The Illusion of Free Choice
Christians will tell you that God provides freedom of choice to individuals, which makes them responsible for the consequences of their actions. For example, we are free to choose whether to believe in God or not; to keep his commandments or violate them; to head for heaven or slide down to hell. This choice is sometimes put in the simplest of terms – choosing good or evil. Good, of course, is defined as God-approved, while evil means anything that is in opposition to God’s will.
The problem with this idea of free choice is that it is purely illusory. It requires people to make a choice only within a prescribed framework . For example, we are told that we can either keep God’s commandments or break God’s commandments. Keeping God’s commandments is the “good” choice, the “right” choice. Breaking God’s commandments is the “bad” or “wrong” choice. But the fact is, there is only one set of commandments to choose from and they have been designed by God. Where is the opportunity to decide that, in certain situations, different behaviours are more appropriate or morally benign? What if you want to decide your own morality, based on your own sense of right and wrong, so you discard God’s commandments and create an individual moral code that suits you and harms no-one?
Limiting choices to within a framework which assures the framer the result he desires, cannot be called “free”. It’s like a mother telling a child she can only choose to wear the red dress or the blue dress, because those are the dresses the mother likes best. There’s no option to choose the green dress or the yellow dress. Nor, for that matter, is there the chance to wear a tee shirt and jeans, or a blouse and skirt. In the same way, God limits our options to ensure that our choices correspond to his own predetermined outcomes for us.
Freedom of choice is also illusory when the person making the choice is given no clear idea of the consequences of his decision. Christians will tell you that if you do this you’ll go to heaven and if you do that you’ll go to hell. They witter on about peace and happiness, fire and torment, but you won’t get a clear description of what an eternity of heaven or hell will actually consist of. The trouble is, apparently no human has actually been to either place and returned to give us a full-blown account of their adventure. It’s a bit like the promise that Hank will give you a million dollars when you leave town but, although plenty of people have left town, no-one has ever returned with stories of the huge spending spree they’ve been on with Hank’s million dollars. To have real freedom of choice you must comprehend as clearly as possible what the results of your choice will be.
And while we’re on the subject, portraying the consequences of our choices in terms of reward or punishment is surely a matter of enticement, rather than the offer of free choice. Just as we are influenced, albeit unconsciously in many instances, by advertising, fashion, or popular opinion, so God influences our choices by manipulating our feelings about where we we would want to spend eternity (always supposing we accept the idea of life after death). If he were to include a third option, for those people who don’t necessarily want to live with him, but whom it would be unjust to punish with endless hellfire, at least the alternatives would be somewhat fairer than a simple happiness versus misery scenario. After all, no-one would choose to live in endless misery, so making that one of only two options is to weight the odds very strongly on the side of choosing the path that leads to heaven. However you look at it, that smacks of blackmail.
Probably one of the most important aspects in making a genuine choice is having the ability to act on reliable, verifiable information. You don’t just need to know what the options are, you need to be certain that they’re real. Imagine a man comes to your door and tells you he has a car for sale. It’s just what you’re looking for, it’s in perfect condition and at a very reasonable price. Probably one of the first things you would want to know is when you can see it. How would you feel if the man told you that he couldn’t actually show it to you, but he had a picture of it? Would that be sufficient for you to hand over your money? How about if he produced a written statement by someone who had seen the car, confirming everything that the man was telling you about it? I’m guessing that unless you could actually have a good look at the vehicle, perhaps even getting a qualified mechanic to check it over, and taking it for a test drive yourself, you would tell the man at the door to take his proposition elsewhere.
Christians will tell you that you need to accept Jesus as your personal saviour and that, if you don’t, you will go to hell. But where is the proof that Jesus even existed, or that he was who he said he was? Prior to the time Jesus allegedly lived, there were many stories of mythical saviour figures bearing strong similarities to the story of Jesus contained in the gospels. Being told that you have to accept some historical myth on faith alone is hardly a strong foundation for making an accurate choice. Just as you wouldn’t accept a stranger’s word for the fact that he had a fantastic car for sale without verification of its existence and reliability, so it would be foolish to accept the need to conform your life to the urgings of a religious believer without corroborating evidence of the product he is peddling.
Some might say that, to be convinced of the reality of Jesus as the son of God and saviour of the world, you must set aside your scepticism and open your heart to belief. That only the holy spirit can confirm the truth of spiritual things. But why should you be expected to make life or death decisions based on emotions and desires rather than on concrete facts? That is no foundation for wise choices in matters that have far-reaching consequences.
No, the claim by Christians that God allows people the freedom to choose to follow him or not is bogus. Without being able to choose options that are unlimited by a framework that manipulates the outcome to achieve the framer’s desired result; in the absence of the fullest details about the consequences of the choices to be made; and without verifiable information about the reality of the options apparently available to you, freedom of choice is just an illusion.