It is becoming a more and more accepted theory that humans have no ability to truly make “willful decisions.” Under this assumption, how can one come to salvation? Wouldn’t this render John 3:16 useless, because we cannot choose to believe in God?  I understand the argument that this just points to predestination, but as someone who has never been a believer, that certainly turns me off from it.  If I cannot make willful decisions, however, it certainly seems like Christianity and salvation cannot be true.  I have spent lot of time trying to figure out what I believe about this, but this has been a huge roadblock for me with believing in God, or in believing that Jesus can save me.   Thank You.

Answer:     [editor’s note: in my rewording of the question I am assuming that the questioner is stating that this is a more and more accepted theory because of the ideas coming from deterministic neuroscientists. I might be wrong in this!]

This is not an easy question.  In fact, it is a really hard question. That might explain why you have been struggling with this for a while.   For myself, I live within a Christian worldview.  This makes the answer to your question easy for me, personally. To me it is “obvious” that human beings make willful decisions, because God asks his people, for example in Deuteronomy 30:19-20 to decide and to choose what they will do.  God asks us because he made us and he knows that we can choose.  Otherwise Deuteronomy 30:19-20 would be a cruel joke. (I could use dozens of other biblical examples)  That answers the question for me.  Of course, even for me, it does not simply cancel out the philosophical question which you raise, but it provides an answer outside of philosophy.  By the way, I am aware that some who call themselves Christians believe in a hard sort of predestination in which God chooses who is saved.  Calvinists deny real free will to human beings.   True, but I completely deny this utterly false interpretation of the Bible.  I will not go into details here, but any reasonable reading of the Bible, with God commanding us to make certain decisions (such as John 3:16) precludes this false understanding of Christianity and of the Bible.

OK.  Fine, but this is not particularly helpful to you, and I want to acknowledge this.  So, the question is whether or not, in the broadest sense of the question, human beings can make willful decisions.  Or to put it another way, do we even have a will?   Even more basically, do “we” exist, or are we merely a complex biological machine which does what it does for purely deterministic reasons, because certain chemicals are released in certain parts of the brain, and certain neurons are connected in certain ways, so that our thought that “we” exist, or that we even actually make decisions is nonsense.  Under this view, self is not real, consciousness and self-awareness are mere epiphenomena, morality, justice and ethics are totally meaningless words.

To say the least, I completely reject this fully materialist/determinist view.  In fact, I choose (emphasis on choose) to reject this view J.  You can decide for yourself (but of course you are deciding, which means that you do make willful decisions) what you believe, but I believe that “I” exist.  “I” have a body, and “I” decide what I will do with my body, with my mind, and so forth.  Otherwise, I cannot make sense of virtually anything I know and experience.  It is wrong to murder.  It is wrong to commit rape.   Those who rape and those who abuse children are deciding to do so, and therefore we have a right to condemn such actions and to exercise justice for these things.  You can make willful decisions.  In fact you willfully decided to ask me this question.  That is how I view things and it also just so happens to be consistent with the biblical view of such things.

I have dealt with your question fairly broadly, but that is in part because I do not have much context to understand what the “real” issues which underlie your question. So, please feel free to be more specific and to send me a follow-up question.

John Oakes

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