“What is it to act (or choose) freely?”, and “What is it to be morally responsible for one’s actions (or choices)?” The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online defines free will by presenting these two questions. The large discussions of free will have involved defining it and determining whether or not humans possess such a power. Countless theologians have engaged in this debate. Few, however, explore what free will means in relation to God. In this essay, we will discuss how one’s definition of God can change based on one’s definition of free will and how man responds.
The Old Testament illustrates God’s character in various instances. Nehemiah marvels at God’s creative excellence writing, “You alone are the Lord. You make the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you” (Holy Bible: New International Version, Nehemiah 9:6). He forms the first human being of the “dust of the ground” and breathes into him life (Genesis 2:7). We also see that God is just. When the first humans sinned, they experienced the negative consequences God had promised which required they be driven out of the Garden. God is also Protector; when the Israelites were making their exodus from captivity, “went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night a pillar of fire” (Exodus 13:21). He extended much grace and forgiveness to them and formed covenants with them though they were a “stiff-necked people” (Exodus 34:9-10). The Psalms sing his praises: “I will extol the Lord at all times;/ his praise will always be on my lips…/ Glorify the Lord with me;/ let us exalt his name together,” (Psalm 34: 1,3). God is presented as this perfect being that is full of love and is always in control.
Using the Israelites as a case study, it could be said that humans have the ability to exercise their free will often by acting in opposition to God’s will. They repeatedly disobeyed God by creating idols, worshipping other gods, engaging in sexually immoral acts, etcetera. A psalmist records, “How often they rebelled against him in the desert and grieved him in the wasteland! Again and again they put God to the test; they vexed the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember his power…they did not keep his statutes” (Psalm 78:40-42, 56). They intentionally defied God’s law and were accordingly chastised for it: “When God heard them, he was very angry; he rejected Israel completely” (Psalm 78:59).
The concepts of free will and God’s sovereignty clash in these instances. If God endows his creations with the ability to do whatever they choose, even what is outside his will, then he is not in control. If one believes that the Creator is not in control of the created, then he does not believe in the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition that millions worship. That God has the power to divide bodies of water, to open the floodgates of heaven and end the existence of humanity, and to harden the hearts of pharaohs. That God does not act in response to the decisions of his people or this world; he initiates them in accordance with his design. He is sovereign.
On the other hand, one could say that the decisions that humans make are in God’s plan. Before the exodus, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh would not allow the people of God to leave Egypt to worship their God. This was predetermined by God to fulfill a certain purpose. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes about Pharaoh. “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (9:17). It nearly seems that Pharaoh did not have a choice in the matter and should not be blamed. To this Paul responds, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (9:20-21). The same argument could be applied to Judas and others involved in the Crucifixion. A specific series of events had to happen in order for God to execute his plan of redemption. What can man do to halt the will of the omnipotent God?
If, in fact, God did orchestrate the actions of Pharaoh, then how could one hold Pharaoh accountable? In what way did Pharaoh have a choice to defy what God had planned? More importantly, what does this say about God? According to this interpretation there isn’t any free will. God is sovereign and he uses humans as a means to facilitate his will. Humans have no power over their destinies or their eternities. They are subject to God. In other words, God chooses who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.
Though God would be completely justified in working in whatever manner he desired (He is God. He can do what he pleases.), this God would also not reflect the God of love in the Bible. A crucial theme of the New Testament is that God does not want anyone to perish, but that he wants everyone to come to salvation. If God were in complete control of every man’s decisions, this would conflict with the message of God’s desire for all men to be saved.
We are left with a paradoxical situation involving two conflicting views of God. Now, we wonder what power man has to save himself. Dante’s The Divine Comedy gives us a bit of insight as to how this situation may be reconciled. It seems that God saves those who attempt to help themselves in earnest. Guido and his son, Buonconte, demonstrate contrasting conditions of the heart. Guido, after his time with the Ghibellines, claimed to undergo a religious conversion and joined a Franciscan monastery. He was persuaded back to politics, though, and it seems his religious conversion was inauthentic as indicated by his motives. He remarks, “…my works were not those of a lion/ but a fox./ The tricks and the hidden ways, I knew them all” (Inferno XXVII. 74-76). At the end of his life, Guido was trying to convince God and others that he was repentant when he was not. He states, “I gave myself up repentant and shriven; ah,/ miserable wretch that I am! And it would’ve worked” (Inferno XXVII. 83-84). This last statement is a signal that Guido’s repentance was merely another trick. On the other hand, Buonconte’s life ended in stark contrast to his father’s. Buonconte was also a man of the armed forces and it is on the battlefield where we find him in his final moments. Fatally wounded, Buonconte stumbled across a plain. “’There I lost sight and speech./ I ended on the name of Mary – there I fell,/ and only my flesh remained’” (Purgatorio V. 100). Buonconte’s loss of sight and speech point to a transition from the physical realm to the spiritual. This act was not done in deceit, it was a sacred gesture. The last things Buonconte does in his life are acts of submission to God. He places his arms in the form of a cross over his chest and begins uttering the words of the Hail Mary prayer. Because Buonconte was taken to Purgatory rather than to the Inferno like his father, we can assume that he was genuine in his repentance while Guido was not.
In both cases there was a battle over who would take possession of the soul after death. A dark angel and good angel came for Guido as well as for Buonconte. The two skirmishes ended with opposite results: Guido was carried to hell while Buonconte was taken to Purgatory. From this we learn that God knows our hearts authentically and that we do have some measure of control over our destinies. With this understanding, we realize that because God knows our intentions, he is still in control and will have the last say. We also realize that humans have the capacity to help themselves to a certain extent.
Dante’s own character in The Divine Comedy emphasizes the notion that man plays a role in saving himself. Dante found himself lost amidst a dark forest having visions of beasts. He was frantically seeking his right path when Beatrice interceded as divine intervention to send him the aid of Virgil. Lucia, “enemy of all cruelty”, approached Beatrice saying “why do you not help him who loved you so, who because of/ you came forth from the common herd?/ Do you not hear the anguish of his weeping, do/ you not see the death that attacks him there, by the/ torrent where the seas has no boast?” (Inferno II. 104-108). At Beatrice’s request, Virgil left his throne to come to Dante’s aid. This again demonstrates that God is willing to help those who want to do right and be on this metaphorical path. He does not sit and watch powerlessly as his creations doom themselves. Whenever a man desires to be saved, he is active in coming to the rescue.
What we learn from these instances is that God is still a perfect being though we may not understand his ways. He, at the least, gives man the illusion of free will, so man can be held responsible for his actions. Whether or not he predestines some to heaven and others to hell or if he is in control of our every action, he is a just God. His ways are perfect even when we are not. It is not for us to understand how he works, but that he works for those who are receptive, thereby providing means for salvation. What is paramount is submitting to God fully and honestly that he might see the intentions of your heart and look on you with mercy as he did our friend Buonconte and not like his father, Guido.
We are each on a journey. Some are like the Israelites, always searching for something other than what God has. Some are like Dante, seeking to be found in this forest of darkness. This, it seems, is what God desires. It is still a difficult task to reconcile God’s character with our understanding of free will. It is impossible for us to fully do this. We have finite minds that are incapable of comprehending the macro perspective of the universe. At the end of the day, God is good and he wants all his children to return to him. It is up to us to get as far as our limited power can take us.