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“Free Will: The Answer That Is No Answer”

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

By Richard Allen – April 25, 2022

In the 1981 Comedy / Sci-Fi movie, “Time Bandits” – Sir Ralph Richardson plays God, or I should say, The Supreme Being.” As the story begins, a 10-year-old boy named Kevin discovers that there is a hole in time, that is a “time-portal” in his bedroom closet. He watches in amazement as men, horses and Dwarfs travel through his bedroom closet from one point in time to another. Kevin, still in his pajamas, gets caught up in the action and becomes a traveling companion to this group of Dwarfs – who, we learn, are Celestial Beings who work for the Supreme Being, God. As the plot unfolds, we learn that these Dwarfs have stolen a map showing where all of the “holes” (i.e. time portals) are. We follow them in a merry chase as they’re just one step ahead of the Supreme Being, traveling through historical events, including Ancient Greece, Robin Hood’s England and Napoleon’s France.

As this light hearted movie comes to a noisy climax, the Devil known only as “The Evil One,” gets obliterated by the Supreme Being during his dramatic entrance. It’s here that this comedy turns a bit philosophical. Young Kevin and the Supreme Being enter into a dialogue on the consequences of allowing Evil into creation, considering all the human suffering he caused through the ages:

Supreme Being:  I had to have some way of testing my handiwork. I think it turned out rather well.  Don't you ?  Evil turned out rather well.
Kevin: You mean you let all those people die, just to test your creation? 
Supreme Being:  Yes. You really are a clever boy.
Kevin: Why did they have to die? 
Supreme Being: You might as well say, "Why do we have to have evil?"
Kevin: Yes. Why do we have to have evil ?
Supreme Being:  Ah. . . . I think it's something to do with free will. 

What’s always amazed me since first seeing this movie in the early 1980’s – is the so-called answer that the Supreme Being provides: “I think it has something to do with ‘free will.’ ” I remember thinking then, as I do now, that the answer provided is not really an answer at all. And while there might be an allusion to the Book of Job and Job’s testing by the Evil One, the question Kevin asks in disbelief: “Why do we have to have evil?” The answer to Kevin’s question is an inadequate excuse at best. And to be more pointed, this answer is never really presented or explained anywhere in Scripture! Let me also say, that since the Enlightenment, this phrase has somehow become part our modern vernacular, and is often employed just like the mocking answer given by the Supreme Being in this comedic story.

To be completely honest, this debate over the “human will” is not new. Augustine fought, and won this debate with a heretical monk named Pelagius in the 5th Century. But for most of us who call ourselves Evangelicals, this debate has been front and center since the Reformation. In fact, German Reformer Martin Luther, wrote a book entitled: “The Bondage of the Will,” to set out the Biblical teaching about man’s fallen nature. At the time Luther dueled theologically with Erasmus of Rotterdam, a scholar respected by both Catholic and Protestant leaders of his day. Erasmus’ views were later codified by Dutch Reformer Jacobus Arminius, as he vehemently disagreed with the Reformed doctrines of Luther and especially, John Calvin. So serious was the debate, that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands wrote Five Articles into the Cannons of Dort to refute Arminius and his followers. This is but a brief history of the debate, but the question remains: “Why are we still arguing about this?” The answer to this question lies at the root of our fallen natures, and will help us gain better understanding of God – and the “so Great Salvation” we have in Christ!”

To make it simple, the debate really comes down to our definition of: “What does Man’s fallen condition really look like?” All Christians truly believe and confess mankind as totally fallen, that is dead in trespasses and sins, and unable to effect any change in our standing before a Holy God. But it’s here that our two camps divert. The Luther-Calvin camp believes that Man is so fallen that his “heart, soul, body, will and appetites” are totally corrupted and only capable of evil. The Erasmus-Arminius camp believes that “while men are dead in trespasses and sins,” they still somehow possess a free will that can and does choose to believe, love and receive a Holy God. Furthermore, they can and do desire to be saved from their sins. Here’s how Mary Fairchild at “Learn Religions” explains the differences:

“In summary, Calvinism centers on the supreme sovereignty of God, predestination, the total depravity of man, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.”

“Arminianism emphasizes conditional election based on God's foreknowledge, man's free will through prevenient grace to cooperate with God in salvation, Christ’s universal atonement, resistible grace, and salvation that can potentially be lost.”2

For those who study the Scriptures, they are well aware that arguments the Luther-Calvin camp make, are Biblical and attested all over the Old and New Testaments. But likewise, the main argument of the Pelagius-Arminius position – that Man has and exercises a Free Will, appears to be stated or implied in many Scriptures as well. It’s here that we need to be careful, as appearances can be deceptive. Let me state it clearly: It can be proven by both the Old and New Testaments that God holds Men and Women accountable for the Free Choices they make, but the doctrine of Free Will is a concept totally foreign to the Word of God. First, people should know there is no doctrinal explanation of Free Will in either Old or New Testament, or how these supposed rules bind God Himself as a pretense for Him to play fair. What is spoken of regularly in today’s vernacular, we would call Free Choice! And Scripture makes it clear that men and women not only make “Free Choices,” they are accountable for the choices they make. Let me offer you some definitions of both Free Choice and Free Will:

Free Choice is a choice that man makes where he is uncoerced or unconstrained from without. No one is forcing him to decide one way or another. His choice reflects his or her preferences, decisions or strategy.

Free Will is a doctrine that states man isn’t totally dead in trespasses and sins, and while suffering from the ravages of sin – somehow his volition (i.e. will) has been left unscathed, and is able to choose what is actually contrary to his fallen appetites, preferences and inclinations – that is, he’s free from any inward coercion!

I think it’s easy to see by these two definitions a drastically different outcome. And even more importantly, these definitions go to the heart of what Scripture clearly teaches about the human condition apart from God’s grace! If left to ourselves, there is “none righteous, none that understands, none that seeks God.” (Romans 3:9-11). The Erasmus-Arminius position has never been able to answer simple, basic questions about the Human Condition from Scripture:

  • If Man is blind to the things of God, and in fact hates God and the Light He dwells in . . . . . (Romans 3:9-19)

  • And if Man’s heart is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9)

  • And Man’s mind is at total variance toward God (Romans 8:3)

  • And if Man loves the darkness, loves falsehood, and (John 3:19)

  • And finally, Man’s Will cannot bring about a New Birth (John 1:13), ONLY GOD CAN!

If all of these verses (and many, many more) are TRUE, in what sense can it be taught that Men have Free Will? Meaning, a Will that still is capable of hearing, seeing, turning to and believing in a God who is revulsive to him? To be totally honest here, let me say that many of us on the Luther-Calvin side of the argument are often our own worst enemies. It’s not only important to make it clear what we are saying – BUT ALSO MAKE IT CLEAR WHAT WE ARE NOT SAYING! To preach the Biblical definition of our fallen nature (i.e. as stated above), but not make it clear that we are not saying that men do not, or cannot make Free Choices Unconstrained from Without, sounds crazy to rational Man. We are not programed robots, we’re thinking people. Of course people make choices and Scripture is filled with examples of men and women making choices, often suffering from the consequences of those bad choices.

But be aware, the Free Choices that fallen men and women make are Constrained by their fallen natures from Within. Our affections, will, blindness, hatred toward God and revulsion to His Word and Person is the Biblical definition of being “dead in trespasses and sins.” This is why we so desperately need God’s Spirit to “quicken us” in Regeneration (i.e. the New Birth) and change our hearts and nature within, allowing the Word to take root as the Spirit brings us to Saving Faith! Real Salvation is not cleaning up the outside of the cup, it’s changing the heart and nature within. It’s not about getting the customer to “make a decision” to buy – that is to “Close the Deal,” it’s about being Born Again from above and God’s Spirit changing our hearts and nature, making us desire spiritual things and hunger and thirst for Christ and His Righteousness! As my daughter Elizabeth reminded me recently, Scripture does make it clear that since the Fall, Men and Women are controlled by “Self-Wil,” that is controlled by The Flesh!

The reason Luther came down so hard on Erasmus’ view of Free Will was that Erasmus, like Pelagius before him, was saying that men and women were not TOTALLY DEAD IN TRESPASSES AND SINS! There was still some spark of goodness that would allow them to choose: A God they hate, the Light they shun, and Understand the Truth that is totally beyond the Flesh’s ability to grasp. Those on the Luther-Calvin side see Jesus standing (like He did with Lazarus), outside our Tomb. And with the quickening call of the Gospel, the Spirit gives us life and the ability to come forth and respond to the gospel call.

The Pelagius-Arminius preachers, using the Lazarus example, would have Jesus standing outside our tombs pleading with dead men: “If you will just get up out of your coffin, take off your grave clothes, look to me with dead eyes that lack any brain activity, hear my voice with decaying ears, and just believe – THEN I’LL MAKE YOU BORN AGAIN! They have the whole process reversed! Giving Life – which only God can do – has to come before we are able to Respond in Faith to the call of the Gospel! This also explains why the pop-theology of today has made the “New Birth” (Biblically called Regeneration) the Result of Faith from a dead Will that can’t possibly be believed! No wonder they use sales techniques, and want to “close the deal,” that is coerce the person to say: “OK, I guess I’ll let you save me . . . .”

How ironic that Jesus, trying to explain the New Birth to a bigoted Pharisee named Nicodemus, teaches exactly the opposite – that the New Birth is the work of the Spirit alone. Then consider what Jesus actually tells him: “You must be born again,” (John 3:3) – but He never tells him how – Because the New Birth is God the Spirit’s work:

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

This is the answer that actually is an answer : God the Spirit, using the good news of Jesus regenerating us, brings us to faith in Christ. We don’t need to use our “Free Will,” we need unmerited favor, that is Grace! Amen!

1 Read more:

2 Fairchild, Mary. "Calvinism Vs. Arminianism." Learn Religions, Aug. 31, 2021,

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