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Christianity

Hell and Free Will

Every once in a while, I hit a brick wall trying to think about Christianity.  The one I just hit has to do with one of the oldest problems theologians encountered.  IF all that happens is the perfect and unalterable will of God, THEN God wishes people to suffer on earth, and then suffer for eternity.

I know we’ve all addressed this before, and we’ve argued with Christians until we were blue in the face, and whatever hope we had for human intellect had flown out the window.  But every once in a while, the absurdity of it all still smacks me in the face.

There are only two choices:

1) God is NOT omnipotent and all-knowing:  In this case, it is possible that God genuinely desires everyone to go to heaven.  But if that’s true, then he’s a shitty designer by any stretch of the imagination, and he’s got to be half-retarded (in the helmet and short bus sense of the word).  Not only did he supply evidence of his existence to only a minuscule fraction of humans, but his evidence sucks.  And his mysterious disappearing act after the dawn of science doesn’t help him at all.  If he really wants people to be saved, and this is the best he could do to keep billions out of hell, he’s a shitty, shitty heavenly parent.

2) God IS omnipotent and all-knowing.  If this is true, then God is an evil bastard the likes of which Jeffrey Dahmer and Stalin could only dream of becoming.  If God knows absolutely everything that will ever happen, and there’s no way that it could possibly change, then he knew — ten billion years before he did it — that billions and billions of people would not believe in him, and that he would send them to hell.  (Or that he would allow them to waltz into hell unopposed, if you prefer that interpretation.)

It’s very shocking to me sometimes that anyone has trouble with this dichotomy.  I guess where a lot of people get hung up is the free will argument.  Free will is a gift from God, and for free will to exist, there has to be evil. I have several problems with this:

1) Science has proved “free will” to be a rather nonsense concept. The first primitive theologians didn’t know anything about brains.  They could not imagine that electrical impulses traveling across neurons are responsible for everything we do.  So we can’t really blame them for not understanding that we “decide” unconsciously before we become aware of our decisions.


The entire “plan of salvation” relies on a concept of free will which does not exist.  It imagines some sort of “consciousness” which controls the body, and exists independent of the body.  But it works the other way around.  Between 300 and 500 milliseconds before we become consciously aware of a decision, our brain lights up in the area corresponding to the action we will take.

Let’s not make light of this.  It’s crucial.  “Sub”consciousness precedes consciousness.  Once we become aware of our decision, it has already been made.  Free will of a sort that would make moral sense in the Christian narrative does not exist.

2) Choosing between heaven and hell is not free will. Choosing a vacation in the Caribbean or a vacation in Italy is free will. Ultimate happiness versus eternal torment is not a choice. Anyone with even the slightest inkling of self-interest can ONLY choose heaven. Especially if there is no element of sacrifice or greater good associated with going to hell.

Or, let me put it simply: Anyone who is not completely bat-shit insane will always choose cake over death. Here’s Eddie Izzard explaining the concept:

When we think about it this way, we’re left with a glaring question:  If free will is so blasted important to God, and he is “ultimate love,” why not give us all the choice between three or four great ways to spend eternity? That’s a lovely choice, and I’d be happy to make it.  I’d think God was a real swell fellow for loving me so much that he gave me — of his own free will — the gift of never having to worry about pain or suffering.  What an awesome gift!  And to be able to enjoy my gift on the sun-drenched coast of Magical Heavenly Jamaica or in the majesty of the Magical Heavenly Rocky Mountains?  With several gorgeous blondes and brunettes who derived as much pleasure from my company as I theirs?  AWESOME!

But cake or death?  Not real free will, and not a choice for any sane being.

3) Free Will cannot exist in a predetermined universe. Again, we’re back to the original dichotomy.  Either God knows everything that is going to happen, and it is unalterable, or he does not.  If he does not, then we can talk about a real choice.  Otherwise, our choices are an illusion, and Calvin was right.

Theologians try to get around this by asserting “levels” of free will.  That is, God knows what’s going to happen, but we don’t, so our perception of choice amounts to free will.  But this simply doesn’t wash.  If a scientist puts a mouse in a maze, then the mouse has no choice but to follow the path in the maze.  And if there is only one path, and it ends in an incinerator, then the mouse has no free will to avoid the incinerator.  The scientist knows from the moment he puts the mouse down that the mouse will die.  And the mouse doesn’t know it.  And it doesn’t matter.

IF God knows everything that’s going to happen, then he knows everything I will do in my life, and whether I will end up in hell when I die.  I do not know at this time, but my lack of knowledge (or my knowledge) cannot alter my course through the maze.  The walls are fixed through the will of the maze creator.

There is just no good way out of the trap for God, which seems to indicate that God wasn’t very smart when he put the whole thing together.  So which seems more likely to you, gentle reader?  Was God too stupid to see that his whole scheme was unworkable?  Or was man too primitive to understand the concepts involved when he invented this particular myth?

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Discussion

15 thoughts on “Hell and Free Will

  1. To top it all off, once we get to heaven is there free will? If there is, then this just makes heaven another Earth with nothing improved. There would still be sin (since sin can only exist with free will) and, biblically, there would still be death if there is still sin (Rom 5.12; 6.23).

    But working by some sort of backwards induction – if there’s no death in heaven then there’s no sin. If there’s no sin then there’s no free will. Thus Yahweh must not actually think that free will is such an awesome gift if the end result is its removal.

    I’ve heard a couple of Christians claim that we’ll be “changed” so that we no longer “want” to sin. But wouldn’t that no longer be “us” in any reasonable way? What if Yahweh considers it a sin to listen to Metallica, yet your favorite band that you’ve seen on every single one of their tours is Metallica. You’re practically known as a Metallica fanatic. If this love of Metallica is removed, you are no longer “you” in any meaningful sense. Much like lobotomy victims are no longer themselves after their lobotomy.

    Posted by J. Quinton | January 31, 2011, 5:51 pm
  2. Excellent post Hamby.
    Its a no-brainer –
    “Or was man too primitive to understand the concepts involved when he invented this particular myth?”

    Posted by mrnatural | January 31, 2011, 6:16 pm
  3. J Quinton, that’s a great observation. I dealt with it in a slightly different way in my post about heaven:

    I am told that if I only say the magic words and believe that the god Jesus sacrificed himself to the god Father, that I will be happy with this arrangement and enjoy heaven. I think that I would be a very bad person indeed if I could enjoy knowing that people who had contributed more to humanity than I could ever hope to are suffering. I don’t think I want this magic.

    Sin isn’t the only problem in heaven. Our memories are also a very big problem. If I know that someone I cared about is in hell, my natural human reaction is to be terrified, sad, and enraged at the being who put them there. Only… I won’t be any of those things because they don’t exist in heaven. So… I won’t be me. I’ll be someone who doesn’t care about the suffering of others, and who doesn’t hold god responsible for his own actions.

    So why bother making me the person I am when I’m going to be someone else after it’s all said and done?

    Posted by hambydammit | January 31, 2011, 6:28 pm
  4. Hmmm, I’m not sure the Free Will vs. Free Won’t article portrays free will as a nonsense concept
    “these data remain consistent with the idea that conscious processes could still exert some effect over actions by modifying the brain processes already under way. The fact that conscious awareness of intention precedes movement by a couple of hundred milliseconds means that a person could still inhibit certain actions from being made. Libet apparently replaced free will with free won’t.”

    While this is true when it comes to deciding to flip a lightswitch:

    “Sub”consciousness precedes consciousness. Once we become aware of our decision, it has already been made.

    is the process the same for complex decision-making about moral or ethical issues?

    Posted by Susan Walsh | February 1, 2011, 9:16 am
  5. It’s definitely not as simple as that experiment, Susan. That was just the pilot study back in the 80s. There have been many more since, and the only thing that’s clear is that cognition is not a strictly linear process.

    The kind of decision in Libet’s experiment was one in which the subjects had total discretion within a known amount of time. We also have reflex decisions, and within “reflex,” there are two kinds — one that taps into our “lizard brain” and one into our “thinking brain.” In a movie theater, you have no choice but to jump when you are startled by the big baddie pouncing from behind a tree. But unlike lizards, you stop yourself from running headlong out of the theater as your higher brain kicks in and informs you that it’s not a real baddie.

    WRT complex decision making, it’s certainly an interactive process, where our conscious brain alters the future working of our unconscious (pre-conscious) algorithm. The question is chicken and egg, though. What was the original causal agent for our conscious thought? Luckily, we can solve the regress easily enough, for conscious awareness precedes sentience in humans after birth. So information came first, and then conscious thought.

    In other words, no matter how spontaneous a thought feels in the current moment, it is the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of data and algorithm adjustment, and the whole computation started before we were capable of making rational decisions.

    Moral reasoning is a fascinating topic, and it’s still in its infancy. I’ve only read a few articles in the last few weeks, but the gist of them seems to be that our moral reasoning is highly flexible, and highly dependent on external factors. That is, people conditioned to a specific set of beliefs alter their moral compass to fit their worldview. Sure, there’s an underlying “instinctive” foundation, but the interpretation of it is highly malleable.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 1, 2011, 2:20 pm
  6. Science has proved “free will” to be a rather nonsense concept

    I don’t think those studies constitute sufficient evidence to persuade a reasonably skeptical person that science has proved free will to be nonsense. That’s very unfair to metaphysical libertarians.

    Posted by Ian | February 1, 2011, 5:45 pm
  7. Ian, there’s been a good conversation about this going on my facebook page. A lot of the discussion of free will revolves around the definition, which is hard enough to agree on.

    But the study I linked to was the pilot study from back in the 80s. It’s not intended as a bibliographical proof that free will doesn’t exist. Just a starting point.

    I don’t claim that science has proven that free will doesn’t exist. I do claim that science has proven that huge chunks of human decision-making are unconscious, and that many, if not most of our decisions are being acted upon by our brain before we become conscious of their existence. This doesn’t help a rational discussion of free will, but it does cut off the Christian model at the knees.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 1, 2011, 6:00 pm
  8. A lot of the discussion of free will revolves around the definition, which is hard enough to agree on.

    True enough. What aspect of the Christian definition of free will does that study undermine?

    I do claim that science has proven that huge chunks of human decision-making are unconscious, and that many, if not most of our decisions are being acted upon by our brain before we become conscious of their existence.

    Interesting stuff, to be sure, but the Christian model doesn’t require that the body play no role in the decision making process. Their position would be that the “flesh” does influence decision making, and that it is necessary at times to exercise veto power over that influence.

    This doesn’t help a rational discussion of free will, but it does cut off the Christian model at the knees.

    How is that study contentious to an Arminian or Catholic view of free will?

    Posted by Ian | February 2, 2011, 10:10 am
  9. I’ve only read a few articles in the last few weeks, but the gist of them seems to be that our moral reasoning is highly flexible, and highly dependent on external factors. That is, people conditioned to a specific set of beliefs alter their moral compass to fit their worldview.Sure, there’s an underlying “instinctive” foundation, but the interpretation of it is highly malleable.

    I would like to see these studies, because the studies that I’ve come across seem to offer evidence that we are more likely to alter our worldview to fit our own moral compass, rather than the opposite. Which would explain why we see such diversity in the morality of theists.

    Posted by cptpineapple | February 2, 2011, 3:07 pm
  10. Alison, I’m talking about things like the Milgram experiments, where authority figures, peer pressure, etc, influence people’s beliefs about their actions. Do you think it’s coincidental that Republican children of Republicans tend strongly to believe that it’s immoral to support government “handouts” to the poor, and that the morally correct thing to do is make them tough it out for their own good?

    Obviously, being raised in a well-to-do, Republican environment shapes these beliefs, the same way that being raised poor makes the concept of government aid seem much more morally appealing.

    What you’re talking about, I think, is the way we perceive the world around us through a strongly formed moral viewpoint. So using my example, a staunch Republican could visit an impoverished inner city and would see nothing but depravity, immorality, and laziness. A staunch Democrat could walk right beside him and see nothing but government immorality in the face of humans suffering bravely and tenaciously through adversity.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 2, 2011, 4:49 pm
  11. True enough. What aspect of the Christian definition of free will does that study undermine?

    I’ve been trying to find a succinct way to say this, and I don’t think I’m there yet. But here goes: The Christian model asserts agency “beyond” our mortal body — our soul. The part of us that decides our eternal fate is the part which will survive our physical death, and it’s the part of us that represents the “true person” inhabiting the body. As an example, I’ve heard Christians talk about people who have had major brain trauma and say that the “real person” was still there in the soul, but couldn’t manifest itself through the body any longer. I’ll bet you’ve also heard them talk about how Jesus or the Holy Ghost will directly “touch your soul.” Same idea.

    Though I doubt you’ll hear it preached in church much — because it’s really boring, and full of holes to begin with — the idea is that it’s this external agency which ultimately controls our mind. (A twist on classic dualism required by the discovery of neuroscience.) But if that’s true, then we have time issues. If we decide things before we become aware of the decisions, then our soul can predict the future, and programs our brain before we become conscious of knowing things about ourselves. I suppose it’s not beyond theology to assert such a thing — I mean, what with talking snakes and magic sleigh rides into space — but it’s still pretty absurd.

    Furthermore, science has shown concretely that we are not free will blank slates — we are extremely influenced by our environment, and cannot choose to make certain decisions. We don’t often make the connection because it doesn’t feel like science, but advertising companies make billions and billions of dollars worldwide because they can successfully make people believe things. No, advertisers can’t get everyone to believe a certain way, but that doesn’t matter. The fact that they can make anyone at all do something is a huge deal.

    Ironically, arguing with Christians is one of the easiest ways to disprove free will. When we see how hard some of them have been brainwashed, and watch as their brains unconsciously wrap themselves into logical pretzels, we see that they literally can’t understand the words they are hearing. They are incapable of a free choice.

    Interesting stuff, to be sure, but the Christian model doesn’t require that the body play no role in the decision making process. Their position would be that the “flesh” does influence decision making, and that it is necessary at times to exercise veto power over that influence.

    Yeah, I suppose if that’s what you believe, then all the science in the world wouldn’t make any difference. Gotta love those un-falsifiable claims. Interestingly, it ought to be of great interest to Christian scientists to try to find the mechanism by which the soul interacts with the brain. Now… if there was a little corner of the brain where electrons appeared out of nowhere, and only when thinking about God…

    How is that study contentious to an Arminian or Catholic view of free will?

    I guess I should have said that this model of free will ought to help any non-believers who are still struggling with the core concept of “freely choosing” to believe in Jesus. I wouldn’t use this line of thought to try to convince a Christian of anything.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 2, 2011, 5:10 pm
  12. Yeah, I suppose if that’s what you believe, then all the science in the world wouldn’t make any difference. Gotta love those un-falsifiable claims.

    What I was driving at is that resisting temptation is already a part of their belief system. The major source of temptation is the “flesh.” With that already in place, a study which shows that unconscious brain activity plays a role in decision making doesn’t seem contentious to their beliefs.

    The Christian model asserts agency “beyond” our mortal body — our soul … If we decide things before we become aware of the decisions, then our soul can predict the future

    Or the soul did not initiate the brain activity that preceded the decision, but was reacting to it in the same way that you presume the material mind reacts. Since you acknowledge that that study doesn’t disprove free will in the case of a material mind, I don’t see why it would disprove free will for an immaterial mind.

    Furthermore, science has shown concretely that we are not free will blank slates

    In reading their theological views on free will, I haven’t encountered any blank slate models, which isn’t surprising. Long before we studied the subject scientifically, it would still have been implausible to propose a blank slate view. To any moderately reflective person, anyway.

    I guess I should have said that this model of free will ought to help any non-believers who are still struggling with the core concept of “freely choosing” to believe in Jesus.

    Your bullets might have been meant for Christian free will, but it looks to me like you’re also taking dead aim at metaphysical libertarianism. To put it another way, if you disprove free will according to an Arminian or Catholic interpretation, then you also disprove metaphysical libertarianism.

    Posted by Ian | February 2, 2011, 9:01 pm
  13. Alison, I’m talking about things like the Milgram experiments, where authority figures, peer pressure, etc, influence people’s beliefs about their actions. Do you think it’s coincidental that Republican children of Republicans tend strongly to believe that it’s immoral to support government “handouts” to the poor, and that the morally correct thing to do is make them tough it out for their own good?

    Obviously, being raised in a well-to-do, Republican environment shapes these beliefs, the same way that being raised poor makes the concept of government aid seem much more morally appealing.

    What you’re talking about, I think, is the way we perceive the world around us through a strongly formed moral viewpoint. So using my example, a staunch Republican could visit an impoverished inner city and would see nothing but depravity, immorality, and laziness. A staunch Democrat could walk right beside him and see nothing but government immorality in the face of humans suffering bravely and tenaciously through adversity

    Hamby, I think this pretty much summerizes why I just can’t get on board with you. I like to call it the laser point fallacy [look for it in upcoming philosophy journals!] where you focus on a single moral issue, point out the morally superior viewpoint on that issue and then say that said viewpoint is morally superior across the board.

    Do worldviews shape our views on morality? Absolutely. I agree with the atheist movement that we should replace religion to make the world a better place, I just don’t like what they’re trying to replace it with.

    If we take the Republican and turn him/her into a Democrat, then while you may get rid of the Republican moral shortcomings, you inherit the Democrat moral shortcomings and vice versa.

    I think we should replace the Republican and Democrat moral shortcomings with something more productive, as opposed just switching sides.

    Posted by cptpineapple | February 4, 2011, 5:19 am
  14. Hamby, I think this pretty much summerizes why I just can’t get on board with you. I like to call it the laser point fallacy [look for it in upcoming philosophy journals!] where you focus on a single moral issue, point out the morally superior viewpoint on that issue and then say that said viewpoint is morally superior across the board.

    Would you please point me to my use of the word “superior” or any of its synonyms in my comment? This is why I can’t fathom what your point is. You seem to be talking about different opinions than the ones I express.

    Do worldviews shape our views on morality? Absolutely. I agree with the atheist movement that we should replace religion to make the world a better place, I just don’t like what they’re trying to replace it with.

    Is this on topic at all? I’m very puzzled by what any of this has to do with the hell/free will discussion.

    I think we should replace the Republican and Democrat moral shortcomings with something more productive, as opposed just switching sides.

    I don’t recall expressing a moral preference for either side. I pointed out the power of environment to shape moral frameworks.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 4, 2011, 3:49 pm
  15. Is this on topic at all? I’m very puzzled by what any of this has to do with the hell/free will discussion.

    Hamby, I didn’t bring up the flexibility of worldviews in moral reasoning, you did. You said that the articles you read point to X I asked to see them and then you went on about worldviews and morality and I responded.

    So the question you should be asking is what your response has to do with the topic of hell/free will.

    Posted by cptpineapple | February 5, 2011, 1:46 am

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