So you think you have free will?

I’ve been thinking again, this time about the nature of free will as it applies to salvation (following up on my last post)–specifically, the concept of universal salvation. The basic Christian concept of universal salvation, that is, the concept of universal salvation in the context of Christianity, is that Christ died for all. There are a number of Bible passages that would support this, including:

This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…

1 Timothy 2:3-6

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…

John 3:16

and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

2 Corinthians 5:15

To name a few.

back to free will

The fact that not all agree with the concept is pretty obvious, and there are reasons for those disagreements. My personal assessment is that the “ayes” outweigh the “nays,” but that’s beside the point (for now).

Believing that God will “save” everyone, whether they like it or not, logically means that free will when it comes to salvation is illusory. I should mention that Calvinists also teach that whether you are saved or not is solely up to God’s will, but that He only chooses to save some. (This ugly teaching is, I believe, based on some very evil theology, but that, too, is an issue for another time.)

It is natural for us, especially those born into the Cartesian, Western world, to have a viscerally negative response to this concept. What do you mean, we don’t control our own destiny? How can God be so presumptuous? We are not puppets!

Now, both philosophers and scientists have been dealing with this issue of free will on secular levels, which is interesting, but not necessarily relevant to this discussion, as we’re dealing specifically with God’s will versus man’s will. (Clue, I think God has the advantage here.) So, let’s set aside the question of whether what we have for breakfast is a choice or scripted by either God or genetics.

The issue of whether or not we have the freedom to choose to be “saved” or not needs to be viewed in the context of a few undeniable truths:

  • We had absolutely no say in our own birth. None. We all were incepted, and about 9 months later, hello world.
  • We did not choose our parents. Seriously. Totally out of our hands.
  • We didn’t have any say on when we were born. You could have been a cave dweller, but instead, you have iPhones.
  • We had no input into where we were born. Proud to be an American? You had nothing to do with it.
  • Ditto with race. Proud to be white? You should be thankful.

And the list goes on. Who you are, whether due to God’s specific input or genetics based on a totally random sperm making it first to an egg (I mean, think of the odds), was handed to you at birth.

So, already free will not in the race. Later on, we start being faced with choices. And now, the philosophical and scientific questions arise–what part of our choices are still tied to genetics?

Free what?

I personally (or impersonally) believe that we have a great deal of free will (and the philosopher in me asks, “is this belief programmed?”). And what about universal salvation? What if I don’t want to go to Heaven (for lack of a better term)?

I think of it this way: We are told that we live in an imperfect world, because mankind chose to exercise free will. So, God allows that, because it was our choice. He also allows the natural consequences of our choices to exist (war, hunger, etc.). But God has promised to put things right, by saving not only all of mankind, but creation itself. Why shouldn’t we all benefit from that?

The word for salvation, or saving, essentially means rescue. What would you think of a God who says he will only rescue a few that He picks? Or only those who ask the right way? Food for thought.

I think of salvation as healing. Jesus once asked a lame man, “Do you want to be healed?” The man may not have been sure; presumably, he made his living by begging, and laying near a spring that supposedly had healing powers. It was a good question… did he want to be healed, or did he really want to continue as he was? Maybe he didn’t know, or didn’t even have the capacity to choose at that point.

It’s something to think about. Do we want rescue/saving/healing? Do we even know, without being healed first?

When it comes right down to it, I think free will is highly over-rated.

A Simple Faith

Christianity can seem pretty complicated, especially if you try to pay attention. There are way too many voices out there clamoring for your attention, each with their own intricately nuanced theology (even if they avoid using the word). Raise your hands if you’ve ever tried to figure out the four or five points of Calvinism, the modes of baptism, the differences between the “tribs” and “mills,” predestination vs free-will, or what the heck “emerging” means. It seems like it’s much easier to grasp the principles of quantum mechanics than justification or the trinity.

Sometimes it can be quite confusing just trying to figure out if you’re really saved. Were you baptized the right way? Did you pray the right prayer? Do you really have “saving” faith? And, are you saved forever, or just until you mess up again?

Is Christianity really that complex? Do we need a degree to be able to grasp the Gospel? Is intellectualism next to Godliness? Thankfully, Jesus did not say, “Unless you become a Ph.D., you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Not once.

What Jesus did say was, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 18:3)” Earlier in Matthew, we read Jesus pray, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. (Matt. 11:25)”

I first remember these verses from listening to sermons as a young child, and they stuck with me. “Let the little children come to me. (Luke 18:16)” In a world where information was given to children on a “need to know” basis, here was Jesus putting children first, and telling the adults that children understand the Kingdom of God better than adults.

In the movie Hook, Robin Williams plays an older, wiser, Peter Pan, who has become so grown-up that he has forgotten who he is, and that the stories of his childhood he takes for fairy tales are really true. To save his children, and himself, he must “become as a little child,” remembering who he was, believing what he once believed.

In the adult world, skepticism is the key to knowledge; never accept anything at face value, question authority, look before you leap. Children haven’t yet learned to doubt; they simply understand that Jesus loves me, this I know.  I think that it’s not so much that children know something about God’s love that adults don’t. Rather, I think for children, God’s love is simply enough. When has God’s love simply been enough for us?

Certainly, it’s important to know a few things, like that Jesus is God’s son, and that he died and rose again to defeat sin and death forever. But, I’m not sure that the thief on the cross understood this — he definitely didn’t know about the resurrection — yet we know he made it to paradise. What did the woman at the well know about Jesus? Or what about all the people that Jesus healed?

The Bible is full of theology; that’s where theology comes from. Jesus taught theology, as did Paul and the other disciples. I’m all in favor of learning the Bible and theology. But if we lose what we had as children, we lose sight of the Kingdom.

Learn all you can. But let “Jesus loves me” be enough.

Questions:

  1. If you can, try to recall what you were like as a child of five or six. Thinking of the Gospel, what would have been enough for you?
  2. In growing and maturing, what have you lost?

A little philosophical diversion: Why the Outsider Test for Faith fails

Okay, every once in a while I just have to comment on the ridiculous nature of certain atheists’ attempts to appear superior to people who don’t think “faith” is a bad word. I really should just unsubscribe to the Debunking Christianity blog, but it’s like a train wreck — as bad as it is, you just have to watch.

Today John once again promotes his outsider test for faith, “to test their own adopted religious faith from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism they use to evaluate other religious faiths.”

It’s an interesting challenge, to be sure. I don’t disagree that this proposal has some merit; too many Christians don’t understand why Christianity is a uniquely valid belief, and we should. As Peter wrote, we should be ready to give an answer for our faith (1 Pet. 3:15).

The problem is to do so without accepting without question another belief system in the process, which can potentially “stack the deck” against Christianity. As I’m certain I’ve mentioned before (I don’t have the energy or time to search the archives), it seems that many people who leave Christianity do so because they unquestionably accept certain facets of modernism.  Trying to make Christianity fit into a completely modernist worldview is like fitting the proverbial square peg into a round hole.

All of us in the western world have been raised breathing and eating modernism since we were born; we cannot really conceive of a different way of thinking, and accept without question that our worldview or paradigm is simply “the way things are.”  In reality, modernism is a grid developed through which to view the world. Prior to Descartes, it didn’t exist.  The Bible doesn’t conform to modernist thought, because it was not written by modernists.

This creates issues for doctrines like inerrancy, where writings from an ancient oriental culture are held to modernist standards; it is exactly like forcing a square peg into a round hole.

But, we in the west are all now modernists, whether we like it or not (even so-called post-modernists). What is frustrating for those of us who realize that modernism is not necessarily the way things are is that we can’t even analyze modernism without resorting to modernist methods.

The Problem With Modernism

This creates a problem, as explained by series of philosophers from Hume to Godel (and beyond). Hume began by challenging the core principle of causality. While we can predict based on past events that flipping a switch will turn on the lights, we can never guarantee that this will happen the next time, or prove that it was the switch which caused the lights to come on.

Kant explored this further, discovering that there must be limitations to reason itself, as reason must be limited by the limited categories of the mind. Skipping ahead, Godel showed mathematically that a system can only be substantiated by something outside the system. In other words, we can show that reason is limited and flawed, but we can never prove that it is not. So far, no one has been able to refute the basic challenge issued by Hume.

Modernism is essentially the worldview that says everything can be analyzed objectively and rationally, but cannot prove that it ever works. In other words, you must accept modernism and rationalism by faith.

The Failure of Loftus’ Outsider Test For Faith

The OTF fails because it requires someone to subject a non-modern belief system to a modernist analysis, which cannot be proven to have any validity whatsoever. The only thing it can do is to mislead someone into thinking that modernism is, in fact, the way it is.  Because the square peg cannot fit nicely into this imaginary round hole (a better analogy, perhaps, is trying to stuff the entire universe into a hat), people are left having to choose: a flawed faith in modernism, or Christianity.  It is, of course, a false dichotomy, but as we know, lies are the devil’s only real weapons.

But of course, Stephen Hawking, who has assured us that we no longer have any need to believe in God, also asserts that philosophy is dead. Obviously, Hawking’s reason has met its limitations.

This I Know

As I write in my introductory post My Childhood God,  I have discovered that I still believe in the same God I believed in as a child. That is, I believe much of the same things about God that I did as a child. While I have grown in experience and knowledge and my beliefs have been refined, I find that what I learned about God still holds true today.

I should also point out here that my understanding of God’s character and how He acts appears to be in conflict with the beliefs held by many people (hereafter referred to as OPB, or Other People’s Beliefs).  Some of these OPB were held by me at some point in my journey, others I have always rejected. My point is not that I haven’t changed what I believe; to the contrary, I have been in constant change. On at least two occasions I have gutted my library of books that I no longer agreed with. However, I am aware that I had a knowledge of God as a child that has remained. I also have discovered that I had a pretty decent theological education as a child.

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

My absolute core belief about God is that He loves me unconditionally. While various people over the years have tried to convince me that I have to jump through certain hoops in order to earn that love, I don’t recall any point in my life where I was not convinced that God loved me unconditionally. I know that this is not common, and it’s something for which I am quite grateful. I know far too many people who were raised believing that God was a stern master, more like the “angry God” of a Jonathan Edwards sermon.

My childhood memories are for the most part fragmented and random, filled with more emotion than fact. When I was three, I was given a small record player (some of you will remember records).  The case was red and white plastic, with a cover that lifted back to reveal a small turntable, just large enough to play 45 RPM records, and a tone arm so heavy I’m surprised it didn’t actually cut through the plastic disks. I had an assortment of 78’s and 45’s (we’re talking lat 1950’s, folks) which included an assortment of children’s songs, including the standard Jesus Loves Me (although my favorite was a 45 my dad had of Chopin’s Les Sylphides – go figure).

Jesus Loves Me is still a favorite of mine, the lyrics presenting a simple truth:

Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong
They are weak, but He is strong

Truth like this is hard to beat; and, unfortunately, it often seems hard to find in many contemporary worship choruses which tend to focus on our emotions about God rather than truth about God’s emotions toward us. If your church sings a lot of contemporary choruses, chances are many of them focus on “I” – “I will follow you” or “I love you.” We have this idea that worship depends upon our action towards God, as if we’re initiating the relationship.

The reality is that God really does love us unconditionally. When I hear “Jesus loves me,” I cannot help but respond; it’s how we were designed.  Unfortunately, there are many who have been so damaged by bad teaching about God or who have made emotional connections between the Heavenly Father and bad earthly fathers that they simply cannot receive such truth. Personally, I believe that we all need to hear “God loves you” over and over again. Like dripping water slowly boring through solid rock, eventually the truth that God loves us will break through.