Free will and monotheism: Can’t live with it or without it

When it comes to God and suffering, it’s rare that you do not hear the subject of free will come up. It’s common to hear something along the lines of, “If humans don’t have free will, then we’re just puppets. Do you think God wants us to be puppets?” In fact, in some instances, one gets the impression that someone is saying, “Hey man, free will….checkmate atheists”.


By “God” I am, as usual, referring to classical monotheism, which maintains the belief there exists one God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good.*

The Problem

Although appealing to free will is common in apologetical circles, I think if we dig down further, then we will see that there are indeed some issues.

First off, there are different varieties of free will. The type that is being invoked by certain apologists here is known in the literature as libertarian free will. Why would this sort of free will be valuable in itself? That’s a good question. And why would I want this sort of free will if that also means that we have to deal with all this horrific suffering in the actual world? That’s also a good question.

Apart from the fact that it’s not obvious whether we have this sort of free will, let alone any type of free will, the bigger issue here is why God (if God exists) couldn’t just give us a different type of free will (or no free will at all).

It’s not true that, without libertarian free will, we are just robots. And, even if I were just a robot, that doesn’t mean that the love I have for other people is illusory; I would still care about other people. It’s neither here nor there whether I choose to or not.

Once again, we could have a different type of free will. For instance, God could make it the case that we can only choose between good actions and praiseworthy actions. With the latter, I am talking about actions that go above and beyond the call of duty. Not to mention, one could still have a relationship with God with this different type of free will (1). And given that the greatest good for finite creatures– on theism– is to be in a relationship with God, it’s hard to see why God would be interested in possible goods that supposedly come with libertarian free will (2).

If libertarian free will exists, I think that would actually be evidence against God. The reason is that there are many instances where I could’ve exercised my free will to help someone, but I wasn’t even aware of the circumstance (3). This isn’t surprising if God doesn’t exist, but it is surprising on theism.

But if free will doesn’t exist, then it seems God has to get the blame for all the suffering in the world. In fact, it’s hard to even make sense of Christian theism/Judaism (as a whole) without free will. If the fall of men in Christianity isn’t due to the free will of men, then how is Yahweh still omnibenevolent?


Keep in mind that all these thoughts aren’t even necessarily original to me. Philosopher J.L. Schellenberg has written a whole article on how free will is evidence against God, which can be found here. The point of philosophy is to get us to think hard about these issues, even unpopular views.


1. Schellenberg, J.L., 2007a, The Wisdom to Doubt, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
2. Ibid.
3. Schellenberg, J. L. “The Atheist’s Free Will Offence.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 56, no. 1 (2004): 1-15.

*In the “about” section on my blog, I clearly say that this blog is talking about classical theism, and I define classical theism. Hence, it’s annoying and pedantic when certain people will ask me (and others) to CONSTANTLY define “God”. It’s especially annoying when it’s obvious that the conversation in question is about classical theism and/or Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The term “God” is clearly different than “a god”.


7 thoughts on “Free will and monotheism: Can’t live with it or without it

  1. Interesting question. I’m one that’s said before that free will is essential and actually would seem to more appropriately identify reality. But you’ve brought up some interesting points. The one I think needs to be addressed: love. I think you might experience the same from loving someone as a requirement of your programming. But I don’t think the programmer would benefit in the same way. If humans HAD to love God, if loving Him was merely a product of Him making us love Him, would that actually be love?

    Also, there’s something that Christians believe (I think Jews do to but I don’t know about other theists) and that is we believe we are made in God’s image. There are certain “communicable” attributes (mercy, love, joy) and certain “incommunicable” attributes (like His omniscience, immutability, etc.). There’s some debate on what attributes do belong to us. (Some for example include creativity, whereas others say no because we cannot create from nothing as God did) but I believe free will falls into this category (and yet this too is debated since some limit free will by God’s predestination). Clearly God (as you define Him, and if He exists, as I am convinced He does) has free will. Could He make people in His own image without giving them free will?

    Certainly you’ve raised an interesting question.


    1. Thanks for the response. With God, there are certainly many ways of arriving at a relationship. It’s hard to see, at least for me, how choosing to love God is better than not choosing. I don’t think I chose to love my parents. It naturally developed. God could have a similar model with us. I’m not suggesting that we are children, but the growth of character can come in the relationship with God.

      So, the model that I am picturing, in terms of the relationship between God and finite creatures, is more of a “sharing model”…like the child and parent. And, if free will entails horrific suffering, the ability for people to resist relationship to God, etc., then I think that it is wise that we ask ourselves what we would expect God to do (in terms of how God would model relationships).

  2. “Communicable attributes”(finite properties) cannot inform us about “incommunicable attributes”(infinite properties). In the split you have God and god, the one of which informs us nothing of the other.
    We speak often of things like loves, callings, personal dispositions – all components of our will, and none of them free in the libertarian sense.

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