In Search of a Coherent Narrative
Part 3: 'Freewill'? Arminianism’s Philosophical Problems
Part 5: A Biblical Universalism
Part 6: Biblical Support for Universalism
Part 7: A Systematic Understanding of Universalism
Part 6: Biblical Support for Universalism
Part 7: A Systematic Understanding of Universalism
Previously I discussed how the concept of man’s Freewill does not hold a monopoly on scripture. I also discussed how foreknowledge seems to fail to explain how God’s predestination is a response to man’s Freewill choice of Him. This additional discussion looks more closely at the very concept of Freewill, not so much from a scriptural perspective but from philosophical perspective. This post asks how Freewill is actually meant to work, and explores some potentially negative consequences that is associated with Freewill thought. I realise books could be written on these subjects, but here, I aim to at least provide an exploration of some ideas in order to provoke thought around these subjects.
Cause and Effect
Arminian thought regarding Freewill cannot be explained. I believe it cannot be explained because it does not provide an answer to the important concepts of cause and effect. Cause and effect is the direct relation between a cause and the effect that it brings. Let me explain using the scenario of salvation. If we choose God over absence from Him, cause and effect would ask “what caused us to choose or not to choose God?”. Freewill thought would state that WE chose to or not to. However, in reality I do not think that it is that simple. Observing nature provides us with an understanding of cause and effect within creation. Quite simply, we are to a great extent products of our environment. I was raised in a New Zealand European family who are strong Christians. Guess what happened to me? Yes, I took on largely their language, culture, values and even their faith. My upbringing dictated to a great degree who I would become. Others absorb their surroundings also, such as a person in an Arab state may likely grow up to be a Muslim. Proverbs strongly hints towards a similar conclusion where the impact that our surroundings can have on us, actually determines the path we walk. It states that when you “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” When observing reality, it seems to suggest that our context that we live in drastically dictates where we will grow up, how we will act, and what we will believe. Thus, I believe we can fairly ask, “What causes me or anyone else to accept God or not to accept Him?”
When observing the concept of cause and effect and its relation to Freewill, it leads to a dichotomy about the nature of our Freewill. Either our decisions have direct causes, or they have ‘random’ causes. In Arminianist thought, people must have ultimately (in the end) an EQUAL choice between salvation or absence from God. If it is not equal then it implies that our circumstances, our experiences, and our nature would be the deciding influences to tip the balance on what we ultimately decide. Some Arminianists say that our surroundings do have an influence, but that we still have a choice to override that influence. However, if something does influence me then it must definitely have an effect on me. Can I really be held responsible for responding to an influence that had an effect on me, especially if that effect had no opposing influence to pull me in the other direction? If it were really true that we had a free choice to choose against influences, then reality would reflect that. As demonstrated earlier and clearly seen in reality, influences heavily determine the outcome of individuals in society - the way we think, the god (or lack of) we believe in, and even the prevalence of generational or societal sin! If we deny that influences determine outcomes then we must look at the alternative, which would mean something even more drastically unsettling. If we have a perfectly equal choice with no influencing factors, then what is it within us that makes any particular choice? What would cause me to choose to be saved, but the person across the road to choose not to be? I cannot say that it is because I wanted to be saved more, because that would be a predisposition of mine, or created by an outside influence. The only other disturbing option is that the decision would be completely random. If the decision is completely random, then there is no basis to discuss the importance of making any choices whatsoever. So any particular decision either has a cause (or a largely determining factor) or is completely random.
In my opinion, according to cause and effect, God ultimately created my circumstances, and He created my predisposition. I do not see any way that our Freewill can fit into this picture. I will speak more on the implications of this in my final post.
The same problems with the concept of Freewill can be applied to God. If God had choices before Him and randomly chose one, He would be an inconsistent and untrustworthy God. He definitely would not be the same yesterday, today and forever as it claims in the scriptures (Hebrews 13:8). In scripture, if God does something, it seems to always be for a reason, and that reason does not seem to be random. Either He makes random decisions (Which isn't Biblical or logical) OR He has some predisposition inherent in Him that causes Him to decide one way or the other. God would not be the God of the Bible if something existed outside of Him (Randomness or other) that would largely determine Him to do one action or another. Therefore, He must have a fixed nature that determines His actions.
Dangers of Freewill Thought
The concept of Freewill also creates other concerns when relating to people and creating discourses about society. The concern is that Freewill may cause us to lack compassion for those who reflect their external environment. I realise that we do have individuals natures that can cause each of us to act differently in different situations, however when looking at reality there is a strong correlation between our circumstances and the type of people we become. Freewill thought, on the other hand, limits the degree to which our external environments can be looked at as a potential cause. For example, if a child is born into a low income, abusive family with no work ethics etc, how would he be judged in Freewill thought if that child grew up to become just like his or her parents? The child would be seen as choosing ‘Freely’ his lifestyle, and therefore judged with limited compassion. With a true commitment to Freewill, I believe it is not possible to have full compassion on that grown-child’s disposition while being consistent with Freewill thought. Under Freewill thought, instead of compassion or understanding, the tendency can be to focus on, treat and judge a person on the symptoms of their behaviour, rather than addressing the underlying causes of their behaviour.
Unless we acknowledge the power that external circumstances have over our choices, it not only extremely limits our ability to have compassion on people, but it restricts the belief in the power to assist change. I believe that as one can take on the characteristics of their environment, so we can create new environments where there is hope for change. However, this is not as possible in Freewill thought. We would be merely wishing that people would change their “free” mind from each moment to the next. In fact, what good have we done if we have merely for the moment convinced someone to “freely” choose God? No real change has been done in their life because they then may freely choose to reject Him at any given moment. Believing that influences truly can have an effect provides a more positive outlook to changing the characters of people towards becoming more Christ-like.
What happens in heaven - do we have Freewill to choose God or not to choose Him? If we do not have Freewill in heaven, then we are back to being mere ‘robots’, which Arminianism appears to characteristically oppose like a vampire to garlic. Some Arminians say that the glory of God will be so great that we will not want anything other than God. However, all that is saying is that we have a predisposition to enjoy the glory of God rather than having a “real” choice – thus taking our Freewill away.
Death of Innocents
One last thought about Freewill, is that of the death of the unborn or young child. If the way to God is only generated by a Freewill cognitive choice on our part, then this makes it nigh impossible for children to cognitively choose salvation. One could say that children either automatically go to heaven or hell, but these conclusions take away the purpose of “choice”/Freewill in the first place. Arminian thought would normally state that it is impossible to have loyalty without the opportunity to be disloyal; therefore, children going to heaven would mean a reneging of this value. Unless of course they believe in another age or realm after death, by which children can have a choice, which most Arminians probably deny. Maybe children just die and no longer exist for eternity? Who knows, but the Arminian narrative does not provide answers consistent with their narrative on this point.
Man’s Freewill does not Absolve God’s Responsibility for the Existence of Sin
On a brief note: Freewill does not get God off the hook when it comes to taking responsibility for the existence of evil (as I briefly mentioned in the previous post). Some people in defence of a Freewill state within humankind say that because people can ‘freely’ choose to commit evil, any evil that happens in the world is because of humankind. However, I believe that I can demonstrate that God has at least some responsibility for evil in this world. For example, if I were to throw someone into a pool of sharks and then hope the sharks would overlook that person, and that person then gets eaten, I would consider myself responsible for that outcome. God is involved in equivalent situations that actually happen in reality. He lets children be born into likely to be or currently abusive environments. Thus, the motive to believe in Freewill as a means to absolve God of ‘guilt’ is put into question.
Many Arminians accept paradox when it comes to our Freewill coinciding with God as our Creator. This is a noble act. Many things cannot yet be explained, but if we want to explain how our relationship with God works, then these topics need to be addressed. Arminians do mean well. I do not think that all Arminians believe in Freewill in order to belittle God’s sovereignty per se, but instead aim to take the responsibility of sin onto our shoulders. Another up for Arminianism is that it clings to much of scripture, by enabling the potential for all people to be saved - something which Calvinism denies, as we shall see in the next post. However, when looked at closely, Arminianism is grossly unexplained, and can have the potential to oppress those who reflect their environments.
Next post we look at Calvinism and the issues that it has as a scriptural narrative.