Evangelicals and the Problem of Free Will

Having been raised as a Southern Baptist, I was taught from a very early age that the Bible is God’s holy word, that it is infallible, and that it presents humanity with essentially a road map of how to live on earth and how to ensure one’s soul goes to be with God in heaven for all eternity after life on earth is over.  The central truth of the Bible is the work of God’s only son, Jesus, on the cross.  The only source of salvation and forgiveness of sins is through his death and resurrection.  This is still the basic creed of all Christian evangelicals, not just Baptists.  As the Christian fundamentalist movement swept through the South in the 1970s, the dogma became more emphatic, especially the concept of the Bible being inerrant.  I can remember pastors only half-joking when they stood in their pulpits, held the Bible up over their heads, and said, “I believe every word of this book.  Even when it says ‘genuine leather’ on the cover, I believe it!”

Evangelicals believe that God loves his creation and that he also has desires, the strongest of which is for humanity to return his love.  Humans express this love by obeying God’s commandments.  But, above all, humans demonstrate their devotion to God by believing that Jesus is his only son and that accepting his sacrificial death as atonement for their natural sinful state miraculously repairs the fallen relationship with God (Adam, Eve, rotten fruit, etc.).  Again, for evangelicals this part of the plan is crucial.  It is only the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus that can bring God and humanity together, which not only empowers humans to obey God’s commandments but also grants their souls an eternity with Jesus, who is actually God in human form just to complicate matters further.  The alternative is rejecting God and facing an eternity in hell — complete separation from God with a whole lot of torture, anguish, teeth gnashing, ill-tempered serpents, and the like.  God wants humans to love him, and by its very definition, love is something that has to be voluntary.  God doesn’t force humans to love him, which wouldn’t be genuine love.  Humans have the freedom to either love God or reject him, another key component of the whole arrangement.

Another part of the Baptist training was embracing the perfect nature of God.  The Bible is infallible because it is inspired, if not ghost authored, by God himself.  God is omnipotent and omniscient — there is nothing God cannot do, although he certainly elects not to do plenty of things.  All options are open to him.  He knows everything that has ever happened and will happen, past and future.  In fact, everything that happens ultimately conforms to God’s will.  So even the most mortal sins committed by humanity, although contrary to God’s wishes, eventually fold into the greater plan of God for the universe.  God’s will is unavoidable.  When I was growing up, it would have been inconceivable that there could be anything that God didn’t already know.  The evidence for this concept for evangelicals is found in the Bible in Jeremiah 1:5. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”  Putting aside the fact that this verse refers specifically to the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, my fellow Baptists cited this verse as proof that God knows individuals, and individual souls, before they are conceived and born.  Remember, time is irrelevant for God. Past, present, and future are all in his command.

Now we come to the problem that is free will.  As stated earlier, evangelicals adhere to the principle that God loves humanity and wants his love returned.  John 3:16 is probably the most important verse in the entire Bible to evangelicals: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  People are given the option to believe that Jesus is God’s son and that his sacrifice is the source of their salvation and relationship with God. However, it is painfully obvious that millions, if not billions, of people do not accept Jesus as their savior and therefore miss the salvation boat altogether.  Which brings us to the troubling question about the true personality of God.  If indeed God knows everything, and if he is not constrained by time, and if he knows all that is going to happen, then it reasonably follows that he knows which individuals will return his love and which ones will reject him, before they are even born.  Given this premise, it follows that the God who can do anything actually chooses to allow people to be born even though he knows they will ultimately reject him and thus be cursed to an eternity in hell.  Is this lais·sez-faire approach the only means by which God can secure the love of humanity?  Do billions of people have to be cast into hell to gather a minority of people who will love God, accept his gift of salvation, and share eternity with him?

Evangelicals who adopt this paradigm are faced with a God who is at once all-loving while also being extremely negligent of the majority of those he apparently loves.  In the case of humanity’s free will, God is obviously electing not to impose his omnipotence and letting humanity chart its eternal course.  Is this a situation where God is simply choosing not to know something?  Keeping secrets from himself?  If we think about this for more than a minute or two, we must come to terms with a God who is “writing off” a significant portion of the population as damned, when he could have easily spared them an eternity of torment by not allowing them to be born in the first place.  As a father, I would do anything within my power to prevent my son from committing suicide, especially if I could ensure that he had a bright future.  What kind of father would I be if I didn’t attempt to intervene?  Given the same circumstances, most fathers would do the same.  If parents could know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they were going to conceive a child who would suffer horrific pain for an entire lifetime, would they elect to have such a child just for the sake of starting a family?  Are we more compassionate than God?  Free will doesn’t seem like such a valuable gift when we consider the stakes.  If this is God’s plan for getting the love he wants, what does this really tell us about God?  Something’s missing here.  It’s a problem.

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