Storming the four fortresses of hell – part 2

Last week I began my assault on what I’m calling the four fortresses of hell, beginning with “truth.” By “fortress,” I mean a concept on which people tend to plant their flag when it comes to developing a theology of post-mortem rewards and punishments. I narrowed it down to four: truth, freedom, justice and love. There may be more, but as I teach in my screenwriting classes, these are the four principles for which most people are willing to die–or to kill.

In my last post, I tackled competing notions of truth, arguing that how we define this term will largely determine our eschatology. Today, I’m going to do the same thing with “freedom.”

Let me start by saying that the notion of freedom and what constitutes a free choice has been one of the central concerns of philosophy throughout the ages, so I’m hardly going to provide the last word in this blog post. But I have done a lot of thinking on this subject over the past couple of years, so I may have something valuable to offer.

With that caveat in mind, I think it’s helpful to begin by defining what people tend to mean when they talk about freedom or free will. Yale law school professor Paul Kahn defines a free choice as a choice that is not strictly determined by a norm or a law but one that isn’t totally arbitrary either. I think this pretty accurately describes most people’s gut-level definition of free will. If a choice were completely determined by a prior cause, it couldn’t possibly be free, because circumstances could not be otherwise. Then again, if a choice is completely random–to the point where not even we can articulate why we made such-and-such a decision–we hardly qualify as free moral agents. In this case, our choices could still be strictly determined by some prior cause or cluster of causes, we just lack the ability to locate it. So according to Kahn (and, I would argue, most people), a free choice lies somewhere in the murky middle–a choice made in light of a norm or a law but not strictly determined by it.

Of course, lurking beneath Kahn’s definition of a free choice is the assumption “freedom = non-interference.” This means the freest choice is the choice made with the least number of internal and external constraints. For example, a choice made while someone is holding a proverbial gun to your head could hardly be considered free, because the person holding the gun is placing massive constraints upon your ability to choose. Not only are they limiting your options, they are also introducing an element of fear, which tends to short-circuit the decision-making apparatus. The same is true if someone dangles a potential reward in front of you, such as a bribe. Once again, you’ve been compromised by the promise of easy gain.

In addition to fear and greed, other potential constraints on freedom include ignorance, deception and cognitive or emotional disorders. So in order to qualify as a free moral agent, it seems we would have to be fully informed of our situation, mentally and emotionally fit and not compelled by fear of punishment or promise of gain. The question is, do any of us find ourselves in this situation, especially when it comes to decisions that could potentially affect our eternal fate?

My simple answer: no.

Instead, it seems to me that such freedom is a goal that is ever wished for but never attained. We don’t start out as free moral agents, we start out utterly enmeshed in a death-driven, fear-driven existence that threatens to consume us at any moment.

Take the story of “the Fall” in Genesis, for example. After God prohibits Adam and Eve from eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, along comes the snake to tempt Eve. Now, had she actually known a thing or two about God, she would have easily been able to refute the snake, just like Jesus refuted Satan in the wilderness. Instead, not only does she fall for the snake’s deception, she adds to it, saying that God didn’t just tell them not to eat from the tree, they couldn’t even touch it. Clearly, Eve was in bondage to ignorance right out of the gate. On top of this the snake adds deception and then fear. So when she finally eats the fruit, she’s the furthest thing from free. Instead, she’s essentially launching a preemptive strike against God. This isn’t a story of freedom abused. It’s a story of how easily our thinking becomes darkened and our behavior self-destructive when external forces compel us to see God as a rival rather than an ally.

That’s why I define “salvation” not as a state but as a trajectory from bondage to freedom. We don’t use our free will to choose or reject Christ. Rather, Christ progressively frees our will so we are able to choose him. If Christ is all that Christians believe him to be, rejecting him could never be described as a free choice. Instead, it would be an expression of deep emotional and psychological bondage–the height of irrationality.

So if you believe God annihilates people or sends them to hell for abusing their free will (i.e. making bad choice), what you’re really saying is that hell is full of irrational people.

Which seems… Irrational.

To which someone might respond, “Yes, but sin is inherently irrational. By choosing to sin, people willfully put themselves in an irrational state, and if they persist in it, their personality becomes irreversibly fixed, to the point where there’s no going back.”

To which I would respond with the words of philosopher Eric Reitan:

It seems that the choice to deceive oneself and the choice to put oneself in bondage to desire are choices that themselves could not be made unless one were either ignorant or in bondage to desire, and hence not free.

In other words, it’s turtles all the way down.

So it seems the fortress of freedom doesn’t need to be assaulted after all. You simply need to march around it a few times until you can see it from all angles. Then it simply collapses in upon itself.

About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," "After..." and the upcoming biopic "The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton." In addition to his work in film, Kevin has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • Neil

    Just because we have things affecting our wills does NOT mean that freedom is an illusion-just that it is possibly more elusive than we think. C.S. Lewis put it well in ‘Pilgrim’s Regress’ with a piece of dialogue where the main character says ‘…you said I could do anything I like’, ‘no, I said you could do anything you choose’, ‘isn’t that the same thing?’, ‘no, almost the exact opposite’.
    We have things affecting our wills all the time, but we our choices are still real. However, each choice moves our character in one direction or another, making one kind of choice easier and the other more difficult. Still, though, it would be difficult, maybe impossible, to get to a point where you can say it is impossible for this person to choose x.

    • Kevin Miller

      Neil: Using Lewis’s logic, I think you could just as easily argue for the elusiveness of determinism. But the bigger question is, what is freedom? Is it pure autonomy? Is the ultimate free choice an un-caused cause? Just what are we looking for here? We tend to idolize autonomy and self-determination, but not only is science revealing that our notion of the autonomous self is an illusion, it’s a completely self-centered way of looking at things. I’m arguing that a free choice is a choice that isn’t blinded by ignorance, fear, greed, deception or psychological or emotional dysfunction. In other words, it’s a choice that isn’t made as a result of bondage. So as we break free from these things, our choices become freer, but our will never operates completely independent of our environment. A free choice isn’t an autonomous choice, it’s a choice made in the full light of God’s love and grace. So to my way of thinking, freedom is the opposite of autonomy. If we are truly free, our choices will always be made in concert with others and a desire for their well-being.

  • http://heelbound andy wilson

    I understand your concept of free choice and i think its heading in the right direction. KEEP BLOGGING. AND I FOR ONE WILL KEEP READING. AT WHAT DATE CAN I GET A COPY OF HELLBOUND ? ON DVD ? I AM IN THE UK

    • Kevin Miller

      Thanks, Andy. We will release “Hellbound?” on DVD, iTunes, etc. on May 28.

  • Cindy Skillman

    Great post, Kevin. This is also what I’ve sensed the Spirit revealing to me for the last oh, six months or more. That it isn’t a matter of BEING free, but rather of BECOMING free. I we ARE in bondage to sin, as Paul says in Romans and elsewhere; if we indeed CANNOT do the good things we desire to do but instead do the bad things we hate, then it is no longer we who do them but sin dwelling in us. So to say that a person CHOOSES to do sin — or at least to say that a pre-saved person so chooses, is counter to scripture. They do not choose to sin. Paul says so.

    Jesus says, “He whom the Son sets free shall be free indeed.” Why would He say that of free people? What’s more, He also says, “If I be lifted up I will draw all people unto Me.” Drawing sounds like some sort of persuasion, thus influencing our “free” choice. And to make it worse, “draw,” according to some authorities, really means more like “drag.” Why would He need to drag us into freedom? There’s a lot more of this too. If you’re a biblicist, you pretty much have to concede logically, based on your standard of truth, that the bondage of sin has to be forcefully broached before a person can exercise any semblance of free choice.
    Blessings, Cindy