Free will vs. fatalism

The doctrine of free will holds that we are able to make choices within the constraints put on us by society; under this doctrine, our choices and actions are not predetermined for us by God, or by fate. Fatalism is at the other end of the philosophical spectrum; it holds that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do, including the idea that men and women have no power to change the future, since it is either predetermined, or already known.

Free will is empowering, since it means that our choices really matter; fatalism is dis-empowering, since it tends to discourages action, rather than to encourage positive responses in the face of challenges. Fatalism includes both the idea of submission to the will of God, and the idea that everything that happens has already been decided by God.

Fatalism can also lead to the idea that “whatever I do is the will of God,” with experience showing us that it works to remove constraints that would otherwise lead to what we consider to be “civilized behaviour.” At least, the domination of a fatalistic mindset could be used to explain some of the excesses that come to be manifested by self-appointed leaders in cultures that have a strong fatalistic tendency.

Fatalism encourages passivity among the bulk of the people. This can be seen in the Middle East, where the dominant fatalistic ideology has made it very difficult to establish democracy. This remains the case despite the fact that some countries in that region, at the beginning of the twentieth century, were beginning to allow more open expression of ideas, and to have more public debate. Yet instead of the flowering of democracy that one could have expected, we see the repetition of a pattern that has prevailed over a thousand years, where fatalism provides a fertile ground for those who believe they embody the expression of God’s will to seize power, either by violence or by the ideological oppression of those who disagree with them. In a somewhat different paradigm, a rigid caste system in India, built on fatalistic premises, made it hard for the poor to improve their lot and made it easy for the privileged to bask in their privileges, although this is gradually changing.

Christianity does not support fatalism. While Christians teach that God’s plans will prevail upon earth, they also teach that human beings are responsible to God for everything that they do. The New Testament calls us to take action, beginning with Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations, with the objective that men and women will willingly take upon themselves living their lives according to Jesus’ commands.

Jesus himself contemplated the (theoretical) possibility that the crowds watching his final entry into Jerusalem might not have praised him and acknowledged his Messianic role, saying, “If they kept quiet, the stones would cry out (Luke 19:39-40)!” While Jesus’ response can be understood as deliberate hyperbole, it shows a mindset: God will intervene to bring about his purposes.

While somehow still holding onto the idea of free will, many Christians believe that either God knows everything that is going to happen before it happens, or that God has predetermined everything before it happens. However, this idea is not based on the New Testament. It is founded on the Greek philosophical idea that, whatever highest thing we can think of God, that thing must be true about him. On the other hand, it is a rather bizarre idea to suggest that if God does not allow men and women free choices, that is the best that we can do in thinking up our highest idea of God.

However, rather than relying upon such abstract philosophical concepts, which we know from experience is not the best way to understand the nature of God, Christians actually believe (in their hearts) that it is better to rely upon the teachings of Jesus and his Apostles than to invent their own ideas about God. They can even turn to the teachings of Jesus’ brother, James, who seems to say, “Get on with your life, but recognize that God can intervene to change your plans at any time.” In this way, James advocated a humble recognition of our relative insignificance in the face of God’s sovereignty. Finally, James provides the antithesis of the passivity that is encouraged by a fatalistic belief system when he says, “Anyone who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do, this one is sinning.” (James 4:13-17).

For Christians, the doctrine of free will is the expression of the wonderful idea that we can live our lives according to God’s purposes and know that our choices really do matter, just as the Bible teaches.