I just finished Martin Zender's "The Really Bad Thing About Free Will",(subtitled A Critical Look at the Salvation Doctrine). I'd like to discuss this idea of free will, give a quick review of the book and encourage you to pick it up. First, I think we have to address the idea of what is "free will" and is there any such thing? I've been 'round and 'round with people on this- and I'm no philosopher. This seems to be a never-ending debate. I listened to a broadcast where Martin Zender laid into one of my favorite Universalists (Thomas Talbott) about something Talbott had written about free will. The hang up seems to come from the word "free".
I think in common language when people say free will they mean the ability to make a choice free from undue constraints or influences and with clarity of mind. What free will does not mean is that we can make choices free of any influences or that we can choose to do things we are incapable of doing (like flying for example). I see arguments against free putting up and knocking down straw men all of the time. Of course we are products of everything that has happened to us in the past, of our genetic presdispositions and our personalities. We are influenced by those around us. I don't know anyone who would deny that. (Do you?). I have found I don't have the free will to do things that my own personality constrains me from doing. Sometimes, I'll get an urge to do something but because of others' expectations of me, I feel just can't do it. The Buddhists talk about this fact that we are products of our environment as interdependence. Nothing and no one is truly independent. Everything is a product of something else and its actions are influenced by and influenced everything it is touched by and it touches. And of course, this is true. None of us can make any choice free of any influence. The debate about free will seems to be really about whether or not we have true choice. It seems some would say choice is merely an illusion and any decisions we make are based solely on influences beyond our control. I think the free will debate really resolves around whether we have true choice or not. Is there a point where the true "me" (whatever that is makes an independent decision?) From my perspective, this is a moot point because regardless of whether we are just sophisticated robots or true moral agents, we have to live (as Martin would say in the relative) as though we do have choice. We have to decide whether we're going to get up in the morning, what we are going to do today, etc. And those choices have real consequences. So, while the philosophers might enjoy debating this issue, when the rubber meets the road, we do have "will". We do make choices. And we do have to live with those choices and their consequences. God might or might not be the ultimate "strongest influence". But, if He is, there's not a damn thing we can do about it or any way we could possibly detect it. Now back to the book...
With that long preamble, this book is not really about free will in that general sense. The book is about the doctrine of salvation by our own willpower. Churchianity teaches a self-contradicting set of teachings in almost every tract and any sermon on "salvation". They teach two key points 1.) There is nothing we can do to influence or earn our salvation. 2.) If we can just believe the right things, we become "saved". Churchianity is very careful to not use the word "earn" in the second part of this. This could just as easily be worded "If you believe, you will have earned your salvation". They know if they did, people would see right through the contradiction immediately. So, they clean it up a bit. Outwardly, they say they did not earn their salvation. But, in their heart of hearts they believe that if you could just muster up the belief they mustered up, you would be saved. This is the Arminianian group in Christianity anyway. These are the people who think God wants all to be saved, offers salvation to us. But, then God sits back and waits for our decision. Somehow God is not quite capable of pulling off salvation for everyone. He tried. But, his hands are tied by our "free will". At least Calvinists realize the contradiction in this "believe and be saved" doctrine and are consistent in this regard. Calvinists believe that God predestined who would believe and we have no ability to believe, apart from God individually giving us that belief. Of course, they also believe for those who God hasn't chosen, Eternal Torment is a fitting, just and glorious (to God) end. How they reconcile that contradiction, I'll never understand.
Martin points out the absurdity of believing that Jesus died to merely made salvation possible. Traditional Christianity teaches Jesus did not save anyone. Jesus only made it possible to be saved. Jesus paved the road. But, we have to walk down it. We have to believe to be saved. Since the belief is our choice (God would never violate our "free will"), we are actually responsible for our own salvation. Yes, they say, Jesus died on the cross for all your sins, past present and future. Yes, they say, Jesus made it possible for you to be saved. But, you must believe to be "saved". This is just a fancy way of saying you save yourself by your power to believe.
Martin points out that traditional Christianity teaches that Jesus took away each and every sin. But, they say, Jesus did not take away the only sin actually capable of damning me to hell, the sin of unbelief. Martin proceeds to do an excellent job of tearing apart a standard Christian tract and points out the folly of it (including many scriptural references to back up his points). This idea that we must trust Jesus and only Jesus completely to be saved (and if we don't trust Jesus only we're not saved) is a self-contradictory idea. To do that, we have to muster up the belief to trust Jesus. So, in actuality, what we are trusting is our belief, not trusting Jesus. This is what had me on the verge of panic for years. Was my faith real? Was my faith good enough? Was I fooling myself? I didn't have confidence in my faith, my belief (and I shouldn't have). That's what I was counting on for salvation, not God.
Martin gives a great example of a military liberating people to make them free (similarly to the way Christ freed us). When the military makes you free, you are free whether you accept it or not. You might not realize you are free. But, you are. The church tells us Christ is less effective than the army that frees a people. Christ's freedom isn't real and we still suffer the consequences of the occupation, until we perform our own act.
Next Martin points out how the church while rightfully calling us helpless and dead (apart from God), tells us to act on our own behalf to save ourselves. He gives a great description of relative versus absolute. And he points out how, even though all are saved, it is up to us to accept our salvation to begin actually live like we are. That should be the message of the church. Not come and get saved, but come and accept the salvation you have already been given, realizing you are already saved. Until we look at the cross and see what Christ did for us, until we realize and accept our forgiveness, we will still live in condemnation. But, the condemnation is not from God, it's from us.
Martin then gives one of the best and simplest descriptions of the cross I have ever read. It's simply beautiful. Yes, God did force Himself on us. Thank God He did!!!! You have to read this.
My friend Arthur has been questioning me on the idea of free will and who is responsible for our sins, our unbelief and our eternal salvation. While I'm not the scriptural literalist Martin is, I believe Arthur is, as are so many of my friends who believe the same thing that Arthur does. What they believe is that God has given us free will and Jesus has died to give us the opportunity to be saved. But belief, and therfore salvation, is our choice. Martin gives a ton of scriptural references that shoot that whole idea full of holes. According to scripture (ask any Calvinist and they'll back this up), God purposely does not allow many (most) to believe. He purposely withholds belief from them (so much for God not violating free will). I'm not going to list the scriptures here because I really want you to get this book. If free will is God's gift to me and I can use my free will to condemn myself to eternal torment, that's the gift I don't want to accept. Here God, you can have it back. Take my will and give me salvation.
All in all, this is another excellent little book from Martin. I highly recommend getting it. It's a very quick read at less than 80 pages. It's written in plain language with cartoons and Martin's unique sense of humor. It's available from Martin's website at: http://www.starkehartmann.com/free_excerpts.htm (this link will take you to excerpts of the book at the publisher's site where you can also purchase it). In fact, buy several copies and hand them out to your evangelical friends.
If you get it, please drop me a line and let me know what you think about it.
originally published 01/14/07