Free Will 2: Sinlessness and Perfection

Let's have another look at the free-will argument. This attempts to resolve the problem of evil (see previous post) by saying that for humans to make moral choices, they must be morally free. This requires the possibility of choosing good and the possibility of choosing evil. The point I made in the previous post was that just because it is possible for a moral agent to choose evil, this does not mean that this possibility need ever be realised. After all, all things being equal, there would be no reason for a perfect being to do evil, as the good choice would always be the best choice.

I want to follow up this argument by illustrating two examples from within Christianity that show it is possible for there to be free moral agents that never commit evil, and hopefully demonstrate that the mere possibility of evil is not sufficient to explain its actual existence in the world.

Example #1: Jesus
According to Christianity, Jesus was completely sinless. However, traditional Christianity also claims that Jesus, while being fully human, was also fully God, and that he was not affected with original sin. Now these other claims about Jesus might at first glance appear to invalidate a comparison between Jesus and moral agents such as you and I, but I think we can cut through these apparent difficulties by asking this question: Did Jesus have free will? If the answer to this is no, then Jesus was not a free moral agent, and we can disregard this example. However, I do not know any Christians who would say that Jesus did not have free will! So I think we can safely claim that Jesus was a free moral agent, and in that respect, the comparison holds.

I remember when I was a Christian having an intense discussion with someone from my church about whether or not Jesus could have sinned. The Bible says that Jesus was tempted to sin on many occasions, and even says he was "tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). I was trying to argue that Jesus could have sinned but didn't, because if he couldn't have sinned then he couldn't have been tempted by sin, and the claim that Jesus was actually tempted is vital to many Christian doctrines, including that of him being an example to us of how to resist temptation. The person I was arguing with claimed that Jesus couldn't have sinned, because he was God and God cannot sin, therefore when the Bible says he was tempted, it doesn't mean that he was actually tempted, just that he was tested to see what his response would be!

The question is, did Jesus have the ability to sin? Was it possible that he could have done evil? If not, then Jesus was not a free moral agent, and had no free will with regard to moral choices. If so, and yet he never actually did any evil, what is the difference between Jesus, the free moral agent, and Adam, the free moral agent. Both were in a position of perfection, having no "original sin" to bias their choices towards evil. What did Jesus have that Adam didn't have? If Jesus was free in all ways that Adam was free, how did Adam go wrong? If Jesus had something that Adam didn't have, that enabled him to resist temptation more effectively, how can Jesus be said to be an example of how to resist temptation, if he had an unfair advantage? And why did God not give this advantage to Adam?

Example #2: Heaven
In Heaven there is no sin; this is part of the definition of Heaven. So what of its inhabitants (i.e. dead Christians)? Are they free moral agents? If so, I repeat the questions of the previous paragraph: What is the difference between free moral agents in Heaven and free moral agents on Earth? If the occupants of Heaven are free moral agents, it is possible for them to sin, and yet they do not. In fact, since Heaven is eternal, if its occupants make moral choices, they must make an infinite number of moral choices and always choose the good.

If Heaven's inhabitants are not morally free, this raises some interesting questions about the value of free will. If, as is to be supposed, the state of man in Heaven is God's desired state for the human race, then free will is surely only a means to an end, which end is purity without free will. The whole free-will answer to the problem of evil collapses if this is the case, as it now seems that free will is not as important to God as is claimed, since man's ultimate, eternal state is one of a morally pure, non-morally-free being.

I have heard it argued that those in Heaven are those who have, out of their own free will, chosen to have their free will revoked, the important point being that they used their free will to get there. This smells very fishy to me. Firstly, why would a being with free will choose to give it up? I can see no reason other than that of having no other choice (i.e. a choice between eternal punishment with free will or eternal bliss without free will). This seems very wrong to me: what kind of God would create beings with free will, and then give them the choice of revoking their free will or being eternally punished? Secondly, it severely diminishes the value of free will, as it implies that for a being to exist in a state of perfection, it must have no free will.

If it be argued that there is no sin in Heaven because there are no actual moral choices to make, perhaps because there is no temptation to sin, then that raises the question of why there was temptation in the Garden of Eden. If man's state in Heaven is God's desired state for all of us, Adam and Eve included, then why not bypass the whole temptation -> sin -> judgement -> salvation process and just create it like that in the first place? Anyway, if there were no temptation to sin in Heaven, there would be no possibility of making an evil choice, which would mean that those in Heaven would not be morally free agents, which conclusion again lends itself to the objections raised earlier.

Given these two examples in Christianity of sinless, morally free agents (given that I have sufficiently demonstrated that they are in fact morally free), I conclude that there is no reason to suppose that the possibility of evil for a morally free agent in any way determines that evil will actually occur, and so the free-will objection to the problem of evil does not hold.


  1. Once again Stu... interesting view points and anal...

    by ANDREW on 06 OCTOBER 2007 at 9:51AM
    Once again Stu... interesting view points and analysis... so here is my 2 cents...

    Adam and Jesus had exactly the same makeup. Both were descended from God. They both had free will and both could sin.

    Did Jesus have the ability to sin. Of course he did, but he chose not too. Yes he had prior knowledge of what was right and wrong, but still he made the decision to remain pure and good. So does this mean that God has the ability to sin, of couse... but he also chooses to remain good and true.

    As to the heaven discussion, this is where Catholiscm allows for "the final purification of the elect" in purgatory. I believe (because I have free will) that this is a point that allows us to make a final decision on whether we want to enter heaven, and as such God gives us a final chance to renounce evil. If however we wish to continue to follow Satan we can, all through choice.

    This ability to choose is Gods greatest gift. It has also allowed me as you, to analyse Gods work and teachings and to choose whether to follow him, and look to follow a pure and good life, or indeed look the other way.
  2. There is a world of difference between Adam who wa...

    by TIM on 13 NOVEMBER 2006 at 2:02PM
    There is a world of difference between Adam who was a created being and the Lord Jesus who had a prepared body and “stepped into time”.

    Forget the analogy of the army for a moment (see previous quick answer) and consider that the Lord Jesus came to earth as a bond slave (i.e. one who has no rights). He said, “I came down from heaven not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me (John 6 v 38). Was He then a “moral free agent”? He was totally surrendered to the will of His Father.

    You make a big assumption in your argument that the Lord Jesus is an “ordinary” man. This is not true. His eternal qualities were not ignored when He came to earth –“God manifest in flesh” (1 Tim 3 v 16).

    Your argument is like saying because He became a man He was liable to die – as all men do. Again not true. Being a real man meant that He now could die, as indeed He did voluntarily surrender His life, but He didn’t have to die. Death is the wages of sin (Romans 6 v 23). To be a valid Saviour therefore, He has to be impeccable. Anything less will not do for eternal security, for if He were to sin, my salvation would be immediately invalid. I could therefore never have peace if it were possible for Him to sin.

    If it was impossible for Him to sin (and I hold that to be so), to what purpose then did the devil “tempt” Him? To see if He could/would sin? If any could find a “chink in the armour” then he could. If any could solicit a response from a latent inward tendency to sin then he could. But he failed. John 8 v 46 “The prince of this world cometh and hath nothing in Me.” But surely the real reason for this confrontation was as an outward proof to all that the declaration that God had just made from heaven, “This is My Beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased” was not misplaced. This is borne out by the word “If” that the devil used. Not the “if” of doubt (Strongs number 1437) but the “if” of a fulfilled condition (Strongs number 1487), so that it could be translated “since”. Of course satan knew exactly who He was as did the demons (Mark 1 v 24 “the Holy One of God”)

    What is then the meaning of Heb 4 v 15? In every way (all points) that we as real human beings are bombarded with temptations from outside, so was He. But He proved that sin was not essential as part of human life (Rom 8 v 3). The problem naturally, is that when we are bombarded by sin from outside, there is an immediate response from our sinful nature and we sin because we cannot help it. When a person is saved, they are indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit – now there is a contest every time sin comes knocking.

    But should there be? If the Holy Spirit is fully in control in the life of the believer, with the old nature given no space to operate then we become more like the Lord Jesus in the ability to resist the external pressure of sin. The question of “unfair advantage” as you put it – and we do need to guard our words here – is negated by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

    What about the person who is saved? What happens at the point of salvation? As a “free agent”, I make a voluntary choice to surrender control of my life and hand it over to my Lord, bearing in mind that if He is not Lord of all He is not Lord at all. All real Christians are bondservants. Do we not sing “All to Jesus I surrender”? Is this real or just a platitude? To take this line to its conclusion, I am required to take every decision to Him before it is made for His approval. Hence, I am not a “free agent” anymore – now or ever.

    In Heaven there is a complete absence of sin as that place is the home of God who is holy. In any case all sin will be eradicated and put away in the lake of fire with no possibility of it raising its head again, so your posit is irrelevant.
  3. Jon, I think we need to be careful here.<br><br>Yo...

    by TIM on 29 SEPTEMBER 2006 at 3:01PM
    Jon, I think we need to be careful here.

    You say that Jesus "broke the Law of the time on several occasions", but didn't He say that He had not come to destroy the Law but to fulfil it? If it can be proved that He broke God's Law He would be contradicting Himself.

    The laws that you mention are those created by the rulers and traditions of the fathers which were additions to God's Law and man made.
  4. Tim, if Jesus <i>could not</i> sin, he had no free...

    by STU SHERWIN on 28 SEPTEMBER 2006 at 11:50PM
    Tim, if Jesus could not sin, he had no free will with regard to moral actions. I've heard you say that God gave us free will because he didn't want robots, but people who could freely choose to do good. So are you saying Jesus was a robot?

    Your army analogy seems quite apt except for two points. Firstly, you can choose to leave the army. Heaven, however, is for ever.

    Secondly, if choosing to go to Heaven is like choosing to join the army, then the Christian message is like conscription. Choose to surrender your free will (for eternity) or go to jail (or burn forever).
  5. Just a brief reply at present. <br>I don't like th...

    by TIM on 26 SEPTEMBER 2006 at 1:42PM
    Just a brief reply at present.
    I don't like the direction that "logic" is taking on this post.

    If the Lord Jesus could sin(regardless of the fact that He didn't), then the whole confidence in His sacrifice on the cross and His ability to save and keep eternally - shatters.

    As regards the resignation of free will, this is not an abnormal thing. When a person joins the army he/she resigns free will to take orders. This is a voluntary act of the one who enlists.
  6. My main suggestion for you to think about is that ...

    by WILL on 25 SEPTEMBER 2006 at 12:38PM
    My main suggestion for you to think about is that you need to consider more carefully your definition of good. What is goodness? Is it defined by God, or as a separate reality to which God may or may not conform? And then is it defined by his nature or by his will?

    Without attempting to explore these questions comprehensively here, let us assume that free will is a good, that is, something good in itself. In which case, for God to create beings with free will is a good act - even though that obviously creates the possibility of them doing evil. If those beings then use that free will to do evil, God is not culpable for that because it is a part of the definition of free will that the agent is culpable for his choices. Otherwise it would not have been free will that was created. That is not to say that those beings will necessarily choose evil, only that if they do then it is not God who is culpable, but they themselves. You argue that a good God would not allow the potential for evil to be realised. However, using the definition of good that I am here, that conclusion simply doesn't follow from God's goodness. God was good in creating beings with free will, while how those beings then go on to use that will does not reflect either way on his goodness, but on theirs. I repeat, it is fundamental to the nature of free will that it is the agent who is culpable.

    What does reflect on God's goodness, however, is how he then responds to the use of the good free will he has created. I am here making the assumption that justice is also something which is good in itself. In which case God is also good when he justly recompenses the good and evil use of free will. Moreover, his power is in his ability to fully and perfectly execute this good justice, not merely in his ability to prevent the need to for it (which is what you are suggesting). So God is good in creating free will, and good in recompensing its use - I fail to see where he has erred? We can see this more clearly when we compare God to an earthly ruler, who is good when he grants his citizens liberty, and also when he punishes those who misuse it; and moreover is powerful when he is always able to catch and punish wrongdoers. This conclusion is based on the intuitive idea that both freedom and justice are important goods which deserve to be realised.

    Yet even that is not the whole story, since as well as freedom and justice, another intrinsic good is mercy (or grace). Yet mercy seems to be in contradiction, or at least strong tension, with justice. The mystery of God, and indeed not only of God but of human life and society in general, is how all three of these goods can be realised simultaneously, and indeed, perfectly. That mystery is precisely what Christians believe has been revealed and explained in the Gospel.

    My point is not that this answer is simple or straighforward, but that it occurs within a framework in which the intrinsic goods of freedom, justice and mercy are all held to be deserving of perfect realisation. Within such a framework, God's goodness is in his propensity to do this. This complex definition of goodness means that the simple logic of the problem of evil fails. This means that if you reject the Christian position you must do it not because of the logic of the argument, but because you reject the Christian definition of goodness and the claims it makes about how the tensions within goodness are reconciled ( e.g. the cross). You are of course free to do that (God has created a world in which that freedom is granted you); I just want you to be aware of what you are doing, so that you do not think you can reject it on purely logical grounds.
  7. Only a couple of brief thoughts, I'll think more i...

    by JON on 24 AUGUST 2006 at 12:50PM
    Only a couple of brief thoughts, I'll think more in a little bit.

    It is hard for us to understand the combination of God and Man in Jesus. We do not know what he knew while in human form. We do know that his understanding of sin was different to the religious authorities of the time: he broke the Law of the time on several occasions (Sabbath law in particular, also purity laws of mixing with "sinners", even disobeying his parents wishes.) His moral code was based on pleasing and honouring God, leading people to understand God better. A less legalistic definition of sin is "separation from God" Jesus had no separation from God "by definition", therefore could not "sin".

    Resisting temptation is another issue. Jesus had freewill, or his example is meaningless. He (as God) had a different understaning of the world and his purpose to any other human being. He already knew the lessons we use the stories of resisting temptation to teach. Because he had a more complete understanding he could make a more informed and hence better choice (using the logic discussed in the previous post.)

    Heaven: what is it. I'm not sure where your definition comes from. Jesus is recorded as having spent very little time discussin what heaven is like or how it works. In fact a lot of the time he taught about heaven it is ambiguous whether the "Kingdom of Heaven" is a present reality or a future goal. "Heaven living" is living like Jesus did: demonstrating in both actions and words what God is like, growing the Kingdom of Heaven.

    The ancient Jewish view of heaven (as opposed to Greek and Egyptian mythology) was of a physical resurection to the land they were familiar with at "the last day". We can see this in the respose of Martha to Jesus after her brothers death - "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." In some of Jesus' stories (eg. the Rich man and Lazarus) and particularly in Revelation, a more metaphysical or "other than earthly" description of heaven is given. What we do know (Rev 7:17, 21:4, Isaiah 11:6 etc) is that the effects of sin will be taken away. This includes the clouding of our judgement that fallen-ness gives us, giving us the "knowledge lie God" that the serpent promisied Eve initially. Then we will know the consequences of our actions and as we have chosen to be in heaven to increase the honour of God we will choose, as Jesus did, to make choices that do that.

    One of the things a close examination of Revelation will bring (other than weird dreams and a headache) is the idea that there will be (at least one) rebellion after the return of Jesus. Perhaps in the resurrection in the physical land there are real choices and still consequences for those who reject Jesus.

    There's loads more to think about, I will return to these ideas.

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