When confronted with the problem of evil – i.e., why a loving God allows pain and suffering to exist – theists of the Western traditions often invoke the “free will” defense, that God wanted us to be truly free and that such freedom necessitates evil; we must have the option to either choose him or reject him.
However, this argument cannot by itself solve the problem of evil, in part because it cannot explain the existence of natural as opposed to human-caused evils (see “All Possible Worlds” for more on this). Additionally, a strong case could be made that human behavior is not entirely free. The way a person acts and thinks is undeniably affected by environment and upbringing – personality is the product of nurture as well as nature, and no human being is completely free of outside influences. It could well be argued that our nature is the product of conditioning and circumstance, perhaps even that all human behavior is ultimately deterministic, even if all the relevant factors are too numerous and subtle for any outside observer to ever measure completely (although I do not subscribe to this extreme view).
But more important is the objection that, according to the monotheist religions’ own beliefs, humans are not free. What they claim to be free will is really a hollow mockery, a choice that is not a choice at all.
Imagine you are accosted one night by a mugger in a dark alley. He jabs the business end of a pistol into your back and demands your wallet and valuables. Understandably, most people in that situation would hand them over. Now imagine the mugger was caught and brought to trial. On the witness stand, could he legitimately claim this? “I didn’t commit any illegal act; I offered my victim a choice to hand over his wallet or not and he chose to give it to me. He acted out of his own free will. He could have chosen to refuse if he had wanted to.”
Would any rational jury accept such a defense? Of course not, because the mugger’s claim that you acted out of free will is false. There are several qualifications for a decision to be genuinely free, one of which is that it be an informed choice – the party making the decision must fully understand the options and the likely ramifications of each. But another, more relevant one in this instance is that the decision not be coerced. If undue force, pressure or intimidation is applied to steer you towards a particular choice, then you’re not acting out of free will.
Such is the case in the monotheist worldview. According to its proponents, God has offered humans a choice: to accept and worship him, or to reject him. People who choose to worship him will ascend to Heaven when they die, where they will receive an infinite reward. People who choose to reject him will be cast into Hell, where they will receive an infinite punishment.
This choice is not free at all – it is the most transparent and blatant attempt at coercion imaginable. One of our two options will earn us eternal torment; the other will not. God is like the mugger in the dark alley with the gun shoved into our back. Of course you could theoretically refuse to hand over your wallet (and likely get your brains blown out), if you were that stubborn or that perverse. But that doesn’t mean your choice is free; the mugger can’t claim at trial that you acted of your own volition. You were given a choice that was not a choice at all.
An even more apt analogy might be a Mafia protection racket. Humanity is the shopkeeper, the helpless elderly man cowering behind the cash register, while God is the trench-coated mob enforcer making the proverbial offer we can’t refuse. “This sure is a nice soul you’ve got here,” the mobster sneers. “It would be a terrible shame if it were to meet with some unfortunate accident.”
Exactly like the gangster demanding protection money, the God of these religions offers us a forced option which his proselytizing followers deceptively present as a free choice. This isn’t love – this is extortion. If God cares so much about us, then why does he need to coerce our devotion with the threat of torture?
Some Christians argue that this is not coercion; that God does not send anyone to Hell, but actually wants to save us from that fate, and that people who live their lives in defiance of him and his laws are in effect choosing to send themselves there.
But such an argument contradicts everything Christianity has ever taught about the process of judgment. When you die and stand at the judgment seat, are you confronted with one door filled with glorious white and golden light, clouds floating serenely by in the background, the harmonious sounds of an angelic chorus drifting out, and with a sign reading “HEAVEN” over it in pure white light, and another door filled with flames and the screams of the damned and a sign reading “HELL” over it in flickering red neon, and God invites you to pick one? If this is not the case, then the situation is no different than the Mafia enforcer claiming that, by not paying protection, the old man is “choosing” to have his shop burned down. Or, as one wag put it on Usenet:
The doubter says:
“I could never follow Stalin. He puts people in the Gulag.”
That is what doubters tell themselves to rationalize their rejection of Stalin. But the truth is that Stalin does not send anyone to the Gulag. It is those who have hardened their hearts against him who send themselves to the Gulag through their bourgoise attitudes and counterrevolutionary actions. This was not Stalin’s plan at all. He truly wants everyone to go to the Worker’s Paradise. And it grieves him that so many harden their hearts against him. But he will not force anyone into the Worker’s Paradise against their wishes, he respects their free will.
So if you don’t want to go to the Gulag, just open your heart to the love of Stalin. And stop resisting him.
The situation with Christianity is exactly analogous. If God creates a hellish realm of torment, decrees a set of arbitrary laws, and ordains that those who violate those laws will be sent to that realm, then he is coercing behavior. Tortured rationalizations such as “Well, they did it to themselves” do not change this plain fact.
In addition, the Bible itself states that people do not “choose” to go to Hell – they are sent there by God. For example, Matthew 13:41-42, spoken by Jesus:
“The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (NIV)
Or 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8:
“…the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (KJV)
Neither of these descriptions sound much like conscious acts of choice on the part of the people being damned. The angels will “weed out” people that offend and “throw them into” a fiery furnace. Jesus will “in flaming fire [take] vengeance….” Both of these sound very much like it is a conscious, deliberate choice on God’s part to send people to eternal torment in Hell, which ties back to the original point: by mandating laws and threatening those who stray with torture, God has shown he does not value our free will, only our coerced obedience. Our decisions cannot be said to be free in any meaningful sense if an eternity of grief and agony awaits for making any choice but the “correct” one.
Similarly, the argument that God wants to “rescue” us from Hell, that his laws were enacted not to satisfy his arbitrary demands but for our own protection, is untenable. The first and most obvious point against this is that God himself created Hell. It is not a danger beyond his control nor one he was unable to keep us from, but a hazard he deliberately created and set in our way. Furthermore, since God is all-powerful, there can be no doubt that he can prevent anyone from going there if he wishes to. No one can go to Hell if it is not God’s will that they do so. Finally, it is God himself who decrees exactly what actions will result in condemnation to Hell, and he is capable of changing his mind on the matter, as anecdotes from all three Western traditions show. In Judaism, God initially commanded the Israelites to perform animal sacrifices in his honor, but later revoked this law and stated that faith and obedience were all he truly required (Jeremiah 7:22). According to Christianity, God enacted the entire Mosaic law code only to later sweep it aside and institute faith in Jesus as the sole requirement for salvation. And in Islam, Muhammad bargained God down from fifty mandatory prayers daily to five, according to the collected sayings called the hadith. Therefore, we see that it is God’s decision, and more so God’s arbitrary decision, that determines what acts will earn a soul entry into the afterlife of torment and despair that he created for that specific purpose. We are not faced with a free choice, but with coercion – a demand that we do what pleases God, or else we will be infinitely punished.
What would be a genuinely free choice, and much fairer as well, would be if there were two afterlives, both equally pleasant, but one with God’s presence and one without. If this was the case, people could freely choose to follow God or not without fear of retribution. Why is it not otherwise? Why is Hell a place of suffering and torment? Why does God need to torture the people who’d rather not worship him – why not just let them go their own way? No truly loving person compels others to return his love. By mandating the “right” option, God has shown that he really doesn’t value our free choice at all. We are like the angels – mindless creatures created only to worship God, unable to turn away from him – but we have it even worse. We are every bit as enslaved, but we labor under a misleading pretense of freedom while they get no such deceptive illusions.
Of course, atheism brings a ray of light and hope to this gloomy picture. If there is no god, a view fortunately well supported by both evidence and logic, then there is no Hell to fear, and the coercion comes not from some divine blackmailer, but from a very human and entirely earthly religious organization that wishes to increase its own secular power by attempting to coerce people into joining. We can and should say no to this; it is long past time that the proselytizers of this world stopped gaining wealth and influence through imaginary threats.
In closing, I note that the issue of “divine blackmail” is yet another example of religious compartmentalization at work. If a parent demanded that their child love them or be savagely beaten, he or she would be hauled before a court on charges of child abuse. The mugger and the Mafia members would be jailed for extortion. Stalin would (at least in an ideal world) have been put on trial for war crimes and genocide. Yet when God does the exact same thing, only on a much greater scale, why is there no outrage? Why does no one seem to have a problem with this? The answer, of course, is that too many people have been indoctrinated since birth into believing that when it comes to God, all bets are off and an entirely new set of standards applies. “After all,” they reason, “God moves in mysterious ways, and we have no right to judge him” – which is, of course, a fallback position in a vain attempt to defend the truly indefensible.