Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Really Bad Thing About Free Will

     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


Sequoia Lea Ananda said...

Sounds like an interesting read. A few points on your post:

Salvation has not always been seen as simply saving ones soul from eternal damnation. Salvation can also mean - I think this is a more holistic meaning - recognizing ones connection to the whole and to God and then acting upon it in THIS LIFE. The idea of salvation being simply about ones "eternal" choice is shallow and weak. Shallow because it doesn't address the pain of this life and the need for salvation in the hear and now. Weak because in so believing that salvation is about the hereafter, one can be bullied and bulldozed into believing thing that make this life - the one you can actually do something about - is simply the audition for the next life. This undoubtedly gives those who seek power for themselves and undue advantage. The politically and religiously savvy use this fear-based salvation to control and manipulate the masses, ultimately making themselves more powerful. It is a system that supports idols of the ego, both personally and corporately.

My second point is about the analogy used by the author about Jesus' "work" on the cross being like a so-called liberating military. I understand the analogy but I condemn its use because it re-enforces our preoccupation with violence being an agent of salvation. One train of thought in current biblical scholarship of the Old Testament is that the whole Old Testament was edited after the Exile, in light of the massive failure of the nation of Israel, to point to Israel's folly in believing in the myth of redemptive violence. Why did they hate the prophets? Because the prophets were very outspoken about this folly and warned the nation of their impending doom. And guess what, they were surely destroyed - the Exile.

The same thing is true of the New Testament. It was edited and some of it wasn't even written until after the Jewish-Roman war and the whole of the Gospel were edited/written as polemic against the war and those who sought the earthly kingdom of Israel and ultimately brought destruction upon the nation - again. And Jesus' death on the cross was the most absurd part of the story! It is the pinnacle of the folly - the ones who believed they were fighting to restore the nation to God, ended up killing God, or God's agent. Think about the absurdity of that.

In both instances, the temple, the home for God was destroyed and the people had to find another way to worship. "We worship God in Spirit and Truth," says the Gospel according to John. The Gnostic gospels talk about Jesus not being in buildings of wood and stone, but in the hearts of the ones who believe in his way - the way of peace and hope for salvation in this life, in the here and now.

The next time you read through the Bible, read it with this in mind and see what you think about it. Also, read the stories aloud - hear the words. It makes a huge difference.

Disclaimer - I am a biblical storyteller and believe in hearing the stories as they were originally TOLD. For more on biblical storytelling, please visit http://www.gotell.org or http://www.nobs.org

Brian said...


Great comments! Thanks. Yes, I am much closer to your theology than to Martin's. I certainly don't buy the penal substitution atonement theory or the idea that salvation is all about the hereafter. But, one step at a time when we're bringing people along. ;-)

I do agree with the real point of Martin's book- which, as I see it, is that we don't have to work to free ourselves from eternal damnation. If we can get Christians to accept that, we have made a huge leap forward, IMO. Penal substitution is small potatoes compared to a god who wants to send us to eternal hell for not believing the right things.

Don said...

Brian- I read this one right after it came out. I agree with the first comment but also know exactly where you're coming from. If you were sharing with ONLY those of like thought, you would do it differently. I understand. I am trying to share the basics of UR with my wife. She's not even ready for that much. Gary Beauchemin's little book (on Tentmaker) sits next to her chair at home. I am patiently waiting for her to pick it up and read it. THEN, and only then will she PERHAPS be ready for the next step (some of Martin's other books). The "free will" book was the last of his I have read. I for some reason feel I have gone beyond Martin. He seems to be so stuck in scripture and it's interpretation concerning the "kingdom" here on earth AFTER the rapture. I simply cannot "go there" with him. To me now, he seems like just another preacher with his own agenda and if you don't agree with him, you are SOL. Not condemned, you understand, just not on board with Martin. I have like most every one of his books. Like you say, a place to start with folks; one step at a time. Is it just me, or is that also your experience as well?

Don said...

meant to say: "I have liked most everyone of his books".

kc bob said...

I guess the idea that I stumble over Brian is the idea that God so loved us that He gave us Jesus but He then seems to say:

"Whatever.. I don't really care if you accept my gift at all.. really who cares.. say yes to the gift or not.. it's all good".

It presents a more depraved view of humanity than any Calvinist or Armenian view that I have ever seen.

But maybe that is what it is all about.. a view that embraces the very worst view of humanity.. maybe we are evil at our very core.. maybe Adam caused an evil to permeate our nature that even God cannot remedy.. maybe we are a race of victims?

Given that view I do wonder why God has even bothered to interact with His creation giving laws and seemingly wanting to have a relationship with humanity? Why did He bother to send His Spirit to mankind? After all.. it's all good.. we bear no responsibility to God.. reject the Holy Spirit or not.. who cares?

But I may not be understanding what you are saying? I am probably reacting more to what I have read elsewhere.. sorry for the rant.. but I simply do not get a view of humanity that presents us as victims of Adam and totally incompetent to simply say yes to a gift.

Brian said...

Yes, my experience exactly, Don. I love Martin. I love his sense of humor. Even his passion for scripture. I also love his passion for ministry. The guy has sacrificed a lot to get his message out to people. His books are short and easy to digest. They make GREAT gifts for your evangelical friends.

But, I think he takes scripture way too literally and he can be very "in your face". I don't really learn a lot from reading Martin. I enjoy his books and they help me reach people that are in the mindset that I used to have. To say I've moved beyond it sounds pompous. But, I'm just not there with some of that stuff anymore.

Brian said...


I see it as almost exactly opposite of what you are saying. G-d is saying He loves us as just as we are. He can never love us any more or any less. Of course, He wants to lift us up. Of course He wants us to grow and evolve. Of course it makes a difference. It makes a HUGE difference in how we see ourselves and in how we fulfill our potential. But, it does not make any difference in how much He loves us.

To me it never made any sense that G-d loved me (which I was taught) but that unless I made the right choice He was going to eternally torture me. What kind of a father tortures His child for an eternity based on a mistake (a mistake the Calvinists say you cannot correct, even to choose the gift)?

The fact that Jesus' sacrifice applies to all does not negate the importance of it nor does it negate the importance of us recongizing that so that we can approach G-d free of guilt and shame. But, it's more indicative of G-d's love for us than a test we have to pass by accepting it so that He can then finally love us. G-d loved us while we were still His enemies according to Paul.


kc bob said...

I think this is where our main difference is Brian when you write:

"unless I made the right choice"

I think that you see that "making a choice" is this issue. I think that simply "responding to His love" is the issue.. to me that is why the Holy Spirit was sent.. to offer us a gift of love that we can say simply yes to.. no big deal.. just yes.

I guess I really don't care about Hell as ECT.. I am okay just saying that He won't force anyone to be with Him eternally that doesn't want to be with Him.. where they go is in God's purview and not mine.

I think that when we negate choice we take away a part of us that makes us human and dishonor that part of the divine in us.. I have the same issue with Calvinists.

Though we may never agree on some of this I absolutely agree with you that God loves us and we cannot really comprehend His love.

Always love to discuss this with you Brian.. your love for me shines through in your responses.. of that I am so grateful.

Blessings, Bob

Brian said...


I agree that we have a choice as to when we can respond to G-d's love. Absolutely, positively. And choices we make in this life are EXTREMELY important and have major consequences.

I don't pretend to have this all worked out. But, I do am pretty sure that a major part of what traditional Christianity teaches is dead wrong. That is that G-d will eternally condemn us to torment if we do not choose to respond to His love. What kind of loving Father does that? The teaching that G-d loves me but wants to send me to Hell if I don't love Him back, very nearly killed me and drove me more than a little crazy for a long time because I knew I could never love Him sufficiently (especially since I was being coerced into faking that love).

For me, the major point of this book is that G-d loves us unconditionally. How and when we respond to that is up to the individual. But, traditional Christianity teaches that if we do not respond to it before we die, G-d's love is negated by our choice and He is bound to send us to eternal torment.

Some universalists believe in a temporary punishment after death a time of correction. I believe there is a "judgement". But, the main point I want to get across is G-d's love for us is not dependent on our loving Him or even knowing that He loves us.

Once I realized that G-d's love was unconditional Bob, it allowed me to truly reciprocate.


Someday said...

To me it is more of a question of "ultimate" free will. I'm a strong believer that God's will cannot be thwarted.
I don't really believe that we truly have a choice about all things, yet retain a limited choice in matters that do not relate to the final outcome of destiny. If I am walking a road and a log is in my path, it can be my choice to step over it, or walk around it. But in the things that will have a lasting effect, we are not at the rudder of our fate. I like to point out that it has been written 'every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess....' regarding mankind's future.

Without getting too deep into theology, I try to look to the event that happened in the Garden of Eden is the centerpiece upon which the entire Bible is focused. Whether literally interpreted, or as I believe, interpreted as parable, the main idea that man had was that there was some way to become more Godly apart from simple fellowship with God. In this case, the Tree of Life was offered freely, without condition. To simplify my thought, all man really had to do was partake in the Fruit of Life, but man decided to take a different route. Was that a free choice? I tend to think it was, but not one that God didn't know beforehand.
The route that man chose was getting closer to God through the knowledge of good and evil. That is, knowing what is good and learning what is evil. But even deeper than that, it was a choice to partake in the fruit of this knowledge. Fruit is an end product, although some see it as a beginning. Fruit in this case is what is produced, not what is germinated. So we set ourselves up to be tried in the fiery furnace, to be tested so to speak. The idea I guess was to come through the test doing only good in order to become more like God. That's a very very short description of what I believe, but I must leave the loose ends untied here for it would take too much space to develop it here.

Fast forward in time and Moses appears with the Law. What is the Law but a collection of what is good, and what is evil? It was the knowledge of good and evil encoded for all to make an attempt to achieve what was desired at the eating of the fruit in the Garden. From the Garden story we know that eating that fruit leads to death. That is why Paul tells us that the Law is death.
Jesus freed us from that Law by fulfilling it. When something is fulfilled, it is no longer an obligation. When a pharmacist fulfills a prescription, is he indebted to continue to fulfill it into eternity? No, it is done.
The act of sacrifice was not to appease God in any way. It was to appease our own need to and illusionary desire to come to God through the knowledge of Good and Evil.
That is why Jesus is called the Tree of Life.
God brought us the Law to witness to us the folly of trying to be somehow more worthy of Him through the Knowledge of Good and Evil. No man was able to keep the letter of the Law, and as it is written, to fail in one point of the Law is equal to failing the whole of the Law. None could do so.
Jesus is our Redeemer because he Redeemed our attitude toward God. He fulfilled a requirement not place upon us by God, but one that we placed upon ourselves in the Garden of Eden.

Again, I can't develop this here, it is just a capsule of what I believe.


kc bob said...

Agree Brian that God's love is unconditional.. some use that to say that He wants us to be rich.. some say that because He loves us He will protect us from bad stuff.. and some include ECT in that bad stuff.

If He does not protect us from the bad stuff now why should we believe that He will after we die? In the words of one of my favorite singers - What's love got to do with it?

Sequoia Lea Ananda said...

Hey Brian,

This is turning into a great discussion! I understand about trying to bring people along and I think you are doing great work to try and make that happen. I see my role in this and other conversations as being someone who has went through all of these stages of discovery and who has come out at a place of peace about my own journey and relationship with God - as a progressive person and as a follower of Jesus' way.

A reading suggestion for the conversation - "Original Blessing" by Matthew Fox. This is a great book and it deals with some of these very same questions. It might help those who are having a hard time rapping their mind around this at least understand a perspective other than that of original sin. At the very least, it is an interesting read and a good foray into Creation Spirituality.


Brian said...

Aren't the stages we go through pretty amazing, Cortney? When I read Martin Zender, I find a lot I disagree with. But, on the more important issues, I see us in agreement. Whether he ever agrees with me on the "how" of salvation, in my opinion is not nearly as important as the fact that we both believe in G-d's unconditional love for everyone, not just a few and not just the ones smart enough to "get it right".


Don said...

I, basically, know who Matthew Fox is. But, his name keeps coming up. I have not read any of his works other than small articles and quotes. I must give him a try. So many authors, so little time. But, to me, that's what makes life what it is!

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