- Free will in the legal sense: freedom to make voluntary choices without coercion. In other words, freedom to choose what we want to choose.
- Free will in the philosophical sense: the ability to make choices that aren't determined by prior causes. In other words, what we want to choose might be influenced by God, genetics, environment, etc. but aren't completely determined by them.
Despite some caricatures I've heard, practically everyone agrees that we have free will in the legal sense, so when I say "free will" without a qualifier I'm referring to the philosophical sense. There are 4 main philosophical views of free will:
- Hard Determinism: everything happens as a result of what happened before it. Free will is impossible because what we want to choose is determined by prior events & conditions.
- Libertarianism: the universe is not deterministic. If it was, we wouldn't have free will. It is possible to make choices that are not determined by prior events & conditions.
- Compatibilism: the universe is deterministic but we have free will. Free will only makes sense using the legal definition and it's pointless to talk about philosophical free will.
- Hard Incompatibilism: whether the universe is deterministic or not, we wouldn't have free will either way.
People have debated free will for millennia and Bible-believers are no exception. According to Josephus, first century Jews were divided about it. The Essenes were hard determinists who believed that everything was determined by divine fate. The Sadducees were libertarians who denied divine fate and affirmed free will. The Pharisees' view was most similar to Compatibilism. They believed in divine fate for world events but also affirmed free will, particularly in spiritual matters, and their definition of it was more like the legal sense.
Many Christians today are either compatibilist (i.e., Calvinists) or libertarian (i.e., Arminians). Thanks to confirmation bias, it's not surprising that both believe the Bible clearly teaches their view. As readers of this blog might've guessed, I don't believe the Bible writers tried to settle this philosophical debate, so any such interpretation is overfitting. What the Bible does clearly teach is that at least some events are pre-ordained by God and that we make free choices (i.e., we have free will in the legal sense). Those teachings are consistent with all 4 views. Attempts at Bible interpretation on the topic of philosophical free will quickly abandon the original context and inevitably enter the realm of philosophy.
My biases make Hard Determinism (and Compatibilism, which I think is Hard Determinism but afraid to admit it) very attractive to me. Weather is deterministic, and I like to think everything behaves similarly to weather -- maybe because it makes me feel like I have expertise in areas in which I really don't. I see a lot of beauty in deterministic systems, and Chaos Theory provides an excellent answer for why some things appear random or "free". Hard Determinism also is an attractive solution to the problem of evil. If God causes evil, it means evil has a purpose -- a greater good. God doesn't helplessly watch, wishing things were different. Hard Determinism allows for truly divine miracles that don't violate the fundamental laws of nature, demonstrating harmonious consistency in God's interaction with the world. Biological evolution also fits very nicely. And I can feel good when reading the many Bible passages that clearly imply determinism.
I do believe it's the view that is most consistent with the Bible (sorry, Arminian friends), but I must admit that my view is totally based on philosophy, science, and personal bias, not the Bible (sorry, Calvinist friends). What makes me doubt my view is not Libertarian proof texts in the Bible (I have answers for all of them, though not without confirmation bias). What really gives me doubt is quantum mechanics. The more I learn about it, the more I see Hard Incompatibilism and Libertarianism as interesting possibilities.
It's fun to talk about the free will debate as it relates to the God of the Bible. I think the debate would be a better one if we all could admit that it is in fact a philosophical (and perhaps scientific) debate -- one in which the writers of the Bible were not participating.