The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Rationality, free choice, and sin


In your book The Inescapable Love of God, you reason that a free act is neccessarily rooted in rationality to some minimal degree. Is this to imply that an act is free only insofar as it is rooted in rationality? Also, is it your view that an act is not free insofar as it is sinful, or would you not agree that a sinful act is neccessarily irrational?



The Apostle Paul seems to say that there are only 2 states available to man - a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness. Either state has a master - so how much ‘free will’ can a slave be said to have?

Hello Gabe! Fancy meeting you here! You raise, as usual, an excellent question.

I hold that a minimal degree of rationality, including an ability to draw reasonable inferences from experience, to reflect intelligently on one’s own attitudes, desires, and motives, and to learn important lessons from the consequences of one’s actions, is a necessary condition of acting freely. I also hold that the power to act freely just is the power to act in accordance with a reasonable judgment concerning the best course of action.

Now for the tricky part. First, freedom, as I understand it, does not require perfect rationality; it only requires a minimal degree of rationality. Whereas newborn babies and some of those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease clearly fall below the relevant threshold, many ordinary sinners do not. Second, although sin is utterly irrational from the perspective of omniscience, ordinary sinners are not omniscient. They come into this earthly life and begin making choices in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and illusion, and in such a context someone with a minimal degree of rationality might very well judge it best, for example, to pursue a perceived interest at the expense of other people. But so long as such a person is rational enough to remain correctable and to learn important lessons from the consequences of his or her actions, the person may very well have the power to act freely.

Good to hear from you again, and thanks for your question.


Hello Tom-

It’s an honor.

We’ve discussed the relationship between rationality and freedom quite a bit over on an open theist discussion site I frequent. Some of us open theists are UR proponents, others are not. But some have objected that open theism’s insistence upon libertarian freedom precludes UR, or at least the confidence of a ‘guaranteed’ UR.

I’ve always argued that necessary to exercising libertarian freedom with regard to good/evil is a certain ‘epistemic distance’, and I think this is precisely what you’re saying here. From an omniscient point of view, evil is irrational because no possible reason could be found to justify one’s acting in an evil manner. One has to be able to construct some reason—given one’s perspective—to act, and in the case of acting wrongly, if an evil choice is to be reasonable and free. This means having reasons available, given one’s limited perspective, to justify acting wrongly as well as reasons enough to justify doing rightly—enough ‘room’ to rationally do either. This just means there has to be some ‘epistemic distance’ in creaturely perception if one is to act libertarianly with respect to good/evil. Were one ‘overwhelmed’ with too much truth or information, unable to construct any rational basis for acting contrarily, one’s choice could not then be a libertarian one. One would essentially be constrained to one option.

The question then comes up with regard to hell. If the experience of hell amounts to being overwhelmed with truth regarding God and one’s self, it’s difficult to see how any postmortem choice for God could be a libertarian one. No room is left for one to rationally reject God. Some are able to bite the bullet at this point and say, “So what if people’s choice for God in the afterlife isn’t strictly speaking libertarian? Aren’t their souls worth more to God than some philosophical notion of ‘freedom’? Is our ‘freedom’ worth that much to God?”

That misses the point. Some of us (and I’m one of them) take libertarian freedom as metaphysically necessary to creaturely becoming when it comes to loving relations. It’s not a question of God’s valuing ‘freedom’ for freedom’s sake. Freedom is just a means to an end. It is ‘love’ that’s the point and telos. Freedom is just the (metaphysically) necessary means to creaturely becoming in love. Greg Boyd argues this in his (in)famous Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy, the first (metaphysical) principle of which states: Love [in the case of creaturely becoming] requires freedom. So it’s just not the case that God could ‘override’ creaturely freedom (in hell) and in compatibilistic fashion determine one’s choice for God and still get what God wants from creatures, viz., loving interpersonal relations. Such determination would destroy the possibility of such relations. It’s not ‘freedom’ but ‘love’ which God values ultimately. And if ‘freedom’ is the metaphysical price tag to creature loving, then not even God can get around it.

So this limits open viewers who also share a universalistic hope to versions of UR that maintain LFW throughout. Suggesting that God just abandons the LFW route and decides to compatibilistically determine folks in love (as GM has contemplated) is out of the question for us.

We’re confident God’s being love means God will never fail to pursue the wicked and will always secure (in hell) the optimum information level (you might say) to make choosing rightly possible. But the metaphysical price tag for this is that while the creature is free at any given moment to make the right choice, she’s also freed to make the wrong choice. To leave someone no ‘wiggle room’ (viz., ‘epistemic distance’) to responsibly choose the wrong is to make impossible the very thing God wants and which loving becoming requires: a free and responsible choice for loving personal relationship.

How can an open theist be hopeful regarding UR? Well, basically, God is patient and he has all the time in the world. While I’d agree with you (against, say, Jerry Walls) that an irrevocable choice for evil is not possible, I could say that while remains theoretically possible that someone could renew, on a moment by moment basis, their rejection of God, the likelihood that any one will do so is less than nil. Could someone continue eternally to refuse this possibility? Sure. That is, no logical contradiction is generated in saying one could do so. But that doesn’t undermine confidence that no one will do so and that all will eventually choose God.

I’ve said enough. I just wanted to chime in regarding the metaphysical necessity of LFW relative to creaturely becoming and loving relations.


I wanted to bump this thread for a few reasons. First - when’s the second edition coming out? :smiley: But, more importantly, I wanted to flesh out some of the implications of this post because I think by doing so we can see some of the reasons non-universalists have trouble with ultimate reconciliation.

TGB here basically brings out the fundamental issue. Libertarian free will is the sticking point. Most Christians don’t believe the doctrine because they can’t, logically speaking. CS Lewis was one, but there are several others, specifically in the Wesleyean camp today. Most believers in free will - myself included - use it as a solution to the problem of evil and pain. The argument of those who “can’t” believe in UR is, if God can save a person by “overriding” one’s free will, why doesn’t he always? Why does he allow seemingly pointless evils like rape and the death of children to occur if he at least has no problem in occasionally “overriding” freedom? Why, then, is there pain at all; it seems gratuitous, something that need not be there since God can make a person do whatever he wants if he really wants to. The Arminian will say (Lewis, for instance, and others like William Craig) that all pain is necessary, but only because that’s what it takes for beings like us to “freely” come to God. If it were up to him, God would just as soon not allow all the rapes, diseases, and uglinesses. But then, since he knows us better than we know ourselves, that would also mean that we would never “freely” become what he wants us to be. What this means then is that there are true obstacles God must work around to get what he wants from the independent, rational souls he has created. Now here comes the problem (Arminians will say): if all this is admitted, if God cannot just “zap” someone into being perfect (since that requires the person himself freely doing something), then God can never guarantee that all people will be saved. This is why TGB has to admit that it always “theoretically possible” for someone to reject God or why the Eric Reitan analogy coinbox analogy can only rise to very high degrees of probability.

There seems to be a difficulty here though. If we really believe UR to have Scriptural support, then we must affirm that God can guarantee that it will occur. If I thought the Bible only taught the possibility of it rather than the certainty, I’m not sure I could say I found universal salvation an actual teaching in the Scriptures. For how would a “hopeful universalism” be any different than the doctrine of free will proper? All those who believe in Hell (all the Arminians, anyway) all agree that salvation is at least possible to everyone.

So there needs to be a way for universalists to rise from hopefulness to certainty. I think Dr. Talbott goes a long way in offering the beginnings of a solution.

His understanding of human freedom, if I have understood him right, is this. For us to be moral agents, independent of God, we must first emerge in a context in which there is ambiguity involved in the making of our choices. And yet at the same time, the more we exercise our freedom in such an ambiguous context, the more necessary it is for that ambiguity to lessen so that we can actually make the best choice for ourselves. Our freedom then is a sort of tunnel, wide at the beginning but slowly shrinking into a fine point. It’s presence is necessary for our emergence, yet for our perfection it must be taken away.

Now here I want to make a few points. First, even the strongest believer in libertarian freedom does not think that all our rational and emotional states are themselves things we have freely chosen. At best, they are “part of our character” which itself may be a result of former free choices. Thus CS Lewis says that we are constantly “building ourselves” with our freedom, and how “taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature.” Thus the common phrase used by libertarians: libertarian free will gives way to compatibilistic free will.

Notice though an interesting point. This idea makes it sound as if it was a fast and hard rule that the better choices we make, the better people we will become and the more clearly we will see the truth of what we ought to do. But, as Dr. Talbott points out over and over again, oftentimes we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. Indeed, what libertarian would hold that we freely choose to feel shame or guilt or conviction for sin? Those feelings which illuminate the truth of our condition are precisely the opposite of the choices which bring them. And those feelings themselves are often the fuel which cause us to “freely” turn from our sin. I no longer think myself better than another because I just had an experience in which I myself did the very thing I looked down on another for doing.

That is the first point I want to make: namely, it seems inconsistent for a Arminian who believes in Hell to hold that God can use our bad choices to make us into better people sometimes, or in small things, but not all the time or in large things. At most, there could be only a difference in the degree of what is going on between us and God, and not in kind. And if that’s the case I can see no reason for thinking God could not illuminate the soul (the famous trump card) such that it simply no longer sees its various sin as a live psychological option.

The second point I want to say is this. Too often the camps of believers get split up into libertarians and compatibilists and never the twain shall meet. Everyone seems to believe that only one picture of the human soul can be true. But why assume this? Both theories, insofar as they have the backing of personal experience, have equal amounts of force. I have felt both things before at different times: that I could freely resist from doing such and such and also, on other occasions, that though it is I who am no doubt doing such and such, it does not really seem possible to do otherwise. To put some of Lewis’ words against himself, he did say the following:

So libertarians agree that at least sometimes “libertarian freedom gives way to compatibilistic freedom.” That in itself proves that whatever we are, we are not entirely operating off libertarian choice all the time. Most (I think) would agree with both Lewis quotes. It seems to us that both types of freedom must be admitted to exist within us in some sort of synchrony. We experience both the feeling of “could have done otherwise” and “though we did it, it did not seem possible to do otherwise.”

So far, I think, all are in agreement. And the next step is fairly obvious. Why, if it is obvious that we experience both types of freedom, our libertarian will giving way to a compatibilist one, and if we know that God uses our vices as well as our virtues to build the latter – why then think that God cannot make every libertarian choice, whether good or evil, ultimately result in a compatibilistic will which is fully perfected? I believe he can, and I believe this is what the doctrine of universalism asserts. The question is one which those who do not believe it must answer themselves.

Hopefully now we can see that one of the most common questions put forth by critics of UR rests on a category mistake. The question is “if God can override free will now, why doesn’t he always?” But the word “override” betrays a misunderstanding in what universalists think is going on. God does not “override” the will, as if he replaces the soul of the person right before sin occurs or “wipes clean” all previous impulses to sin. Rather, the experiences that the person himself made contribute to this God-human transformation. Something much more organic and unified occurs than a mere “overriding”. The will of the person himself has moved from one stage of being to another, and yet retains its identity. And this because the present self can connect back with the past self in a continuity.** To say God could unilaterally “override” the person’s will would be to say that the person himself never had a say so, never had a contribution, never uniquely interacted with God.

And when we see this, I believe we can get very close to a consistent explanation for the question of why there exists any such libertarian free will at all. Without it, God could not have created moral agents with whom to have a relationship with. The great boon of libertarian freedom is that, from God’s perspective, it creates a real, live, authentic person. And for there to be the possibility of a real relationship, there must be “room” or freedom such that the being is not necessarily determined to act in such a way. That would make us, as Arminians love to say, puppets. Or to give another analogy: imagine your son or daughter trying to draw a picture for you. But instead of letting them draw it themselves, you had your hand over theirs, determining every line and shape. In the end, they haven’t drawn anything at all. You’ve simply drawn a picture for yourself. Just like a parent, I don’t think God sees much value in doing that sort of thing.

One may ask: “well if God only wanted us free, why didn’t he make it so that our choices, whatever they were, never resulted in evil and pain?” But the answer to this is that if God determined us so that we could never be morally evil, we could never really be moral at all. We would be a-moral and lacking a huge dimension to our personality. Not able, for instance, to practice what for most Christians is the premier virtue of Christ and expression of the nature of the second person of the Trinity - the abnegation of self in preference to the other.

Doesn’t that mean then that God must always respect that moral freedom, and so can never “force” us to be saved? But this is the same category mistake all over again. The freedom, as Dr. Talbott has stressed, is only necessary for the emergence of moral agents. It is part of the necessary ground work that God must build on. As such, it is always respected. What God lays on that foundation is always dependent on what the free choices of his creatures are. But – and here is the beauty and often misunderstood point Dr. Talbott makes – that freedom must slowly be worn away such that we have learned and know and are perfected. And since that comes from a compatibilist building on the raw “datum” supplied by our free choices which involves an illumination of mind, there is nothing “forceful” being done. The free will itself is transformed. To quote MacDonald from Roberet Falconer “the development of the free will is the *object *of God”. The freedom necessary for our emergence is slowly worn away, or purified, or transformed such that it no longer exists as it did in its initial state. What is necessary for emergence is not intended to be present in the same way in perfection.

P.S. As a side note I want to go slightly off topic but address something closely related. Tom and I have disagreed about whether or not this makes sin “inevitable”. I do not believe it does, for I think we are truly free as we come into consciousness and are not necessitated to either sin or virtue in such moments. Therefore I also believe that libertarian free will can still be used as an defense regarding the problem of evil: emerging as moral agents implies the ability to cause harm (to which I spread out, in Lewis fashion, to a corrupted planet and a fallen race.) So in light of this I would be interested in Dr. Talbott’s theodicy. Is free will still appealed to to explain evil and pain? And, if so, is exercising our free will in such a way that sin necessarily occurs consistent with that view? For me, it seems much more consistent to hold the freedom we experience as emerging moral consciences a real freedom in which our acts are not necessitated or determined in any way outside our own soul’s causative powers. That means our sins cannot come from God “setting us up” such that we inevitably do such things. This also means I don’t have to throw out the notion of guilt. Indeed, it is only insofar as I am the cause of my acts that they are sinful. If there is some external metaphysical condition such that necessitated my acts, I don’t think I could take responsibility for them. In short, the beauty and genius of Dr. Talbott’s understanding of free will being perfected is that it entails the initial existence of an actually, truly free will. It seems backpedalling, even self defeating, if one must turn around and then concede that such a will is in the end initially determined to sin. As far as the ubiquity of sin - that is another matter. I believe in the mystery of original sin and the fall. My own speculations are that all rational souls were somehow (perhaps in a spiritual mode inaccessible to our senses) “in” Adam and sinned “in” him, and that act is somehow manifested in time by all of us, starting with our first sin. Of course, this is just a guess though. I think it possible, then, to still hold with the Arminians I described in the second paragraph that all evil is necessary for the perfecting of the free will of us rational beings; I just don’t think the free will of rational beings goes on forever. I think, regardless of their choices – or rather based on their choices – it is burned, whittled, worn away until the perfected, completed will remains.

I suppose one could say that there is something like an “overriding” going on. That is the image conveyed most by the language often used in Dr. Talbott’s examples (e.g. a “shattering” or a “trump card” being played). But it must be understood that though God may “override” the will, there is still a raw, free self that God is “acting” on; unless this self first existed, no subsequent “acting on” could take place. In short, God could not always be overriding in such a way from the very beginning, else the self would never emerge.