Free Will-y?

After last Sunday’s message on divine sovereignty from Daniel 4 (“Clawing His Way To The Top” [Daniel 4]), I received a note from a young woman and her boyfriend who had talked at length about the sermon. At is turns out, they both struggled with the idea that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes (v. 17). “Does that imply that God put Hitler and Stalin in their positions of power?” this couple asked. “Can you give us some help here?” Here is what I wrote in response:

Well, you guys, to venture into the topic of God’s sovereignty versus our free will is to take up an issue that theologians have wrestled with for years! Some people (maybe you would fit into this category) lean strongly on the free will side of the debate, precisely because of the kinds of issues that came up in your conversation together. The problem with this (as noted by many) is that to put the responsibility solely in our hands (or Hitler’s and Stalin’s) doesn’t really get God ‘off the hook.’

This is because God as portrayed throughout the Bible is both all-powerful and all-good. Consider the logic: if God is all-good, of course He is gonna want to stop the likes of Hitler and Stalin (whether he put ’em in power, or they got there by their own free will), and if He is all-powerful, He certainly has the ability to do so. So, even if we take a free-will position in the debate, it appears that God remains ‘on the hook’, since (a) he has the power to intervene to prevent the likes of the Hitlers and Stalins of the world, and (b) he should want to do so, if he is also good, as the Bible teaches.

This leaves us, I think, with but a few options (there are surely others, but the following stand out as the most obvious):

1. Redefine ‘God’ — Here we (a) compare the pain and suffering in our world with the biblical picture of God outlined above, (b) conclude that there is a glaring disconnect between the two, and then (c) reject the biblical portrayal of God, and define God in other terms.

Maybe God is not all-good and uses his power in harmful ways (like some of the ancient Greek and Roman gods). Or maybe God is all-good, but not all-powerful, so that God is actually unable do anything about the Stalins and Hitlers of this world, though he would love to get rid of them, if he could. Both positions have been taken by various persons throughout history, but you have to ditch the Bible’s understanding of God to go there.

2. Reject God — We simply dump the idea of God entirely, and adopt an atheistic, naturalistic worldview. But then we confront the problem of making moral judgments about the Hitlers and Stalins of this world to begin with, since we no longer have an external basis of authority on which to base our morality.

Do we really want to live in a world like that? Think about it. A naturalistic, evolutionary model of the universe assumes a ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ understanding of reality—an understanding which correspondingly generates a ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ morality. The strong survive. The weak are eliminated. Just watch animals go after each other on the African plains. No moral constraints there. The fittest survive to propagate the species.

Well, according to the naturalistic model, human beings are not created in the image of God. We are simply higher evolved animals. So the same ‘morality’ of the African plains logically extends to us. If a Hitler or Stalin effectively seizes power, then, hey, according to a naturalistic worldview, he has proven himself to be the ‘fittest,’ and the elimination of people whom he dislikes is thereby morally justified. One might reply that the pain Hitler and Stalin caused others was wrong. According to who? Pain and suffering are key ingredients in the evolution of the species. Just look at the rest of the animal world. This is certainly not the kind of social world that I want to live in.

3. Receive God —  Receive God, as revealed in Scripture, that is. Our final option is the biblical one: to embrace the idea that God is both all-powerful and all-good and, by extension, to assume that God is somehow involved in everything that happens on this planet (whether knowingly permitting it or actively causing it—Christian theologians continue to debate this issue), including who governs the nations and who does not.

The biblical worldview is certainly not without its problems, as honest Christian thinkers will readily acknowledge. But, in the final analysis, it seems to make more sense of the chaos of reality than any other worldview. For built into the biblical worldview is the promise that God will somehow use his power to turn the heartaches, evils, and sins of the human race (as well as natural disasters) into good in his divine economy, that is, in the big picture of things, once life on this planet is all played out.

How can we be sure of that? We can be sure because this is precisely what God did at the crucifixion of Jesus. The crucifixion of God’s Son was the most heinous, evil crime ever perpetrated by human beings on this planet: God comes to visit us in the person of Jesus, and we hang him on a Roman cross. Was God the Father somehow involved in that horrendously evil deed? Yes. Acts 4:27-28 reads as follows (Peter is praying to God): In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed,  to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

The important thing to note here is what God was able to DO with that infinitely evil crime: he turned it into the greatest good that humankind has ever experienced. By means of the crucifixion of Jesus, our sins are forgiven, we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, and we enter into an eternal love relationship with the God who created us and with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Where we struggle with all this, I suspect, is that unlike the crucifixion we don’t get to see all the ways in which God turns bad into good in the ongoing suffering of people in our world today—not in this life, at any rate. Sometimes, however, we do get a glimpse. For example, after months of stonewalling and red tape, two families in our church are suddenly bringing home their adopted kids from an orphanage Haiti—something that would not have happened apart from a horrible natural catastrophe. But, of course, this is only a little glimpse, and a tremendous amount of suffering in Haiti remains unexplained.

This is why we must always return to the cross. For what God did in the face of evil by using his power for our good (and for his glory) at the crucifixion of Jesus assures that he is the kind of God who will someday make sense of a tragedy like the earthquake in Haiti, as well. That is the message of the Bible.

You two are obviously wrestling with a big issue here, one that has tremendous ramifications for how we understand reality and how we live our lives. In closing, I would only add that, if you choose to reject the biblical picture of God, you will by default (if not consciously) have to replace it with another. And I do not think you will find another way of looking at life, and at ultimate reality, that accounts for our world as well as biblical Christianity does.

Continue to ask questions. Seek honest answers. God will reward your search. Christianity is intellectually credible enough to have survived the poking and probing of both believers and skeptics (and some of us that happen to be both!) for two thousand years.

The above is my attempt to bring the cookies of the free-will-versus-divine-sovereignty debate down to a shelf where a couple young adults who are not trained theologians can reach them. I would greatly appreciate some comments in response. [I know you’re out there, because I see your hits on my blog log! And this is an issue about which many of us have some pretty strong convictions. 🙂 ]

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16 Comments on “Free Will-y?”

  1. Dave Taylor Says:

    The same basic issue came up in our small group. Repeatedly. This Daniel study is just the most recent time.

    I’ve been going through some of the CS Lewis / JRR Tolkien writings with a different set of contexts than before. Some of this is Lewis’ Ulster Ireland family background and Tolkien’s very traditional Catholicism, but more of it comes down to their christianity as a context for more or less everything they wrote. Perhaps this was more overt in Lewis, but it was no less pervasive in Tolkien. There is actually a lot here, but the danger is someone will accuse me of being unable to separate fiction from reality. (I might point out that Tolkien thought this position was bunk and that fiction seems to provide an avenue for thought experiments. And then I would point to The Tolkien Professor’s Tolkien Course online lecture 9 for a fictional but interesting take on the inability to thwart the will of the creator in the Silmarillion.) My point in bringing this up here is that there a number of ways to reconcile the problems of God’s sovereignty versus our free will.

    My own take is that the scripture seems to choose between presenting events as examples of God’s sovereignty (e.g. in this example from Daniel) versus our free will (e.g. as in the book of Job). I think that this struggle between free will and predestination is intentional in scripture. One comes out definite results that show either things are one way or the other, but not the same way in every case. We live with this situation in modern descriptions of quantum mechanics in wave / particle duality. Our tendency to expect every problem to have the same result arises from our own deficiencies.

  2. Rachel Says:

    i dig.

  3. Very well said, my learned friend. You and I had a similar conversation regarding 9-11 back when some TV pastors were saying God caused it to happen because of the nation’s moral slide. Despite that being bad theology, everything that happens is known by God already and falls on His doorstep (so to speak).

    You might find that some people of the naturalist or atheist camp might refute the idea that they have no moral compass. Apparently guys like Aristotle, Socrates and Plato came up with those rules to live by.

    Personally, I’m still digesting the “writing on the wall” explanation from this week. I picture the Hamburger Helper hand doing the writing.

    • hellerman Says:

      Thanks, Curtis, for reading. Hmm…I’ve have to get out a box of Hamburger Helper and meditate on that one.

  4. deanne Says:

    Hi Joe, I love the discussion. Correct me if I’m wrong but the terminology involved in the idea of “free will” seems a little arrogant if you really think about it. Is an individual descended from Adam ever really free until after they have trusted in Christ for justification and peace with God? I’ve been spending some time in Romans 5 lately and I’m struck with the repetition that Paul uses regarding the result of one man’s trespass and the sin and death patterns that ensued. The term “free” will implies that we are free to chose right or wrong, wise or foolish, unselfish or selfish, etc. The Bible seems to teach that our will is actually in bondage to sin until Jesus sets us free. Then we still wrestle with the sin nature, the “body of death” that Paul talks about. The thing with Stalin and Hitler is that they didn’t wrestle at all, they just indulged! Somehow God has been tolerant with the suffering resulting from sin in our world since the beginning. He showed us one way of resolving it with the finality of the flood, but it quickly reemerged in Noah’s immediate family afterwards. The ultimate solution He has given us so far is the cross, but the final solution is yet to come when he returns In the cross he answered the suffering of a sinful world with more suffering of his Son. And according to Romans 5, that brings life to all men. I don’t understand the interrelationship between the suffering in this world and the sovereinty of a good God, but I do know there is a long-standing precedent for for the parallel existence of the two. But I do think the debate should be between the sovereignty of a good God and the seeming successful perpetration of injustice of those temporarily endowed with human power (whose will is in bondage rather than free). By the way, Paul Viggiano had a similar response to yours in the Daily Breeze recently. You guys must be reading the same text book.

    • hellerman Says:

      Deanne, I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. This is exactly what I am hoping this blog will generate! Some additional thoughts:
      Some might reply that even in an unregenerate state a person has the limited freedom to choose between what we would identity as moral good (from a human perspective) and moral evil. That is, not every person—nor every world leader—has ‘indulged’ like Hitler and Stalin did. That moral good of course falls far short of the glory of God, since it remains a product of the unregenerate sinful nature, but it does seems to imply some ‘wiggle room’ to choose (though I, like you and numbers of other, am not really happy with the term ‘free will’). God’s sovereign oversight of the universe seems to imply, moreover, that he is not merely ‘tolerant’ of the sufferings of a sinful world, but that he somehow engages with it to bring about some greater good—issuing, ultimately, in his own glory. Correspondingly, I view the cross not just as ‘answering suffering…with more suffering,’ but as the preeminent illustration of how God redeems suffering in his divine economy.

      • deanne Says:

        I like that, “how God redeems suffering in his divine economy”, maybe Elijah’s and Lovely’s expedited imigration process post Haiti disaster is another example…

        also, even with a will in bondage to some degree, we still (in God’s economy) seem to have the responsibility to choose Him. Maybe this is like the prisoner’s responsibility to choose to follow the person leading him to freedom (as Peter had to choose to follow the angel who undid his chains), it may be a logical choice after having explored the options, and a choice we couldn’t make alone, but a choice nevertheless

  5. Mindy Says:

    I don”t think I can add to that, Joe. It makes me feel incredibly free to just let God be the powerful God that He is and then I don’t have to worry about anything. I know He has a mighty plan. Not that I don’t still need to pray and act when necessary, but I really don’t question much about the happenings in the world, because they have been happening for centuries. I would not understand it all anyway until revealed in the end.

  6. j Says:

    free will: perfectly created and in perfect fellowship with God, eve and adam ate without the compulsion of the sin nature they passed down to us. clearly, they were created with free will.

    free will: perfectly created and standing in the perfect glory of God for all of his existence, lucifer rebels and takes a third of heaven with him.

    sovereignty: God is comfortable with the potential outcome of endowing his creation with the ability to reject him. he is also apparently comfortable with letting us live with the results of that, a world completely separated from him. in a place where fallen man has dominion over the earth and fallen angel has dominion over the air one should wonder why hitler and stalin are the exceptions, not the rule.

    i find the more compelling question, and the more troubling one to be, “why are we redeemed at so great a cost and the angels are not.” i believe the answer is God’s sovereignty.

    • hellerman Says:

      Thanks, Jeannie. Great, thoughtful observations. Keep ’em coming.

      About the angels: well, the Intertestamental Jewish book of Jubilees says (yes, it really says this) that at creation the angels (the male ones, I assume) were circumcised and that they kept the Sabbath from the beginning. So, maybe they were trying to be justified by the law and not by faith, and that’s why God did not choose to send them a mediator who was fully God and fully angel. 🙂


  7. Nicole Says:

    Hey Joe
    Your explanation of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will is useful and helpful not only to young adults, but to some of us middle-aged ones as well! Thank you for making such difficult concepts so palable!

  8. T Says:

    Hi Joe,
    I am finally able to sit down and catch up on all the sermons I have missed. Hearing them makes me realize how much I have missed my family (church) in the past 3 months.
    I loved your sermon on Daniel 4! As I home school my girls I keep trying to let them know that we can not see all that God does, nor can we know all that He knows. I tell them that in all episodes, whether good or bad, we need to not view them with our limited blinders on. You know the ones I mean, like on the horses while they would pull the carriages. We have to remember that God sees all, past, present, and future. He knows it all, He knows what must be done to complete His job, to get us here all home. I’m not a great “thinker,” I believe in the scripture that says unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. The greatest attribute, and the one evil humans like to exploit, is the over whelming trust a child has for those who care for them and show them love. That’s the kind of “become like little child” I want to have for my God. He has done all this for me, from Creation to the present, and I question Him? Thank you for confirming that He is in control of it all.
    On the lighter side, when you talked about being puffed up and God squashing us…I got the greatest image of a human Whoopie-cushion. Boy, the sounds I make when He squashes me!!!!!
    Thanks again for all your devotion to God which you so lovingly share with us.
    Love, T

    • hellerman Says:

      Thanks for your kind words, T. I like that whoopie-cushion illustration…hmm…think that one would fly in a Sunday sermon?!


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