For centuries, philosophers and theologians have debated the existence, definition, and extent of human free will. While this debate may superficially appear inconsequential to the average person, our personal belief in (or denial of) free will produces dramatic ramifications in every facet of the human experience. Your opinion on the topic significantly affects your worldview—directly influencing your perspectives on justice, punishment, equality, interpersonal relationships, and the like. For Christians, our view of free will affects our understanding of God, generating a multitude of theological ramifications relating to righteous living, sin, and salvation. This paper will briefly examine the philosophy of determinism (i.e., the denial of human free will) demonstrating its inability to correspond with the human experience and the Christian worldview.
A Definition of Terms
Before evaluating the philosophy of determinism, a distinction between determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism is necessary. Determinism is the philosophy that preceding events or natural laws causally determine individual human actions, occurrences in nature, and social/psychological phenomena, thereby eliminating personal choice and control over an individual’s actions. The integration of deterministic philosophy is evident in both naturalistic and theistic worldviews. In an atheistic/naturalistic worldview, personal actions are merely consequences of chemical reactions within the human brain resulting from the behavior of atoms under the effects of natural laws. Within a theistic framework, personal actions are a result of divine kismet instead of personal choice. Brilliantly summarizing the deterministic model, the fifth-century Greek philosopher Leucippus writes, “Nothing occurs at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity.”1 In the deterministic model, personal choice is merely illusory.
Libertarianism represents the antithesis of determinism, advocating the doctrine that personal agents (e.g., humans and God) have free will (i.e., have the ability to make voluntary choices that correspond with their respective nature and circumstances). Accordingly, human beings possess the power of contrary choice—the capability to make choices contrary to the ones they ultimately make.2 Libertarianism is further dissimilar to determinism in that it is inherently theistic, as a naturalistic worldview lacks the necessary basis for human free will.3
Finally, compatibilism represents a compromised (theological) perspective, attempting to merge the doctrine of free will with the philosophy of divine determinism. However, this is logically incoherent, as determinism—by definition—excludes the possibility of choice. Despite this apparent inconsistency, the doctrine receives support from many respected theologians who devote significant consideration to the subject and painstakingly articulate their position in written publications. Nevertheless, this paper will concentrate solely on the theory of determinism, addressing compatibilism only by proxy—in that, by refuting the philosophy of determinism, this paper will ascertain that it is unnecessary, and illogical, to maintain the compromised perspective of compatibilism.
Testing the Viability of Determinism
When determining the validity of a worldview, one must determine if its fundamental doctrine is logically consistent, corresponds with reality, and is externally livable.4 Every aspect of the human experience (as we know it) finds foundation in human free will. Therefore, while existence within a deterministic system is not logically impossible, the philosophy undermines every facet of social interaction, reducing human beings to mindless cogs within an automated system of futility. For example, if determinism were true, it would be pointless to undertake the writing and publication of this paper. In a deterministic society, personal beliefs are a product of necessity rather than a result of logical contemplation or the careful consideration of empirical evidence. Unless the reader possesses the cognitive ability to cogitate about the arguments presented, while maintaining the ability to alter his beliefs or behavior, every publication remains inconsequential.
Elaborating on this point, apologist Greg Koukl comments, “Free will makes rationality possible. If there is no free will, then no one is capable of choosing to believe something because of good reasons. One could never adjudicate between a good idea and a bad one. He’d only believe what he does because he’s been predetermined to do so. Arguments wouldn’t matter.”5 Nonetheless, proponents of determinism continue to publish books, present persuasive arguments, and conduct debates—all of which inherently undermine determinism by implying the audience retains the ability to deliberate and determine one hypothesis superior to another. Additionally, determinists continue to endeavor in scientific research and philosophical inquiry, aiming to discern objective truths and actively identify inaccurate hypotheses.
Moreover, every legislative system hinges upon the concept of human free will, outlining acceptable and unacceptable conduct, while apportioning punishment for those who willingly violate the guidelines. Legal statutes even distinguish between crimes involving malice aforethought (e.g., murder), and those resulting without prior deliberation (e.g., manslaughter). Free will provides the basis for personal responsibility and accountability. Therefore, the deterministic model completely undermines the justice system, rendering it equally unethical to punish a criminal for his crime, as it would be to punish a patient for his illness—since both illness and criminal action are merely products of natural necessity, rather than choice. The class novel Erewhon, written by Samuel Butler, portrays this ridiculous notion, presenting a fictional world that condemns the physically ill, yet demonstrates compassion and respect toward criminals.
At one point in the novel, the trial of an individual suffering from pulmonary consumption commences. The judge hurriedly convicts the offender, vehemently declaring, “Yours is no case for compassion: this is not your first offence: you have led a career of crime. . . . You were convicted of aggravated bronchitis last year: and I find that though you are now only twenty-three years old, you have been imprisoned on no less than fourteen occasions for illnesses of a more or less hateful character.”6 In this brief scene, Butler demonstrates the ridiculousness of applying the philosophy of determinism to legislative and punitive systems, as punishment administered without cause is intrinsically heinous, unjust, and unethical. Without the freedom of choice, the notions of personal responsibility and accountability are frivolous.
Acceptance of determinism ultimately results in moral relativism, nullifying the basis for an objective standard, while precluding the enforcement of legislation. Since a person cannot act other than they do, there is no basis for punishment, retribution, or justice. Similarly, there is no basis for love, sacrifice, or morality. There is no difference between Hitler and Mother Teresa, as their actions merely correspond with their chemical composition (naturalistic determinism) or their divine charter (theistic determinism). Neither individual ought to receive praise or condemnation because their actions are neither reprehensible nor praiseworthy. In a deterministic worldview, all actions are neutral—occurring out of pure necessity—and both Hitler and Mother Teresa warrant nothing more than indifference.
Instinctively we know the antithesis to be true—rightfully ascribing value to love, sacrifice, and justice, while condemning hate, inequality, and murder. Personal experience reveals our capability of rational consideration and choice, while every plea for justice, equality, or social reform, serves as an affirmation that free will exists. In this regard, determinism undermines coherent observations of reality and fundamentally obnubilates meaningful social interaction. Therefore, determinism fundamentally fails the pragmatic and correspondence tests, warranting its rejection as a viable worldview.
Christianity Categorically Affirm Human Freedom
Although determinism fails the pragmatic test, the theistic variation of the philosophy—as propagated by some Christian theologians—requires additional consideration. It is possible to remove individual verses (or sections) of Scripture from their context, in order to produce absurd or heretical doctrines. The brevity of this exploration precludes examination of each of these misrepresentations; therefore, this section will demonstrate that the ability of choice is fundamental to human nature, and remains essential when considering Scripture holistically.
Upon creating man, God places Adam in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15), charging him with specific responsibilities (Genesis 2:15), and providing an objective standard of behavior (Genesis 2:16-17).7 By assigning the responsibility of tending the garden, and verbalizing an objective command, God acknowledges Adam’s free will. For if divine determinism were true, Adam would have been preprogrammed to tend the garden, and avoid the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thus nullifying the need for God to issue such commands. In contrast to this observation, a determinist could argue that despite God’s verbal command, Adam’s subsequent actions occurred necessarily. However, it is illogical to assume, 1) that God would willfully create and preprogram Adam to disobey His direct orders (Genesis 3:6-19), and 2) that God would issue superfluous commands when guaranteed obedience/disobedience occurs irrespectively.8
God’s apparent validation of choice continues as He allows Adam to choose names for the various animals on Earth (Genesis 2:19-20), and rebukes Adam and Eve for their disobedience, while explaining the consequences of their actions (Genesis 3:9-19). All of these events are indicative of human choice, and occur immediately following the creation of man. God continues to provide instruction, and guidance throughout Scripture, implying that human beings maintain the ability to choose their attitudes and actions. God’s affirmation of human free will becomes readily apparent in the book of Deuteronomy. As God inculcates the Jewish people, He says, “If you carefully obey my commands I am giving you today. . . . I will provide rain for your land in the proper time, the autumn and spring rains, and you will harvest your grain, new wine, and oil” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14). The imperative begins with the conditional clause if, followed by a list of rewards for obedience (Deuteronomy 11:14-15), and a list of consequences for disobedience (Deuteronomy 11:16-17). God continues outlining His system of punishment and reward, summarizing Israel’s responsibility of choice by saying, “Look, today I set before you a blessing and a curse: there will be a blessing, if you obey the commands of the Lord your God I am giving you today, and a curse, if you do not obey the commands of the Lord your God and you turn aside from the path I command you today. . . ” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).
Unfortunately, the nation of Israel does not remain faithful in obeying God’s commands, and in the book of Ezekiel, God berates the people for their disobedience. Ezekiel 18:30 records, “‘Therefore, house of Israel, I will judge each one of you according to his ways.’ This is the declaration of the Lord God. ‘Repent and turn from all your transgressions, so they will not be a stumbling block that causes your punishment.’” Not only does God rebuke them for their lack of obedience, but He also encourages them to repent (i.e., to subsequently change their attitudes/behavior). Similarly, in Revelation 2:1-7, Jesus addresses the Church at Ephesus, offering praise for obedient actions (v.2-3, 6), while condemning improper conduct (v.4-5), and providing an example to influence the behavior of others (v.7). Again, repentance is encouraged, and the church is instructed, “Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent” (v.5).
Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 10:13, indicates that while humanity is exposed to temptation, God provides a means of escape, ensuring mankind does not succumb to sin by necessity. Commenting on this section, accomplished philosopher and theologian Dr. William Lane Craig remarks, “[God] provided a way of escape that one could have taken, but that one failed to do so. In other words, in precisely that situation, one had the power either to succumb or to take the way out—that is to say, one had libertarian freedom. It is precisely because one failed to take the divinely provided way of escape that one is held accountable.”9
These few passages represent more than a selective reading of Scripture, aimed at denouncing determinism by taking sections out of context. Rather, these selections represent a common theme present throughout the entire Bible. Every chapter of the Bible presupposes free will by issuing commands, presenting distinct personal choices, offering counsel for rational consideration, providing examples of conduct, etc. For a moment, consider the absurdity of prayer in a deterministic universe. Lucian of Samosata masterfully illustrates such a scene in his satire, “Zeus Catechized.” In the fictional story, a man by the name of Cyniscus interviews the Greek god Zeus, who confirms the validity of determinism. Cyniscus subsequently asks,
If all this is so, and the Fates rule everything, and nobody can ever change anything that they have once decreed, why do we men sacrifice to you gods and make you great offerings of cattle, praying to receive blessings from you? I really don’t see what benefit we can derive from this precaution, if it is impossible for us through our prayers either to get what is bad averted or to secure any blessing whatever by the gift of the gods.10
This challenge demonstrates the futility of all religious practices in a deterministic universe.
Holistically, the Bible serves as a divine instruction manual—revealing the nature of God, articulating the moral law, proving wisdom for rational consideration and direction for appropriate behavior, while simultaneously helping us to understand reality. Every aspect of Scripture, not only implies human free will but also requires it to remain relevant and meaningful.11 If determinism is true, neither obedience nor disobedience is possible, as humans merely execute a predetermined program of existence and behavior. There is no basis for righteousness or sin since all actions and thoughts are predetermined. Moreover, determinism renders prayer, the sacrificial system, and ultimately Jesus’ acts of redemption, meaningless. Therefore, the Christian Scriptures categorically affirm the existence of human free will, and their very existence—God’s act of providing special revelation to humanity—fundamentally debilitates the viability of theistic determinism.
Divine Foreknowledge Is Not Determinism
Although it is evident that the Bible affirms the notion of human free will, it would be unfair not to consider the doctrine of divine foreknowledge, as it relates to free will. The Bible establishes the doctrine of divine foreknowledge (Isaiah 46:10, Psalm 139:4, Romans 11:2), and God demonstrates this ability through revealed prophecy (Daniel 2:28, Acts 2:23, 3:18, Exodus 3:19). Some have leveraged this capability as a justification for determinism, contesting that God’s foreknowledge of our thoughts and actions (including our sinful ones) thereby necessities them. However, it does not follow logically that God’s knowledge of future events, eliminates the human ability to choose their actions.
Saint Augustine addresses this fallacy, stating, “Unless I am mistaken, you do not force someone to sin just because you foreknow that he is going to sin. Nor does your foreknowledge for him to sin, even if he is undoubtedly going to sin—since otherwise, you would not have genuine foreknowledge.”12 Dr. Craig echoes this point, using the illustration of a man mowing his lawn. He comments,
From God’s foreknowledge that Jones will mow the lawn, we may infer with absolute certainty that Jones will mow the lawn. But he still has the power to refrain. He merely will not exercise that power. If he were to refrain (contrary to fact), then God would have foreknown that he would refrain. Thus, Jones does not have the power to erase God’s past belief; rather he has the power to act in a different way, and if he were so to act, God from eternity would have held a belief different from the one he in fact holds.13
While a detailed examination of divine foreknowledge is well beyond the scope of this paper, both Saint Augustine and Dr. Craig demonstrate a plausible consistency between God’s foreknowledge and human free will. Therefore, it is unreasonable to conclude that the biblical doctrine of divine foreknowledge necessitates determinism or presents a feasible threat to the existence of free will.
Theistic Determinism Cannot Explain the Existence of Evil
Likely, the greatest challenge for theistic determinism is coherently explaining the existence of evil. In the biblical worldview, God enforces an objective moral law and encourages personal obedience, yet the possibility of evil remains, because of the freedom of choice bestowed upon humanity. However, under theistic determinism, God ordains all human thoughts and actions, making Him ultimately responsible for the creation and persistent presence of evil. Apologist Dr. Clay Jones explains,
If determinism is true and God has determined every creature’s every thought and deed so that they could never do otherwise, then the man who fantasized about how he would rape and torture to death the little girl next door, and then actually carried out his wicked scheme, was not able to do otherwise. This means that every exquisite torture, every penetration, burn, cut, crush, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, was indeed efficaciously arranged by God so that this torturer could not have done other than he did. Thus, those who hold this view struggle to explain why God allows evil.14
In this regard, theistic determinism proves incompatible with the God revealed in the Christian Scriptures. Conjoining this deterministic philosophy with the God of the Bible results in incoherence, as a “righteous and just” God punishes His creation for acting in necessary obedience to His immoral preordination.
Theologian R.C. Sproul (who denies libertarianism) concedes this point, unable to explain the existence of evil. He comments, “If evil is a metaphysical necessity for creatures, then obviously Adam and Eve had to have been evil before the fall and would have to continue to be evil even after glorification in heaven. To this date, I have yet to find a satisfying explanation for what theologians call the mystery of iniquity.”15 Dr. Sproul’s statement demonstrates the inability of the determinist to explain relevant aspects of the external world and underscores the incoherence of conjoining deterministic philosophy with the Christian worldview. As a result, theistic determinism fails in explanatory power and scope, while proving incompatible with a biblical worldview. Consequently, determinism again requires rejection, unable to provide a viable basis for a cogent worldview.
In conclusion, after carefully considering the philosophy of determinism, it becomes evident that the deterministic worldview is contrary to our rational understanding of reality and the human experience. The philosophy inherently undermines the concept of justice, equality, human rationality, personal responsibility, and accountability. In these respects, determinism proves inconsistent with reality, thereby failing both the correspondence and pragmatic tests. Moreover, the Bible categorically affirms the existence of free will, thus eliminating the possibility of consistently incorporating determinism into a Christian worldview. For these reasons, the philosophy of determinism requires rejection, proving unable to provide the basis for a viable worldview.
- Quoted in Carl C. Gaither, and Alma E. Cavazos-Gaither, Gaither's Dictionary of Scientific Quotations: A Collection of Quotations (New York: Springer Publishing, 2008), 1224.
- This does not deny the existence of internal and external influence upon personal decisions. Rather, it maintains that although personal desire and external influence serve as factors of consideration in the decision-making process, they do not necessitate action. For example, while an individual preferring the taste of chocolate may remain prone to ordering chocolate ice cream over vanilla, his predilection does not inhibit him from ordering strawberry (or any other flavor). Even if he orders chocolate, he could just as easily have selected rocky road.
- The implications of a naturalistic worldview, as demonstrated through the lenses of evolutionary biology, are clearly explained by the late Dr. William B. Provine in “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?” (video of a debate between Phillip Johnson and William Provine, conducted at Stanford University, April 30, 1994), accessed May 16, 2016, https://youtu.be/m7dG9U1vQ_U.
- These represent three of the nine worldview tests, as outlined in Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Michigan: Baker Books, 2007), 31-38.
- Greg Koukl, “Rationality and Determinism,” Stand to Reason, accessed May 16, 2016, http://www.str.org/blog/rationality-and-determinism.
- Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872; repr., Planet eBook, n.d.), 112, accessed May 16, 2016, http://www.planetebook.com/ebooks/Erewhon.pdf.
- All Scripture verses are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), unless stated otherwise.
- One could object that God is bound by the laws of determinism as well, thus necessitating the creation of a disobedient Adam. This objection defies the doctrine that God is a personal being, and is omnipotent (Exodus 33:19, Job 42:1-2, Psalm 33:9, Nehemiah 9:6, Luke 1:37, Hebrews 1:3, 6:13). Additionally, there are compelling arguments (external to Scripture) that a personal God is the best explanation for the existence of the universe; see William Lane Craig, “Personal God,” Reasonable Faith, accessed May 16, 2016, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/personal-god. Finally, if deterministic laws were binding to God, He would cease being God (i.e., the supreme creator of everything). In this deterministic scenario, God is a mere product of preconditions, precluding God as being identified as the “first cause.” This produces additional questions concerning the origin of the universe and the origin of deterministic laws and properties.
- William Lane Craig, “A Middle-Knowledge Response [to the Augustinian-Calvinist View],” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Illinois: IVP Academic, 2001), 202.
- Lucian of Samosata, “Zeus Catechized,” trans. A.M. Harmon, in Lucian in Seven Volumes: Volume II (New York: The MacMillian Co., 1915), 67.
- This becomes crucial when conducting biblical exegesis. Since the Scriptures holistically presuppose human free will, then difficult verses pertaining to divine foreknowledge, election, salvation, etc. require the consideration of free will during interpretation. This remains a fundamental concept, and no doctrine ought to originate based upon an isolated verse.
- Quoted in Steven M. Cahn, Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition (Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012), 384.
- William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom (1987; repr., Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 71.
- Clay Jones, “Is Determinism Scriptural?” (paper presented at BIOLA University, CA, Spring 2016).
- R.C. Sproul, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” Ligonier Ministries, accessed May 15, 2016, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/mystery-iniquity/.