Why Both Atheists and Christians Need to Believe in Free Will

By Justin Brierley

Someone I know (let’s call him Joe) recently owned up to an embarrassing incident during his time at Bible college.

Another student there (let’s call him Trevor) was a confirmed Calvinist, who believed that everything in life had been predestined by God – from eternal salvation to the colour of the socks he’d put on that morning. In fact, such was his love of John Calvin that he even kept a plaster-of-Paris bust of the Reformer in his bedroom.

Joe frequently got into disputes with Trevor. Joe believed that God gives us freedom to choose or reject him and that Calvin was wrong about predestination.

On one occasion they got into such a heated argument that, in a fit of frustration, Joe grabbed the bust of Calvin and smashed it to smithereens over Trevor’s head…fortunately no lasting harm was done (except to John Calvin).

When Joe told me this frankly hilarious story, I couldn’t resist suggesting a plausible excuse he should have given Trevor: “It wasn’t my fault. I was predestined to do it!”

Christian determinism 

Calvin may have written his theology 500 years ago, but his thoughts continue to influence much of the Church today.

Calvin was a key figure of the Reformation, alongside Martin Luther, the monk who rediscovered the truth that salvation was a free gift of God’s grace without need of any efforts on our part. But Calvin took that thought a whole lot further.

If God’s grace alone is sufficient for salvation, then we must have played no part in it at all. God chose us, we did not choose him. In Calvin’s mind, God had predestined those who will be saved and those who will be damned. The lynchpin for this view was contained in Romans: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (8:29).

According to many Calvinist theologians, the Bible also testifies to God’s total and meticulous control of every aspect of life. Whatever influence humans think they may have over their destinies, in reality God is the one who has planned it all out from the beginning. As Calvin himself wrote in The Institutes: “Creatures are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens but what he has knowingly and willingly decreed.”

Has God predetermined every thought in every heart?

This perspective amounts to a ‘deterministic’ view of reality. The world is the way it is and could be none other, because God has predetermined every atom and every thought of every heart. In such a universe, human free will is an illusion. We are all playing our designated parts in a script that was written before the world began. To Calvinists this is a testament to God’s glory. To others it looks like the work of a puppet master. Like an impossible optical illusion, the puzzle of free will can be confusing for many Christians. But they aren’t alone.

Atheist determinism 

Calvinistic Christians have more in common with many atheists than they may realise. Determinism has also become a very popular philosophy among their godless counterparts. For some time, prominent voices in atheist circles have also been announcing that the notion of free will is past its sellby date.

Popular atheist author Sam Harris wrote a book titled Free will (Free Press) which, drawing on research in neuroscience, argued that our innate sense of freedom is merely an illusion foisted on us by nature. None of us is actually in control of what we do. So far so Calvinist. But rather than believing God has predestined us, atheists like Harris say the universe is responsible.

Atheist determinism springs from a ‘materialist’ worldview. All that exists is the ‘material’ stuff of the universe. Everything about us and the world we live in can ultimately be explained by the physics of atoms, electrons, quarks and neutrons, interacting according to the predictable regularity of natural laws.

Think of it like this: the skill of the snooker player is in predicting as accurately as possible how the balls will ricochet off each other in order to find the pockets on the table. But, theoretically, if a snooker player lined up their very first shot with perfect precision and perfect force, they could clear the table in one shot. The universe is like that, but on a much bigger scale.

Every single physical event, from the movements of electrons to the orbits of the planets, follows predictable laws of cause and effect. Therefore, the way the universe is now is a direct result of the way it was when it first began. If you rewound the clock by 13 billion years to the exact same physical state of affairs, things would roll out in exactly the same way they already have.

But, in such a universe, the idea that we have any measure of free will evaporates. Every aspect of our existence was predestined by a cosmos blindly following the laws of cause and effect.

Unbelievable? presents: The Big Conversation

Are we determined to behave well?

In this excerpt of their dialogue, atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett (DD) and Christian philosopher Keith Ward (KW) talk to Justin Brierley (JB) about whether or not we have free will

DD: I assume that you’ve been raised to be a moral and non-violent man Keith?

KW: Non-violent, yes (smiles).

DD: If I were to hand you a gun right now and suggest “why don’t you shoot Justin in the arm?” just to prove you have free will, would you?

KW: I might surprise you!

DD: You might, but you won’t! And you won’t because you know better. I bet very, very large sums of money you’re not going to do it and it’s going to be a free choice, but you’d better hope that it’s not an undetermined choice because if it were then you might suddenly find yourself doing it, in spite of all of your previous experience.

KW: Ah…my view is not that you would find yourself doing it, but that you could decide to do it, which is very different.

DD: Well, who is the ‘you’ that’s doing the deciding?

KW: But I’ve got a ‘you’. You’ve just got a brain! The subject self which I’ve got is the soul. In Christian terms it is also an agent self, so it decides between courses of action. So, it is not determined by its past behaviour – I would not actually shoot Justin – but there are things that I would do to Justin if you asked me to.

JB: I’m starting to feel a bit worried here…But seriously Keith, when Dan talks about your moral upbringing, you say those things don’t determine your actions, even if they strongly influence the way you lead your life?

KW: That’s true. But, nevertheless, there are tipping points and when people are put in crisis situations they can act out of character.

JB: So Dan, Keith says he could still do otherwise.

DD: Yes, and if he did otherwise, we’d want to know what determined him to do otherwise.

KW: I’d say I just decided.

The Big Conversation is a video series featuring world class thinkers across the Christian and atheist communities. For the full debate, further videos, bonus content and the Unbelievable? newsletter visit thebigconversation.show

Dennett’s determinism 

One proponent of the deterministic view of the universe is Daniel Dennett. Alongside Harris, he is one of the so-called ‘four horsemen of the New Atheism’ (Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens made up the other half). Dennett, however, disagrees with Harris over whether determinism delivers a death blow to the concept of free will (rather like Trevor and Joe, they’ve also had some vitriolic arguments about it). As a ‘compatibilist’, Dennett claims that we are still free in a meaningful sense, as long as we are not being forced to act against our own will by anybody else.

When he appeared on an episode of The Big Conversation to discuss these matters with Christian philosopher Keith Ward, Dennett dismissed the problems raised by determinism as “uninteresting questions”. But they certainly interested Keith Ward, who insists that even the compatibilist version of freedom is hopelessly misguided if a deterministic universe has wired all our thoughts, desires and choices to begin with.

A God of love only makes sense if he has given us the ability to freely choose or reject him

In contrast, as a ‘libertarian’, Ward believes that humans are truly free creatures with the genuine ability to choose alternative outcomes in the future. That we are neither subject to a puppet-master God nor a puppet-master universe matters a great deal.

…To Continue Reading

14 thoughts on “Why Both Atheists and Christians Need to Believe in Free Will

  1. Ah yes, Determinism.

    We persistent non-Calvinists (former-Calvinists) were determined to be this way!

    Every biblical (or philosophical) argument we bring to the discussion was pre-determined by God! That’s comforting!

  2. God has superordinate responsibility for everything that happens and “sticks” as a corollary of his power, awareness, and occasional willingness to intervene.

    Given this, a Creator can let his creation drift “free-from-him” in a meaningful teleological way by setting things up to be chaotic. Even under determinism, chaotic patterns like nonlinearity and interference jumble things up. Thus creation starts to “do its own thing” as long as the creator doesn’t intervene. Still foreknown, still a deterministic outplaying, but the details aren’t micromanaged.

    Imagine it like God wants to make smoothie that isn’t too pulverized but also doesn’t have chunks of ice. Yet he also does not want to micromanage it. A way he can do this is limit himself to using the blender buttons. Even though he micromanages the starting state, limiting himself to the buttons is an extreme “state limiter” — the vast, vast majority of conceivable smoothie states are inaccessible in this manner. So even though he’s omni, he has an available method to “otherize” his creations.

    Under Christianity, God is not Deistic; he does intervene. But even in Scripture there are only a few dozen obvious miracles, divided by a span of millenia. I suspect theodicy is a non-starter without the assumption that though it pains God, he has a heavy, heavy interest in nonintervention to serve a more “corporate” sense of freedom across creation broadly. He did not direct the film “Cats” but nor did he quiet Vesuvius. We are largely left to ride our own bike, with God catching us in the end.

    Lorenzian chaos is the most elegant way to reconcile the foreknowledge of God with the fact that God only predestines within a *subset* of that foreknowledge. Predestination requires special havens & eddies against the pull of chaos, a deliberate feature of Creation. Chaos explains where freedom comes from, and is the means by which God made genuine “others” to love. Even under determinism.

    This also means that we can talk both synergistically and monergistically about our cooperation with God yet subordination to his plan and will. But we’d most naturally, and commonly, speak synergistically, especially given our human epistemic scope. And lo and behold! This is what Scripture does.

    1. Stanrock
      Under Christianity, God is not Deistic; he does intervene.

      Intervene in that which is infallibly decreed at the foundation of the world to come to pass?

      That is an aberrant and misleading use of the word “Intervene”

      Is he arm-wrestling with himself?

      As John Calvin explains:
      There is no such thing as MERE PERMISSION in Calvinism.
      Calvin’s god does not MERELY PERMIT anything

      John Calvin explains
      The creatures…are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that *NOTHING* happens but what he has knowingly and willingly decreed. (Institutes, book 1, XVI)

      Therefore – the only events which can possibly happen – are events which are 100% meticulously programmed with a divine script which cannot be “altered” from that which was infallibly decreed.

      There is no LOGICAL problem with him “Intervening” in himself.

      – Logically prior to the decree – he has the ability to decree [X] to be either TRUE or FALSE.
      – In order for [X] to be TRUE he would have to decree [X] to be TRUE
      – He can “Intervene” in making [X] TRUE – by “intervening” in his decree
      – He can STOP himself from decreeing [X] to be TRUE and instead decree [X] to be FALSE.

      There is no LOGICAL problem with him decreeing the human mind to have FALSE PERCEPTIONS of events which he decrees. – making the human mind PERCEIVE those events *AS-IF* they were NOT PREDESTINED.

      As matter of fact – decreeing Calvinists to have FALSE PERCEPTIONS of reality – is a considerable portion of what he does in fact decree for Calvinists.

      1. Hello Stanrock – I hope this finds you well!

        I don’t see how the term “decree” is a term that doesn’t have a commonly understood meaning.

        For the Theological Determinist (aka Calvinist) the terms: decree, establish, ordain, make come to pass, bring about, and determine, are all pretty much synonymous.

        Of course – that which separates Calvinistic Determinism from Natural Determinism – is fact that every event and movement of nature is endowed with the attribute of infallibility – which is not an attribute of Nature.

        Nature also is not a sentient entity.
        It doesn’t have the attribute of “taking pleasure” in something.
        For example – creating creatures specifically for eternal torment in a lake of fire – for the sake of deriving some kind of pleasure.


  3. From the article:
    Another student there (let’s call him Trevor) was a confirmed Calvinist, who believed that everything in life had been predestined by God.

    The problem with this is that the Calvinist practice is to
    1) ASSERT the doctrine of decrees is TRUE.
    2) The doctrine of decrees stipulates that WHATSOEVER comes to pass has been predestined by god.
    3) But the Calvinist is to go about his office *AS-IF* the doctrine of decrees is FALSE.

    John Calvin explains:
    “Hence as to future time, because the issue of all things is hidden from us, each ought to so to apply himself to his office, *AS-IF* nothing were determined about any part.” (Concerning the eternal predestination of god)

    Here Calvin is treating the doctrine of decrees *AS-IF* it is FALSE because the doctrine specifically stipulates that EVERYTHING without exception is determined in EVERY part.

    John Calvin
    “All future things being uncertain to us, we hold them in suspense, *AS-IF* they might happen either one way or another.” (Institutes Vol. i. p.193)

    Here Calvin is treating the doctrine of decrees *AS-IF* it is FALSE because a PREDESTINED event by definition – can only happen the way it is PREDESTINED to happen.

    Why is the Calvinist ASSERT a doctrine and then treat that doctrine *AS-IF* it is FALSE?

    Who would want to walk around live – assuming EVERY impulse that comes to pass within his brain was DETERMINED by a mind external to his mind – who DETERMINES his mind to have FALSE PERCEPTIONS which because they are infallibly decreed – his brain is not given the ability to discern as FALSE?

    The Determinist – whether Atheist or Theist (aka Calvinists) is forced to live *AS-IF* his belief system is FALSE – in order to retain a sense of NORMALCY and PERSON-HOOD.

  4. From the article; “That we are neither subject to a puppet-master God nor a puppet-master universe matters a great deal.” Amen it does!

    So clear the belief in determinism matters-good article!!! To me no matter if I’m acting on my greatest desire or not my nature is from God who determined it, so if true freedom not a capitalistic freedom does not exist… then much of the Bible is superfluous and that to me is the biggest lie ever to permeate Christianity and such a shame!!! Though there are other things man tries to add or subtract yet as it has been stated on this site – calvinism is very very clever indeed!! yet if presented in its logical conclusion it’s horrible i mean horrible news!!! Therefore I’ve rejected it since the moment i was introduced to it with much zeal! Because the God Who rescued me is not this monster of 2 wills in disguise He is Holy and set apart He is beyond our understanding of time which by the way He created!

    1. It is critical to remember that Calvinism is all about misleading people with word games
      Calvinists are SEMANTIC MAGICIANS
      Calvinist language is designed to create FALSE PICTURES

      In the case – the Calvinist calls a desire or a want “YOUR greatest desire” or “YOUR” greatest want” is strategically misleading language.

      When new tires are put on a car – It can be said:
      “THAT car has new tires”
      “Look at THE CAR’S new tires”

      1) But did those tires ORIGINATE with the car?
      2) Did the car create the tires?
      3) Did the car decide to put those new tires on itself?
      4) Can a car have OWNERSHIP of the tires that are put on it?
      5) Is anything which comes to pass concerning the care UP TO the car?

      And yet – in our language – we say – those tires are “THE CARS tires” – exactly the same way the Calvinist says those wants and desires are YOUR greatest wants and desires.

      The Calvinist is using a language pattern to mislead you.

      In what sense are they YOUR desire or YOUR want?
      In Calvinism – they are YOUR desire and YOUR want – in the same exact sense that the tires are “THE CARS” tires.

      They are only YOUR desires and YOUR wants – because Calvin’s god put them on you.
      The same way someone puts tires on a car.

      So the TRUTH in Calvinism is – you cannot have a want or a desire that you can call your own.

      Every want and desire that comes to pass within your brain – is actually Calvin’s god’s want and Calvin’s god’s desire – which he determined to PUT IN YOU by a decree.

      Those wants and desires are not YOUR wants and desires – any more than the tires on a car are THE CARS tires.

      1. Br..d “Every want and desire that comes to pass within your brain – is actually Calvin’s god’s want and Calvin’s god’s desire – which he determined to PUT IN YOU by a decree.”

        Agreed and to me it is such a horrible twisted mask of the truth in Scripture and yet some find comfort in it… I’m sure i don’t love lost people more than the Creator of the universe yet if i every believed the One true God was this deterministic mask wearing Holy God there would be not only NO HOPE life would truly be meaningless!!! But i trust this is a false perspective read into the text to micromanage the One true God and everyone has faith in something. It’s not over until it is over, so thank you all for speaking up🌻

      2. Well said Reggie!

        But I find Calvinists – although they claim they do – they really don’t find comfort in the doctrine they claim to embrace.

        The one’s who claim they find comfort in the doctrine – remind me of the girl whose boy-friend is beating her – and she blames herself for his actions and insists the love he has for her is normal and healthy.

        The way the Calvinist learns to live with the doctrine is by asserting it as TRUE – while living *AS-IF* it is FALSE.

        Take for example – Calvinism’s interpretation of the Wheat and the Chaff.

        1) Calvin’s god at the foundation of the world – determines each individual’s fate
        2) Out of the total human population – MANY are created / designed as vessels of wrath – and FEW are created/designed as vessels of honor.
        3) Within the Calvinist population – MANY are created / designed to be CHAFF – and FEW are created /designed to be Wheat
        4) The divine choice made concerning what each Calvinist is created / designed for – is a divine SECRET that only Calvin’s god knows.

        Therefore the doctrine contains – the divine deception of the believer

        John Calvin
        But the Lord….INSTILLS INTO THEIR MINDS such A SENSE of his goodness as can be felt WITHOUT the Spirit of adoption. (Institutes 3.2.11)

        …. those whom he illumines ONLY FOR A TIME to partake of it; then he justly forsakes them…..and
        strikes them with even greater blindness (Institutes 3.2.11)

        We must thus consider both God’s SECRET election and his INNER call. For he alone “knows who are his” (Institutes. IV. 1. 2.)

        No Calvinist takes comfort in the thought that his god has gives him promises in scripture – and those promises are only an ENUNCIATED WILL – and exact the SECRET WILL in all probability is the opposite.

        No Calvinist takes comfort in the thought that his god is planting FALSE PERCEPTIONS of salvation in his brain – throughout his life – in order to deceive him – and he will eventually wake up in a lake of fire.

        The only way the Calvinist can live with the EVIL component of the doctrine is to treat the doctrine *AS-IF* it is FALSE.

        So Calvinists are lying to themselves when they try to tell people they find comfort in their doctrine

        Very sad!!!

        But you have a TRUE assurance of salvation – because you don’t have a God who is a deceiver.


      3. Reggie: “…there would be not only NO HOPE life would truly be meaningless!!!”

        I totally agree. And personally, I think that atheism (having no God) would actually be preferrable to having a Calvinist god. Because the duplicity of the Calvinist god makes him deceptive, untrustworthy, unjust, unloving, and the cause of all evil while punishing people for it. I think it would be worse to have a Calvinist god than no God at all.

        But, thank the true God of heaven, those aren’t the only options. There is the God of the Bible who is trustworthy, consistent, honest, and makes sense, who does not cause or desire evil, who is truly just and holy and righteous, who does not give fake offers to people but real offers of forgiveness and grace that anyone can accept, who loves all and wants all to be saved, and who has made salvation available to all by dying on the cross for all of our sins.

        That is the God I worship and love. That is the God who is worthy of glory, honor, praise, and our undying devotion.

        The Calvinist god can’t hold a candle to the true God of the Bible.

      4. Heather – both you and Reggie are wonderful blessings! :-]


      5. Thank you, Br.d. You too are a blessing! I am thankful for all you do here. 🙂

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