgery would seem to be reasonable. Additionally,(and perhaps most important :wink: ) to be fully informed, the patient would need to know exactly what the experience of having a major stroke or, in fact, dying would be like for them.

Edit: I said

I should add that they would need to know what the implications of them “having a major stroke or dying” would be for others—especially those they love.

Great example with the consent form, Steve. I’ve often thought it inadequate since many patients sign it under extreme duress – that is to say, if I DON’T do this, it can have serious consequences for me, but if I DO submit to the surgery/procedure, it could kill me faster or incapacitate me worse than the disease/injury it’s meant to treat. They act in fear which seems to me to be a significant impediment to rational thought. :frowning: Still, it’s probably the best we can do. But it is NOT the best God can do. That is perhaps an argument against threatening people with hell in order to obtain a conversion to the God who (reputedly) will impose hell upon them if they decline to convert. But that’s probably another topic.

Anyway, my point is – I think we need a greater degree (at least on a human level) of competence and knowledge in order to choose our final destiny (the Kingdom of God or (reputedly) never-ending hellfire) than we can give to patients who sign a consent for treatment. Father gives some of us the faith to believe without seeing, and that’s a great blessing. Others like Thomas, and I suspect some of the other disciples as well, need to see before they can believe. God does not therefore damn them. He meets their need.

I have an opinion about this, but I barely know how to put it into words-- I’ll try my best, but perhaps you all here can help me figure out what I’m trying to say. :wink:

John 8:36 says, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” I wonder, then, if it is possible for anyone to make a free choice–whether for or against God–before coming to Christ. It seems free will comes only after entering Christ’s presence (thus receiving full information of God’s goodness.) Free will must come after knowledge. I remember as a child, I decided one day to grasp my mother’s hot curling iron. Obviously, it burnt my hand. Before that point, I did not have the “free” will to decide whether or not I should grasp the hot metal-- I had a “will” or sorts, but it was marred by my ignorance. Only after experience had opened my eyes did I have fully “free” will to touch or avoid the curling iron.

So Christ sets us free through His very presence. In knowing him, we have no reason to refuse God’s gifts anymore and thereby will naturally make a decision to accept Him. Since Christ clarifies in John 12:32 that he will draw all people to Himself, then we can only assume that all humanity will one day gain full information about God and ultimately make a fully informed decision toward the only logical choice of accepting His love.

I think that when God tears down all the barriers of our ignorance, shame, doubt, and sin, everyone’s core nature can do nothing but accept the Savior of the World. Following this logic, coming to Christ is both a free choice and an inevitable action for all of humanity.