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The Big Question: What Is Free Will?

We turned to the wise words of philosophers, prominent thinkers, and theologians for some possible answers to this Big Question.

Sometimes, it seems like life is a series of choices, one decision leading to the next. But if everything in the world happens according to God’s will, then what does that mean for these choices? Are our choices our own, or is every action we make orchestrated by God? If the latter is true, then what really is free will? We turned to the wise words of philosophers, prominent thinkers, and theologians for some possible answers to this Big Question.

Two red apples in a tree; Getty Images

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C. S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity

“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating.”


A gavel; Getty Images

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Pastor Ed Eubanks

“‘Free will’ is the idea that humans are morally responsible and that their thoughts, words and actions are not forced or predetermined by God. Yet they are accountable to God as both their Creator and ultimately their Judge.”

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A single water droplet causing ripples in water; Getty Images

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Thomas Aquinas, philosopher and theologian

“God, therefore, is the first cause, who moves causes both natural and voluntary. And just as by moving natural causes he does not prevent their actions from being natural, so by moving voluntary causes he does not deprive their actions of being voluntary; but rather is he the cause of this very thing in them, for he operates in each thing according to his own nature.”


A bird in flight; Getty Images

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Rob Bell, author of Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived

“Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.”


A woman sitting and thinking; Getty Images

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Flannery O’Connor, author

“Free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply.”


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Thomas Merton, monk and mystic

“It is the will of God that we live not only as rational beings, but as ‘new men’ regenerated by the Holy Spirit in Christ. It is his will that we reach out for our inheritance, that we answer His call to be his sons. We are born men without our consent, but the consent to be sons of God has to be elicited by our own free will.”


A fork in the road sign; Getty Images

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Michael Gazzaniga, philosopher

“We are personally responsible agents and are to be held accountable for our actions, even though we live in a determined universe.”

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A woman praying; Getty Images

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Karl Barth, theologian

“To the creature God determined, therefore, to give an individuality an autonomy, not that these gifts should be possessed outside him, let alone against him, but for him and within his kingdom; not in rivalry with his sovereignty but for its confirming and glorifying.”


Waves crashing on a beach; Getty Images

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Horatius Bonar, Scottish churchman and poet

“There is no dispute as to the existence of these two separate wills. There is a will in God, and there is also a will in man. Both of these are in continual exercise—God willeth; and man willeth. Nothing in the universe takes place without the will of God…. Nothing that is good can exist which God did not will to be, and nothing that is evil can exist which God did not will to allow. The will of God goes before all other wills.”

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