Does free will exist?

This is a question that has tickled the imaginations of philosophers and theologians for millennia. As one argument goes, if God truly is sovereign, then nothing can escape what He has preordained (past tense). On the other hand, we are all held accountable for our sins, so the will, by necessity, must therefore involve a free and voluntary act. If that is not the case, then how can a God who is just act without justice and hold us accountable for that which we did not will to do? In On Free Choice of the Will, the great theologian Augustine makes his position very clear: “Evildoing is neglecting eternal things and pursuing temporal things … we do evil by the free choice of our will.”[1] The Psalmist would tend to agree with Augustine in Psalm 41:4, “As for me, I said, ‘O Lord, be gracious to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You’” (italics mine). That which requires healing is the soul, the house of the will. The soul suffered injury and corruption from original sin imputed to all of humankind from Adam.

In my mind, the question that immediately presents itself is: What if we’re asking the wrong question, a question whose lucid answer ends up being both worthless and senseless? That is, would developing a clear solution to the question of free will really change anything? Would it change the penalty for sin? No. Would it change the fundamental necessity for faith in Jesus and the need to live a life characterized by love and obedience? No. What the answer will change is how one perceives existence itself. This is why stubborn faith in God at some point in time must to some degree reconcile itself with fatalism.[2] Such a dynamic was expressed by the prophet Amos: “He who made the Pleiades and Orion and changes deep darkness into morning, Who also darkens day into night, Who calls for the waters of the sea And pours them out on the surface of the earth, The Lord is His name.”[3]

I propose that free will is fraudulent because it is never free in an absolute sense. It is free only in a relative sense—and that relativity is grounded in time.

God is timeless, so He already knows the effects and the full sum of all the ramifications of a willful gesture, both now and in the future. I, on the other hand, am only able to perceive the immediate present and am blinded to what will be. Hence, in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, “The freedom of the will consists in the fact that future actions cannot be known now.”[4] By logical implication, knowing the future destroys freedom of the will. Ironically, our finitude and the yearning to know the future is what propels us toward something transcendent, for “[God] has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”[5] God knows full well that if we did know what will be, the “freedom” of our will would be abolished. God, being the loving God that He is, only chooses those who will freely choose Him, and this, our temporal limitation, keeps our “free” will intact. Freedom of the will to sin is an unfortunate yet necessary price that enables humankind to choose a loving Father who does not believe in coercion.

From Wittgenstein’s assertion also stems the conclusion that causality is not, in fact, an inner necessity. In other words, life happens independent of what I want. The sun rises and the rain falls independent of my desires. The point is that the world operates without any reliance on me. Nature is trying to tell us how ridiculous our “free” will is, but few often listen.

Causality, then, is only fully revealed in time, and in eternity, it too reveals its relative nature. For human beings, causality is only clarified looking back into the past. For God, causality is clear: past, present, and future. Relatively speaking, then, time is the fulcrum upon which the perception of free will rests. Consider the following from Ephesians 1:3-6:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

Who chose us? He did. When did He choose us? Before the foundation of the world. According to the what? The kind intention of His will, which He freely bestowed on us.

John 15:16 says, “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you” (italics mine). Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (italics mine). In short, investing in the idea of independent, free human will tacitly negates the doctrine of election: God’s decision to save us before the foundation of the world.

If free will does exist, and one is “free” to do as he or she pleases, is not the bigger and more consequential question whether that freedom is worth having? As I have written before, free will is not something to be sought, championed, or prized, because in doing so, one reaches for the recalcitrant self-assertion that shuns God and leads to separation from Him. Instead, we ought to visualize the “freedom” in our will as abhorrent, senseless, and ultimately “empowered” to do one thing: choose death.


Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal


[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, On Free Choice of the Will (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), 27.

[2] And this by no means is a new way of thinking theologically. The Essenes, for example, who lived in the time of Jesus, attributed everything to fate, had solemn oaths of piety and obedience, and dedicated themselves to daily worship and reading of the Holy Scriptures.

[3] Amos 5:8

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999), 5.I362.

[5] Ecclesiastes 3:11

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