Free Will: Its Essential Nature and Implications



If they did not know the difference between obeying and not obeying, why were they punished ? Would you punish a morally immature child who did not know what they were doing was wrong? Is your answer to the problem of evil that all pain is inevitable and necessary?


In the Genesis account Adam and Eve certainly knew the difference between obeying a command and disobeying it, even as a typical three year old might know this difference as well. But knowing that is a far cry from having knowledge of good and evil, which the text clearly implies they did not have. Let that pass, however.

More important is your question of whether I would ever punish a morally immature child. My answer: Of course I would and in fact did so more than once when my own children were young and morally immature. For how else could I display my love for them or teach them the difference between right and wrong in the first place. Morally immature children also need to learn at an early age, long before the issue of moral guilt has any relevance at all in their lives, the difference between a command (or a rule), on the one hand, and a mere request, on the other. The very existence of a command, as opposed to a mere request, requires enforcement, typically punishment of some kind in the event of disobedience.

Suppose, by way of illustration, that two year old Suzie should swipe a cookie from four year old Johnny and that Johnny should retaliate by striking his little sister in the face. Would a loving parent merely request of Johnny that he refrain, if he so desires, from any such action in the future? Hardly. Rather than take a chance on Johnny actually injuring his sister, such a parent would likely state firmly but lovingly, “You can’t do that, Johnny. Don’t do that again!” The purpose here would be to establish in Johnny’s mind that he cannot physically strike his sister, regardless of what she does. And if, as morally immature children are wont to do, Johnny should in fact do it again, the parent would likely choose an appropriate punishment—not for the purpose of harming him, but for the purpose of benefiting him. Similarly, as I read the story of Adam and Eve, God punished them not for the purpose of harming them and certainly not for the purpose of restoring his own supposedly “stolen” honor, as St. Anselm put it, but instead for the purpose of benefiting his too loved ones over the long run.

Anyway, however one might interpret the story of Adam and Eve—and I’ll accept just about any interpretation for the sake of a given discussion—I still need an answer to the question that I posed previously. I asked: “Does the condition of a morally immature child, in your opinion, make it impossible for the child to avoid sinning altogether over the course of a normal lifespan? Assuming that a child could avoid sinning (or “missing the mark”) on some given occasion, is a sinless life over a normal lifespan actually feasible?”

Now that I have answered your question, could you perhaps answer mine as well?




Tom T, Your definition of “a fully realized freedom” reminds me of 17th-century critics of Leibniz:

I’ve no perfect answer. In my eyes, understanding some aspects of free will is more difficult than understanding the three-in-one paradox of the Trinity.


Interesting point, James. I hadn’t read this, but it makes sense from a certain point of view.

I guess I’d say that I believe God does create the best possible world in that what He creates will continue to increase in goodness until it reaches the level of His own goodness – which of course, it can never do. It is the best possible world. It is a world that never stops getting better.


Okay - I just spent an hour at Barnes and Noble reading Sam Harris’s short book - more a long essay, really - called Free Will. Yes, the same Same Harris that wrote The End of Faith, which was a sort of atheist manifesto.

However, he does have a sharp mind, and Free Will is a challenging, sustained argument in favor of determinism. Not a lot of jargon, just well-presented arguments.

This thread has moved me much further toward the deterministic side of the spectrum; this book reinforces a number of conclusions I’ve come to while reading the forum.

I’d be VERY interested to see what any/all of you think about the book. Around $5 kindle. … sam+harris


I also suppose that God is constantly faced with equally good options for divine response. He would never chose a bad response, but God typically has more that one moral option for response.



I don’t believe things like sin, pain, and suffering are necessary per se in the process of our creaturely becoming. I believe all evil is the result of free wills other than God acting in a way that they have chosen themselves. So the choices - and the consequences - really could have been other than they were. The amount of ignorance and ambiguity necessary for our freedom is such that our knowledge doesn’t determine our acts, so I don’t think that ignorance is ever so much that we cannot help but sin. Although we may inevitably make all sorts of mistakes due to ignorance, since sin has to do with a certain intentionality and improper act of the will, unless an act is done deliberately, I don’t think it can qualify as sinful. I can then quite easily imagine a race of free creatures all existing together without having experienced the negative effects of sin. Whether or not such a state is possible to bring about, however, would be something not even an omnipotent God could guarantee.

As for your specific question, I really don’t know. If no particular sin is ever unavoidable, then it seems to me logical to conclude that any set or number of sins are avoidable as well. I do think, however, due to the effects of our fallen nature, the opportunity to sin and the sheer amount of temptations that are constantly bombarding us are not reflective of an “ideal” process of creaturely becoming. In other words, experiencing all the pain and suffering that the human race has (as well as the animal kingdom) is not, I do not believe, metaphysically necessary for us (do I need to cheat on my wife in order to have the best possible relationship?), but only relatively, considering the moral state and choices of the grand total of free agents who’ve had and still have an impact on the universe.


I always appreciate it, Chris, when someone has the courage to say, “I don’t know,” in response to some question. I had previously asked: “Does the condition of a morally immature child, in your opinion, make it impossible for the child to avoid sinning altogether over the course of a normal lifespan? Assuming that a child could avoid sinning (or “missing the mark”) on some given occasion, is a sinless life over a normal lifespan actually feasible?” And even though, by your own admission, you don’t know the answer to this question, you do allude to “the effects of our fallen nature” and indicate that these imply a less than “‘ideal’ process of creaturely becoming.”

Now many Christians have traditionally spoken as if our fallen nature were a kind of inherited moral defect not of our own choosing. But that seems difficult to square with your own understanding of the role that free will plays in the formation of a moral character. So now I’m wondering how you understand the idea of a fallen nature and what, specifically, you think its effects might be. Could you perhaps give an example of such an effect? What I’m straining for at this point is how you might answer such questions as these:

(1) Does a child’s fallen nature typically make sin (or “missing the mark”) unavoidable apart from an early death, such as a death in infancy? Or does it merely lower the probability that the child will live a sinless life?

(2) How does a so-called “fallen nature” differ from an unperfected nature, if at all? Or, more specifically, how does the fallen nature of Adam’s descendants differ from his own original nature, which was presumably unperfected even if unfallen?

I guess it all boils down to this: If Adam originally had a special advantage that his descendants have supposedly lost, just what might that special advantage be?

Thanks for an honest response to my previous question.




Of course that sound I hear, is that of paradigms shifting beneath me… Assumptions accepted from long ago; being reconsidered, and perhaps modified – or even rejected…

We cling to the notion of Freedom (this threads reason for being…) largely, I think, for the purpose of laying the “blame” for sin at our feet. (That is, we dare not “blame” God for sin…) In short, we were free because we must be free for our actions to be held against us! We did it (ie the act of A&E eating of the fruit) “freely” – so not God’s fault. Being “free” of course also confers humanity to us – personhood; we are not determined by any but ourselves.

But how free, really, is a “freedom” which so blatantly acts against itself? Thus other notions and aspects are recruited. Ignorance, and ambiguity. So we are born in ignorance – we just don’t know – and in ambiguity; the natural order of cause and effect is dimly seen, if at all. We may not even comprehend what’s at stake… We see that God cannot determine us (ie just “program” us to do well…) because that would negate freedom – the very thing which makes us persons. To just implant some degree of knowledge, and order, on the other hand, seems also itself a kind of determinism. Which we’ve said God cannot abide.

Backing up and restating then: God has given Himself a daunting task it seems… He seeks the free and sincere worship of His creation, yet is prevented – by the very laws of freedom themselves – from creating that. For, if the image of God in us means anything, it means this: we must be able to share the ability to create – that is, from within us ourselves, to generate the self determined act of reaching out to God, responding, and worshiping Him.

When you say Tom, that the very things necessary for this to happen are the very things which must be overcome, that in itself is a paradigm rattler! But I think maybe it’s worth considering that this simply underlines God’s extreme commitment to freedom! He simply refuses (He’s a purist this way I guess) to determine us, nor does He just implant experience and knowledge; for that would be determinism of a sort.

No, instead we enter this realm, as did Adam & Eve, (or whomever they represent…) innocent, naked, and ready to discover and learn.

Now of course it troubles me that the writer of Genesis strongly implies that A & E “should have known better”.

The horribly difficult and painful part of this (ie the implication that A & E “should have known better”) is the realization that, by this way of thinking, this path of pain and sin and suffering never need have been taken. I’ve grown up with this angst, and see no good reason to jettison it just now.

However… the thought that this departure of ours from God’s desire into… well, I’ve grown so comfortable calling it… “sin” was somehow necessary for God’s creation to become actualized, is, again, a paradigm rattler…

Freedom; utterly central and indispensable for the development of the only kind of person and worship God wants, itself needing to develop in the very cauldron of things which work against it!!

Its hard not to see A & E’s first departure from God’s will (did not God say you would DIE the day you ate of it??) as a full blown sin. And yet how could it be given their (extreme) immaturity? To be sure, they disobeyed orders; that much is clear. But it’s also clear that God’s (eventual) intent for us is not mere obedience (just do as you are told…) but the understanding attitude and actions of a friend. (eg John 15:15)

But how, oh how! to get us from here (immaturity, ignorance, ambiguity, indeterminism…) to there (full throated freedom! informed, unshackled by illusion and distortions, to that place where what we desire is the same as God desires; doing right because it is right…) ?? How does God simultaneously foster our growing freedom (which also enlarges and deepens our culpability in sin) knowledge (which lessens our ignorance and heightens our responsibility) and rationality (which takes objective stock of experience and measures cause and effect)???

Yet this is the task God has taken upon Himself!!

Little by little, slow and full of anguish as self awareness dawns, ignorance fades, ambiguity lessens, and freedom blossoms. And along the way, awareness of our separation from God grows; the desperation of our plight apart from Him deepens; our fault in sin solidifies even as we develop the powers to reject it!

So… we must be free in order that we might be persons, yet freedom entails knowledge (ie departure form ignorance) an understanding of order (departure from ambiguity) and rationality (departure from randomness; discerning cause and effect; grasping what is in our best interest…) Well, if we are to be free, we must (by definition) have these things (by which I mean knowledge/order/rationality)… Except if God just “gave us” these things we would be determined!

Besides, if God just “gave us” these necessary ingredients for freedom, yet that “freedom” was used in self destructive ways, one could always argue (correctly as I’m seeing this…) that God didn’t give “quite enough” knowledge; or order (I’m using order as ambiguities opposite here…); or rationality. Which, if true, would mean God is deeply culpable in our failures.

On the other hand however, if God gave the opposite of “not quite enough” of these things and instead gave “more than enough” so as to guarantee correct and proper use of freedom – every time – then He stands vulnerable to the charge of Determinism! Thereby negating the very “Freedom” He was trying to foster in the first place!!!

God is in a really tough place here isn’t He!!!

… I’m beginning to see that, philosophically at least, it is courageous and bold to resist the idea of God parceling out “just enough” knowledge/order/rationality so as to make freedom real, yet not “so much” as to render it all meaningless by the charge of Determinism, by simply saying we arrive with NOTHING. NO knowledge, NO order, NO rationality, NO freedom, and NO determinism. (That’s what I’m hearing you as saying Tom – so please correct me if I’m wrong!!)

I find that to be a very clean philosophical position Tom…
However, how to transfer this idea from the philosophers desk to the Theologians workbench…

…That’s tougher for me…

Am I at least in the ballpark Tom??

Not signing off, or making concluding remarks, or saying we’re through, but immense thanks Tom for guiding us on this journey… For myself, I am blessed to have you here! Chrisguy and everybody else too of course!!




Here are my thoughts no your points.

  1. I would say that the probability rather than the possibility of living a sinless life is what’s been effected by the fall.
  2. I believe a good examination of the fall and its effects is found in Lewis’ Problem of Pain (which I know you’re familiar with). In short, I think we’re born with an inappropriate - or warped - desire for self; our passions are all out of whack and our bodies are subject to decay and death. I think the Catholic doctrine of concupiscence has it right: we are inclined to sin; though not necessitated. This sort of nature differs from Adam’s in that this original inclination was not present in him. I do, however, think that even an innocent, unperfected and unfallen being must necessarily go through the process of realizing one’s own existence over against God or others. Consequently there must be desires that come up which must be correctly subordinated before that being can “go on” so to speak to a perfected being. In other words, although I don’t think Adam was fallen, I think he was subject to the ability to be tempted. The fact that there is a self at all automatically makes temptation possible upon the sort of existential awareness that one really can serve it rather than the other. In my own imaginative speculations (though I know I don’t know), I suppose, if the first sin never occurred, each person born would at some point have to go through the same sort of temptation process, which would go something like… awareness of the world —> of God through conscience —> of self —> that the self may be chosen over God (or “the other”). Ideally speaking, the next line would be —> choosing God and “dying” to self. But of course, I don’t believe that happened. And for all I can see, the perfecting of Adam and Eve, had they passed the test, may have only involved a single experience like this. By thus willing for God once, the effects of using their freedom correctly may have resulted in a union with God that made further temptation impossible (i.e. libertarian freedom gives way to compatibilistic freedom.)


Thanks for this explanation, Chris. It looks as if you, C. S. Lewis, and I are all generally agreed concerning this: The very emergence of a center of consciousness distinct from God’s own consciousness requires that the created center of consciousness “must necessarily go through the process of realizing” its “own existence over against God or others.” As Lewis himself put it in The Problem of Pain, “There is no reason to suppose that self-consciousness, the recognition of a creature by itself as a ‘self,’ can exist except in contrast with an ‘other,’ a something which is not the self. It is against an environment, and preferably a social environment, an environment of other selves, that the awareness of Myself stands out.” In fact, it was Lewis who first persuaded me during my undergraduate days that God could not have created us at all without meeting certain metaphysically necessary conditions of our coming into being; I am also quite confident that he would have agreed with me concerning the additional requirement for a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and indeterminism as well.

But here is what I still don’t understand. If Adam’s very creation implies the possibility of temptation, as you have said it does, then why suppose that his original nature, as initially created, was significantly different from that of any other (merely human) child? For just what is temptation anyway? I am not tempted to eat dirt, and neither am I tempted, if we can recall Cindy’s image from another thread, to eat dog poo. Only in the presence of an inclination to do something, in other words, can I be tempted to do it. Does it not follow, then, that Adam and Eve were from the beginning “inclined to sin; though not necessitated.” And is that not precisely your own description of a fallen human nature?

Now you do indicate that a relevant difference here may lie in the matter of probability, and, to me at least, that suggests something like the following picture: Although Adam and his descendants all have an inclination to act in self-centered ways, grounded in an ignorance of their true interest, this inclination is stronger in Adam’s descendants than it was in him. Is that the idea? If so, then that would seem more like a difference of degree than a difference of kind. And beyond that, I find nothing in the Genesis account to support the idea that Adam was a genuine free agent at the time that his act of disobedience took place. For even as Adam came into being, according to that account, with no real knowledge of good and evil, so did we; and even as we were in no position to choose freely between good and evil until after we had already acquired some understanding of that distinction, neither was Adam. Why suppose, then, that Adam was originally any more of a free agent than the typical two year old, still in the process of learning the difference between right and wrong? As I see it, the Western theological tradition, unlike the Eastern Orthodox tradition and the Jewish tradition, has simply imposed a faulty philosophical conception on the text itself.

But I am, of course, merely repeating myself, and I’m thinking that you and I have perhaps gone around and around on the issue of Adam and Eve long enough. So I have decided to let you have the final word in this particular exchange, and then I will simply agree to disagree, as I believe Bobx3 once suggested that we might eventually want to do. Thank you for a stimulating discussion. I do appreciate the vigor and enthusiasm with which you have pursued it.



I would agree with this sentence - it goes a long way to answering the problem of God’s omnipotence and evil’s existence. I don’t quite understand what you mean when you say God creates a universe that has indeterminism, though. Could you explain what you mean; where this indeterminism arises from or on what level it acts?

I agree. The difference between Adam and his descendants wouldn’t be a difference in kind. Each person, I believe, must go through a process not unessentially different than Adam’s.

I’m not of the opinion that there’s enough information in the Genesis account to really draw much of a theodicy from it. I’m sure there is some mystery concerning the tree of life and the one of knowledge of good and evil, but I don’t have enough perception to say anything enlightening. Eve it seems knew enough to reiterate God’s command on the questioning of the serpent, but, I admit, I have no idea how she could even know what the word “die” meant had she never experienced suffering, loss, or pain.

What I’ll end with on this topic is this. It seems we both agree that independent, self-conscious, rational beings separate from God at least must have desires that are not, so to speak, good for them. Maybe such desires are necessary means to a higher end (union with God, dissolution of ego, etc.); but the real difficulty seems to be in understanding how the interaction really works between the consciousness of the creature and of God. So many questions are connected to this: why is the knowledge of evil necessary; or was it not? How can the same “me” or “I” simultaneously prefer a thing it knows is not good for it - after all, if “I” thought a certain sin was a good idea at the time of doing it, why do “I” later not think so? What’s changed? How much - if at all - are we able to transcend these desires that are “bad” for us? And if we cannot, does this mean that all the evil in the world is somehow “necessary”? And what does our feeling of freedom mean, if we’re really determined by our strongest desire? If it’s an illusion, what does it mean? That is, that feeling, what is the reality behind which we mistakenly take it as illusory? Is it simply the fact that we are ignorant of the future?

The difficulty I have in believing that sin was “necessary” is that it seems impossible to square with the enormity of suffering that exists in the world. I can see how a small act of disobedience, leading to feelings of shame and remorse may somehow be necessary for self-conscious persons to emerge - particularly if the intent of the Creator was to make self-conscious beings who experienced a dissolution of ego and subsequent union with him, the former adding to the pleasure of the latter. But it’s very hard to believe examples of horrendous suffering serve to help this end. A little girl starving to death in a concentration camp - is such really necessary; and if so, how? And then there is the problem of animal pain: the fact that so many creatures live off the savage torturing of other sentient animals is deeply disturbing to me.

But I do think Christianity is a faith; and as such we must ultimately be prepared to say that we hope, and when able believe in something we cannot grasp with certainty - that is, somehow, all the riddles of existence and all the pain and suffering present will some how work out in the end. “Let the world-sphinx put as many riddles as she will. She can devour no man so long as he awaits an answer.” And if there is no answer, why, we shall never know, will we?



Because I’m going to be tied up and incredibly busy during the months of May, June, and July, I will be unable to maintain a regular schedule of commenting on this topic in the future. Fortunately, the discussion here may have pretty much run its course anyway. But others should feel free to continue the discussion as they see fit, and I will post a final summary of my own thoughts as soon as the rain reappears next week. (Right now we are having a few days of early summer here in Oregon with temperatures predicted to reach 87 degrees today, as I struggle to get in a late vegetable garden!) I do not intend to disappear altogether, however, and may post comments on other active threads from time to time. I may also launch a brief discussion in the near future on the topic of biblical exegesis and interpreting the Bible as a whole.

Anyway, I would be remiss if I did not extend my heartfelt thanks to all of the great people here who have participated in this discussion of free will.




“Feel free” to come back anytime! :smiley:


I’ll be eagerly looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say about exegesis, then! Great topic. :smiley:


Thank you Tom T. This thread helped me to develop my concept of free will, which I’ll tackle again at a later time.



I have not contributed much, but I’ve been following your posts. Thanks so much for your participation here. Its been great to have you interacting regularly. I too, am very eager hear your thoughts on exegesis. (I’d love to hear your thoughts on atonement too, some day, as I found I’ve slid away from a PSA model to a more eclectic model. I’ve almost finished Atonement, Justice and Peace, by Darren Snyder Belousek, which I’ve found to be quite instructive).

Thanks Again,




Let us focus, for a moment, on the term “free will,” as opposed to the term “freedom” or even my favored expression “the freedom that pertains to rational agents.” Just what is the term “free will” supposed to signify? Should we think of the will as itself a kind of homunculus that sometimes acts freely and sometimes does not? Clearly not.

Consider again how Paul described the effects of sin in his own life: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:15 and 20). When he here spoke of his not doing what he wants to do and of his doing what he does not want to do, he clearly had in mind his ideal wants, that is, his settled judgments concerning what would be the best thing to do. And that, as I see it, is how Paul himself understood the idea of a will in bondage to sin: Such bondage implies a loss of rational control over one’s own actions (“I do not understand my own actions”). So if a free will is just the opposite of a will in bondage, then a free will exists when, and only when, one retains rational control over one’s own actions in this two-fold sense: One is rational enough to make reasonable judgments concerning the best thing to do in a given situation, and it is within one’s power to follow these very same reasonable judgments. All of which—both the freedom of the will and the bondage of the will to sin—are no doubt matters of degree.

Now Paul also offered, I believe, a profound insight into the nature of moral corruption and into the way in which a bad moral character differs from a good one. To quote myself from another context:

Accordingly, I have tried to formulate a conception of freedom that combines this Pauline understanding with what is right, as I see it, in the libertarian understanding. I want, first of all, to accept the libertarian idea that no genuinely free action can be the product of sufficient causes that existed either in the distant past before one was even born or in eternity itself. So not even God can fully determine a genuinely free action. But here is a problem that, so far as I can tell, no libertarian has solved successfully. It seems that indeterminism of any kind in the process of deliberating and choosing would introduce an element of chance or randomness, even irrationality, into it. And chance or randomness seems no less incompatible with genuine freedom than determinism does. Some have argued, therefore, that the concept of moral freedom is simply incoherent. For if free will is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism, then no room is left, it seems, for a coherent account of such free will. So is there a way out of the quagmire? I think there is, provided that we come to appreciate one all-important point: Some of the very conditions essential to our emergence as independent rational beings and therefore as free moral agents—the ambiguity, the ignorance, and the required indeterminism—are themselves obstacles to full freedom and moral responsibility; they are obstacles that God can gradually overcome only after we have emerged as embryonic moral agents and have begun to interact with our environment and to learn important lessons about the conditions of our own happiness.

So the trick is to distinguish between the role that indeterminism plays in our emergence as free moral agents and the role it continues to play after we have become sufficiently rational to learn for ourselves important moral lessons from the consequences of our undetermined choices. Put it this way: It is essential to our moral freedom that we begin making moral choices in a context where those choices are not fully determined by sufficient causes; for if they were so determined, they would most likely be determined by conditions external to the emerging agent. But it is also essential to our moral freedom that we should be rational enough to learn from our mistakes. So once we begin learning some relevant moral lessons—from our bad choices in particular—some of our freest choices may be those voluntary choices where, given our own rational judgment concerning the best course of action, the alternative is no longer even psychologically possible.

That, then, is another brief summary of my own understanding of human freedom. Feel free to comment upon it, to criticize it, and to continue discussing it. Thanks again to all of those who have participated in the discussion so far.



As an interesting aside, here is Seneca on sin and our (free will, I think it is safe to say) collusion with it:

“What man is there who can claim that in the eyes of every law he is innocent? But assuming that this may be, how limited is the innocence whose standard of virtue is the law! How much more comprehensive is the principle of duty than that of law! How many are the demands laid upon us by the sense of duty, humanity, generosity, justice, integrity - all of which lie outside the statute books! But even under that other exceedingly narrow definition of innocence we cannot vouch for our claim. Some sins we have committed, some we have contemplated, some we have desired, some we have encouraged; in the case of some we are innocent only because we did not succeed. Bearing this in mind, let us be more just to transgressors, more heedful to those who rebuke us; especially let us not be angry with the good (for who will escape if we are to be angry even with the good?), and least of all with the gods, for it is not by their power, but by the terms of our mortality, that we are forced to suffer whatever ill befalls.”
From ‘Anger’ … re_of_man1



We have ducked into a hostel here in Eastern Europe, and along with others I must add my deep thanks to you for leading us in this rich discussion of free will, including the summary you just posted, which helps me grasp your view even better. My sense is that so much here depends on the nuances of different assumptions about what ‘free’ will and ‘freedom’ means. Thus, though my inclination is to express less sympathy with libertarian views, it appears to me that we are assuming very similar realities. Along with others, when you have time, I too would love to hear more of your thoughts on interpreting the Bible and doing exegesis.