Saturday, August 31, 2013

The False Illusion of Free Will in Christianity

Sheldon’s note: Though I use the word “Christianity” in the title when talking about the Christian doctrines of salvation and hell, I am primarily referring to understanding of these doctrines from a fundamentalist perspective; I do understand that some Christians, especially Christian universalists, don’t even believe in the doctrine of hell at all.

My understanding of Christianity primarily comes from my fundamentalist upbringing and former beliefs, so that is my frame of reference when discussing theological matters.

Though fundamentalism both annoys and repulses me, few strains of fundamentalism (other than cults like the Independent Fundamental Baptist group and Sovereign Grace Ministries of  course), annoy me more than people on the more extreme end of Calvinist theology, what the writers of the Christian website The Wartburg Watch like to call “Neo-Calvinists” or “Calvinistas”.

There’s many reasons why I find their theology highly repulsive (and probably still would feel the same way if I had become a more moderate Christian instead of leaving Christianity altogether), but primarily it’s the way they view god, and the way they view humanity. This line of thinking, to me, completely strips away all sense of human dignity, and free will, all while claiming to believe in free will at the same time.

Due to the popularity of ministers/theologians like John Piper and R. Albert Mohler, and the influence of the denomination’s deep connections to the cult Sovereign Grace Ministries, which I mentioned earlier, Neo-Calvinism has become extremely popular among Southern Baptist churches, including the one I am undercover in.

“Jason”, my Sunday school teacher, and co-worker, who makes quite a few appearances in my Undercover Agnostic series (I talked about him just last week), has fully embraced this kind of theology (sometimes I can almost hear John Piper’s voice instead of him when he is speaking about theology).

I was having a discussion with him a few weeks ago about theology, it’s odd that whenever we are outside the church, he still wants to talk about and debate theology, I suppose it’s because he’s one of the few people I have come out to about my change in beliefs, and it’s like a fun challenge to him, he wants to know if he can hold his own in a debate with an agnostic.

 I was debating with him the concept of a just, loving god, and one of the major points that really disgusts me about fundamentalist theology: the idea that you must either accept Christianity, or suffer in hell if you refuse to do so. I had made the point of asking how a “loving” god could do that to people, condemn people to hell, not merely because of what they had done in their lifetime (I could understand a god sending an unrepentant serial killer, or a dictator who had ordered acts of genocide to hell, for example), but just simply because they for some reason, chose not to believe in him at all, or believe he does exist, but reject Christianity.

He then goes into the standard talking points about the concept of “free will” in Christianity, god offers the choice to us whether or not to believe in him, he offers his forgiveness, and way out of hell, if we just merely make the choice to accept Christianity. Some fundamentalists, especially, more moderate Calvinists, and people of other theological camps in fundamentalism kind of shrink back a little when discussions of hell come up.

They do in fact believe that non-Christians are in fact going to hell, but they don’t necessarily like to say so, they almost seem apologetic about it, because they know just how unpopular the idea is to more liberal Christians, and non-Christians. They approach the idea almost in a way that makes it sound like they are saying “I don’t like this, I wish life were different than this, but this is unfortunately the way the world works.”

That’s not how neo-Calvinists approach it, they practically love and embrace the concept of hell. They see absolutely nothing wrong with it all. In the discussion with Jason, I knew since this the perspective of where he is coming from; I tried to get him to see how outsiders viewed this kind of perspective on hell. I tried to make the point that it’s not truly free will, a free choice of whether or not to love god and choose Christianity if the consequences of not doing so is eternal torment.

I told him, “Let me put it to you this way. Suppose someone were to tell their spouse: ‘Honey, I love you, and you have the absolute freedom to choose whether or not to love me, and to stay with me, but if you do ever decide to leave me, I will track you down, no matter how far you run, and kill you.’ What would we call that kind of person? “

His response was that it’s not a fair comparison, because god created us, and so therefore, he has the right to do anything he pleases with us, since we are his creation. He said that if he had built a robot, and it didn’t function the way he wanted to, or he simply got bored with it, he would have the right to destroy, dismantle, or alter it in any way he chose to do so.

That is a highly disturbing way to view god. On one hand, they claim that god is a loving god, but portray him as this cruel, uncaring malevolent creature, who views us as his playthings, his toys to toss around, roughhouse with, and do whatever he wants to with, after all, he created us, he owns us. I found Jason’s robot comparison to be especially striking because here he is promoting a rather distorted view of “free will”, and yet, he compares humanity to a machine that has no will of its own, no capacity to make decisions of its own accord, much like we do.

What I don’t understand is how someone could view god in such a way, and yet not only still choose to believe in him, and freely worship him, but believe that their god is somehow a loving god at the same time. How can they believe that humanity has free will in choosing to accept or reject god when they also believe that it’s a forced choice, with eternal suffering in hell being the penalty for the “wrong” choice? How could god truly be loving god if he are forced to love him, don’t they hammer into young people that love is a choice and not an emotion?

Their entire concept of god is so contradictory of itself that it reminds me of one of my favorite books, 1984, and the Party principle of “doublethink”. It would take about that level of bending your thought processes into horribly contorted shapes just to believe it all, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out how I did it then. I guess I became an expert in doublethink myself.

If you want more insight into the Neo-Calvinist perspective on god, humanity and hell, check out my recent interview at the blog You, Me and Religion, (scroll down to question 19, if you don’t want to read the rest of the interview.

Also, this video from Southern Baptist leader R. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, can help explain this mentality more: Remolding Hell (Part 3). It’s a segment from a show he has on local radio in Louisville.

If you can’t listen to the video for some reason, or don’t have the time to watch it, here’s a few highlights:

“If we start from the assumption that we do not deserve Hell, and our neighbors do not deserve Hell, and that God would be wrong to send us to Hell, then we have a fundamental misunderstanding of ourselves, a fundamental misunderstanding of God, and inevitably, we will fundamentally misunderstand the gospel.”
“It is God’s grace to be told that you are going to Hell”
“If you being to reconfigure a doctrine like Hell, before long, it leads to a total renovation of the Christian body of truth, all doctrine is interconnected, no doctrine stands alone, it is not as if they are separate cards in a deck, and you can put them down and say, ‘I’ll play this card here, and this card there’, no, they are all interrelated. It is the superstructure, the architecture of one great system of truth”
He clearly feels that disagreements with doctrine of hell, and his understanding of it, comes from misunderstanding the entire concept of Christianity itself, and doubting/questioning it leads to Christianity itself crumbling.


  1. This was a great post. I'll be sharing this on Twitter soon.

    1. Thanks!

      I'm glad you told me, it always bugs me when I can tell that someone has shared one of my posts on Twitter, and I can't figure out who it was, to thank them. lol

  2. What I don’t understand is how someone could view god in such a way, and yet not only still choose to believe in him, and freely worship him, but believe that their god is somehow a loving god at the same time.

    Me neither. I don't know how one can truly "love" someone they are terrified of. It kind of reminds me of that old Twilight Zone episode where the kid can read your thoughts, so you'd better think happy ones.

    1. "Me neither. I don't know how one can truly "love" someone they are terrified of."

      It's kind of hard to explain, but coming from an abusive family, I can understand how someone could love someone they are terrified of, especially a parent, I guess it's kind of a Stockholm Syndrome type mentality. I remember wondering why it always seemed like I was never good enough for my mother, and wondering why, and striving to please her (and she happily used that to her advantage), eventually, I realized it wasn't possible, and then, the abuse took it's toll until I got to the point where I can honestly say that I don't love her, and I haven't for probably 9-10 years.

  3. Cool blog Sheldon. We have some similar views and ill be following your blog. Mine is at if you want to check it out sometime.

    1. Hi. Thanks for stopping by, I'm reading your blog now.

      I'm always looking for guest posts, would you be interested?

  4. For me I think the bible even is against free will, as if God is omniscient and omnipotent what kind of free will do you have? In other words our choice to go to heaven or hell was never ours to start with, so God is really pure evil.

    1. That's another thing I might get into, some extreme Calvinists believe in the doctrine of "predestination", that god didn't merely just know who was going to choose him or not, but that he predetermined who was going to "choose" him, they actually see free will as an illusion.

      I knew a guy in my time as a Biblical Studies minor who believed this, it was a strange mentality to have, and didn't make much sense to me as a Christian at the time.

  5. hell---Christianity seems to start off assuming that everyone is guilty until "someone" declares them "innocent". (...and this "someone" needs to represent a particular religion)

    if Salvation is based on the presumption that humanity is inherently bad/fallen...and if bad people go to hell---then it follows that unless something occurs that reverses it, all humanity is destined for hell.(in which case why have Christianity?) Some Christians say that the death of Jesus Christ "saved" humanity from hell...which is why the "sacrifice" had to happen in the first place---but such a doctrine would be unappealing to some---because then all humanity ends up going to heaven instead of hell----so then why have Christianity?---that may be why a religion may need exclusive validate itself.

    So it ends up with a set of contradictions that Humanity was destined for hell----but got "saved" because of a "sacrifice"---but this "saving" comes with conditions....which, if not met then that section of humanity goes to hell anyway......and only a select few---the special ones---avoid hell.

    It is a seductive supposition because if you are the in-group of a selected people---then you are special....and everyone else is not as special as you. This has a feel-good quality, difficult to resist.

    That is why---it is difficult to imagine a non-exclusive "salvation" because then---why have religion?...


    1. Then you get to thinking about how in reality, Christianity is really a religion based in human sacrifice, which is rather a disgusting thought.

      The whole doctrine of original sin hardly seems fair to me, which is why I was surprised when I found out that Islam has no equivalent doctrine. Original sin seems unjust to me, I mean after all, we know better than to imprison someone because their great grandfather was a murderer, right?

      So why do people readily accept Christianity, a faith that says we are all doomed to hell because two people, who were supposed to be our common ancestors, ate a piece of fruit, and made god unhappy?

  6. human sacrifice/Homicide---what is fascinating about Christianity is that it is all over the place regarding every single doctrine it you mentioned, there are many Christianities....Some may see it as human sacrifice---others as Deicide/Suicide (God kills himself or is killed)---and if "God dies" and is therefore not "eternal"...that just opens up another can of worms.....on the other hand--if God does not die...then why the concept of incarnation...?...either way, its a no-win argument for the Christian........

    Original Sin---As you already know--this doctrine is mostly prevalent in Western Christianity...and it grapples with questions about God, Man, Salvation...etc....based on this presumption. This is a necessary presumption because without it there is no explanation for why God/God-Man/Human is "sacrificed".

    IMO, if only Christians go to heaven, it provides group privilege, (free-ticket to heaven) and to be special is very egoically satisfying and irresistible.---but this is a human condition---all human groupings want to be special and exclusion is one way to achieve it. Yet, perhaps, religion/philosophy/ideology based on exclusion to validate itself may not have substance to it...?...

    Islam does not have original sin---but when you think about it, among world religions, perhaps (Western) Christianity is more or less unique in positing an inherently sinful nature of humanity?

    Justice---in order for "justice" to be just---it must be based on equality. If it is based on arbitrary categories of privilege---it is UNJUST. In order to have equality---one cannot have hierarchies because if we place a group above or below another, we introduce inequality........

    Which is why polytheism or tritheism can be flawed...if the Divine order is based on a hierarchy, can humanity find equality or unity...?...Ofcourse, monotheism is not necessarily the answer either---Judaism found a way to be special/priviledged despite its monotheism.....


    1. There sure are many Christianities, it's probably not something that you are used to, there are three divisions to Islam (Sunni, Shia and Sufi), but from what I understand, there isn't much theological difference between the Sunni and Shia branches.

  7. Yes, the 3 general divisions are how Islam is explained to those not familiar with Islam.

    You are correct that there is not much (doctrinal) difference in all 3 divisions as all 3 are based on the Quran and this Quran is exactly the same for all divisions in Islam. This is what unifies Islam. Yet there is also a lot of diversity---for example, there are divisions within these divisions---there are also minor divisions outside of these 3 major ones, and then there are the "grey areas"---Such as the American-Muslim group the "Nation of Islam"---part of which has conformed to the Sunni tradition but the other part is still in the "grey area". (Grey area=major/irreconcilable doctrinal difference)

    Though "Sufi" is labeled as a "division" it is best understood as mysticism and members come from both the Shia and Sunni tradition.
    The initial split between Shia and Sunni was not doctrinal but political---over the question who is to succeed after the Prophet.
    Any minor doctrinal differences between the 2 today are really artificial constructs. (By the way, differences in Islam come in the form of practice (orthopraxy) rather than doctrine,...for example how to pray, dietary laws...that sort of thing...)

    I like to divide Islam into 3 different categories than the one above---these are the mystics, mainstream, and the "Purists" or what in Christianity would be "fundamentalists". Both Shia and Sunni have these categories.
    IMO,Human predispositions rather than doctrinal appeal make people gravitate towards either of these categories. (the main difference between these categories is the degree of universalism/exclusion practiced)

    Apart from these, there are religions which have been influenced by Islam --- such as the Bahai founder who was influenced by the Quran and the Sikh religion whose founder was apparently influenced by the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh)....etc...

    (**Quran is in Arabic, translations are considered tafsir (exegesis) because the bias of the translator effects the translations)


    1. I do remember that the Sunni/Shia split happened very early on, and it was over succession after the death of the prophet. Didn't one faction want a his son in law to succeed him, and the other wanted one of his cousins to follow him?

      Yes, there are various degrees of Islam, from the mild to the extreme, some Westernized Muslims are rather mild, and aren't Bosnian Muslims very moderate?

  8. Yes, The Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) was an "elected" leader (approved by the majority of the community, including women---though this was after he was already chosen)---so when it came time to chose the next leader the community was split between 2 candidates or parties. The first 4 Caliphs were elected. (from 632 to 661 CE.)

    "mild/extreme"---interesting use of terms! Many of the (muslim) territories that had been part of the former U.S.S.R (Soviets) could not practice religion---but have now gone back to their traditions. These used to be (I think?) part of, or influenced by, the Ottoman empire (Turkey) and so they are bringing in teachers and scholars from there---which in my opinion is preferable to the Saudi brand of Islam. The Wahabi(Saudi brand of Islam) are trying very very hard to influence muslim-majority countries.....

    There is also a very large Muslim population in Russia and China as well.....

    violent extremists---Do you think....perhaps, when the U.S. decided it was going to bring "democracy" to Iraq and Afghanistan at the point of a gun---democracy had turned "extreme"....?....

    Human behavior has a spectrum and since communities and nations are made up of human beings---they are, perhaps, bound to display this spectrum..........


    1. Oh, I agree with you about Western countries, the US especially, going extreme. I'm opposed to the two party system here in it's entirety, it's too corrupt and eager for war (I've been griping about the almost inevitable US involvement in Syria constantly on Google +, I'm very anti-war)

      It is strange how former Soviet nations are so religious now after so many years of Soviet rule, I know some of the nations north of Afghanistan were historically Muslim, and in Russia, the Russian Orthodox church has returned with a vengeance, their government is run practically by a coalition of Russian Orthdox clergymen and high level members of the Russian mob (politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows). The rise of the Russian Orthodox church is probably why Russia is so militantly homophobic now.

      Wasn't the Wahabi school of Islam the school that highly influenced Bin Laden and many of his followers?

  9. Syria---I also hope there is not another war. A country that has used agent orange in Cambodia/Laos and used depleted uranium in Falluja, Iraq, should be careful of being morally arrogant with Syria.

    Democracy---I'm afraid most of the democratic countries everywhere are in the same boat----South East Asian democracies are massively corrupt too.

    Russian orthodox and homophobia---interesting, hadn't thought of that connection...

    Soviet---When atheism is imposed by force---it becomes oppression (the same is also true for "secularism") But also, part of the problem may be that democracy and communism did not deliver the promise of social justice. In this vacuum of discontent the religious are perhaps filling in the space...?...there is also globalization and people wanting to cling to identities in an increasingly borderless world.....

    Wahabi---This is an 18th century movement, and so, fairly recent in Islamic history...begun by a person named Abdal Wahab. The conservative brand of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia is called Salafi and Wahabi is said to be the "fundamentalist" type leaning of Salafism. Some may disagree with this description and among the wider Muslim community Salafi and Wahabi is often used interchangeably. (The Salafi try to distance themselves from the Wahabi)

    Not all "fundamentalist" (or "Purists" as they describe themselves) are (violent) extremists. These are minorities of a minority. Also the Wahabi are not the only "fundamentalists"(Purists)---there are many small groups with different names---such as the Deobandi, another 18th century movement formed to oppose colonialism---but the Wahabi have Saudi money and American guns behind them, making them a group one should keep an eye on.

    Bin Laden---yes, he was a Saudi so he would have been influenced by Wahabism. Purists generally think only they are right and everyone else is wrong.
    (However, the writings of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian who wanted an "Islamic" Egypt independent of outside influence....may also have influenced him.)

    I am not that familiar with Islamic "fundamentalist"/Purists. Most are usually fringe groups. The problem with the Wahabi's (IMO)is that they are trying to influence mainstream Islam. The Saudi's have spent billions of dollars to use Wahabism for political influence. At a time when many Muslims are struggling with identities, uncertainties, and globalization---intolerance, exclusivity, and an us/them group think may, perhaps, seem to provide certainty and belonging? .....but I hope we will rise above that....


    1. I hope Islam does rise above that. I had heard that the Wahabi school was heavily funded by some wealthy people in Saudi Arabia (mostly people that made their fortunes in the oil industry).

      I know many atheists that when the issue of the Soviet Union is brought up, say that old, hard line communism was a religion in itself, it just replaced a spiritual god with government and glorification of government leaders that they promoted until they become human gods. I wonder what you think about that estimation?

  10. A concept-word or label can be inclusive or exclusive depending on definition. If "religion" is defined broadly as a voluntary assent to certain propositions---then communism can fall into the category of religion......

    Religion can be thought of primarily as a "belief in God/s" and any substitute for "God/s" such as heroes, leaders, monetary status, or some other value could also be used. In this case an assent to certain propositions would be "a belief in xyz."

    But there may be another way to think about "religion"---in which assent to certain propositions would mean an agreement on ethico-moral principles. If seen this way, then the issue of social justice could create an interesting nuance. One could posit the responsibility for social justice fall on the government (secular democracy or communism)or it could be the responsibility of the individual (most world religions).....that is, the concept of charity could be used to empower the people/communities to come up with their own unique, tailored, solutions to socio-economic injustice in their communities.

    Perhaps it would be an interesting paradigm shift if we are able to turn our conversations away from arguments of which God-concept is better/worse to which values and principles are most beneficial to humanity, environment and all the living creatures on earth....

    I have heard that some Atheists are moving away from God/Godless-centered conversations to that of "values based" ones using humanism as the point of reference........As the Agnostic/Athiest community becomes larger, these developments and the contributions they may make to the larger society will be interesting to see...........


    1. Some people do prefer the term humanist, it doesn't seem as threatening to some people, because some people have the idea of atheists being angry about everything, and hostile towards all religions.


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