Do we have free will? Modern materialists say, no. This is what I learned watching an episode in a series on science that was hosted by Stephen Hawking on Public Broadcast Television.
Hawking explained the experiments that informed this view. In the experiment, the subjects were told to choose to push a button and to note the time on the clock at which the decision was made. At the same time, the subject’s brain waves were being monitored for activity. Over and over again, the brain waves were measured showing that the uptick in brain waves happened before the subject was conscious of the actual decision being made to take the action.
The experiment demonstrated the following sequence: (1) a brain signal occurs about 550 milliseconds prior to the finger’s moving; (2) the subject has an awareness of his decision to move his finger about 200 milliseconds prior to his finger’s moving; (3) the person’s finger moves.
This was interpreted as evidence by Hawking that we don’t have free will. The decisions we make are actually prompted by brain activity before we are conscious of making the decision. The conclusion is that we are responding to some prior stimuli and only think that we are making independent decisions. Hawking concluded, therefore, that we are determined, as everything is, by natural laws in an endless stream of cause and effect.
But wait, there is more. The scientist who conducted these experiments, Benjamin Libet, actually came to the opposite conclusions. And lest you think this is only an interesting experiment with no practical application, I find some interesting applications to our struggles with sin.
I have taken a prompt from the explore God discussion series going on simultaneously in over 800 churches in the Chicago area to write up a summary of the problem of evil. More specifically, I was spurred on by the discussion of The Problem of Evil and Suffering on Veracity Hill between Kurt Jaros, the host, and John Peckham from Andrews University.
I think this is the most difficult problem to deal with in the modern western world for the theist, and specifically the Christian who maintains, as Scripture reveals, that God is both all-powerful and all-good.
If God is all-powerful, why did He create a world in which evil, pain and suffering exist?
Does that mean He really isn’t all-powerful?
Or maybe God isn’t good?
Or maybe the God of the Bible doesn’t really exist?
Many people who can’t resolve this problem in their minds (or maybe their hearts) end up rejecting the idea of God altogether.
If there is a resolution the problem, we can’t do it justice by abandoning the premises we are given. We need to work through it.
For the Christian, those premises don’t just include the omnipotence and omni-benevolence of God. We need to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. I have come to believe that, if we hold on to and expand the premises we are given, and fill out the picture, some clarity begins to emerge.
One of the additional puzzle pieces is that God isn’t just good; God is love. In fact, God is love in His very nature.
Some people have trouble with the idea of the Trinity, three in one. We can understand God’s triunal (communal) nature in the context of love. As three in Person and one in Being, God’s very character is love from before time even began. (See The Plurality of God) God has community and relationship (love) within Himself.
And, Scripture says that He made us in His image. If we are made in His image, we are made to reflect His love. This is another of the puzzle pieces.
Love requires freedom. Coercion has no place in a loving relationship. Thus, for us to know love and to love God, we need to be free, and that includes freedom to reject God and what is good.
The Christian, who accepts the premise that God is good, rejects the idea that God is evil or caused evil to exist. Evil is not in the nature of God because God is who He is. Evil, then, must be a byproduct of the freedom God gave His creation. Evil is the rejection of God and what is good.
Pain and suffering aren’t, per se, evil, though evil produces pain and suffering. God created a world in which pain and suffering exist from the beginning. (see Part 1).
Finally, we find that God’s grand plan and purpose is that His creation would enter into a loving relationship with Him, not because it must, but because His created beings want to.
These are the basic puzzle pieces. (If you want to examine these premises more closely, you will have to read the previous posts and do some research of your own.) From here, we will go back to the premise of God’s power (sovereignty) and examine more fully how it can be that an all-powerful God (who is also good) can allow evil to exist.
Today someone spoke about going “from selfishness to salvation”. I have never heard anyone put it that way before, but it’s as accurate a statement as any I have heard.
Jesus said, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) Loving and holding tightly to my own life, shutting God out, refusing to concede control to my Creator, desiring to go my own way is the life of a person without God. Marked by a desire to control my own destiny, to be captain of my own soul, so that I can say, at the end of the day, “I did it my way”, is a life lived without God.
The terrifying thing is that God will let us our own way. He didn’t prevent Adam and Eve from eating the forbidden fruit. They were tempted by the desire to “be like God”[a], championing their own lives, making their own choices and, ultimately, usurping God’s place of prominence in their lives.
The fruit they ate was “good”; it was delightful and even desirable.[b] The fruit, itself, wasn’t bad, but the choice to go their own ways, to assert their own wills over the will of God, was their downfall.
Without the choice of going our own way, we would, perhaps, live a seemingly idyllic life. We would forever be “perfect” little angels, but God obviously had something else in mind. God had to know the choice we would make.
That initial choice doomed us to the imperfection of our humanness, but it also opened the door to something else completely. It opened up the opportunity for us to enter into a relationship with God we could never have known in that “perfect”, idyllic, innocent state.
In back-to-back chapters in the Gospel of John (8, 9 and 10), Jesus has conversations with Jewish crowds who question who he is. Jesus never tells them in direct words, “I am God,” but the crowd clearly knows what he is talking about. This is similar to what we experience in life.
The world is made in such a way that it is governed by natural laws that have existed since the beginning of time. The cosmological constants were set from the beginning and are so finely tuned that they could not be changed this way or that way, even the slightest bit, without negating the possibility of life on Earth. Many scientists look at these laws and draw the conclusion that either they have always existed or they are simply all there is.
But where did the laws come from? Where did the universe come from? There is plenty of other evidence that God, the Creator, exists. The cosmological constants do not eliminate the possibility of a God. In fact, if those constants had a beginning, they must have had a beginner. But, there is room to question and to dismiss the idea.
Many of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus, especially the influential leaders, questioned who Jesus claimed to be. Jesus did not get in their face about it. Just like God does not reveal himself in the created Universe in a way that we could not ignore him, Jesus was subtle, but clear.
I find this to be fascinating. It reveals a deep thread that has been coming into focus for me going way back in time.
God created us with free will. If he was in our face, we would have no free will. He would overwhelm and overcome us if we could not ignore Him.
The plans of the heart belong to man,
but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. Prov. 16:1
God expects us to make our plans. The ability to plan, to exercise choice, was given to us by God, who created us in His own image. But we do not control the outcomes. On the one hand, we do not control our own destinies. On the other hand, we are not left to our own devices.
The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps. Prov. 16:9
We have the responsibility to plan our ways, but God determines the outcomes. We can spend our entire lives planning our ways without any thought to God, who determines our outcomes. We have the ability to live as if God does not even exist, but we do not escape the One who establishes the course we actually take. We may have no choice in the outcomes, but we have choice in our planning.
To that extent, we could plan our ways with God in mind, seeking God’s wisdom, God’s purposes and God’s plans. Or we can choose to plan our ways without regard to God at all. God gives us that choice.
A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way? Prov. 20:24
The actual courses we take, however, are affected by the “circumstances” of our lives, the opportunities and obstacles that come our way, and the almost unlimited variety of influences, happenings and factors that ultimately determine the “steps” we take. This is just another way of saying that God establishes our steps.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. James 4:13-16
We don’t control our own way though we often think (presume) and act as if we do. God doesn’t frown on our plans. He made us with the capacity to plan our own ways, but we err (sin) if we fail to understand that we are not in control of the outcome of our plans. Our ability to freely plan our ways creates an illusion that we are the captains of our own destinies, but thinking and acting as if we actually do captain our own destinies is arrogance of the first order.
What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. James 4:14
Our lives are but a breath. (Job 7:7) Our lives are like clouds that appear and then vanish into thin air. (Job 7:9) Our days on earth are just a shadow. (Job 8:9) Our days are like the runner, fleeing away. (Job 9:25) Our days pass on like grass boats slipping downstream. (Job 9:26) Our lives are like a wind that passes and never returns. (Psalm 78:39) We are like flowers that bloom and quickly wither. (Job 14:2)
LORD, make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; Let me know how transient I am. Psalm 34:9
Don’t presume about your life. Be mindful that life is short. Be aware that God is ultimately in control. God has his purposes. Pray and seek God and to understand His purposes. Make plans, but always be mindful of God and his plans and purposes. Invite God into your plans; seek for your plans to be harmonious with God’s plans.
We can live our lives on our own, going our own ways or we can live life in harmony with God and His ways. God gives us that choice, and we are responsible for the way we exercise that choice. At the end of our short days, as the bloom withers, what will be the outcome of our lives if we lived them our own ways?
The creed of this world lived our own way, apart from God, is I Did It My Way. We can do that. We can boast we did it our way. But, to what end?
As for me, when I think of the alternatives, when I consider the temptation to be the captain of my own soul, come hell or high water (as it is said), I think of the disciples complaining of the words of Jesus spoken to the crowds:
“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60)
Jesus didn’t change His message to accommodate His followers, and, as a result, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him”. (John 6:66)
In this context, Jesus turned to the twelve disciples and asked,
“Do you want to go away as well?” (John 6:67)
This is the question we all must face. This is point to which we all have or will arrive, either in this life, or when our days are done. How we respond to it is the ultimate choice we make or will make.
We don’t control when the light that is our life will go out. Our days are numbered, and they are in God’s hands. We don’t control when the choice to accept and follow Him can be made.
The plans of the heart belong to man,
but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. Prov. 16:1
We make our choices, but God is the determining factor in our destiny. Will we choose to submit our selves, our plans, our destinies to God? Or will we go our own way.
When Jesus asked his disciples whether they wanted to go away too, as the others followers did when the message got difficult for them, Simon Peter answered for the group:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
This, too, is my response. Though I often stumble, there is no other path for me. There is nothing else for me. There is nowhere else I want to be.