Man "is born without his own consent; his organization does in nowise depend upon himself; his ideas come to him involuntarily; his habits are in the power of those who cause him to contract them; he is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control. . . . He is good or bad, miserable or happy, wise or foolish, without his will being for anything in these various states."-Baron d'Holbach

"Hardly anyone can remain entirely optimistic after reading the confession of the murderer at Brockton the other day; how, to get rid of a wife whose continued existence bored him, he inveighed her into a desert spot, shot her four times, and then, as she lay on the ground and said to him, 'You didn't do it on purpose, did you dear?' replied, 'No, I didn't do it on purpose,' as he raised a rock and smashed her skull."-William James

"And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord,
choose you this day whom ye will serve."-Joshua


Perhaps anticipating the atheistic naturalism that his physics could sire, Newton, in the Principia, wrote: "The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could proceed only from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being."

Unfortunately, many who accepted Newton's laws didn't accept his cosmology (or, for that matter, his theology), which led them to a hard deterministic view of the universe. If, as Newton proved, creation runs like a machine, with each part acting in response to preset mechanical rules and laws, where does that leave free will? If everything, from planets to molecules in man's brain, follows a predestined course, then "human autonomy" becomes an existential antinomy. Pierre de Laplace declared that if a person knew at one instant the position and motion of every particle in the universe, they could know the future in intimate and absolute detail. Voltaire, in the Ignorant Philosopher, though expressing it in less extreme terms, expressed the dilemma: "It would be very singular that all nature, all the planets, should obey eternal laws, and that there should be a little animal, five feet high, who, in contempt of these laws, could act as he pleased, solely according to his caprice."

A few centuries later, based on Max Planck's quantum theory, Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle revealed the impossibility of simultaneously measuring both the velocity and position of a subatomic particle because (to put it crudely) by "looking" at a particle you disturb either its velocity or position. According to physicist Stephen Hawking (who holds Newton's old job at Cambridge), this means that "one certainly can't predict future events if one cannot even measure the present state of the universe." Quantum theory posits an inherent unpredictability in matter itself, which-though the opposite of Newtonian physics-when taken to the extreme, does the same damage to free will as well. After all, how free are we if here everything happens without a cause? "In an indeterministic universe," wrote mathematical physicist Paul Davies, "events occur that are uncaused. But can you be responsible for your acts unless they are caused-caused by you?"

Obviously, more than one great mind has argued that mathematically, logically, even rationally, free will is an improbable, if not impossible, postulate. If, however, one's epistemology isn't limited only to math, logic, and rational thought alone, but is broad enough to encompass faith, then one can know that the reality of human free will was revealed, once and for all, at the cross.

Indeed, Christ's death, an event transcending the limits of reason and logic alone, makes no sense apart from the specter of human moral autonomy. Christ died only because He had created humanity with the capacity to make moral choices; if humans hadn't been given the option, they wouldn't have made wrong choices because they couldn't have. The cross happened only because sin happened, and sin happened, not because human beings just happened to be free, but because God created them that way.

In a hard deterministic universe, with our every act being predetermined, sin would have to be predetermined as well-which would make Christ's death meaningless. Why? Because at the cross Christ faced God's wrath against sin so that sinners will never have to. Jesus faced the legal, judicial penalty for human transgression in the place of human transgressors themselves. The Lord poured out His divine indignation against sin not on sinners, but on Jesus instead.

Yet why should God be indignant against something that He foreordained? Why would a just God punish what can't be helped? Why would God pour out His wrath on something of His own making? It's hard to understand how God could punish sin, even in the person of Jesus Christ, if that sin was predetermined to happen (remember, foreknowledge isn't the same as predetermination). Christ's dying for sins that He, as Creator (Colossians 1:16), willed makes no sense.

Einstein, understanding the implications of hard determinism in a universe created by an "almighty Being," wrote that in "giving out punishments . . . he would be . . . passing judgment on himself."

Yet that's not what happened at the cross: God passed judgment not on Himself, but on the world, declaring it guilty of sin. The Good News, however, is that Jesus paid the penalty so we don't have to.

In short, Newtonian and quantum physics aside, we do have what we sense intuitively, and that is free will. Yet that free will hasn't come without a price: "Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, . . . but with the precious blood of Christ" (1 Peter 1:18, 19).

Freedom clearly hasn't come cheap.

- Clifford R. Goldstein


Article Author: Clifford R. Goldstein

Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.