Most people who believe in God-given free will also believe in an afterlife. Presumably, people in the afterlife will still have free will (they won’t be robots then either, will they?). And yet there won’t be suffering (allegedly) then. Why will people know how to exercise free will in heaven if they can’t know how to exercise it on earth?
— Dr. Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer
In other words, Dr. Ehrman is asking, will there be sin in Heaven? If Christians in Heaven have free will, there exists, then, the possibility that they will sin. And if Christians won’t have free will in Heaven due to some sort of divine action, why can’t God do the same now on Earth? If you want to read an unsatisfying “the Bible says” response to this conundrum, please read this post by former atheist Erik Manning.
I recently asked readers to submit questions to me they would like me to answer. If you would like to submit a question, please follow the instructions listed here.
Henriette asked: Do you believe in free will? Can anyone escape the social religious determinism they were brought up in if they have enough courage (or any other necessary faculties)?
I have written almost three thousand posts since December 2014, and not one of them dealt with the subject of free will. The reason for this is two-fold: first, discussions on free will always bring more heat than light, and second, I am not really certain what it is I believe about the matter. I continue to read and study the various leading voices on free will, but so far, I am not convinced one way or the other. That said, you did ask me if I believed in free will, so I will take a stab at answering it based on what I presently think on the matter.
When I look at the decisions I make day-in and day-out, it seems to me that I have free will. I am willingly and freely answering this question. Now, that does not mean that I was not influenced by outside forces or personal behavioral patterns. I have OCPD, so I crave order. I hate leaving things undone. I asked for questions all the way back in July and here I am still answering them. My mind is telling me, get it done, Bruce. Do it now. Henriette deserves an answer. Don’t delay. I also like pleasing others. I want to be well thought of, so it’s important to me answer this question. I also want this blog to be place where doubting Evangelicals can come to find answers to their questions and encouragement as they wrestle with what it is they actually believe. All of these things pressure (influence) me, leading me to take time tonight to answer this question. Yes, I am doing so FREELY, but not without influence.
Henriette also asks whether someone can escape the social/religious determinism they were brought up in? The short answer is yes. One need only look at my life to see that someone can escape these things. I was in the Christian church for fifty years. I spent twenty-five of those years pastoring Evangelical churches. It is extremely rare for someone my age with the ministerial experience I have to leave the ministry and later leave Christianity. By the time you have been preaching for twenty-five years, you have too much invested to leave it all behind. As the old gospel song says, I’ve come too far to turn back now. I don’t know of any of the men I attended Bible college with who are not still believers. Some have left the ministry, but all of them, at least outwardly, still profess to believe the core doctrines of Christianity. What was different about me? Why was I able to walk away? Was my defection an act of the will?
On one hand, it is clear, at least to me, that I willingly walked away from the ministry and Christianity. I CHOSE to stop believing. One the other hand, I can look at my sixty-one years of life and see a behavioral pattern that shows up time and time again. I was raised to be a true believer, an all-in kind of person. I can thank (or curse) my mom for this. I have never been someone who did things half way. I remember when I bought my first computer in 1991 — a VTech 286. I quickly became bored with this computer, so I bought an IBM PS1 286 And after that an IBM 486 for almost $1,700 (Thank you Sun TV for no money down, low payments, like forever). Over the years, I have owned numerous computers, and since the late 1990s, I have built my own. I spent hundreds of dollars on massive books about Windows computers and how they operated. I threw myself headlong into learning everything there was to know about Windows-based computers and software. I soon became the resident expert, and to this day extended family and friends call me whenever they have computer problems.
I repeated this behavioral pattern when I took up photography. I am the type of person who needs to know everything I can about a subject. This approach has led me change my mind many times, and has led others (especially former ministerial colleagues) to suggest that I am mentally unstable. I can’t leave things alone, content with just a cursory knowledge of a matter. I can’t even take a shit without reading the ingredients on the back of the cleanser or a magazine. There’s much to learn, and I have concluded that I haven’t scratched the surface of the knowledge available to me (and declining health has certainly curtailed this pursuit).
So, when I began to have doubts about Christianity, I threw myself headlong into reading books that challenged the beliefs I held for most of my life. And once I came to the conclusion that Christianity no longer made sense and that its fundamental claims could not be rationally and intellectually sustained, I left Christianity.
Did I leave Christianity solely for intellectual reasons? I so want to say yes, but that would be a lie. Yes, I left primarily for intellectual reasons, but there were also emotional and psychological factors that played a part in my deconversion. I like to think that I freely chose to stop believing, but I suspect that deep seated emotional hurts and psychological scars played a part too. They, without my help, played a part in pushing me out the door. These influences certainly played an instrumental part in me freely choosing to divorce myself from Jesus. Make sense?
I doubt that I have answered your question on the matter of free will. My thoughts are all over the place on this subject. All I know to do is live my life as if I have free will. Can any of us do otherwise?
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.
Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.