Is Christianity Deterministic?

Some people think that Christianity is deterministic. That is to say, that Christians don’t actually have free will. Most Christians disagree with this, although some think it’s true. I, however, think both groups of people have equally fallacious reasons for concluding that Christianity is deterministic.

When free will deniers argue that Christianity is deterministic, it usually stems from a conflation of two of God’s attributes, namely, His omniscience and His sovereignty.

Their reasoning usually goes something like this:

If God is omniscient, He is all-knowing. If God is all-knowing, He knows everything that will happen. If He knows everything that will happen, then everything happens necessarily.

On the other hand – If God is sovereign, He controls everything. If He controls everything, He controls what happens. If He controls what happens, then everything happens necessarily.

Let’s deal with each of these in order.

God’s Omniscience

If God knows all things, then He knows what will happen.

But . . .

Does that really mean that God causes those things to happen, or that people don’t have the freedom to do something different? I don’t think so.

Consider how the weather is predicted by a barometer – A barometer predicts the weather, but it obviously doesn’t cause the weather.

Some might object and say, “Well, okay, but the barometer didn’t create the universe.”

Right! But that has nothing to do with causing everything that happens in the universe.

We are only talking about knowledge of some event.  If we want to say that since God created the universe He is responsible for all that happens, or He causes all things that happen, we are dealing more with God’s sovereignty, and mot His knowledge. At least for the time being, we are only concerned with God’s knowledge and if that translates into God causing that something. Does God’s knowledge somehow preclude people’s freedom? I see no reason to think it does.

What If God Didn’t Know the Future?

If God didn’t know the future, would that somehow change anything? Say, He created Adam and Eve and didn’t know they would sin or not, which isn’t true or biblical, but would that make things any different?  Would that somehow mean that God all of the sudden did not cause Adam and Eve to sin?  No, it wouldn’t . . . So, how does knowing that they would sin change whether or not they were caused to sin? It doesn’t.

This can also be applied to backward causation – If I know the sun came out this morning, does that mean I caused it to happen?  Not at all. 

If I somehow knew the sun would come out tomorrow, which is reasonable, would that somehow mean that I caused it to happen? No, not at all.

Another example could be drawn from circumstances that may or may not happen – take for example, me being born in Nazi Germany or something, as opposed to America in 1985.  It seems obvious that I would have been a very different person had I been born in Nazi Germany (and God would know this, too, since He’s all-knowing), but simply having that knowledge doesn’t mean that it will necessarily happen. Obviously, I wasn’t born in Nazi Germany, so I didn’t turn out the way that God knows I would have.

Merely knowing or not knowing something doesn’t make God the cause or non-cause of that something; that has more to do with God’s sovereignty and less to do with His knowledge.

God’s Sovereignty

If God knows all that will happen, but doesn’t cause all things to happen, how is God sovereign?  How is God still in control of the universe, and how does God work out His plan and purpose if He doesn’t actually cause all things that happen?

It seems to me that God can easily accomplish this by taking all actions into consideration. It isn’t as if God has to think about it, or make predictions, He knows all things by nature. However, not all things will come to pass, just like the example I gave about me in Nazi Germany.

It could be the case that God providentially chose what world to actualize, knowing all that would happen in that world, without being the direct cause of all that would happen in that world. It could be the case that, because we have free will, God has taken our free choices and actions into account, so that He chooses the world He wants to accomplish His will and purpose, without ever infringing on our freedom. This would give God tremendous sovereignty and control over all that happens in the world, without affecting human freedom.  Why not think this is the case?  There is biblical support for it, and it makes the most sense.  Otherwise, we’re forced to embrace some sort of determinism, which makes little to no sense as we’ll see in a moment.

Why Determinism?

Determinism is the idea that everything happens necessarily, including our choices and actions; it’s really a form of fatalism.

In fact, you could take it a step further and say that since our choices are fated to happen, our choices really aren’t choices at all; their was no way we could act any differently.  That is to say that we have no free will. Free will is just an illusion; it’s not really true.

On atheism, some have concluded that we don’t have free will because everything in the universe is governed by the laws of physics. They believe that everything happens necessarily, but this presupposes naturalism.

On theism, they make God out to be the cause of all that happens, and this also leads to everything happening necessarily.

Both scenarios are deterministic, and both are flawed for the same reasons. Let’s look at some of the problems associated with determinism from a Christian perspective.

Determinism Is Harmful

If determinism is true, then God is the author of sin. There’s really no way around it! If God has to be the cause of all things in order to be sovereign over the universe, that makes God the cause of sin and evil, too.

Moreover, human beings can’t even be held responsible for their actions on this view, but this is completely antithetical with what Scripture actually teaches.

In regards to sin,

“in hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised before times eternal;” – Titus‬ ‭1:2‬

God cannot lie; He cannot sin.  How can He be the author of sin and evil? He can’t.

In regards to accountability,

“And I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” – Matthew‬ ‭12:36‬

Everyone will be held accountable for everything they say and do. After all, this is why Hell exists. This is why people are judged, and this is why people will be held found without excuse.

There are tons of other passages that could be used to make this point, but suffice it to say that in order to be judged or held accountable, we have to have genuine freedom from the start; it must be the case that we could have acted otherwise.  Otherwise, it would not be a righteous judgment.

Free Will Is Common Sense

Even if it were the case that free will is an illusion, it certainly seems like it isn’t.  I mean, after all, the entire external world could be an illusion, but why think that’s the case?

Most people, when asked, will admit that they believe in genuine freedom. Nobody thinks that something other than oneself caused them to have coffee this morning, or get ready for work, or drive instead of taking the bus.  Or, nobody thinks that Hitler shouldn’t be punished because He was only doing that which He had no control over – Nonsense!

Of course that doesn’t mean that we’re free to do whatever we want! For example, I can’t fly off like a bird if I wanted to.  Obviously, I don’t have that freedom, but certainly I have some freedom.  If nothing other than myself causes me to do what I do, then that’s sufficient for genuine freedom.

This idea of freedom is what our country was built upon.  The entire justice system hinges on the idea that people do not have to commit crimes; that’s why they are punished and held accountable. Why think this isn’t true when it is obvious to any lay person? There is no reason to doubt what our intuition tells us about our freedom; why think our intuition is false?

Law and justice

In order to be persuaded otherwise, you would need some pretty powerful evidence to override what we already know to be obvious.  For example, it could be the case that I am a brain in a vat of chemicals, but why think that?  If I have no good reason to think that I’m a brain in a vat, then I have every right to reject that belief, just like I have every right to believe that determinism is false, or that free will is true.

Free Will Is Harmless

Even if it’s possible that free will is an illusion, why not believe it anyway? What is the harm in thinking that my choices and actions really are brought about by my free choice?  There’s no harm in believing it’s true.

On the contrary, determinism has not been determined to be true, so why think that it is, especially when my intuition tells me it’s not. What is the harm in believing that I do have free will? At the end of the day, what difference does it make what I think if free will is not true? I might as well believe that I have it since it won’t matter anyway.

Free Will Is Possible

If determinism hasn’t been shown to be true, it’s certainly possible that it’s not. And if that’s the case, then it’s also possible that free will is true!

How can it ever be shown that free will is impossible?  And as long as it’s even possible, it’s possible that it’s true. 

Moreover, if God exists, it’s certainly possible that He could create free creatures if He wanted to. I see no reason to think that God would get any gratification out of creating deterministic robots.

As a matter of fact, I think free will is more plausible on theism than on atheism, or naturalism. If God does not exist, then nature is all there is, and the universe and everything in it are governed solely by the laws of physics. Free will cannot be true. Only on theism is it possibly true.

Determinism Refutes Itself

Finally, the most problematic aspect of determinism is the fact that it defeats itself; it cannot be rationally affirmed.

For example, when we use reasoning and logic, we try to look at evidence for or against a premise, weigh the options, and make a decision as to what is true. Determinism undermines the entire process.

If determinism is true, you are not able to make a free choice by weighing the evidence, using the laws of logic, and come to a conclusion. You are concluding what you have already been determined to, including your belief that determinism is true! It is utterly fallacious and cannot be rationally affirmed.

In order to even argue and make a case against free will, you have to assume that you have it, at least in some capacity. You are assuming that the other person can change his mind by listening to your reasons or arguments. But, if what you’re saying is true, no one is really able to do that. People believe what they believe not because of reasons and evidence, but because they have no choice. The moment you try to argue against free will, you assume that you have it, and are now are arguing from a position of absurdity. That is to say, that your position is false, and its negation is true. To put it another way: determinism is false, and free will is true.

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5 thoughts on “Is Christianity Deterministic?

  1. Or, it could be that determinism and free will, when correctly defined, are compatible concepts. The “versus” comes from replacing “free will is a choice we make free of coercion and undue influence” with “free will is a choice made free of causation”. The idea of “freedom from causation” is irrational, because without reliable cause and effect, we could never reliably cause any effect, and would have no freedom to do anything at all.

    If we ask anyone “Why did you choose A rather than B?”, they’ll happily list the reasons why “A” was the better choice. “Is that what caused you to choose A?”. “Yes”. So this notion that free will must be free from causation is not reasonable, because to make a choice without any reason at all would be literally “unreasonable”. If A and B are so similar that choosing one is as good as the other, then we’d simply flip a coin.

    The problem with “Hell” is that the penalty cannot be justified. There is nothing anyone can do in a finite time on Earth that could justify being tortured for eternity. On Earth, if we were raised as Christians, we hope that the penalty we impose on a criminal offender will correct their behavior. We have rehabilitation programs that we offer to inmates to help them see better options and make better choices in the future.

    And that makes eternal torture unpalatable to Christian sensibilities.

  2. Chris, you covered a lot of ground here! I enjoyed some of the arguments that you made against determinism in this article. These issues are so difficult to sift through, but yet, are so important for Christian theology. I have actually been doing a study on the issues of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, primarily focusing on Calvinism, Arminianism, and alternate views. I write on various topics related to apologetics, culture, theology, and religion from a Christian perspective, so feel free to check out my blog and give me your feedback! jakebyrd.wordpress.com

  3. Freewill is essential to every aspect of our lives. Nobody lives their life as if they didn’t have control over their thoughts and actions.How could you?
    I think some people like the idea of removing responsibility or even just the guilt of some of the things they do.But what happens when somebody does something to them they don’t like? Do these same people think they deserve rights and freedom?
    I highly doubt that when someone infringes on their rights and freedom they say, “It’s okay, they couldn’t help themselves”. I don’t see them advocating to remove the justice system because without freewill justice is meaningless.Lastly, I can never get them to acknowledge that if they are correct, they nor anyone else wouldn’t have the ability to know it. Essentially, they are trying to reason away their ability to reason. It doesn’t get more self refuting than that.
    I don’t understand why any Christian would deny their freewill. Do they believe that God would punish and reward people for something he made them do? If I made a drone and programmed it to bomb a school, is it rational to punish the drone or me? Can a robot sin?
    In my humble opinion, I can’t find any way to have a rational society, a rational life and a rational belief in God without freewill. Thank God for giving us that! God bless!

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