Can Man Be Free if Determinism is True?

A Guest Post by Richard Bushey

This is a guest post by Richard Bushey, founder and contributor of Articles by guest writers are not necessarily reflective of the whole or even parts of our established writers, and should be received as the opinions of the writer, not the Collective as a whole.

“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”

–Genesis 50:20

The doctrine of freedom of the will is a very important theme in Christian thought. For many, it is the primary method of explaining how there is evil and suffering in the world. However, many have pointed out that there are other core doctrines of the Christian faith that seem to compromise freedom of the will. How could God truly be sovereign over all of our actions if in fact we are free? How could predestination be true if man is free? Can man truly be free if divine determinism is true? Reformed thinkers recognize that freedom of the will is compatible with divine determinism. This is known as the doctrine of compatibilistic freedom, as contrasted against libertarian freedom, which is the doctrine that man can make choices free from constraints such as human nature or God’s decree.

Those who have wrestled with these issues have felt the force of this objection. It seems counterintuitive to think determinism could be compatible with freedom. God has ordained everything that has come to pass. There is not a movement of quantum particle or a leaf falling from a tree that does not fall under God’s jurisdiction. It would then seem that God is controlling our actions. The writing of the words on this page are controlled by God as part of his sovereign plan. But if that is the case, then how could I truly be free in writing the words on this page?

Two Scriptural Affirmations of Compatibilism

As I pointed out in my recent article “Is God The Author of Sin On Divine Determinism?” there is certainly nothing wrong with reflecting upon scriptural truths to find a good resolution to difficult problems. But if something is taught in Scripture, then that should be a sufficient basis for belief. One might say, “Scripture cannot teach something that is illogical.” This would be to conflate a mystery with a contradiction. There are many mysteries in Scripture. We should not reinterpret Scripture just because we do not know the resolution to a difficult problem.

“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” –Genesis 50:20

Out of envy and jealousy, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. But Joseph rose from the pits of slavery to the height of the Egyptian court. When his people were facing the potential of famine, he used his political clout to ensure that they were cared for. The brothers did something that was evil. However, knowing that a famine was imminent, God ordained that evil decision precisely so Joseph would rise to greatness and save the lives of his kinsmen.

Our Arminian brethren might reply that God was simply making the best out of a bad situation. God saw what the brothers did and he reacted to it. But I am not inclined to think that this is a viable response. First, it would seem to compromise the sovereignty of God. Are we really to believe that God is just picking up the pieces, desperately hoping that he can make good out of a bad situation? Second, the text says that there were two intentions in the actions of the brothers. They intended evil. God intended good. If God intended good, then he intended for the brothers to kidnap Joseph and sell him into slavery.

These two intentions seem to be direct support of the doctrine of compatibilism. God is directing the evil actions of the brothers, but they are still freely choosing to sell him into slavery. I could imagine one might object that perhaps the brothers were not truly free. But Joseph identified their actions as evil, meaning that they were morally responsible. Freedom is required for moral responsibility.

“Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger… I sent him against a godless nation… but this is not what he intends.” –Isaiah 10:5-11

My quotation is obviously abridged, and I encourage you to read verses 5-11. What is happening in the book of Isaiah? Isaiah is sent to warn Israel of imminent doom. Israel had a covenant with God. They were his children. They had responsibilities. Just as a father expects more of his child and will discipline him more sternly than a neighbor child, God disciplined Israel. Israel betrayed God, falling into idolatry and sin. So, God sent judgment upon Israel. The wicked Assyrian army was deployed to plunder the Israelites.

But what led the Assyrians to make the decision? Why did they want to plunder Israel? Were they sent a prophet, who told them that God has a command for them? Certainly not. Rather, God withheld his grace from them, allowing them to sink into the depths of depravity and form morally deficient reasons for plundering Israel. So, they had evil intentions. That is why God said, “Woe to Assyria.” They were sinning despite that they were doing precisely what God ordained.

Again, we see dual intentions that form the same action. God intended for the Assyrians to punish Israel for their wickedness. But Assyria intended to be conquerors, to plunder many nations and rise to greater glory. They were evil. But God ordained what they were doing for a greater purpose. The dual intentions on the part of God and man that arrive at the same action seems to very strongly support the doctrine of compatibilism.

Can Molinism Explain These Passages?

Our Molinist brethren may be reading these words in great confidence. Passages such as these are precisely what they will use when they are outlining their view of God’s providence. In fact, that is what I did when I was a Molinist. They will tell us that Molinism is consistent with these passages. But what is Molinism? Very briefly, Molinism is the doctrine that God consults his knowledge of counterfactuals to put men in situations wherein he knows they will freely choose to do his will. This theological construction is thought to be consistent with passages such as Genesis 50:20 and Isaiah 10:5-11. I concede that it is consistent with these passages.

But saying a theological construction is consistent with these passages is not an argument that the theological construction is true. We are performing exegesis on the text. Where from the text can one derive the concept that God is consulting his knowledge of counterfactuals to place men in situations in which he knows they will freely choose to do his will? One might reply that they are conducting systematic theology. Okay, granted. But then where do you find the doctrine that God is consulting his knowledge of counterfactuals to put men in situations where they will freely choose to do his will anywhere, at all, in the text of Scripture? If it is not there, then how is that systematic theology?

The Molinist might be inclined to shoot the question back to me: where do you find determinism in the text? Determinism is in the text. It is far, far simpler than Molinism, and has an equal (if not greater) explanatory scope, as I explained here. As a result, it is more plausible to interpret these passages as supporting divine determinism as opposed to Molinism. Therefore, passages such as Genesis 50:20 and Isaiah 10:5-11 vindicate the doctrine of compatibilism.

Slaves To Sin – Total Depravity

You will remember that libertarian free will is the doctrine that man is free to make choices without outside constraints, such as God’s foreordination or man’s own sinful nature. But I do not know that this makes a whole lot of sense or comports very well with the scriptural doctrine of total depravity. First, in what sense could somebody make a decision that was not determined by their nature? As Jeremiah 13:23 says, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” Orthodox Christians recognize that human beings have a sinful nature.

In John 8:32, Jesus told the Pharisees that if they had believed in the truth, the truth would make them free. But the Pharisees were confused by this statement. They were children of Abraham and they have never been enslaved to anybody. So, how can Jesus tell them that they can be free? Free from what influence? What is he talking about? Jesus replied in verse 34, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” The Pharisees were slaves to sin. All people are slaves to sin. We cannot choose righteousness, and the basis for our inability is our refusal. As the great Reformed preacher Paul Washer said, “Man cannot cannot come to God because he will not come to God, and he will not come to God because he hates him.”

What is the relevance to compatibilism? Remember again that libertarian free will is the doctrine that “our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature and free from any predetermination by God.” But if we are slaves to sin, then in what sense can we make choices that are free from the constraints of our sinful nature? Jeremiah said that our sinful nature is as firm as the color of our skin. Libertarian free will does not seem to be consistent with the doctrine of total depravity.

Will There Be Sin In Heaven?

The book of Revelation briefly depicts the New Heaven and the New Earth. In verse 4, it says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” It is a world without evil or suffering. But that entails the absence of sin. If there is no more sin, then nobody is choosing to sin. But why is nobody choosing to sin?

Many Christians believe that being so overcome with the presence of God, the very idea of sin will seem utterly unthinkable. But that entails that their choices are determined by outside influences. It is not like a choice is something that occurs in a vacuum, where there are no external circumstances. Every choice that we make is very much determined by what is influencing us. Unless you want to argue that our libertarian free will is somehow absorbed when we arrive to our eternal destination, then the idea that nobody will ever sin seems like a challenge.

Moral Responsibility is Compatible With Compatibilism

You will remember when I was discussing Joseph’s brothers, I pointed out that free will is required for moral responsibility. This means that if it can be shown that moral responsibility exists on compatibilism, it will follow that determinism and free will truly are compatible.

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt pointed out that there is a host of situations in which man would truly be responsible for his actions despite the inability to choose otherwise, and he has given a number of amusing examples. Suppose for a moment that Johnson was trying to decide whether he wanted to be an Arminian or a Calvinist. But, Johnson’s father was a staunch Arminian and did not want his son to be influenced by the concept of sovereignty. So, he implanted electrodes into Johnson’s brain. Every time Johnson wanted to read a book by R.C. Sproul or James White or the apostle Paul, the electrode would compel him to instead read Roger Olson. But, if Johnson reads Roger Olson on his own, the electrode is inactive. In this case, Johnson is freely choosing to read Olson even if he could not choose otherwise.

This same sort of scenario can be applied to all sorts of moral situations, thus retaining moral responsibility on compatibilism. Since free will is required for moral responsibility, it follows that free will and determinism are compatible.

What About Adam & Eve?

Arminians often point to Adam and Eve as individuals who freely chose to sin without the constraints of a sinful nature. In this case, it would seem that they were making true, libertarian choices. With no sinful nature, there is no outside influence. However, I am afraid this would simply beg the question in favor of indeterminism. If determinism is true, then the outside factor would be God’s foreordination. There are different causal levels. In most cases, people make choices according to their sinful nature brought about by the foreordination of God. But in the case of Adam and Eve, they did not have a sinful nature, but their choice was still under the foreordination of God. So, if this were taken as an argument against determinism, it would have to assume its’ own conclusion.

God is Often Mourning and Pleading

Perhaps one of the most compelling biblical arguments for libertarian freedom is how God interacts with Israel throughout the Old Testament. In Ezekiel 33:11, God says, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?” There are many comparable passages throughout the Bible. In Jeremiah 2, God seems to be mourning the choices of sinful Israel, telling them to return to him. If they are not truly free to choose good or evil, then what is the point of these implores?

Well, I think that this would be a basic category error. There seem to be two divine wills in the Bible. First, there is God’s decree. He foreordained everything that will come to pass, including the sinful choices that Israel will make. But second, there is also his Law – his expressed will for his people. All people have a responsibility to obey God’s Law, to turn to him in repentance and faith. When God is pleading with Israel, he is mourning the fact that his people are not following his Law.

Why Should We Pray, Evangelize, or Do Anything?

If everything is part of God’s divine foreordination, then the objection arises: why should we bother to do anything at all? God’s plan is unfolding independently of anything I do. He is bringing his people to faith. He is governing the universe as he sees fit. So what good reasons are there to pray or evangelize? This would characterize the difference between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism is the conclusion that we do not really need to share the gospel with anybody because God will accomplish his ends either way. Traditional Reformed theology rejects this concept.

First, the reason we pray and evangelize is that it is part of God’s expressed will for us. It is a command for us to fulfill even if we do not understand it. Second, God’s decree is not independent of human actions. He has decreed that you would share the gospel and the elect would hear the voice of the Son of God through your preaching. He has decreed that you would pray and he would answer your prayer. Our actions are part of God’s divine plan. Third, our prayer life changes our heart and further conforms us to the image of the Son.

Is Libertarian Freedom Redundant?

Some suggest that they reject compatibilistic accounts of freedom in favor of libertarianism because libertarian freedom is just a redundancy. If you are free, then you have libertarian freedom. The definition of the word “libertarian” is necessitated by that. But this argument only succeeds if you are interested in winning a debate based on the definition of words in the title of a doctrine. If we are going to have a discussion, it should be about the theological definition of these terms rather than the dictionary definition of the words within the title.

If libertarian freedom merely means that we have free will, a compatibilist could say they believe in libertarian freedom. Libertarian freedom would then become compatible with determinism. The problem is that this is not the way these terms are used in theological discourse. Libertarian freedom may be a redundancy insofar as the definition of these words are concerned, but that does nothing to support the doctrine of libertarian free will.

Not Even Molinism Can Retain Libertarianism

God ordains everything that will come to pass. He is absolutely sovereign over the affairs of men. In what sense, then, could man truly be free to choose anything he has not foreordained? The compatibilist maintains he cannot, but that man is still truly free. Libertarianism is an impossible concept when you have a sovereign God. However, Molinists propose that they have a construction that retains both God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom. As I already indicated, Molinism is the doctrine that God consults his knowledge of counterfactuals in arranging the world, placing men in situations in which they would freely choose to do his will. However, libertarian freedom is such a slippery concept that even this model of sovereignty cannot contain it.

If God puts Johnson into situation X, then he should have the ability to choose A or B. However, Johnson will always choose B when he is in situation X. But if Johnson truly had libertarian freedom, then he would be able to choose A or B. The Molinist might rejoin that Johnson could choose A, but he always chooses B. But if every time situation X were replicated, Johnson always chose B, in what sense could he truly be free to choose A? Would it not be metaphysically necessary that Johnson chose B?

The Molinist would have to reply that it is impossible to replicate situation X. Every other possible world is different such that situation X would always have a minute difference, and it would not be situation X. But this seems unthinkable. Imagine a possible world in which there are two more pebbles on Pluto. Everything else is the same, with only two more pebbles. Those pebbles have absolutely no causal influence on the affairs of men. Second, imagine that God created the world five minutes ago with an appearance of age, with food in our belly that we never truly ate and false memories of experiences that we never truly had. In that world, all of the circumstances would be identical, and situation X would arise, and Johnson would inevitably choose B. Therefore, situation X can truly be replicated, and in every possible world, Johnson would choose B. His choosing of B is metaphysically necessary, and he is not free to do otherwise. Therefore, not even Molinism has the capacity to retain libertarian free will. Compatibilism is a more plausible alternative.

Can Man Truly Be Free if Divine Determinism is True?

The bastion of indeterminism is the doctrine of freedom of the will. If determinism and free will are compatible, then there should be nothing at all that prevents individuals from accepting determinism. As we have seen throughout this article, the biblical data supports compatibilism. It explicitly states that there are two intentions in men’s actions: the intention of God and the intention of men. The common objections to compatibilism and rivaling models seem to be quite defeasible. Libertarian free will is irreconcilable with God’s sovereignty.

About the Author

Richard Bushey is a Christian apologist who owns the website He thinks that it is important to defend the faith from atheistic attacks and thoroughly explain what Christians believe. To that end, his website and ministry are dedicated to providing good answers to difficult questions in the hope that it glorifies Christ.

Additional Links:

The Providence of God, by Paul Helm


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