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NOTE: Like, in numerous instances, we begin our article with a general overview that can be secular or other religious views of the subject before turning to what the Bible specifically says on the view. So, the reader can skip beyond that and get right into the biblical response to determinism at the end if one is short on time.


Does determinism rule your life? How can we understand determinism, its implications, and God’s qualities? Wouldn’t determinism be nothing less than slander against Almighty God? Wouldn’t determinism mean that God is personally responsible for all the tragedies: sickness, pain, suffering, old age, and death?

Determinism: The philosophical view that events are pre-determined, with all events being determined completely by previously existing causes. Deterministic theories throughout the history of philosophy have developed from diverse and sometimes overlapping motives and considerations. The opposite of determinism is some kind of indeterminism (otherwise called nondeterminism, that is, not all events are wholly determined by antecedent causes) or randomness. Determinism is often contrasted with free will, although some philosophers claim that the two are compatible.

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Determinism is often used to mean causal determinism, which in physics is known as cause-and-effect. This is the concept that events within a given paradigm are bound by causality in such a way that any state of an object or event is completely determined by its prior states. This meaning can be distinguished from other varieties of determinism mentioned below.

Debates about determinism often concern the scope of determined systems; some maintain that the entire universe is a single determinate system, and others identifying more limited determinate systems (or multiverse). Historical debates involve many philosophical positions and varieties of determinism. They include debates concerning determinism and free will, technically denoted as compatibilistic (allowing the two to coexist) and incompatibilistic (denying their coexistence is a possibility).

Determinism should not be confused with the self-determination of human actions by reasons, motives, and desires. Determinism is about interactions that affect our cognitive processes in our life. It is about the cause and the result of what we have done. Cause and result are always bounded together in cognitive processes. It assumes that if an observer has sufficient information about an object or human being, that such an observer might be able to predict every consequent move of that object or human being. Determinism rarely requires that perfect prediction be practically possible.

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Varieties of Determinism

“Determinism” may commonly refer to any of the following viewpoints.


Causal determinism, sometimes synonymous with historical determinism (a sort of path dependence), is “the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.” However, it is a broad enough term to consider that:

…One’s deliberations, choices, and actions will often be necessary links in the causal chain that brings something about. In other words, even though our deliberations, choices, and actions are themselves determined like everything else, it is still the case, according to causal determinism, that the occurrence or existence of yet other things depends upon our deliberating, choosing and acting in a certain way.

Causal determinism proposes that there is an unbroken chain of prior occurrences stretching back to the origin of the universe. The relation between events may not be specified, nor the origin of that universe. Causal determinists believe that there is nothing in the universe that is uncaused or self-caused. Causal determinism has also been considered more generally as the idea that everything that happens or exists is caused by antecedent conditions. In the case of nomological determinism, these conditions are considered events also, implying that the future is determined completely by preceding events—a combination of prior states of the universe and the laws of nature. Yet they can also be considered metaphysical of origin (such as in the case of theological determinism).

Many philosophical theories of determinism frame themselves with the idea that reality follows a sort of predetermined path.


Nomological determinism, generally synonymous with physical determinism (its opposite being physical indeterminism), the most common form of causal determinism, is the notion that the past and the present dictate the future entirely and necessarily by rigid natural laws, that every occurrence results inevitably from prior events. Nomological determinism is sometimes illustrated by the thought experiment of Laplace’s demon. Nomological determinism is sometimes called scientific determinism, although that is a misnomer.


Necessitarianism is closely related to the causal determinism described above. It is a metaphysical principle that denies all mere possibility; there is exactly one way for the world to be. Leucippus claimed there were no uncaused events and that everything occurs for a reason and by necessity.



Predeterminism is the idea that all events are determined in advance. The concept is often argued by invoking causal determinism, implying that there is an unbroken chain of prior occurrences stretching back to the origin of the universe. In the case of predeterminism, this chain of events has been pre-established, and human actions cannot interfere with the outcomes of this pre-established chain.

Predeterminism can be used to mean such pre-established causal determinism, in which case it is categorized as a specific type of determinism. It can also be used interchangeably with causal determinism—in the context of its capacity to determine future events. Despite this, predeterminism is often considered independent of causal determinism.



The term predeterminism is also frequently used in the context of biology and heredity, in which case it represents a form of biological determinism, sometimes called genetic determinism. Biological determinism is the idea that each of human behaviors, beliefs, and desires are fixed by human genetic nature.

Friedrich Nietzsche explained that a human being is “determined” by his/her body, since he/she is subject to passions, impulsions and instincts.


Fatalism is normally distinguished from “determinism” as a form of teleological determinism. Fatalism is the idea that everything is fated to happen so that humans have no control over their future. Fate has arbitrary power and need not follow any causal or otherwise deterministic laws. Types of fatalism include hard theological determinism and the idea of predestination, where there is a God who determines all that humans will do. This may be accomplished either by knowing their actions in advance, via some form of omniscience, or by decreeing their actions in advance.

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Theological Determinism

Theological determinism is a form of determinism that holds that all events that happen are either preordained (i.e., predestined) to happen by a monotheistic deity, or are destined to occur given its omniscience. Two forms of theological determinism exist, referred to as strong and weak theological determinism.

Strong theological determinism is based on the concept of a creator deity dictating all events in history: “everything that happens has been predestined to happen by an omniscient, omnipotent divinity.”

Is God’s Foreknowledge Compatible with Free Will?

Weak theological determinism is based on the concept of divine foreknowledge—”because God’s omniscience is perfect, what God knows about the future will inevitably happen, which means, consequently, that the future is already fixed.” There exist slight variations on this categorisation, however. Some claim either that theological determinism requires predestination of all events and outcomes by the divinity—i.e., they do not classify the weaker version as theological determinism unless libertarian free will is assumed to be denied as a consequence—or that the weaker version does not constitute theological determinism at all.


With respect to free will, “theological determinism is the thesis that God exists and has infallible knowledge of all true propositions including propositions about our future actions,” more minimal criteria designed to encapsulate all forms of theological determinism.

Theological determinism can also be seen as a form of causal determinism, in which the antecedent conditions are the nature and will of God. Some have asserted that Augustine of Hippo introduced theological determinism into Christianity in 412 CE, whereas all prior Christian authors supported free will against Stoic and Gnostic determinism. However, there are many Biblical passages that seem to support the idea of some kind of theological determinism.


Logical Determinism

Adequate determinism focuses on the fact that, even without a full understanding of microscopic physics, we can predict the distribution of 1000 coin tosses.

Logical determinism, or determinateness, is the notion that all propositions, whether about the past, present, or future, are either true or false. Note that one can support causal determinism without necessarily supporting logical determinism and vice versa (depending on one’s views on the nature of time, but also randomness). The problem of free will is especially salient now with logical determinism: how can choices be free, given that propositions about the future already have a truth value in the present. This is referred to as the “problem of future contingents.”

Often synonymous with logical determinism are the ideas behind spatio-temporal determinism or eternalism: the view of special relativity. J. J. C. Smart, a proponent of this view, uses the term tenselessness to describe the simultaneous existence of past, present, and future. In physics, the “block universe” of Hermann Minkowski and Albert Einstein assumes that time is a fourth dimension (like the three spatial dimensions).

Adequate Determinism

Adequate determinism is the idea that quantum indeterminacy can be ignored for most macroscopic events because of quantum decoherence. Random quantum events “average out” in the limit of large numbers of particles (where the laws of quantum mechanics asymptotically approach the laws of classical mechanics). Stephen Hawking explains a similar idea: he says that the microscopic world of quantum mechanics is one of determined probabilities. That is, quantum effects rarely alter the predictions of classical mechanics, which are quite accurate (albeit still not perfectly certain) at larger scales. Something as large as an animal cell would be “adequately determined” (even in light of quantum indeterminacy).

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The many-worlds interpretation accepts the linear causal sets of sequential events with adequate consistency yet also suggests constant forking of causal chains, creating “multiple universes” to account for multiple outcomes from single events. Meaning the causal set of events leading to the present are all valid yet appear as a singular linear time stream within a much broader unseen conic probability field of other outcomes that “split off” from the locally observed timeline. Under this model causal sets are still “consistent” yet not exclusive to singular iterated outcomes.

The interpretation side steps the exclusive retrospective causal chain problem of “could not have done otherwise” by suggesting “the other outcome does exist” in a set of parallel universe time streams that split off when the action occurred. This theory is sometimes described with the example of agent based choices but more involved models argue that recursive causal splitting occurs with all particle wave functions at play. This model is highly contested with multiple objections from the scientific community.

Philosophical Varieties

Determinism in Nature/Nurture Controversy

Nature and nurture interact in humans. A scientist looking at a sculpture after some time does not ask whether we are seeing the effects of the starting materials or of environmental influences.

Although some of the above forms of determinism concern human behaviors and cognition, others frame themselves as an answer to the debate on nature and nurture. They will suggest that one factor will entirely determine behavior. As scientific understanding has grown, however, the strongest versions of these theories have been widely rejected as a single-cause fallacy. In other words, the modern deterministic theories attempt to explain how the interaction of both nature and nurture is entirely predictable. The concept of heritability has been helpful in making this distinction.

  • Biological determinism, sometimes called genetic determinism, is the idea that each of human behaviors, beliefs, and desires are fixed by human genetic nature.
  • Behaviorism involves the idea that all behavior can be traced to specific environmental or reflexive causes. John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner developed this nurture-focused determinism.
  • Cultural materialism, contends that the physical world impacts and sets constraints on human behavior.
  • Cultural determinism, along with social determinism, is the nurture-focused theory that the culture in which we are raised determines who we are.
  • Environmental determinism, also known as climatic or geographical determinism, proposes that the physical environment, rather than social conditions, determines culture. Supporters of environmental determinism often[quantify] also support behavioral determinism. Key proponents of this notion have included Ellen Churchill Semple, Ellsworth Huntington, Thomas Griffith Taylor and possibly Jared Diamond, although his status as an environmental determinist is debated.

Determinism in Nature/Nurture Controversy

A technological determinist might suggest that technology like the mobile phone is the greatest factor shaping human civilization.

Other ‘deterministic’ theories actually seek only to highlight the importance of a particular factor in predicting the future. These theories often use the factor as a sort of guide or constraint on the future. They need not suppose that complete knowledge of that one factor would allow us to make perfect predictions.

  • Psychological determinism can mean that humans must act according to reason, but it can also be synonymous with some sort of psychological egoism. The latter is the view that humans will always act according to their perceived best interest.
  • Linguistic determinism proposes that language determines (or at least limits) the things humans can think, say, and thus know. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis argues that individuals experience the world based on the grammatical structures they habitually use.
  • Economic determinism attributes primacy to economic structure over politics in the development of human history. It is associated with the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx.
  • Technological determinism is the theory that a society’s technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values.

Structural Determinism

Structural determinism is the philosophical view that actions, events, and processes are predicated on and determined by structural factors. Given any particular structure or set of estimable components, it is a concept that emphasises rational and predictable outcomes. Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela popularised the notion, writing that a living system’s general order is maintained via a circular process of ongoing self-referral, and thus its organisation and structure defines the changes it undergoes. According to the authors, a system can undergo changes of state (alteration of structure without loss of identity) or disintegrations (alteration of structure with loss of identity). Such changes or disintegrations are not ascertained by the elements of the disturbing agent, as each disturbance will only trigger responses in the respective system, which in turn, are determined by each system’s own structure.

On an individualistic level, what this means is that human beings as free and independent entities are triggered to react by external stimuli or change in circumstance. However, their internal state and physical and mental capacities determine their responses to those triggers. On a much broader societal level, structural determinists believe that larger issues in the society—especially those pertaining to minorities and subjugated communities—are predominantly assessed through existing structural conditions, making change of prevailing conditions difficult and sometimes outright impossible. For example, the concept has been applied to the politics of race in the United States of America and other Western countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia, with structural determinists lamenting structural factors for the prevalence of racism in these countries. Additionally, Marxists have conceptualized the writings of Karl Marx within the context of structural determinism as well. For example, a structural Marxist, Louis Althusser argues that the state, in its political, economic, and legal structures, reproduces the discourse of capitalism, allowing for the burgeoning of capitalistic structures.

Proponents of the notion highlight structural determinism’s usefulness in studying complicated issues related to race and gender, as it highlights often gilded structural conditions that block meaningful change. Critics call it too rigid, reductionist, and inflexible. Additionally, they also criticize the notion for overemphasizing deterministic forces such as structure over the role of human agency and the ability of the people to act. These critics argue that politicians, academics, and social activists have the capability to bring about significant change despite stringent structural conditions.


Determinism with Free Will

Philosophers have debated both the truth of determinism and the truth of free will. This creates the four possible positions in the figure. Compatibilism refers to the view that free will is, in some sense, compatible with determinism. The three incompatibilist positions deny this possibility. The hard incompatibilists hold that free will is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism, the libertarians that determinism does not hold, and free will might exist, and the hard determinists that determinism does hold and free will does not exist. The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was a determinist thinker, and argued that human freedom can be achieved through knowledge of the causes that determine our desire and affections. He defined human servitude as the state of bondage of anyone who is aware of their own desires, but ignorant of the causes that determined them. However, the free or virtuous person becomes capable, through reason and knowledge, to be genuinely free, even as they are being “determined”. For the Dutch philosopher, acting out of one’s own internal necessity is genuine freedom while being driven by exterior determinations is akin to bondage. Spinoza’s thoughts on human servitude and liberty are respectively detailed in the fourth and fifth volumes of his work Ethics.

The standard argument against free will, according to philosopher J. J. C. Smart, focuses on the implications of determinism for free will. He suggests free will is denied whether determinism is true or not. For if determinism is true, all actions are predicted, and no one is assumed to be free; however, if determinism is false, all actions are presumed to be random, and as such, no one seems free because they have no part in controlling what happens.

Determinism with the Soul

Some determinists argue that materialism does not present a complete understanding of the universe, because while it can describe determinate interactions among material things, it ignores the minds or souls of conscious beings.

Several positions can be delineated:

  • Immaterial souls are all that exist (idealism).
  • Immaterial souls exist and exert a non-deterministic causal influence on bodies (traditional free-will, interactionist dualism).
  • Immaterial souls exist, but are part of a deterministic framework.
  • Immaterial souls exist, but exert no causal influence, free or determined (epiphenomenalism, occasionalism)
  • Immaterial souls do not exist – there is no mind-body dichotomy, and there is a materialistic explanation for intuitions to the contrary.

Determinism with Ethics and Morality

Another topic of debate is the implication that determinism has on morality. Hard determinism is particularly criticized for seeming to make traditional moral judgments impossible. Some philosophers find this an acceptable conclusion.

Philosopher and incompatibilist Peter van Inwagen introduces this thesis, when arguments that free will is required for moral judgments, as such:

  1. The moral judgment that X should not have been done implies that something else should have been done instead.
  2. That something else should have been done instead implies that there was something else to do.
  3. That there was something else to do, implies that something else could have been done.
  4. That something else could have been done implies that there is free will.
  5. If there is no free will to have done other than X we cannot make the moral judgment that X should not have been done.

History of Determinism

Determinism was developed by the Greek philosophers during the 7th and 6th centuries BCE by the Pre-socratic philosophers Heraclitus and Leucippus, later Aristotle, and mainly by the Stoics. Some of the main philosophers who have dealt with this issue are Marcus Aurelius, Omar Khayyám, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, David Hume, Baron d’Holbach (Paul Heinrich Dietrich), Pierre-Simon Laplace, Arthur Schopenhauer, William James, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Ralph Waldo Emerson and, more recently, John Searle, Ted Honderich, and Daniel Dennett.

Mecca Chiesa notes that the probabilistic or selectionistic determinism of B. F. Skinner comprised a wholly separate conception of determinism that was not mechanistic at all. Mechanistic determinism assumes that every event has an unbroken chain of prior occurrences, but a selectionistic or probabilistic model does not.

Western Tradition

In the West, some elements of determinism have been expressed in Greece from the 6th century BCE by the Presocratics Heraclitus and Leucippus. The first full-fledged notion of determinism appears to originate with the Stoics, as part of their theory of universal causal determinism. The resulting philosophical debates, which involved the confluence of elements of Aristotelian Ethics with Stoic psychology, led in the 1st–3rd centuries CE in the works of Alexander of Aphrodisias to the first recorded Western debate over determinism and freedom, an issue that is known in theology as the paradox of free will. The writings of Epictetus as well as middle Platonist and early Christian thought were instrumental in this development. Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides said of the deterministic implications of an omniscient god: “Does God know or does He not know that a certain individual will be good or bad? If thou sayest ‘He knows’, then it necessarily follows that [that] man is compelled to act as God knew beforehand he would act, otherwise God’s knowledge would be imperfect.”

Newtonian Mechanics

Determinism in the West is often associated with Newtonian mechanics/physics, which depicts the physical matter of the universe as operating according to a set of fixed, knowable laws. The “billiard ball” hypothesis, a product of Newtonian physics, argues that once the initial conditions of the universe have been established, the rest of the history of the universe follows inevitably. If it were actually possible to have complete knowledge of physical matter and all of the laws governing that matter at any one time, then it would be theoretically possible to compute the time and place of every event that will ever occur (Laplace’s demon). In this sense, the basic particles of the universe operate in the same fashion as the rolling balls on a billiard table, moving and striking each other in predictable ways to produce predictable results.

Whether or not it is all-encompassing in so doing, Newtonian mechanics deals only with caused events; for example, if an object begins in a known position and is hit dead on by an object with some known velocity, then it will be pushed straight toward another predictable point. If it goes somewhere else, the Newtonians argue, one must question one’s measurements of the object’s original position, the exact direction of the striking object, gravitational or other fields that were inadvertently ignored, etc. Then, they maintain repeated experiments and improvements in accuracy will always bring one’s observations closer to the theoretically predicted results. When dealing with situations on an ordinary human scale, Newtonian physics has been successful. But it fails as velocities become some substantial fraction of the speed of light and when interactions at the atomic scale are studied. Before the discovery of quantum effects and other challenges to Newtonian physics, “uncertainty” was always a term that applied to the accuracy of human knowledge about causes and effects and not to the causes and effects themselves.

Newtonian mechanics, as well as any following physical theories, are results of observations and experiments, and so they describe “how it all works” within a tolerance. However, old western scientists believed if there are any logical connections found between an observed cause and effect, there must be also some absolute natural laws behind them. Belief in perfect natural laws driving everything, instead of just describing what we should expect, led to searching for a set of universal simple laws that rule the world. This movement significantly encouraged deterministic views in Western philosophy and the related theological views of classical pantheism.


Eastern Tradition

The idea that the entire universe is a deterministic system has been articulated in both Eastern and non-Eastern religions, philosophy, and literature.

The ancient Arabs that inhabitated the Arabian Peninsula before the advent of Islam used to profess a widespread belief in fatalism (ḳadar) alongside a fearful consideration for the sky and the stars as divine beings, which they held to be ultimately responsible for every phenomena that occurs on Earth and for the destiny of humankind. Accordingly, they shaped their entire lives in accordance with their interpretations of astral configurations and phenomena.

In the I Ching and philosophical Taoism, the ebb and flow of favorable and unfavorable conditions suggests the path of least resistance is effortless (see: Wu wei). In the philosophical schools of the Indian Subcontinent, the concept of karma deals with similar philosophical issues to the western concept of determinism. Karma is understood as a spiritual mechanism which causes the eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (saṃsāra). Karma, either positive or negative, accumulates according to an individual’s actions throughout their life, and at their death determines the nature of their next life in the cycle of Saṃsāra. Most major religions originating in India hold this belief to some degree, most notably Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism.

The views on the interaction of karma and free will are numerous and diverge from each other greatly. For example, in Sikhism, god’s grace, gained through worship, can erase one’s karmic debts, a belief that reconciles the principle of karma with a monotheistic god one must freely choose to worship. Jainists believe in a sort of compatibilism, in which the cycle of Saṃsara is a completely mechanistic process, occurring without any divine intervention. The Jains hold an atomic view of reality, in which particles of karma form the fundamental microscopic building material of the universe.



In ancient India, the Ājīvika school of philosophy founded by Makkhali Gosāla (around 500 BCE), otherwise referred to as “Ājīvikism” in Western scholarship, upheld the Niyati (“Fate”) doctrine of absolute fatalism or determinism, which negates the existence of free will and karma, and is therefore considered one of the nāstika or “heterodox” schools of Indian philosophy. The oldest descriptions of the Ājīvika fatalists and their founder Gosāla can be found both in the Buddhist and Jaina scriptures of ancient India. The predetermined fate of living beings and the impossibility to achieve liberation (moksha) from the eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth was the major distinctive philosophical and metaphysical doctrine of this heterodox school of Indian philosophy, annoverated among the other Śramaṇa movements that emerged in India during the Second urbanization (600–200 BCE).


Buddhist philosophy contains several concepts which some scholars describe as deterministic to various levels. However, the direct analysis of Buddhist metaphysics through the lens of determinism is difficult, due to the differences between European and Buddhist traditions of thought.

One concept that is argued to support a hard determinism is the idea of dependent origination, which claims that all phenomena (dharma) are necessarily caused by some other phenomenon, which it can be said to be dependent on, like links in a massive chain. In traditional Buddhist philosophy, this concept is used to explain the functioning of the cycle of saṃsāra; all actions exert a karmic force, which will manifest results in future lives. In other words, righteous or unrighteous actions in one life will necessarily cause good or bad responses in another.

Another Buddhist concept which many scholars perceive to be deterministic is the idea of non-self, or anatta. In Buddhism, attaining enlightenment involves one realizing that in humans, there is no fundamental core of being which can be called the “soul” and that humans are instead made of several constantly changing factors which bind them to the cycle of Saṃsāra.


Some scholars argue that the concept of non-self necessarily disproves the ideas of free will and moral culpability. Suppose there is no autonomous self in this view, and all events are necessarily and unchangeably caused by others. In that case, no type of autonomy can be said to exist, moral or otherwise. However, other scholars disagree, claiming that the Buddhist conception of the universe allows for a form of compatibilism. Buddhism perceives reality occurring on two different levels, the ultimate reality which can only be truly understood by the enlightened, and the illusory and false material reality. Therefore, Buddhism perceives free will as a notion belonging to material reality, while concepts like non-self and dependent origination belong to the ultimate reality; the transition between the two can be truly understood, Buddhists claim, by one who has attained enlightenment.

Modern Scientific Perspective

Generative processes

Although scientists once thought that any indeterminism in quantum mechanics occurred at too small a scale to influence biological or neurological systems, there is indication that nervous systems are influenced by quantum indeterminism due to chaos theory. It is unclear what implications this has for the problem of free will given various possible reactions to the problem in the first place. Many biologists do not grant determinism: Christof Koch, for instance, argues against it, and in favour of libertarian free will, by making arguments based on generative processes (emergence). Other proponents of emergentist or generative philosophy, cognitive sciences, and evolutionary psychology, argue that a certain form of determinism (not necessarily causal) is true. They suggest instead that an illusion of free will is experienced due to the generation of infinite behaviour from the interaction of finite-deterministic set of rules and parameters. Thus the unpredictability of the emerging behaviour from deterministic processes leads to a perception of free will, even though free will as an ontological entity does not exist.

In Conway’s Game of Life, the interaction of just four simple rules creates patterns that seem somehow “alive.”

As an illustration, the strategy board games chess and Go have rigorous rules in which no information (such as cards’ face-values) is hidden from either player and no random events (such as dice-rolling) happen within the game. Yet, chess, and especially Go, with its extremely simple deterministic rules can still have many unpredictable moves. When chess is simplified to 7 or fewer pieces, however, endgame tables are available that dictate which moves to play to achieve a perfect game. This implies that, given a less complex environment (with the original 32 pieces reduced to 7 or fewer pieces), a perfectly predictable game of chess is possible. In this scenario, the winning player can announce that a checkmate will happen within a given number of moves, assuming a perfect defense by the losing player or fewer moves if the defending player chooses sub-optimal moves as the game progresses into its inevitable, predicted conclusion. By this analogy, it is suggested the experience of free will emerges from the interaction of finite rules and deterministic parameters that generate nearly infinite and practically unpredictable behavioral responses. In theory, if all these events could be accounted for, and there was a known way to evaluate these events, the seemingly unpredictable behavior would become predictable. Another hands-on example of generative processes is John Horton Conway’s playable Game of Life. Nassim Taleb is wary of such models, and coined the term “ludic fallacy.”

Compatibility with the Existence of Science

Certain philosophers of science argue that while causal determinism (in which everything, including the brain/mind, is subject to the laws of causality) is compatible with minds capable of science, fatalism and predestination are not. These philosophers make the distinction that causal determinism means that each step is determined by the step before and therefore allows sensory input from observational data to determine what conclusions the brain reaches, while fatalism in which the steps between do not connect an initial cause to the results would make it impossible for observational data to correct false hypotheses. This is often combined with the argument that if the brain had fixed views and the arguments were mere after-constructs with no causal effect on the conclusions, science would have been impossible and the use of arguments would have been a meaningless waste of energy with no persuasive effect on brains with fixed views.

Mathematical Models

Many mathematical models of physical systems are deterministic. This is true of most models involving differential equations (notably, those measuring rate of change over time). Mathematical models that are not deterministic because they involve randomness are called stochastic. Because of sensitive dependence on initial conditions, some deterministic models may appear to behave non-deterministically; in such cases, a deterministic interpretation of the model may not be useful due to numerical instability and a finite amount of precision in measurement. Such considerations can motivate the consideration of a stochastic model even though the underlying system is governed by deterministic equations.

Quantum and Classical Mechanics

Day-to-day physics

Since the beginning of the 20th century, quantum mechanics—the physics of the extremely small—has revealed previously concealed aspects of events. Before that, Newtonian physics—the physics of everyday life—dominated. Taken in isolation (rather than as an approximation to quantum mechanics), Newtonian physics depicts a universe in which objects move in perfectly determined ways. At the scale where humans exist and interact with the universe, Newtonian mechanics remain useful, and make relatively accurate predictions (e.g., calculating the trajectory of a bullet). But whereas in theory, absolute knowledge of the forces accelerating a bullet would produce an absolutely accurate prediction of its path, modern quantum mechanics casts reasonable doubt on this main thesis of determinism.

Quantum Realm

Quantum physics works differently in many ways from Newtonian physics. Physicist Aaron D. O’Connell explains that understanding our universe, at such small scales as atoms, requires a different logic than day-to-day life does. O’Connell does not deny that it is all interconnected: the scale of human existence ultimately does emerge from the quantum scale. O’Connell argues that we must simply use different models and constructs when dealing with the quantum world. Quantum mechanics is the product of a careful application of the scientific method, logic, and empiricism. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is frequently confused with the observer effect. The uncertainty principle actually describes how precisely we may measure the position and momentum of a particle at the same time—if we increase the accuracy in measuring one quantity, we are forced to lose accuracy in measuring the other. “These uncertainty relations give us that measure of freedom from the limitations of classical concepts which is necessary for a consistent description of atomic processes.”


Although it is not possible to predict the trajectory of any one particle, they all obey determined probabilities which do permit some prediction

This is where statistical mechanics come into play, and physicists begin to require rather unintuitive mental models: A particle’s path cannot be exactly specified in its full quantum description. “Path” is a classical, practical attribute in our everyday life, but one that quantum particles do not meaningfully possess. The probabilities discovered in quantum mechanics do nevertheless arise from measurement (of the perceived path of the particle). As Stephen Hawking explains, the result is not traditional determinism but rather determined probabilities. In some cases, a quantum particle may indeed trace an exact path, and the probability of finding the particles in that path is one (certain to be true). In fact, as far as prediction goes, quantum development is at least as predictable as classical motion. Still, the key is that it describes wave functions that cannot be easily expressed in ordinary language. As far as the thesis of determinism is concerned, these probabilities, at least, are quite determined. These findings from quantum mechanics have found many applications and allow us to build transistors and lasers. Put another way: personal computers, Blu-ray players, and the Internet all work because humankind discovered the determined probabilities of the quantum world.

Concerning predictable probabilities, the double-slit experiments are a popular example. Photons are fired one by one through a double-slit apparatus at a distant screen. They do not arrive at any single point, nor even the two points lined up with the slits (the way it might be expected of bullets fired by a fixed gun at a distant target). Instead, the light arrives in varying concentrations at widely separated points, and the distribution of its collisions with the target can be calculated reliably. In that sense the behavior of light in this apparatus is deterministic, but there is no way to predict where in the resulting interference pattern any individual photon will make its contribution (although there may be ways to use weak measurement to acquire more information without violating the uncertainty principle).

Some (including Albert Einstein) have argued that the inability to predict any more than probabilities is simply due to ignorance. The idea is that beyond the conditions and laws can be observed or deduced, there are also hidden factors or “hidden variables” that determine absolutely in which order photons reach the detector screen. They argue that the course of the universe is absolutely determined, but that humans are screened from knowledge of the determinative factors. So, they say, it only appears that things proceed merely probabilistically determinatively. In actuality, they proceed in an absolutely deterministic way.

John S. Bell criticized Einstein’s work in his famous Bell’s theorem, which proved that quantum mechanics can make statistical predictions that would be violated if local hidden variables really existed. A number of experiments have tried to verify such predictions, and so far they do not appear to be violated. Current experiments continue to verify the result, including the 2015 “Loophole Free Test” that plugged all known sources of error and the 2017 “Cosmic Bell Test” experiment that used cosmic data streaming from different directions toward the Earth, precluding the possibility the sources of data could have had prior interactions. However, it is possible to augment quantum mechanics with non-local hidden variables to achieve a deterministic theory that agrees with the experiment. An example is the Bohm interpretation of quantum mechanics. Bohm’s Interpretation, though, violates special relativity, and it is highly controversial whether or not it can be reconciled without giving up on determinism.

More advanced variations on these arguments include quantum contextuality, by Bell, Simon B. Kochen and Ernst Specker, which argues that hidden variable theories cannot be “sensible”, meaning that the values of the hidden variables inherently depend on the devices used to measure them.

This debate is relevant because there are possibly specific situations in which the arrival of an electron at a screen at a certain point and time would trigger one event, whereas its arrival at another point would trigger an entirely different event (e.g., see Schrödinger’s cat – a thought experiment used as part of a deeper debate).

Thus, quantum physics casts reasonable doubt on the traditional determinism of classical, Newtonian physics in so far as reality does not seem to be absolutely determined. This was the subject of the famous Bohr–Einstein debates between Einstein and Niels Bohr and there is still no consensus.

Adequate determinism (see Varieties above) is why Stephen Hawking calls libertarian free will “just an illusion.”



Determinism, the general name for all those theories according to which man, in his religious and moral action, is absolutely determined by external or internal motives not belonging to him, and which either deny his freedom or explain it as a mere semblance. In opposition to determinism, the word indeterminism has been need of a will which is absolutely undetermined from abroad, but wholly determines itself. Such an absolute indeterminism can only be predicated of the absolute being. Absolute determinism, on the other hand, can only be attributed to objects whose activity is altogether dependent upon external impulses, as is the case with the objects of nature. Applying the term to man, every branch of the Christian Church holds to some kind of determinism, inasmuch as he is dependent upon the absolute being, and that his actions are influenced by impulses not his own. But it is common to understand by determinism those views of man’s dependence upon external influences which destroy his moral responsibility. In this sense various kinds of determinism are distinguished. It is fatalistic or predeterministic if it places an irresistible fatality above even the divine being or economy, as was done by the Greeks in the doctrine of fate and is still done by the Mohammedans. It is pantheistic if it deduces necessity from the unalterable connection of things, making the individual acts of man, as it were, a sport of the world-soul with itself, as was the case in the cosmic theories of the Indians, in the ethics of the Stoics, in the system of Spinoza, and in certain modern systems. The astrological determinism is a transition from the first to the second kind. Determinism is materialistic if the want of human freedom is explained by the life of the human soul being determined by an evil or hostile materia, as was done by the Parsees, the Gnostics, and the Manichæans. Different from these ancient materialists are the modern representatives of a materialistic determinism, like La Mettrie, who reduce all human actions to an absolute compulsion by sensuous motives. A subdivision of this determinism is the phrenological determinism which in modern times has found some champions. A subtle form of determinism is found in some rationalistic writers, who explain the self-determination of man as a coercion by inner representations (Priestly) or by adequate reasons (Leibnitz). Other writers on this subject have divided determinism into mechanical, rational, and metaphysical determinism.—Herzog, Real-Encyklop. iii, 331.


Norman L. Geisler writes,

Determinism. Determinism is the belief that all events, including human choice. (see Free Will), are determined or caused by another. Proponents of this view believe that human choices are the result of antecedent causes, which in turn were caused by prior causes.

Kinds of Determinism. There are two basic kinds of determinism: naturalistic and theistic. Naturalistic determinists include behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, author of Beyond Freedom and Dignity and Beyond Behaviorism. An atheist (see Atheism), Skinner wrote that all human behavior is determined by genetic and behavioral factors. On this view, humans are like a brush in the hands of an artist, though in his view the “artist” is a mix of societal manipulation and chance. The human being is at the mercy of these forces, simply the instrument through which they are expressed.

The theistic version of this view insists that God is the ultimate cause who determines all human actions. Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will and Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will are examples of this theistic determinism. It is the view held by all strong Calvinists.

Arguments for Determinism. The Argument from Alternative Possibility. All human behavior is either uncaused, self-caused, or caused by something else. However, human behavior cannot be uncaused, since nothing occurs without a cause. Further, human actions cannot be self-caused, for no act can cause itself. To do so, it would have to be prior to itself, which is impossible. The only remaining alternative, then, is that all human behavior is caused by something external to it.

The Argument from the Nature of Causality. Edwards argued from the nature of causality. He reasoned that since the principle of causality (see Causality, Principle of; First Principles) demands that all actions are caused, then it is irrational to claim that things arise without a cause. But for Edwards a self-caused action is impossible, since a cause is prior to an effect, and one cannot be prior to himself. Therefore, all actions are ultimately caused by a First Cause (God). “Free choice” for Edwards is doing what one desires, but God gives the desires or affections that control action. Hence, all human actions ultimately are determined by God.

The Argument from Sovereignty. If God is sovereign, then all acts must be determined by him (see God, Nature of). For if God is in control of all, then he must ultimately be the cause of all. Otherwise, he would not be in complete control.

The Argument from Omniscience. Some determinists argue from God’s omniscience. For if God knows everything, then everything he knows must occur according to his will. If it did not, then God would be wrong in what he knew. But an omniscient Mind cannot be wrong in what it knows.


Nondeterminists, especially self-determinists (see Free Will), reject the premises of determinist arguments. It is important to distinguish two forms of determinism, hard and soft. The determinism rejected here is hard determinism:

Hard Determinism

Soft Determinism

Act is caused by God.

Act is not caused by God.

God is the only cause

God is the primary cause; humans are the secondary cause.

Totally free human choice is eliminated.

Human free choice is compatible with sovereignty.

Soft determinism is sometimes called compatibolism, since it is “compatible” with free choice (self-determinism). Only hard determinism is incompatible with free choice or secondary causality of a human free agent.

Response to the Argument from Alternative Possibility. All human behavior is either uncaused, self-caused, or caused by something else. But human behavior can be self-caused, since there is nothing contradictory about a self-caused action (as there is about a self-caused being). For an action does not have to be prior to itself to be caused by oneself. Only the self (I) must be prior to the action. A self-caused action is simply one caused by my self. And my self (I) is prior to my actions.

Response to the Argument from the Nature of Causality. Jonathan Edwards rightly argued that all actions are caused, but it does not follow from this that God is the cause of all these actions. A self-caused action is not impossible, since one’s self is prior to his actions. Therefore, all actions need not be attributed to the First Cause (God). Some actions can be caused by human beings to whom God gave free moral agency. Free choice is not, as Edwards contends, doing what one desires (with God giving the desires). Rather, it is doing what one decides. And one does not always do what he desires, as is the case when duty is placed above desire. Hence, it does not follow that all actions are determined by God.

Response to the Argument from Sovereignty. One need not reject God’s sovereign control of the universe in order to believe determinism is wrong. For God can control by his omniscience, as well as by his causal power. As the next point reveals, God can control events by willing in accordance with his omniscient knowledge of what will occur by free choice. God need not make (or cause) the choice himself. Simply knowing for sure that a person will freely do something is enough for God to control the world.


Response to the Argument from Omniscience. It is true that everything God knows must occur according to his will. If it did not, then God would be wrong in what he knew. For an omniscient Mind cannot be wrong in what it knows. However, it does not follow from this that all events are determined (i.e., caused by God). God could simply determine that we be self-determining beings in a moral sense. The fact that he knows for certain what free creatures will do with their freedom is enough to make the event determined. But the fact that God does not force them to choose, is enough to establish that human free acts are not determined (caused) by another but by oneself. God determined the fact of human freedom, but free creatures perform the acts of human freedom.

Weaknesses of Determinism. Determinism is self-defeating. A determinist insists that both determinists and nondeterminists are determined to believe what they believe. However, determinists believe self-determinists are wrong and ought to change their view. But “ought to change” implies they are free to change, which is contrary to determinism.

Determinism is irrational. C. S. Lewis argued that naturalistic, complete determinism is irrational (see Lewis). For determinism to be true, there would have to be a rational basis for their thought. But if determinism is true, then there is no rational basis for thought, since all is determined by nonrational forces. So, if determinism claims to be true, then it must be false.

Determinism destroys human responsibility. If God is the cause of all human actions, then human beings are not morally responsible. One is only responsible for a choice if there was free will to avoid making it. All responsibility implies the ability to respond, either on one’s own or by God’s grace. Ought implies can. But if God caused the action, then we could not have avoided it. Hence, we are not responsible.

Determinism renders praise and blame meaningless. Similarly, if God causes all human actions, then it makes no sense to praise human beings for doing good, nor to blame them for doing evil. For if the courageous really had no choice other than to show courage, why reward it? If the evil had no choice but to commit their crime, why punish them? Rewards and punishment for moral behavior makes sense only if the actions were not caused by another.

Determinism leads to fatalism. If everything is determined beyond our control, then why do good and avoid evil? Indeed, if determinism is right, evil is unavoidable. Determinism destroys the very motive to do good and shun evil.

Determinism is unbiblical. Theistic opponents to determinism offer several objections from Scripture. Defining free choice as “doing what one desires” is contrary to experience. For people do not always do what they desire, nor do they always desire to do what they do (cf. Rom. 7:15–16).

If God must give the desire before one can perform an act, then God must have given Lucifer the desire to rebel against him. But this is impossible, for in that case God would be giving a desire against God. God would in effect be against himself, which is impossible.

Theistic determinists like Edwards have a faulty, mechanistic view of human personhood. He likens human free choice to balancing scales in need of more pressure from the outside in order to tip the scales from dead center. But humans are not machines; they are persons made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).

Edwards wrongly assumes that self-determinism is contrary to God’s sovereignty. For God could have predetermined things in accordance with free choice, rather than in contradiction to it. Even the Calvinistic Westminster Confession of Faith declares that “Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly, yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently” (5.2 emphasis added).

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There are three basic logical possibilities regarding the nature of human free choice: determinism, indeterminism, and self-determinism.

Determinism is the view that all human actions are caused by another, not by one’s self. Hard determinism does not allow for any free choice at all. Soft determinism posits free choice but sees it as completely controlled by God’s sovereign power.

Indeterminism is the position that human actions are not caused by anything. They are simply indeterminate.

Self-determinism is the doctrine that human free actions are self-caused, that is, caused by one’s self.







Choices are caused by another

Choices are uncaused

Choices are caused by self



Erratic electron

Free agent

Contrary act

Could not do otherwise

Could have been otherwise

Could have been otherwise


Hard determinism: Being carried out (as against one’s will) Soft determinism: Being forced out (as by a weapon)

Blown out (as by the wind)

Lured out (as by someone else)

Previous conditions





Determined (like dominos)

Undetermined (like dice)

Determined by God, free for humankind (like foreseeing an accident)


Knows all future acts

Knows all except free acts

Knows all future acts



Adam and Eve’s disobedience raises significant questions about human free will. Were the original humans free? If so, of what did this freedom consist? Are we free in the same sense? Is God free? If so, then why can’t He sin? And if God is free but can’t sin, then why can’t we be free but not able to sin? In response to these queries, there are considerable theological differences. However, some answers do seem clear, and subsequently other solutions can be reasonably deduced from them.

Adam’s Freedom Involved Self-Determination

First of all, Adam was free in the sense that his act was self-determined. Indeed, God said, “You are free” (Gen. 2:16). When Adam chose to disobey, God held him accountable, asking, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?” (Gen. 3:11 nkjv). The emphasized words, as previously mentioned, specifically indicate a self-determined act on Adam and Eve’s part (cf. v. 13). You (your self) did it, God said.

Logically, there are only three possibilities. Either Adam’s action was caused by another (which is determinism), was uncaused (which is indeterminism), or was caused by himself (which is self-determinism).

As for determinism, God did not cause Adam to sin, for, again, God can neither sin nor tempt anyone else to do so. Neither did Satan cause Adam to sin, for the tempter did only what his name implies, neither forcing him to do it nor doing it for him.

As for indeterminism, there was no evil (or lack of wholeness) in Adam’s nature that gave rise to his sin, for he had none—God created him perfect. And there are no uncaused actions’, this would violate the principle of causality.

No event is without a cause, and there was nothing in heaven or on earth, outside of Adam, that caused his sin; he must have caused it himself; Adam’s choice was self-determined. This is the heart of human freedom; namely, the ability to be the efficient cause of one’s own moral actions. Acts of which one is not the efficient cause, but rather which are forced, are not free moral acts.

Adam’s Freedom Involved a Choice Regarding Evil

Further, Adam’s act involved a decision between good and evil, and it was free in that he was free to do evil. Had he not been free to opt for evil over good, he could not have done so. He had the power to obey or disobey—whichever he chose.

Adam’s Choice for Evil Could Have Been Avoided

In addition, evil was not inevitable for Adam. This is clear from the fact that God said Adam “should not” or “ought not” (cf. Gen. 2:17) to have sinned. Ought implies can—what one should do implies that he is able to do it. Furthermore, again, Adam’s decision was something for which God held him responsible, punishing him for choosing wrongly. There is no response-ability without the ability to respond, and the consequences that followed the chosen evil indicate that it could have been avoided.


The original humans were free to sin or not to sin. God is free, yet He cannot sin (Hab. 1:13; Heb. 6:18). Indeed, as we have seen, God cannot even be tempted to sin (James 1:13)—He is absolutely impervious to evil. How, then, can God be free if there is no possibility that He can choose wrongly?

The answer is that God is free in the sense of having the power of self-determination, but not in the libertarian sense of having the ability to choose to do other than good. While humans have the ability to choose either good or evil, God, in His very essence, is all-goodness, and, therefore, He can only do good, being subject to His own nature.

The Nature of Human Freedom in Heaven

It appears that regarding freedom and free will, the state of the perfected saints in heaven is similar to God’s. While we are still in the world, human free choice involves not only self-determinism (to be the efficient cause of our own choices) but also the ability to do other than good (that is, evil). This sense of freedom, however, is only temporary; it is for the purpose of being tested:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.… Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:2–4, 12)

This is the reason that, before heaven, humans are not both free and unable to sin. When the test is over—when our earthly race is run—then free choice becomes what it, from all eternity, is for God: the self-determined ability to choose only the good.

Freedom to Do Only Good Is Not the Loss of True Freedom

It is important to note that heaven is not the destruction of true freedom but the fulfillment of it. On earth, we choose whether we want to do God’s will or our own; once the choice is made, our destiny is sealed at death (Heb. 9:27). Then, if we have chosen God’s will instead of our own, the freedom to do evil vanishes and we are free to do only the good. Since the freedom to do evil is also the freedom to destroy oneself, it is not perfect (complete) freedom. The essence of true freedom is self-determination; true freedom is the kind that God has (and, in eternity, believers will have), namely, the self-determined ability to choose only the good. Likewise, in hell, evil persons no longer under the influence of God’s grace will be solidified in their will to do evil.

Heaven, then, is the completion of our freedom, not a negation of it. All true believers yearn to have the Lord’s Prayer fulfilled: “Your will be done, [O God,] on earth as it is in heaven” and “lead us not into temptation” (see Matt. 6; Luke 11). Therefore, when God brings us to heaven, where this will be true, He will not have eliminated our freedom but instead fulfilled it. In summary, the loss of the ability to do evil is not an evil of any kind; it is, rather, a profound good.

The Christian concept of lifelong, monogamous marriage is an example of this. When a bride and groom pledge before God, for all time, “Forsaking all others, to you will I cling, until death do us part,” they are making a free choice—to have, for life, intimate relations that they will share with no one else. In a way, it could be said that this limits their freedom, since they have now chosen, for the duration, to go in one direction and not in another. However, this decision does not eradicate their freedom; indeed, it is a fulfillment of their true God-given desire to have such a bond with one and only one person until heaven.

Likewise, in continuing the analogy, neither in marriage nor in heaven does the Lord give us “freedom” to break our vows; such would not be “freedom” at all but rather would bring the potential for (and reality of) evil (bondage to sin). We are free only to keep the covenant, as this is the greatest good both for us and for those to whom we pledge our love.



The difficulties that call for an answer in this context can be separated into several questions and responses.

Objection One—Based on Causality

If every action needs an efficient cause—as the principle of causality demands—then who, or what, caused Adam to sin? Each of the possible answers seems to have shortcomings.

Response to Objection One

We will scrutinize several potential responses to this objection.

The Devil Did Not Make Adam Sin

Since the time of Adam, people have used the widely popularized disclaimer “The devil made me do it.” Some believers have been known to excuse their sin in this way, just as Adam blamed Eve, and Eve passed the buck to the evil one. But, as we have seen, Satan did not make Adam sin; he only tempted him. Adam was not forced but lured. In the same way, the devil beguiled Judas to betray Christ: “The devil had already prompted21 Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus” (John 13:2).

God Did Not Make Adam Sin

Likewise, God neither placed the desire in Adam’s heart to disobey Him nor compelled him to sin.

Few venture intentionally or overtly into this arena, but some have a view of freedom that logically leads to it. If the sovereignty of God is truly as these people understand it—that is, if God is in direct sovereign control of all things, including human choices—then it would appear that God forced Adam to sin.

Indeed, following Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), some extreme Calvinists claim that free will is simply doing what we desire, and that no one, ever, desires to do any good unless God gives him the desire to do so. If this is the case, then it would seem that God is responsible for all human actions; no one can desire to do evil unless his evil nature gives him the desire to do it. But he could have done good if God had given him the desire.

Neither Lucifer nor Adam, before their respective falls, had an evil nature. From whence, then, the desire to sin? Even Edwards’ defenders admit that this has not been solved within their theology. R. C. Sproul (b. 1939), for instance, calls this an “excruciating problem,” adding: “One thing is absolutely unthinkable, that God could be the author or doer of sin.” Nonetheless, that is the apparent result of this determinist logic.

Therefore, this argument that God has kept all power in His own hands is fraught with serious implications. Most fundamentally, determinism makes God responsible for evil. Put bluntly, this means that when a murder occurs, it is God who is accountable for the death of the victim, and when an assault takes place, it is God who causes the attack. Some ideas don’t require refutation but, instead, simple clarification to see what doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. God is absolutely good and, as such, He cannot do (or be responsible for) evil. Period.

An Imperfect Nature in Adam Did Not Make Him Sin

A second alternative is the argument that Adam was not perfect; his weak and imperfect nature caused him to sin. However, here again, this is ultimately to lay blame at God’s doorstep, since weak and imperfect would be how God made Adam. Unlike the previously addressed theories (both of which are determinist), the indeterminist blame is not direct but indirect; nonetheless, human sin would still be God’s fault.

The Bible, by contrast, affirms that God made only good creatures. After almost every day of Creation Genesis says, “It was good” (1:4, 10, 18, 21, 25), and after the sixth day, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (1:31). Solomon added, “This only have I found: God made mankind upright” (Eccl. 7:29). We are told explicitly that “every creature of God is good” (1 Tim. 4:4 kjv). Once again, an omnibenevolent (absolutely good) God cannot make an evil thing; only a perfect creature can come from the hands of a perfect Creator.

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Adam Sinned by His Own Free Will

The true answer is that Adam sinned by his own free choice. The reasoning runs like this:

(1) One of the things God gave His good creatures was a good power called free will.

(2) Even unbelievers understand that freedom is good. What people march against freedom? One never sees a crowd carrying placards that say “Down With Liberty!” or “Back to Bondage!”

(3) Even if someone did speak against freedom, he would thereby be speaking for it, since he clearly values his freedom to express that idea.

(4) In short, free choice is an undeniable good.

Even so, the power of moral free choice entails the ability to either embrace God’s designed good or to reject it—the latter is called evil. God revealed that freedom is good—so good, in fact, that He granted it to us—but freedom does make evil possible. If God made free creatures, and if it is good for us to be free, then the origin of evil is in the misuse of freedom.

This is not difficult to comprehend. Most of us, for example, enjoy the freedom to drive a car, but many abuse this freedom and drive dangerously. We don’t (and shouldn’t) blame the government that licenses us to drive for all the evil done with vehicles. Those whose reckless or malicious driving wounds or kills others are responsible for the results of their actions. Even though there is evil that results from misuse or malice, the government perceives that it is more beneficial to our society for its citizens to be able to utilize vehicles than it would be for us to have to walk everywhere, just as God has demonstrated that it is better for us to have the freedom to misuse our will than it would be for us not to have it at all.

While God is morally accountable for giving us the good thing called free will, He is not morally responsible for any evil we commit with our freedom. Again, Solomon said it succinctly: “God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes” (Eccl. 7:29). In brief, God made the fact of freedom; we are responsible for the acts of freedom. The fact of freedom is good, even though some of the acts of freedom are evil. God is the cause of the former, and we are the cause of the latter.

Objection Two—Based on the Need for a Cause

The “self-determination solution” leads to another problem: If every event has a cause, then what caused Adam to exercise his freedom to sin? Free choice is an action, and every action, even the action of free will, needs an efficient cause. Tracing sin back to free choice does not completely solve the overall issue; it raises another one.

Response to Objection Two

This objection is based upon misunderstanding.

First, admittedly, every event does have a cause; that is, every effect has a cause. However, not every cause has a cause. For example, every painting has a painter, but every painter is not painted. If every cause had a cause, then God could not be the first, uncaused Cause that He is. It is absurd to ask, “Who made God?” for this is the same as the question “Who made the unmade Maker?” Further pursuing “Who caused Adam to sin?” is like insisting that there must be an answer to the question “Who is the bachelor’s wife?” A bachelor does not have a wife any more than an uncaused Being has a cause. Likewise, if Adam’s choice for evil (his wrong use of free will) is the first cause of human sin, then no other cause should be sought.

Second, this objection wrongly assumes a false disjunction—that an action must be either uncaused or caused by someone other than one’s self, since every event is either caused or uncaused (there apparently being no other logical alternatives). This is not the case, for there is a third option: An action may be either

(1) uncaused,

(2) caused by someone (or something) else, or

(3) caused by me.

It is the third alternative that is meant by freedom or free will; a free act is a self-determined act. As we have seen and will continue to see, there is great reason to support the last view.

Objection Three—Based on Alleged Logical Impossibility

Again, the answer to the second objection leads to another question: If Adam’s free will was the cause of his disobedience to God, then what was the cause of his free will? If every effect needs a cause, and if our free will is an effect, then free will needs a cause. Thus, the question “Who (or what) caused Adam to sin?” still remains.

Response to Objection Three

First, it must be noted, again, that this question confuses the fact of freedom with the acts of freedom. God is the cause of the former, but Adam was the cause of the latter. God created the person, Adam, and the power of free will that Adam had, but it was Adam who exercised that power for evil.

Second, there is an important distinction overlooked by this objection; namely, that distinction between the person and his powers. Free will is a power that was given to Adam, the person. Adam, that person, was the efficient cause of his disobedience to God; the power he used to do it was the power of free will granted to him. It is meaningful to ask who the person was that used the power of free will, but it is meaningless to ask who caused the person to do it. Adam, the person himself, was the cause of his disobedience by means of the power of free will, which God gave him and which he abused.

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Objection Four—Based on the Impossibility of Self-Causality

This leads to another issue. If the person (Adam) was the cause of the action, then it was an action caused by his self (i.e., it was a self-caused action). Opponents of self-determination argue that to be self-caused is a contradiction in terms, for nothing can cause itself. We cannot lift ourselves by our own bootstraps. A cause is always prior to its effect (in being, even if not in time), and we cannot be prior to ourselves. Thus, it would seem to follow that a self-caused action is rationally absurd.

Response to Objection Four

Here again there is a confusion: A self-caused being is impossible, for the reason just given, but there is nothing contradictory about a self-caused action. Certainly we cannot exist before we exist or be before we are, but we can and must be before we can do—that is, we must exist before we can act. Self-caused actions, then, are not impossible; if they were, then even God, who cannot do what is impossible (cf. Heb. 6:18), would not have been able to create the world (for there was no one or nothing else, except Him, to cause the world to exist before it existed). If the act of Creation was not self-caused, then God could not have performed it.

Likewise, if self-caused actions are not possible, then neither is there an explanation for Lucifer’s sin. A sinless, perfect God could not have caused Lucifer to sin, and since Lucifer was the first being to sin, his action must have been self-caused; otherwise he would never have been able (i.e., had the freedom) to sin. Consequently, it follows that self-caused actions are possible, even though a self-caused being is impossible.

Perhaps the reason it seems to some that self-caused actions are not possible is the term self-caused itself. It is clearer to speak, for example, of my actions as caused by myself (as opposed to caused by another), or, better yet, actions caused by my self (that is, by me). Speaking this way eliminates the ambiguity of language that gives rise to the false belief that a self-caused action is impossible.


There are, of course, other questions about free will, such as, “In what sense, if any, are human beings free after the Fall?” “Do we still retain freedom in the self-determined sense?”

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The origin of sin in a self-determined free choice of Adam (and Lucifer before him) has been a hallmark of Christian thought from the beginning. The following samples illustrate the point.

Justin Martyr (c. 100–c. 165)

God, wishing men and angels to follow His will, resolved to create them free to do righteousness. But if the word of God foretells that some angels and men shall certainly be punished, it did so because it foreknew that they would be unchangeably [wicked], but not because God created them so. (DJ, I.142)

Irenaeus (c. 125–c. 202)

This expression, “How often would I have gathered thy children together and thou wouldst not” [Matt. 23:37], set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free [agent] from the beginning, possessing his own soul to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [toward us] is present with Him continually. (AH, I.4.36.1)

Athenagoras (fl. second century)

Just as with men who have freedom of choice as to both virtue and vice (for you would not either honor the good or punish the bad; unless vice and virtue were in their own power, and some are diligent in the matters entrusted to them, and others faithless), so is it among the angels. (PC, II.24)

Theophilus (c. 130–190)

God made man free, and with power over himself.… God vouchsafes to him as a gift through His own philanthropy and pity, when men obey Him. For as man, disobeying, drew death on himself; so, obeying the will of God, he who desires is able to procure for himself life everlasting. (TA, II.27)

Tatian (120–173)

Our free-will has destroyed us; we who were free have become slaves; we have been sold through sin. Nothing evil has been created by God; we ourselves have manifested wickedness; but we, who have manifested it, are able again to reject it. (ATG, II.11)

Bardesanes (c. 154–222)

How is it that God did not so make us that we should not sin and incur condemnation? If man had been made so, he would not have belonged to himself but would have been the instrument of him that moved him.… And how, in that case, would a man differ from a harp, on which another plays; or from a ship, which another guides: where the praise and the blame reside in the hand of the performer or the steersman … they being only instruments made for the use of him in whom is the skill? (E, VII)

Clement of Alexandria (150–c. 215)

We, who have heard by the Scriptures that self-determining choice and refusal have been given by the Lord to men, rest in the infallible criterion of faith, manifesting a willing Spirit, since we have chosen life and believe God through His voice. (S, II.2.4)

Tertullian (c. 155–c. 225)

I find, then, that man was by God constituted free, master of his own will and power; indicating the presence of God’s image and likeness in him by nothing so well as by this constitution of his nature.… Therefore, both the goodness and purpose of God are discovered in the gift to man of freedom in his will. (FBAM, III.2.5)

Novatian (c. 200–c. 258)

He also placed man at the head of the world, and man, too, made in the image of God, to whom He imparted mind, and reason, and foresight, that he might imitate God.… And when He had given him all things for his service, He willed that he alone should be free. And lest, again, an unbounded freedom should fall into peril, He laid down a command, in which man was taught that there was no evil in the fruit of the tree; but he was forewarned that evil would arise if perchance he should exercise his freewill in the contempt of the law that was given. (CT, V.1)

Origen (c. 185–c. 254)

“This also is clearly defined in the teaching of the church that every rational soul is possessed of free-will and volition” (DP, IV, preface). “There are, indeed, innumerable passages in the Scriptures which establish with exceeding clearness the existence of freedom of will” (ibid., III.1.4).

Methodius (c. 260–311)

“Now those who decide that man is not possessed of free-will, and affirm that he is governed by the unavoidable necessities of fate … are guilty of impiety toward God Himself, making Him out to be the cause and author of human evils” (BTV, VI.8.16).

“I say that man was made with free-will, not as if there were already existing some evil, which he had the power of choosing if he wished … but that the power of obeying and disobeying God is the only cause” (CFW, 362).

Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315–c. 387)

Know also that thou hast a soul self governed, the noblest work of God, made after the image of its Creator, immortal because of God that gives it immortality, a living being rational, imperishable, because of Him that bestowed these gifts: having free power to do what it willeth. (CL, II.VII.IV.18)

“The soul is self-governed: and though the Devil can suggest, he has not the power to compel against the will. He pictures to thee the thought of fornication: if thou wilt, thou rejectest” (ibid., 21).

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c. 395)

“Being the image and the likeness … of the Power which rules all things, man kept also in the matter of a free-will this likeness to Him whose will is over all” (OV, II.V.12).

Jerome (c. 340–420)

It is in vain that you misrepresent me and try to convince the ignorant that I condemn free-will. Let him who condemns it be himself condemned. We have been created endowed with free-will.… It is true that freedom of the will brings with it freedom of decision. Still man does not act immediately on his free-will but requires God’s aid who Himself needs no aid. (LSJ, II.VI.133.10)

John Chrysostom (347–407)

“God, having placed good and evil in our power, has given us full freedom of choice; he does not keep back the unwilling, but embraces the willing” (HG, 19.1).

All is in God’s power, but so that our free-will is not lost.… It depends therefore on us and on Him. We must first choose the good, and then He adds what belongs to Him. He does not precede our willing, that our free-will may not suffer. But when we have chosen, then He affords us much help.… It is ours to choose beforehand and to will, but God’s to perfect and bring to the end. (HEH, 12)

Early Augustine (354–430)

“Free will, naturally assigned by the creator to our rational soul, is such a neutral power, as can either incline toward faith, or turn toward unbelief” (OSL, 58). “In fact, sin is so much a voluntary evil that it is not sin at all unless it is voluntary” (OTR, 14). “Either, then, will is itself the first cause of sin, or the first cause is without sin” (OGFW, 3.49 ).

Augustine added,

Sin is indeed nowhere but in the will, since this consideration also would have helped me, that justice holds guilty those sinning by evil will alone, although they may have been unable to accomplish what they willed. (TSAM, 10.12)

Every one also who does a thing unwillingly is compelled, and every one who is compelled, if he does a thing, does it only unwillingly. It follows that he that is willing is free from compulsion, even if any one thinks himself compelled. (ibid., 10.14)

Anselm (1033–1109)

No one deserts uprightness except by willing to desert it. If “against one’s will” means “unwillingly,” then no one deserts uprightness against his will.… But a man cannot will against his will because he cannot will unwillingly to will. For everyone who wills, wills willingly. (TFE, 130)

Although they [Adam and Eve] yielded themselves to sin, they could not abolish in themselves their natural freedom of choice. However, they could so affect their state that they were not able to use that freedom except by a different grace from that which they had before their fall. (ibid., 125)

We ought not to say that they [Adam and Eve] had freedom for the purpose of receiving, from a giver, the uprightness which they didn’t have, because we have to believe that they were created with upright wills—although we must not deny that they had freedom for receiving this same uprightness again, should they once desert it and were it returned to them by the one who originally gave it. (ibid., 126)

Don’t you see it follows from these considerations that no temptation can conquer an upright will? For if temptation can conquer the will, it has the power to conquer it, and conquers the will by its own power. But temptation cannot do this because the will can be overcome only by its own power. (ibid., 132)

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)

Necessity comes from the agent when the latter so coerces something that he cannot do the contrary.… Such necessity by coercion is contrary to the will. [Thus,] something cannot be absolutely coerced or violent and simultaneously voluntary.… Consequently man does not choose necessarily but freely. (in Clark, AR, 291–92)

Therefore, “man has free choice, otherwise counsels, exhortations, precepts, prohibitions, rewards, and punishment would all be pointless.” Consequently, a free choice “leaves intact the power of being able to decide otherwise” (ibid., 259).

With the exception of the later Augustine, this view of self-determined free will was the virtually unanimous view of the Fathers up to the time of the Reformation, and with the exception of Calvin and Luther, it has continued to be the consistent view since the time of the Reformation.


The origin of evil is a problem for any worldview, but particularly so for theism, which must account for how evil arose in a universe where God and everything He made were perfectly good. The answer is found in one of God’s good gifts: free will. While freedom is good in itself, it also allowed the potential for evil. Hence, free will made evil possible.

However, while God is responsible for the fact of freedom (which made evil possible), free creatures themselves (e.g., Lucifer and Adam) are responsible for their acts of freedom (which make evil actual). God gave them the power of choice, and instead of choosing to obey and follow the good, they disobeyed and exercised free choice for sin. Hence, evil arose from the free will of the good creatures that God made.





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———, On Grace and Free Will

  1. F. Skinner, Beyond Behaviorism

———, Beyond Freedom and Dignity

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