Free Will: Its Essential Nature and Implications


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.


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.

You may be right Kate. Paul’s paradigm changed in less then a minute once he saw Christ.


This is a good point and essential to understanding our freedom. It seems that there is a necessarily rational component, if not to freedom per se, at least with the type of freedom an all-good God would grant or ultimately give his creatures. (For a freedom which only included exercising actions the consequences of which were unpredictable or in a context which was not truly reflective of reality would be a curse, not a gift, and would only be given by an evil being.)

Yet I do think freedom is real, and that we are in truth actually in situations like the schizophrenic described above. The question then becomes this. For what purpose is this type of freedom, which seems so different than a “pure” freedom which makes it, as Lewis says, “not really possible to do otherwise” - for what reason is this different kind of freedom given to us? I suspect it has something to do with the making of our individuality and separateness from God, a necessary condition for our ultimate unity with him. Does this make sin inevitable? Can it be that sin (and therefore death?) is a free yet nevertheless unavoidable consequence of being a separate being from God, exercising an independence and existence of one’s own?

Also of interest are some other thoughts of Lewis on freedom.

"I would say that the most deeply compelled action is also the freest action. By that I mean, no part of you is outside the action. It is a paradox. I expressed it in Surprised by Joy by saying that I chose, yet it really did not seem possible to do the opposite.”

He said the above in his “last” interview.

“All that Calvinist question - Free Will and Predestination, is to my mind undiscussable, insoluble. Of course (say us) if a man repents God will accept him. Ah yes, (say they) but the fact of his repenting show that God has already moved him to do so. This at any rate leaves us with the fact that in any concrete case the question never arrives as a practical one. But I suspect it is really a meaningless question. The difference between Freedom and Necessity is fairly clear on the bodily level: we know the difference between making our teeth chatter on purpose and just finding them chattering with col. It begins to be less clear when we talk of human love (leaving out the erotic kind.) “Do I like him because I choose or because I must?” - there are cases where this has an answer, but others where it seems to me to mean nothing. When we carry it up to relations between God and Man, has the distinction perhaps become nonsensical? After all, when we are most free, it is only with a freedom God has given us: and when our will is most influenced by Grace, it is still our will. And if what our will does is not “voluntary” and if “voluntary” does not mean “free” what are we talking about?”

Letters Vol. 3.

“The whole struggle was over, and yet there seemed to have been no moment of victory. You might say, if you liked, that the power of choice had been simply set aside and an inflexible destiny substituted for it. On the other hand, you might say he had been delivered from the rhetoric of his passions and had emerged in unassailable freedom. Ransom could not for the life of him, see any difference between these two statements. Predestination and freedom were apparently identical. He could no longer see any meaning in the many arguments he had heart on the subject.”



Also, a quick question for Dr. Talbott.

Do you plan on including the Lewis quotes on freedom (e.g. about his own conversion, etc.) in the update to Inescapable Love of God? They would be a delightful and helpful addition!


Chrisguy asked:

Yes, I include these and other quotes from Lewis in a new Chapter entitled “Predestination unto Glory.” I divide this chapter into the following five sections: “Hopeful Versus Necessary Universalism” (where I put myself in the latter camp); “The Essential Role of Free Will in Universal Reconciliation”; “God’s Respect for Human Freedom”; “Freedom, Necessity, and the Right Kind of Compulsion”; and “Concerning the Purpose of an Earthly Life.”

But I’m inclined to disagree with Lewis when he says: “"All that Calvinist question - Free Will and Predestination, is to my mind undiscussable, insoluble.” I also disagree with his implication that we are here dealing with a paradox. For as I see it, such remarks give far too much credence to Calvinist theology and, in addition, threaten to undermine Lewis’ own response to the problem of evil. Beyond that, St. Paul’s pre-philosophical understanding of God’s all-pervasive grace provides a perfectly clear picture, I contend, of how free will, indeterminism, and even sheer chance, if you will, might fit into a predestinarian scheme in which a glorious end is guaranteed for all of us. For God simply has no need to control our specific choices or to bypass our own reasoning processes in order to checkmate each one of us in the end.

Those are extremely important quotations, however, and I am ever so grateful to you for having shared them with us.


Is everything a reflection of God - the first Cause?

Hi Tom et al

I have a question. We are talking about freedom in the context of our ability to, for want of a better expression, damn ourselves eternally. I would certainly agree that this sort of freedom entails both the power of contrary choice and rationality. (And I anticipate that this discussion will ultimately hang on the rationality or otherwise of any decision to reject God eternally.)

Unless I’m mistaken, the power to choose contrary to a particular action or inaction is sometimes referred to as libertarian freedom - and it is this sort of freedom Arminian hellists claim we have. If I am correct in these assumptions, my question is this: is it not unrealistic - even irrational - to claim that we have this sort of libertarian freedom in the infinitely weighty matter of salvation, when we so patently do not possess it in life generally. After all, does anyone really believe that everything we ever do we could genuinely have refrained from doing, and vice versa?




Thank you Johnny, that was the point I was trying to make in a couple of earlier entries. Mainly: is the libertarian free will to choose eternal destiny of a different sort than our everyday libertarian free will? Or is it the same process in both cases? I would contend that, if we LOOK at our life and the lives of others,

I think the excellent discussion thus far is narrowly focused -

; we have been working toward a defined outcome, and tailoring our answers to fit into that outcome. Which of course is entirely acceptable; the scope of one’s inquiry has to be limited or we end up going in all directions.

I would like to see more effort put into the specifics of actual behavior, before jumping to theological interpretation. Maybe that is best done on another thread someday.

Anyway, this is a useful thread for its intended purpose.


Kate wrote:

I think you have expressed yourself very well, Kate, and the excellent point you make also casts doubt upon the libertarian assumption, which we have been discussing here, that moral freedom always requires a power of contrary choice. For what about the perfected saints in heaven? Do they no longer obey God freely merely because they no longer have any reason to disobey him and because, therefore, disobedience is no longer psychologically possible for them? Or what about the loving mother, to which I referred in another thread, who finds it unthinkable (and therefore psychologically impossible) to abandon her beloved baby? If this mother nonetheless cares for her baby freely, as I believe she does, then once again the relevant freedom does not always require a power of contrary choice.

Or finally, what about God himself? If, as we read in Titus 1:2, God cannot lie, are we to conclude that God does not act freely when he refrains from lying and thus reveals the truth to us? For my own part, I think that God is the freest of all beings and, indeed, always acts freely. He is the freest of all beings even though it is logically impossible that he should ever act unjustly or ever act in an unloving way.

Johnnyparker expressed a similar point when he wrote:

My own inclination, Johnny, is to say that none of us have the power to resist God’s grace forever, but we nonetheless do submit to him freely in the end. For when God employs the consequences of our own actions to remove the kind of ignorance that makes our resistance possible in the first place, he in effect removes an obstacle to a fully realized freedom. That, I take it, is the whole point of Kate’s example above in which, as a child, she grasped a hot curling iron. Her ignorance of what this would do to her was in fact an obstacle to a fully realized freedom, and the lesson she learned after grasping it removed this obstacle, thereby enhancing her true freedom.

All of which raises an important question: If I hold that freedom sometimes does and sometimes does not require a power of contrary choice (I do hold this), am I simply equivocating on the term “freedom”? I don’t think so. But to defend myself against such a charge, I no doubt have some “s’plainin” to do.



I believe that every normal, healthy person who has done action A, could have refrained from doing A.
If is is not true that he could have refrained from doing A, then how can we hold him responsible for doing A, if A is a crime or a very hurtful act against humanity? Why punish a woman for murdering her husband if she could not have done otherwise? Or a man who has tortured someone?
How can we blame Hitler for the atrocities which were carried out against 6,000,000 Jewish people if he could not have done otherwise?
Why blame Ted Bundy for assaulting and murdering many young women and girls during the 1970s, if he could not have refrained from doing so?

However, when you ask whether we could have refrained from everything we do, the answer may be “no”, because we might have been physically forced to do some things, or if we have been given drugs to create abnormalities in our brain, then we could not have refrained.
But the proponent of libertarian free will assumes that the free will agent is normal. As long as you are normal, and there are no physical causes, then I contend that you could have refrained from having done anything that you did in the past. You could have chosen other than that which you actually chose.


The perfected saints in heaven? I’m not sure that there are any yet. However, assuming there are, is disobedience no longer psychologically possible for them? Do we know this? Or is this wishful thinking? After all the angels who disobeyed were perfect from the beginning, weren’t they? And yet some of them disobeyed.

*And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 6,7 ESV)

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment… (2Pe 2:4 ESV)*

It is true that when a person’s character is formed, they usually act according to that character. But I not convinced that it is psychologically impossible for a person to act contrary to their character. We often read in news articles of people who have done some unloving act, an act which was most unexpected by neighbours and relatives who knew them well.

But even though people may sometimes act inconsistently with their character doesn’t necessarily imply that they have a greater degree of free choice than those who do. Take the ultimate example of God. He is doubtless the most free of all free-will agents. Yet He consistently acts according to his character. For example it is impossible for God to lie…at least concerning two unchangeable things:

…so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie… (Heb 6:18)

The Greek word actually means “powerless” rather than “impossible”, but that fact doesn’t make much difference. If God is powerless to lie, then it would seem to be impossible for Him to do so. So clearly, I don’t yet have my belief in free will, tidied, wrapped up, and placed in an indisputable box.

I want to thank you, Dr. Talbott, for introducing this subject. It has certainly helped me to think more deeply about the matter.


It has helped me as well.


Thank you Tom for your response, and thanks everybody for what is indeed a great discussion.

I’m with Dave in wanting to really understand the nature of our alleged ‘free’ choices in this life. The thing is, Paidion, the vast majority of things we do in life are done either totally or near totally subconsciously, with no active thought. This includes all the obvious stuff like breathing, eating, walking, playing sports, falling in love etc. Presumably you would agree with that? But behavioural science has shown that many of our supposedly deliberately chosen acts are in fact preconditioned responses. There are genetic and cognitive biases at work that govern, or at least influence our choices.

Now throw into the mix the moral imperatives acting on us and our ‘free’ choices shrink even further. For example, am I free to murder my wife? Well clearly in some senses I am, and some people do. But I love my wife, and wouldn’t dream of hurting her even if my own life depended on it. So in what realistic sense do I possess libertarian freedom to murder my wife?

That is the thing I’m getting at. I’m not saying that none of us bears any personal responsibility for what we do or don’t do - quite the opposite in fact. But I am questioning just how ‘free’ we actually are to act or not to act.



It seem to me that in order for a free moral agent to make a decision to choose action A but also be capable of not choosing A, there must be competing desires with the ‘Will’ serving as a referee of sorts between these desires. If there is no desire or influence pushing the individual to not choose A, then he will always choose A. It seems to me that it is still a ‘free’ decision, there is just no competing desire or reason to choose the alternative to action A.


I THINK that we put the choice to accept or reject God into a separate category of will. I’m not sure at all that that is proper to do.
If we are willing to give serious consideration to Darwin, Freud, Marx - as showing us some of the forces that shape us, whether biological or psychological or the dynamics of fiscal relationships - then I think we’ve put ourselves in a position of questioning whether there actually IS a part of us that is untouched by those forces, and thus freely able to clearly choose God.
I also think we’re all of a piece; there is no power isolated within us, in a dualistic relationship to the rest; there are not two ‘wills’ (and I’m not certain yet what we mean by ‘will’).
Anyway, that’s how I choose to look at it. :wink:


Very interesting thoughts, everyone-- many thanks.:slight_smile: Johnny, I think it’s interesting that you note our many subconscious decisions, if such actions be “decisions” at all. As you said,

This got me wondering about the “breadth of life,” mentioned in passages such as Genesis 2:7 and John 20:22. It has always been my understanding that we cannot willingly stop ourselves from breathing (but maybe our resident physician–Steve, talking to you here :slight_smile:–could correct me if I’m wrong.) Sure, we can cause outside forces, such as toxic gases or suffocation, to impair our breathing patterns, but we are physically unable, by the strength of our own bodily will, to cease breathing. It is the most basic necessity of existence and yet such a powerful force that it remains beyond our control.

Might it be the same with spiritual breath–the “breadth of life?” No matter how much stubborn souls might attempt to hold their breadth in the presence of God, they will inevitably let out a sigh, allowing the breadth of life–that is, Christ–to refill their spiritual lungs once more? An extended metaphor, yeah, but it makes sense to me.

And Dr. Talbott, I eagerly jumped into this conversation and yet never paused to express my thankfulness for your writings. I would be a miserable example of a Christian if it wasn’t for brave Christ followers like yourself who risk scorn from the mainstream to share hope for universal reconciliation-- the forgotten great news of the Good News. I can only assume many, many Christians (myself once included) go about life harboring the hidden burdens of fear and hellfire, so I have unspeakably deep respect and gratitude for Christians like yourself who have the intelligence and bravery to argue otherwise.




Hi Kate :smiley:

That’s essentially true-- it’s possible for some people to hold their breath until they pass out, but they then start breathing again unconsciously. Where it gets dangerous,of course, is when someone is free-diving in water with the risks of “shallow-water blackout” and “deep-water blackout” resulting in death. :frowning:

So there’s the medical lesson of the day. :wink:


Being Catholic now, I hold to the paradoxical mystery of both free will and predestination. People freely reject God and separate themselves from God forever because once they enter into a timeless eternity they become unchanging and fixed just as much as propositional truths, the laws of logic, and other abstracta are unchanging. They become just as unchanging as God for whom it is impossible to sin. Those who fail to enter purgatory become fixed in their evil natures and stay evil forever. They are tormented by their sins themselves. The punishment is therefore just and fits the crime.


As for mental illness and emotional problems, I have had them and was still aware of my sin. I resisted and refused to act out and harm others even though I was psychotic at the time. I chose to go to the hospital. It’s hard but you don’t have to sin even when you are having strong delusions.


I think the next logical question that needs to be addressed in this topic is the nature of sin and guilt and their relationship to what we mean by freedom. In other words, if “the ability to do otherwise” is not always necessary for an act to be good, is it necessary for an act to be sinful?