What is the point of life from a Christian perspective?
The other day, I was reading some conversation on the Problem of Evil. As usually happens, one of the responses was that evil exists because of human free will that defies God’s completely good plan, but human free will itself is something God wanted, so that’s why he allowed for it.
This led me to think about a series of questions, beginning with: what is the point of this life (with our free will and fallen natures and the risk that so many of us will end up in Hell for [possibly] eternity) from a traditional Christian perspective?
I know the basic way to answer this question from a Mormon perspective. In Mormonism, mortality is a proving ground — it is necessary for development, and such development gives one the possibility to advance to Godhood. In Mormonism, the fall isn’t entirely a bad thing…it’s a necessary part of the plan. In Mormonism as well, however, God has a more limited role in terms of creating the universe — he is more of an organizer who’s already part in the process, and we — rather than being created ex nihilo — are eternal intelligences organized to create our more corporeal selves.
But I don’t have to be an exmormon to realize that you can’t assume this answer will work for traditional Christianity. So, based on what I have learned about traditional Christianity, that led me to a series of questions and explorations.
The basic idea around the free will argument against the problem of evil are the ideas that God didn’t want humans who were coerced to loving him — He wanted people who would love him out of their own volition. Secondly, there is this idea that free will must include the real possibility of acting in evil/sinful/ungodly ways.
Who has free will?
So, one of my followup questions was: does God have free will?
This isn’t a certain premise. Some people have pointed out that due to divine simplicity, one can’t say God has parts, so it’s not that God “has” will but that he “is” will.
Still, when I asked this question on the Christianity subreddit, most people seemed to want to say that God does have free will (or is free will). They wanted to say that God can do anything logically possible, and there isn’t anything logically impossible about God performing evil acts. However, God never acts in evil ways because his nature is good. So, though he can act in any way he wants, he only acts in accordance with his nature, which is good. (I don’t want to run afoul of the Euthyphro Dilemma here).
Even if someone wasn’t really comfortable with talking about whether God has free will, I tried to get at a similar question from a different aspect: is there free will in heaven?
Again, people on r/Christianity seemed to agree that people still have free will in heaven. This was something easier for people to admit, as we can talk about humans relatably (even if God is very difficult to discuss.)
So, that led to my next question: is there sin in Heaven?
This brought some very interesting responses on r/Christianity that I hadn’t really thought about. Firstly, many people raised up the idea of angels who rebelled as support for the idea that there is sin in heaven. This isn’t really something I had considered, so I had to refine my question: after we die and are judged, is there sin in Heaven?
Here, people seemed to agree that there isn’t sin. When someone goes to heaven, they are there for eternity and would never do anything to jeopardize that.
People then would explain how they could reconcile free will in heaven with the lack of sin in heaven. They would frame it in different ways, but ultimately, the way most arguments went was that people have the capability to sin in heaven (it is an option available to them), but their natures are such that they will never choose that option. In other words, it’s not that it’s impossible, but that one never wants to, so one never does it.
To me, however, if we can think of a situation where people have free will yet only effectively make certain choices, then that casts into questions assumptions about what is needed for free will in mortality.
Compatibilism and free will
I didn’t really understand Calvinism very well until I read a particular article that discussed the Calvinist view of free will. This article pointed out that what Calvinists reject is libertarian free will, but not compatibilist free will. From the article:
…Does a person have free will? Well, what do you mean by “free will”? This must always be asked.
Do you mean:
- That a person is not forced from the outside to make a choice?
- That a person is responsible for his or her choices?
- That a person is the active agent in a choice made?
- That a person is free to do whatever they desire?
- That a person has the ability to choose contrary to their nature (who they are)?
Calvinists, such as myself, do believe in free will and we don’t believe in free will. It just depends on what you mean.
When it comes to the first three options, most Calvinist would agree that a person is not forced to make a choice, is responsible for their choices, and is the active agent behind those choices. They would reject the forth believing that a person is not free to do whatever they desire (for example, no matter how much one desires, he or she cannot read the thoughts of another person, fly without wings, or transport from one location to another just by thinking about the desired location).
It is important to note at this point, there is no conflict. No matter what theological persuasion you adhere to, most of historic Christianity has agreed that the first three are true, while the fourth is false.
It is with the fifth option there is disagreement.
The article goes into more detail on problems with thinking a person can choose contrary to their nature, so please read when you have time to. I’ll just say that the compatibilist notion of free will can probably be best summarized by Arthur Schopenhauer’s quote: “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” What this means is that compatibilists would say that we are free when we can act in accordance with our own natures. Coercion or a lack of free will means having our choices limited by external factors.
To take a lighthearted example, let’s say that in front of me I have vanilla and chocolate ice cream. I strongly prefer vanilla ice cream. I choose vanilla because that is what I want, and whenever vanilla ice cream is available, I choose it.
The compatibilist would say that no one is forcing me to choose vanilla. The fact that my choosing vanilla is determined by my nature (my strong preference for vanilla) and that I did not choose my nature (I did not choose to prefer vanilla over chocolate) does not defeat free will. I *could* choose chocolate, but I don’t want to. (You’d have to appeal to some other aspect of my nature to get me to choose chocolate.)
Ultimately, when people speak of free will for God or free will for humans existing post-mortally in heaven, they intuitively get at a compatibilist conception of free will. No external force is compelling their actions, but their natures are such that they always choose the good.
So, then, the question is: why didn’t God have created us with such natures in the beginning?
There has to be a difference in natures for mortal man and post-mortal man if both have free will, but one can choose sin. Mortal man must have been given a nature that included an effective potential for rebellion. And yet we say that post-mortal man is still free with only a hypothetical potential that never becomes effective.
Why was this?
We cannot respond: “God wanted people to love him out of their own volition” because people still think that in post-mortality, people are loving him out of their own volition. To get back to the ice cream analogy, I choose vanilla out of my own volition, even though my preference for vanilla was not chosen.
My suspicion is that ultimately, Christianity’s creation narrative is just a post-hoc explanation to attempt to describe why mortality is the way it is (I suspect that it works so well because we are beings evolving morality but still dealing with an evolutionary history of baser instincts and desires. [and you know, I think I heard one Christian explain the fall narrative allegorically in terms of evolution, but that was only ONE person I’ve ever heard it from]), rather than something that can explain why it had to be this way. In this sense, one might say, “Well, however it happened, we do have fallen natures, yet we can voluntarily choose to accept God’s grace or not.”