You’ve probably heard this as often as I have:
God has not made us as robots, but has given us free will.
I happen to think that robots can have free will, but let’s set that aside for the moment. What does the believer in God mean when she says God has given us free will?
It is surprisingly difficult to define free will, but at a minimum it means the ability to make a choice free of coercion and threat.
When we see a prisoner of ISIS make an anti-Western speech just prior to being beheaded, we all realize that he did not make that speech of his own free will. He had undoubtedly been threatened with tortures worse than beheading if he did not do as he was told.
To the extent one is threatened, one does not have free will.
Supposedly God (I speak now of the God of the Bible because I live in Judeo-Christian America) is not like this. But how is he not like this? Does he make no threats?
On the contrary, consider this litany of threats from Deuteronomy 28, as one example among many. If the people do not obey God, it says, he will send all manner of curses. (Note that the text speaks of God sending curses in most cases; these are not just “natural consequences of bad behavior.”)
- “The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, fever and inflammation, which will plague you until you perish” (verse 22)
- “The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.” (verse 24)
- “The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured.” (verse 27)
- “You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her.” (verse 30)
- “Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation [as slaves], and you will wear our your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand.” (verse 32)
Verses 47 and 48 conclude, “Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity, therefore in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and dire poverty, you will serve the enemies the Lord sends against you. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you.”
Note again God’s active role in bringing this about: “the enemies the Lord sends…”, “He will put an iron yoke…”. These are not warnings of how things will work themselves out. They are threats.
The believer will respond that such chastisement is evidence of God’s love. He disciplines us because we are his children. We should worry if we were not to experience his discipline because that would mean we were not his children at all (Hebrews 12:4-11).
But when does discipline become child abuse? Would afflicting your child with sores and itches that cannot be cured be discipline or abuse? Would causing your child’s fiancee to be raped be discipline or abuse? (If the passage above doesn’t persuade you that the God of the Bible is capable of that, I dare you to follow this link to 2 Samuel 12:11 and see how God “disciplined” his child, King David. Note once more God’s active role.) Would sending people to enslave them be discipline or abuse?
“Ah, but that’s the Old Testament. Jesus gave us a new kind of relationship with God.”
Not really. Jesus only increased the stakes by introducing the doctrine of hell. As Christopher Hitchens said, “[In the Old Testament] once [God] is done with you, once the earth closed over you, that’s it. There’s no torture of the dead. Not until gentle Jesus, meek and mild, do you get that.”
Would a fiery hell, from which there’s no escape, be discipline or abuse? *
We haven’t even touched on the doctrine of predestination, which could not be taught more clearly and unambiguously than it was in Romans 9:15-21.
Let us now return to our friend the robot. Suppose he is equipped with sensors and software that enable him calculate the action that is most likely to lead to his continued well-being.
Who has free will: the person under threat of disease, rape and enslavement if he does not do what he is told; or the robot, who can take the action he deems optimal, unhindered?
* – A growing minority of even conservative Christians believe that hell is only a place of final annihilation, not eternal, conscious torment. However, this is and always has been the minority view.