Is Free Will the Curse?

The Grand Inquisitor: with related chapters from The Brothers Karamazov (Hackett Classics)

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor”, the inquisitor blames Christ for the mess humans are in because God chose to give free will to humans and humans are not capable of making right decisions and thus because of God are doomed to hell.   The inquisitor accuses Christ of failing to take over human free will and by allowing us to choose love – or not—leaves humans with no real hope of attaining heaven because we seem incapable of using free will for the good.  Free will for the Inquisitor is a curse that God imposed on humans and so God is to blame for human sinfulness.  David Bentley Hart in That All Shall Be Saved sees the issue very differently.  This is the 4th post in a blog series reflecting on Hart’s book.  The previous post is An Eternal Hell?

For Hart, “Freedom is a being’s power to flourish as what it naturally is, to become ever more fully what it is”   (That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2386-2386).   What is also true is that all humans grow up in the world of the fall, and therefore never are fully free, but rather are tainted by all the effects that sin has on the world.  For God to hold us fully accountable for our choices would require that each of us really starts life in a fully potential position where we are not yet influenced by the world.  Since none of us can have that perfect potential, we are at a disadvantage from the moment we are conceived.   Hart believes God takes that into account when God judges us.   God does not hold against us what we cannot control or what we inherited, and recognizes that none of us is perfectly free.  God’s patience with us and mercy toward us is thus perfectly just.  God’s mercy is based both in God’s perfect love and God’s perfect justice.

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It is our imperfect condition which makes it impossible for us to fully and freely reject God.  Our understanding of God and our experience of God is already colored and distorted by our experience of the fallen world.  So we never reject God as God is, but always our image of God, which is distorted by our experience of the sinful world.  St Paul appeals to ignorance and unbelief in 1 Timothy 1:13 to explain why he rejected Christ – his understanding was incomplete and God did not hold this against him.  The same is true when Christ dying on the cross forgives his murderers because they didn’t know what they were doing.  St Paul in 1 Cor 2:8 says the rulers killed the King of Glory exactly because they didn’t understand who He was. He really is providing a defense for them that they are not guilty of deicide (though some Orthodox hymns say otherwise ignoring Christ’s forgiveness of them in the Gospel).

You can reject a glass of wine absolutely; you can even reject evil in its (insubstantial) totality without any remainder of intentionality. Neither of these things possesses more than a finite allure in itself. But you cannot reject God except defectively, by having failed to recognize him as the primordial object of all your deepest longings, the very source of their activity. We cannot choose between him and some other end in an absolute sense; we can choose only between better or worse approaches to his transcendence.  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2562-2565)

Hart feels this in itself makes an eternal hell as punishment for unbelievers as an injustice.  He believes if we really knew God, we would not reject God.  What we reject is our false ideas about God.   We can only attain a perfect understanding of God when we are able to set aside the effects of the fall on ourselves.   St. Peter Damaskos says:

“We are punished for our lack of repentance, and not because we had to struggle against temptation; otherwise most of us could not receive forgiveness until we had attained total dispassion. But as St John Klimakos again observes, ‘It is not possible for all to achieve dispassion, yet all can be saved and reconciled with God’”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 30139-43).  [St. John Climacus  (d. 649AD) wrote: “That all should attain to complete detachment is impossible.  But it is not impossible that all should be saved and reconciled to God ” (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p 304). 

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Everyone could attain salvation, but what we cannot attain is that perfect state in which we could completely, freely choose to accept or reject God.  We are  born into the world of the fall, so our thinking is distorted by sin from the moment we are born.  God is just and so does not hold that against us but rather recognizes we are never free of the effects of the fall, of sin and evil.

There is another issue which Hart raises and that is our ideas about God treat God as one among many things in the universe rather than as the source of all things.

…certain modern Anglophone Christian philosophers, formed in the analytic tradition, to abandon the metaphysics of classical theism that Christian intellectual tradition has unanimously presumed from its early centuries, in favor of a frankly mythological picture of God: God conceived, that is, not as Being itself—the source and end of all reality, in which all things live and move and have their being (Acts 17:28)—but merely as one more being alongside all the beings who are, grander and older and more powerful than all the rest, but still merely a thing or a discrete entity. (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2506-2510)

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Because God is being itself, we can never fully separate ourselves from God or completely reject God.  A belief that we have such power to reject God is based in a false idea of God to begin with.   It is not as if we can leave God’s presence or enter into God’s presence.  All we can do is make ourselves more or less aware of our relationship to the Creator.   We all live and move and have our being in God (Acts 17:28) – this is the very world in which we live, the atmosphere we breathe.   This is why even the old division between Jew and Gentile, between those who keep Torah and those who don’t fails to grasp what the human dilemma is.

Paul’s Adam as first human, who introduced universal sin and death, supports his contention that Jew and gentile are on the same footing and in need of the same Savior.  …  The resurrection of Christ showed that the real problem was Adam and the universal problem of the reigning power of sin and its nefarious partner, death. These were at work long before the law (Rom. 5:12–14), and so Christ’s resurrection—death’s reversal—was clearly a solution to a much deeper problem than the law. To say that the law is neither the real problem nor the solution is in effect saying that Israel’s story is not God’s sole focus. The main drama began with the first Adam and ended with the last Adam. That is why being a Jew or gentile is no longer the primary distinction among humans, but rather being or not being “in Christ” is. The heart of Jewish identity is therefore marginalized, and the God of Israel and his salvation are denationalized. Jews and gentiles share the same plight, and Jesus came to solve it. And all of this stems from Paul’s rereading of his Scripture in light of the central and prior conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead.   (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3055-56, 3066-73)

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All humans suffer from the same plight of growing up in a fallen world which distorts our experience or lack of experience of God.   Christ comes to heal that which is lacking in all of us.  Christ comes to unite all of us to God so that we will lacking nothing in our lives and God will become all in all (Ephesians 1:23).  Hart asks rhetorically,

Could there then be a final state of things in which God is all in all while yet there existed rational creatures whose inward worlds consisted in an eternal rejection of and rebellion against God as the sole and consuming and fulfilling end of the rational will’s most essential nature?   (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2673-2675)

Hart does not think that is possible for it represents a contradiction in terms.  If the end of all things is God in all then how could there be an eternal hell in which God is absent?  How could anyone be someplace where God is not if God is all in all?    This can only happen if in fact God’s goal for creation is never fulfilled – and that for the omnipotent God is not possible.

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The existence of an eternal hell of torment for sinners, raises a question:  Is hell good or evil?  On the one hand, if hell is evil and accursed, then we should avoid it.  If it is evil, God could not have created it for God is not the source of evil.  So, if it is evil, it has no real existence but exists only in some parasitical form coming into existence only as the good creation was corrupted, and therefore itself is temporary, not eternal.  If God didn’t create it, then it has no eternal value.  If it is accursed, it will be done away with when Christ comes in His kingdom.    On the other hand, if hell is good because it is created by God, then to be sent there by God is to do God’s will.   One will not be punished for doing God’s will.   It will have some benefit and good value to it.  It will bring about God’s will, and God will fill it with Himself as well and make it a place where God is encountered and we are united to God.

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The notion of an eternal hell calls into question a basic idea in theology which Orthodoxy has treated as absolute and non-negotiable: God is love.  Everything God does is love.  Everything Christ did as the incarnate God, a human person, is for our salvation.  Everything including judgment!  These two aspects of dogmatic theology question whether God would from all eternity have planned an eternal hell or whether, rather, God’s eternal plan always is the same: love.  God’s plan is God’s action toward creation, not God’s reaction to creation.  Death, Hades, hell, all come into being only as part of creation (and the fallen world) – they are not eternal but serve a purpose of purging everyone from sin.  They too will accomplish their purpose.  God’s plan from the beginning has never changed – to unite all that God created to divinity, to share God’s love and life with all God creates.   As God heals creation and makes all things new and becomes all in all, those things which are not part of God’s eternal plan will disappear.   God’s plan will be realized.

Next: Salvation

Freedom: To Love as God Loves

A man is truly free when he exists as God exists; and this way of being is relational. In the words of Metropolitan John Zizioulas, it “is a way of relationship with the Word, with other people and with God, an event of communion, and that is why it cannot be realized as this achievement of an individual, but only as an ecclesial fact.” Communion makes beings “be” and freedom constitutes true being. True freedom does not lie in our ability to make choices – this only manifests the dilemma of necessity – but in our ability, by grace, to love as God does unconditionally, to overcome the fears, anxieties and limitations of our mortal biological existence, and to conquer death. (Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy, p. 78)

Demonic Influence vs. Free Will

“…angelic and demonic thoughts as gifts or temptations from the outside involve some degree of free choice. While it is not in a person’s power to decide whether a demonic or angelic thought will pass through one’s mind, people can choose to act on it or to ignore it. Upon determining the origin of a given thought, a person is quite free to reject the thought or admit it by lingering on it. No matter how enticing a demonic thought maybe, it can only urge not coerce. This can be seen both in the account of the fall and of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness.

Being made in the image of God, each human being receives as a royal birthright the sovereign power of the intelligence and the free will. In fact, Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, well-aware of the radiant examples of the martyrs and great ascetics, writes,

‘God bestowed on our will so much freedom and power, that even if every kind of sensual provocation, ever kind of demon, and the entire world united to take arms against our will and vehemently to make war against it, despite all that, our will remains entirely free to despise that attack and will what it chooses to will or not will what it does not choose to will.’”

(Fr. Alexis Trader, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, p. 60)

Our Demons are Our Own Wills

Abraham, Abba Agathon’s abba, asked Abba Poemen: “Why are the demons doing battle with me so?” and Abba Poemen said to him: “Are the demons doing battle with you? The demons do not battle with us as long as we are following our own wills, for our wills have become demons; it is they that oppress us so that we fulfill them. Do you want to see with whom the demons do battle? It is with Moses and those like him” (Give me a Word,p. 238).

A Statue of Responsibility

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“In a universe where values are relative and individual autonomy reigns supreme, personal responsibility is a doubtful proposition. Responsibility implies accountability to a higher authority than the face in the mirror, there is no need for shame or guilt. Even if you get caught, it is always the fault of someone else: your parents, your teachers, the government, faulty genes (again your parents! And no need for repentance if you can obtain the services of a clever lawyer!). Dr. Victor Frankl was an admirer of the United States and the many freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, but with some caveats. ‘Freedom…is a negative concept which requires a positive complement. And the positive complement is responsibleness..[which] refers to a meaning for whose fulfillment we are responsible, and also to a being before whom we are responsible…Freedom threatens to degenerate into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness..the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast [of the United States] should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.’” (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p. 81)

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To Sin is Not Freedom but Slavery

Theologically speaking, freedom and free will have particular connotations in Orthodox thinking that they don’t have in secular culture.  Modern Western culture, influenced by the Enlightenment, sees true human freedom as the ability of an individual to shake off the shackles which society imposes on the individual’s thinking.  Freedom in popular thinking is defined more as the individual choosing to do whatever that person wants to do.  Government, society, law, all become oppressors of the individual as do tradition, culture, social or religious norms.  Freedom means freeing oneself from the expectations of others.

Theologically though freedom has more to do with the path we choose in life and the consequences of those decisions.  God places before each individual life and all its choices.  There is a path that leads to humans being more godlike, and there is a path which leads away from God.  We are free to choose the path we will follow, but the paths have very different consequences for ourselves and for all of humanity.

One path, which does follow human choice also means we become more attuned to ourselves as individuals, isolated and alienated from all others.  On this path, we lose our belonging to humanity as a whole, we lose our sense of being a relational, interdependent being.  We choose our way into a confinement, a slavery to self which ends up being guided by sin.  This path seems like the greatest personal freedom but it also involves ever increasingly becoming a slave to self, to sin, to death.

Christ, Adam and Eve in Eden

The other path also requires choice, and sometimes is a difficult path, but in it we choose to maintain our relationship with God and with others.  It is a path of love which leads to self denial – for the good of the other.  We sometimes may feel we are giving up personal freedoms to follow a path of another – of God.  But it also is the path which enables us to become most godlike.  It involves free choice, but the choice is to limit one’s self interest.  It means not making self preservation the greatest good, but to choose to make love for others to be the greatest good.

If we follow the first path we do end up being slaves to self, sin, death and Satan.  It may maximize our sense of being freed from the constraint of others. We choose our way to that end. But it does separate us from others and from God, and thus is death.   But God who is love willingly provides redemption for those who find themselves in that dead end.  No matter how far down that path one may walk, God provides the way out.  But, we have to choose to accept God’s offer.

St. Basil the Great writes:

“…let him hear the whole truth of the matter: that every human soul has bowed down under the evil yoke of slavery imposed by the common enemy of all and, being deprived of the very freedom which it received from the Creator, has been led captive through sin. Every captive has need of ransoms for his freedom. Now, neither a brother can ransom his brother, nor can anyone ransom himself, because he who is ransoming must be much better than he who has been overcome and is now a slave. But, actually, no man has the power with respect to God to make atonement for a sinner, since he himself is liable for sin. ‘All have sinned have need of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus’ our Lord.‘”  (The Fathers of the Church: St. Basil Exegetic Homilies, p. 317)

God’s love for us never ends, even when we choose our way to slavery to sin and death.  We will find in that enslavement that we are not free to grow in godliness or to attain eternal life.  God provides us a way out of that enslavement to sin and death.  We cannot free ourselves of it, but God offers us life if we choose our way back to Him.

Becoming Christian

Becoming Christian 

  • Jesus Christ’s act of salvation, his victory over death and sin through his cross and resurrection, is indeed complete and definitive.

  • Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9).
  • But, while the Lord’s victory is certainly an accomplished fact, my personal participation in that victory is as yet far from complete.
  • As St. Paul states “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own…” (Phil 3:12).
  • My personal incorporation in Christ is incomplete, not because of any defect or lack of strength on his side, but because for my part I retain continuing freedom of choice, the ability to refuse as well as to obey.
  • In the words of St. Anthony the Great of Egypt: “Expect temptation until your last breath” and with temptation there always goes the possibility of falling.
  • My trust is therefore in Christ, not in myself, and I am confident that Christ is faithful and stands firm.

  • According, then, to the soteriological perspective of the Orthodox Church, salvation – when viewed from the standpoint of the human subject that receives it – is not a single event in that person’s past but an ongoing process.
  • To quote Martin Luther (not that the Lutherans consider salvation to be a process): “This life is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming.
  • I am on a journey, and that journey has not yet reached its conclusion.  
  • On the Orthodox understanding of the fall and its consequences, humans – retaining as they do the divine image – retain also the freedom to choose between right and wrong.

  • The exercise of our free choice, while restricted and undetermined by the fall, has not been abolished.
  • In our fallen state the human will is sick but it is not dead; and although more difficult, it is still possible for humans to choose the good.
  • We Orthodox cannot agree with Augustine when he maintains that, in consequence of the fall, “free will was lost” or when he claims that we are under “a harsh necessity” of committing sin, and that “human nature was overcome by the fault into which it fell, and so came to lack freedom.”
  • Against this the Orthodox Church affirms, in the words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, that each human being “has the power to do what it wishes. For you do not sin by virtue of your birth.” Fallen humanity has always the possibility to resist temptation: “The devil can make suggestions, but does not have the power to compel you against your will.

(Kallistos Ware, How are we Saved?, pp. 4, 6, 32)

Adam, Eve and Free Will

Scholar Sebastian Brock having studied the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian, describes Ephrem’s understanding of being human and having free will.  For Ephrem the story of Adam and Eve is the story of everyone of us.  Their story is humanity’s story, and the story of our lives is the story of Adam and Eve.  Brock writes:

Adam and Eve (humanity) had been created in an intermediary state, neither mortal nor immortal: it was the exercise of their free will (heruta, “freedom”) over the instruction not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which would decide the matter: if they kept the command (Ephrem emphasizes how small it was), God would have rewarded them, not only with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge but also with the fruit of the Tree of Life, and they would have become immortal and been divinized. As it was, of course, they failed to obey the commandment, and as a result were both expelled from Paradise and became subject to death (which Ephrem sees as a merciful deliverance from the terrible consequences of their disobedience).

The entire aim of God henceforth has been to effect the means for Adam/humanity to return to Paradise, which still respecting the awesome gift of free will with which humanity has been endowed. But it is not just to the intermediary state of primordial Paradise that God wishes humanity to return: in the eschatological Paradise humanity is to receive the gift of divinity from the Tree of Life that God had originally intended for the primordial Adam and Eve. (The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual Wisdom of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 31-32).

 

Called by God to Choose to Obey

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”  (Romans 8:28)

St. John Chrysostom presents an interesting picture of the relationship between God’s will and our free will.

“God does not compel, but allows people to be masters of their own choices even after the call.” (Margaret M. Mitchell, The Heavenly Trumpet, p 213)

God calls us to follow Him and to obey Him, but even when the omnipotent God calls us, God allows us to choose how to respond.  There is a true synergy between God and any human – we have to cooperate with God for our salvation.

“… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

To Make the Heart Right With God

10commadments“Orthodoxy calls upon us to exercise our free will in cooperation with God’s grace. It does not call upon us to act as puppets or robots to social convention or even to the words of divine revelation. If the mechanical fulfilment of the ten commandments or even the whole of the law could have made one ‘righteous’ or bestowed ‘holiness,’ there would have been no need for the Incarnation. No deed which does not proceed from the heart, motivated by love, has any actual moral value. Fulfilling the law out of fear, social pressure or any kind of self-interest could have no genuine moral value.

Fulfilling it unselfishly, motivated by love, would require a genuinely free choice that would reflect the image and likeness of God in us. We might choose to obey the written law simply out of fear of punishment, but we need love in order to freely, without coercion, choose to cooperate with divine grace. Cooperating with God’s grace does not place us in bondage to mechanical actions nor abolish our free will. We must still make free choices, even those informed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, which inclines us toward certain choices but does not force us to accept them. Choices made under coercion or fear are not accepted in the heart, not made ‘in spirit,’ they are not free. They may lead to ‘correct behavior’ but they cannot make the ‘heart right with God.’ ” (Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, Freedom to Believe, pp 14-16)