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What an English atheist gets wrong about free will

iStock/shuang paul wang
iStock/shuang paul wang

A popular English atheist named Alex O'Connor is convinced that free will does not exist. Alex defines free will as "the ability to have acted differently." While I affirm this helpful definition, I believe that free will does in fact exist. After all, there are times in life when each one of us could have acted differently. 

Alex poses the question, "Can I control what it is that I want? Not a chance." What Alex seemingly fails to factor into his equation is that human beings often wrestle with conflicting wants. And believe it or not, we can actually make choices that lessen the strength of certain aspirations, while increasing the strength of other ambitions. And so, in that sense, yes, we can definitely control what we want. 

Consider Steve and Lisa and their three children. They have saved up $1,700 for a summer family vacation to the Grand Canyon. Meanwhile, one of Steve's buddies invites him to join the guys after work at the local casino. Steve decides to go but is determined to spend no more than $30 on the slot machines. Steve actually ends up winning $55 that night and becomes quite exhilarated in the process. He decides to go back to the casino four more times over the next couple weeks because he wants to feel the same high, he experienced that first night.

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Unfortunately, Steve is struggling to control his newfound gambling obsession and has lost $450. On one hand, he wants to stop gambling because the losses are piling up and carving into the family's vacation money. But on the other hand, Steve feels driven to continue gambling because he has convinced himself that he will hit the jackpot. Since Steve has free will, he gets to choose between his competing interests, based on a combination of personal desires, expected outcomes and potential consequences.

Another way in which Steve can exercise his free will in this situation is to control what it is that he wants. But in order to prioritize his passions and ultimate objectives, he will need to focus his mind, his time and his money on either his family, or gambling, but not both. A double-minded husband and father is a miserable man who doesn't know what he really wants.

If Steve chooses with his free will to stay away from the casino, it will become progressively easier to say "no" to this compulsive behavior. He will control his gaming activity by refusing to feed the addiction. And by choosing family health over the adrenaline rush of a gambling experience, he will regain the joy and satisfaction that he previously experienced before foolishly deciding to gamble away a significant portion of their vacation money. Only then will Steve be able to honestly say that he no longer wants to go to the casino, whereas when he was in the throes of his addiction, the intensity and desire for casino time was completely overwhelming his desire for family time. It was a constant battle between two incompatible goals.

But what if Steve decides instead to feed his gambling addiction by using the rest of their vacation money on slot machines? In that case, Steve would ultimately regret his unwise decision and realize that he could have chosen differently, but he decided to place his financial fantasy above his family at that particular point in time. It was not the universe or Steve's brain neurons or his DNA that made the decision to put the vacation money into the slot machines. Steve alone is responsible for his choices, just like other fathers who in a similar situation have chosen to stop gambling after just one visit to a casino.

Free will is the ability to act differently. And as a free moral agent, Steve has the capacity to choose between his conflicting wants and dreams.

Free will even applies to Alex O'Connor's atheism. You see, Alex could choose to reflect often upon the historical reality that people do not willingly die for a lie if they know it is a lie. This would apply to Christ's apostles as well. They had every reason to fearfully remain in hiding after Christ's crucifixion, and absolutely no reason to go out and fabricate a story about the Messiah rising from the dead. Nevertheless, they went forth preaching the Gospel even to the point of martyrdom. Why? One simple reason. They interacted with the risen Lord and they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that their Savior had in fact risen from the dead.

If Alex truly wants to discover whether he is right or wrong about God and Heaven and Hell, then he could choose with his free will to sincerely speak these words to his Creator: "God, if you are real, please reveal yourself to me through the Gospel. I would rather stand corrected if necessary than be wrong about you. If you died for my sins on the cross and then rose from the dead, I want to be open to believing in you and following you. I want to be on the right side of this issue."

God will not force Alex to make this request. And whichever way Alex chooses to go, he will look back one day and realize that he could have chosen to act differently. Who knows? Alex may want to continue assuming that his atheism is correct. But he might also want to know the truth, even if it means discovering that he has been wrong about God. And if Alex ever finds himself conflicted on the issue, it won't negate the fact that Alex has free will, just like Steve in the story, and just like each one of us.

Dan Delzell is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Papillion, Nebraska. 

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