Free Will in the Bible

The free will debate has raged, unabated, for millennia: still nobody can prove whether or not it really exists.  This post is not about the free will debate.  It’s about the inconsistent use of free will in the Bible.

Clearly, an interceding God presents problems for free will. However, a cosmic God – a Creator who does not intervene in human affairs – might be compatible with free will if he keeps his omniscience and omnipotence to himself. By the way, I personally believe that causality actually creates free will. Read my blog post, “Expressions of Causality” to find out how.

Despite the fact that most Christian denominations teach free will, the Bible itself is rife with determinism and predestination. Because we all live as if we have free will, we affirm it in the things we say and do. When we take credit for our actions or blame others for theirs, we’re paying lip service to free will. Thus, the Bible has many verses consistent with free will but is, nonetheless, a largely deterministic tome. Here are just a few examples (for brevity, just the verses are listed) that clearly state that God determines who is going to heaven or hell and that there’s nothing you can do about it:

Acts 13:48
Romans 8:29-30
2 Timothy 1:9
Ephesians 1:4-5
2 Thessalonians 2:11-13
Jude 4
Romans 9:11-22

Even the Lord’s Prayer contains 2 instances of determinism:

1.) Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.
2.) And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

In an effort to understand why the Bible is so inconsistent on this issue, I tried many Google searches, using many keywords. I couldn’t find dates for the concept of free will but I did find references to those who developed the concept. It appears that the concept of free will stems from the concept of freedom and that it grew very slowly, taking centuries to mature into a formal doctrine.

From the 4th century to the 2nd century B.C., the seeds of free will were being planted. Plato had a concept of rational governance which flirted with but skirted the concept of free will. Aristotle added an element of voluntary action but still skirted free will. The first, primitive, form of free will appears to arise with Epicurus, around 300 B.C. Determinism did not mesh with his observations. He diverged from the strictly deterministic Atomists of his day by claiming that atoms do not move in a pre-determined way. Making the motion of atoms random allowed him to break the perpetual causal chain of events kick-started by the Prime Mover. This opened the door for his assertion that man has free will. At around 50 A.D., Lucretius wrote his epic (6-book) philosophical poem, “De Rerum Natura”, explaining Epicurean physics. In it, he explained how atomic collisions can occur in the first place and why it is necessary to postulate randomness in the motions of atoms (“an unpredictable ‘swerve’ at no fixed place or time“), to account for the evident fact of free will. Otherwise we would all be automata, our motions determined by infinitely extended and unbreakable causal chains. This uncanny resemblance to the randomness postulated by modern quantum physics has helped make this passage a favorite in the free will debate. But it is, in fact, Epicurus, not Lucretius, who originated the idea of indeterminacy in the motion of atoms.

It’s hard to understand how the ramifications of free will would take centuries to fully reveal themselves to our ancient philosophers. With the introduction of Christianity and its morality, particularly after it became the state religion (Roman Catholic Church) of the Roman Empire in 326 A.D., the development of free will was given a boost. Free will matured into doctrine, thanks largely to St. Augustine. He began advocating free will, around 400 A.D, to promote good works and responsibility for our own actions.

That’s 700 to 800 years of free will as a neglected, fuzzy, immature concept! It’s hard to imagine when most of us are now familiar with the concept(s) of free will.

The Old Testament was sealed about 200 B.C. (others claim it was sealed between 500 and 100 B.C.) and the New Testament was written between 45 A.D. and 140 A.D. This means that the concept (much less doctrine!) of free will didn’t even exist in the region while the Old Testament was written and was, at best, a primitive and fuzzy concept when the New Testament was written. Free will still hadn’t been fleshed out when the Roman Catholic Church was created in 326 A.D.

So it appears that the Bible is so inconsistent with the application of free will because a formal concept of free will wasn’t available to the Bible authors. The authors believed in a deterministic world, so that’s (mostly) the way they wrote.

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