This was originally one of my responses to some comments on another article, but I thought it was worth modifying and expounding upon to make it’s own page, as it’s buried in an incredibly long discussion.
Here are eight biblical narratives that challenged my notions of free will. For more on that, and the original article that sparked this response, read Cake or Death: How I became a Calvinist.
1. Abimelek takes Sarah as his wife, but doesn’t sleep with her.
But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.” Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Genesis 20:3-6
This isn’t the first time Sarah had been taken as a wife. Apparently Sarah was extremely attractive, and before this story, Pharaoh had taken her as a wife. Even before both these stories happened, Abraham was well aware of Sarah’s beauty:
As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” Genesis 12:11-13
The idea of powerful men just taking brides isn’t unique. This was even common in European history up until the Renaissance.
Abraham was no dunce, and he knew powerful men would want to take Sarah from him, even before he set out on his journeys. Sarah is a woman the Pharaoh of Egypt had already taken 8 chapters earlier. And now, here is Sarah again being taken by the king of the Philistines.
And guess what? Abimelek doesn’t sleep with her.1 This is a woman who is likely the most attractive woman he’s ever seen (given her resume), more than any of his other wives. And in the ancient near east, sleeping with a woman was how you made a marriage official.
So why didn’t Abimelek sleep with Sarah?
“I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her.”
But what about his free will?
2. Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman, who is later killed, and he gets revenge.
His father and mother replied, “Isn’t there an acceptable woman among your relatives or among all our people? Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?” But Samson said to his father, “Get her for me. She’s the right one for me.” (His parents did not know that this was from the LORD, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel.) Judges 14:3-4
Let’s pretend God couldn’t make Samson fall in love with a Philistine woman directly because that’s against the “rules” that somebody made up, and God always follows rules random people make up.
So let’s say instead that God is like Cupid, just putting sexy Philistine girls in front of you until you fall in love with one of them. Is that really giving you free agency? Is that really a choice, if God himself is interfering with your free agency at every turn because he wants a certain outcome?
Exactly what was “from the Lord?”
“‘Get her for me. She’s the right one for me.’ (His parents did not know that this was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines…)”
What was the outcome God wanted?
A confrontation with the Philistines. And that’s exactly what happens when Philistine men kill his wife. Samson goes on a Philistines killing spree.
What about Samson’s free will?
3. God kills Eli’s Sons
So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; the report I hear spreading among the LORD’s people is not good. If one person sins against another, God may mediate for the offender; but if anyone sins against the LORD, who will intercede for them?” His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the LORD’s will to put them to death. 1 Samuel 2:23-25
So what were Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas doing exactly?
They had been taking the best portions of the temple sacrifices for themselves, and having sexual relations with the women who worked in the temple.
Why didn’t they listen to their father Eli’s rebuke?
“His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death.”2
What about their free will?
4. David Numbers Israel
Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.” 2 Sam 24:1
What’s interesting about this story is that this isn’t even a “bad guy” per say. This is King David, the darling of the bible. The writer of the Psalms.
What happens is David get’s the idea to number the people of Israel. He’s been conquering all his foes, he’s never lost a battle, and now he’s taking glory in himself and taking stock of his troops. Before he can even number the people, Joab, the commander of his army, tries to tell him that it’s a bad idea. David’s word prevails and the army is numbered.
But where did David get the idea to do this?
When God said to David, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.” What part of David’s body did God say it to? Did he say it to his finger? Or since he “incited” David, maybe it was this like the movie Inception, where God literally put the idea in David’s head?
Cause, you know, God isn’t allowed to do that according to some people. Yet, here He is doing that…
To incite means to “inspire” or to “encourage”. Seriously…check the dictionary.
Fortunately, this story is told twice in scripture. Let’s hear the other version.
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel. 1 Chronicles 21:1
Oh, this is a curveball. The other verse said God did it, but this verse says Satan did. So who did it? Are God and Satan the same person? Or was Satan acting on God’s orders?
If this was the only story in scripture where this exact thing happened, we might have a contradiction. But it’s not the only story. Satan was acting on God’s orders.
What was the end result of David’s actions here?
God sent an angel to kill 70,000 Israelites (Sounds a lot like the Sampson story except God was looking for a way to punish the Israelites instead of the Philistines).
The next two stories peel back the curtain to see how God uses Satan like a pawn to accomplish his sovereign will.
What about David’s free will?
— Let’s take a break —
If you’re going through stuff right now, this might be a good place to stop. Seriously. It will mess with your head.
This is the point in the Matrix where Morpheus asks Neo to take the blue pill or the red pill. If you keep reading, it’s the red pill.
There seems to be a mandatory emotional break upon the realization that you don’t actually have free will. Not everyone handles it very well. Even those of us who eventually become Calvinists, need to be placed under supervision.
Again, sometimes you have to be in a good place to even be able to think about these things. I don’t know what’s going on in your life, so here’s a blue pill instead.
— Seriously, take the blue pill —
Here’s a golden pill…
5. God sends a “spirit” on a mission to go tell a lie.
“Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left.” And the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’ “One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the LORD and said, ‘I will entice him.’ “‘By what means?’ the LORD asked. “‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said. “‘You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the LORD. ‘Go and do it.’ 1 Kings 22:19
This sounds like some sort of meeting in heaven. Interesting. We’re going to see this again in the next example.
So who’s idea was it to kill Ahab?
“And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?'”
Ok, it looks like it was God’s idea.
So who’s going to carry it out?
“I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of Heaven standing around him on his right and on his left.”
Ok someone among this multitude will do the deed.
So these multitudes of heaven, are they angels, or dead people, or “other” spirits too?
Well we can’t come to that conclusion yet. The next example will deal with that. But we know that this “spirit” wants to be a “deceiving spirit” on Earth, and God says yes.
“‘You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the Lord, ‘Go and do it’.”
Satan or God?
So it looks like we’ve answered whether it was God’s idea or Satan’s idea in example 4. Here we have God with an idea, and Him asking spirits to go carry it out on the earth. And this isn’t some bunny rabbits and rainbows idea. This is a “get a guy killed” idea.
So when that story about David numbering Israel is told twice, it’s not a contradiction. It’s giving you a little peek behind the curtain.
Here we have an exact repeat of the “David numbers Israel” story. God has sovereign reasons for wanting to punish a person or a nation, so he sends a spirit on a mission to make it happen.
For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Hebrews 10:31
Now you know the writer of Hebrews wasn’t kidding. David himself said this when he was judged for his sin of numbering the people:
“Go and say to David, ‘Thus says the LORD, Three things I offer you. Choose one of them, that I may do it to you.’” So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, “Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.” Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” 2 Samuel 24:12-14
If you’re familiar with the Torah, “plague” was something God specifically sent when he wanted to kill the Israelites in large numbers. Fortunately David knew what Moses knew: God is merciful.
6. God gives Satan permission to hurt Job and his family
“One day the angels came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them. The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.” Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” Job 1:6-8
Again we have some sort of annual shareholder’s meeting in Heaven, and this time Satan himself is invited… it’s either that or he knows the secret knock to get past the bouncer.
Satan answers God’s question.
“Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.” But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the LORD. One day…[long list of bad stuff happens to Job]… yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” Job 1:10-20
Why did God give Satan permission to kill Job’s kids? God himself said Job was a righteous man, a blameless man, who shuns evil.
Does that make you angry? If so, does you being angry about it make the story false and bring Job’s kids back?
Can we just tear the book of Job out of the bible, to make ourselves more comfortable?
So who brought up Job, Satan or God?
“Have you considered my servant Job?”
Ok, God did.
We have some reason to believe that Satan didn’t even know who Job was, until God introduced him into the conversation. After all, Satan is not omniscient. This is the second behind the curtain view of Heaven we’ve been given, and at each of these meetings God is controlling the agenda.
Who gave the authorization?
“The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
Ok, God did.
It’s important to note that God specifically protects Job’s person from harm in this instance, saying it’s off limits.
Satan goes to task, and after losing all of his material possessions, and his children. God then confronts Satan again in yet another heavenly meeting.
On another day the angels came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him. Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.” “Skin for skin!” Satan replied. “A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.” Job 2:1-5
Here we see God saying that Satan incited him against Job without any reason. That’s a very peculiar thing to say, given how the story has gone.
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” Romans 9:19
Again, we have a meeting in heaven, and again there is Satan. It’s starting to seem that Satan didn’t just sneak in. He’s actually invited to these meetings.
Remember the multitudes of Heaven back from example 5?
Ya, those “spirits” aren’t all good spirits. We’ve already proven that Satan himself is among them.
Remember the story of David numbering Israel from example 4?
Satan’s involvement doesn’t seem so out of place anymore, does it?
Again, who gives the authorization?
“The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.'”
Here we see God now authorizing Satan to do what he forbade the last time, an actual attack on Job’s physical body. But again we see a restriction by Job’s life being made off limits.
The “touch his stuff and his family, don’t touch his body” and then the “touch his body, don’t kill him” is actually a very important addition. It completely goes against Prosperity Gospel theology, which says that if you do all the right things, God is going to make you rich and healthy. In fact, they have a special explanation for Job, stating that everything that happened to him was actually his fault, that Job sinned by “being afraid.”
Prosperity gospel types believe:
(1) Job allowed Satan into his hedge of protection by being “afraid” of disaster befalling him. (Job 1:5; 3:25 and Romans 14:23 being their proof texts)
(2) That Satan was watching Job (even before God said anything), just looking for a way to get in there and hurt him. (1 Peter 5:8)
A reading of the story shows that God himself placed and lifted restrictions on how far Satan could go. The first time God said, “Don’t touch his body”, the second time God said, “Ok, touch his body.” Job committed no sins worthy of lifting this protection, as God himself says, yet he lifts it.
“There is no one on Earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”
God said that Job had not sinned in any way, despite losing his children and all his stuff, so it makes no sense for Satan to then be able to find some “sin loophole” to attack Job’s body.3
The story is as it reads, this is God’s sovereign will. Job did not sin.
Eventually, Job proves himself, and God gives Job more material possessions than he lost, and Job has more children to replace his dead ones.
Still, would you be ok with God killing your kids to make a point, even if he promised to give you new children?
I wouldn’t be ok with that.
But the sovereignty of God brings up a very hard idea to accept: your kids don’t belong to you. Your wife doesn’t belong to you. Your husband doesn’t belong to you. Life isn’t what you think it is. Death isn’t either.
We all belong to God.
“Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:21)4
8. Peter denies Jesus.
Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same. Matthew 26:31-35
If you’ve ever tried to predict someone’s actions, you’d be wise to conceal your intentions. Because if they get the slightest wind that you’re trying to “read them” they’ll flip the script on you, for no other reason than to make you look foolish.
People don’t like to be predictable. Being predictable opens yourself up to scrutiny about repetitive patterns in your life that you may be ashamed about. Patterns that you might be in denial about.
That’s why this story about Peter is so interesting, if you believe the bible. Because Jesus tells him to his face what his future is going to be, and he can’t change it.
Peter’s reaction is normal. “Jesus, I have free will, and I will not disown you. Not even you, the son of God can override that. I choose not to betray you. In fact, I will die with you if I have to. I’m a man of integrity and when I’m tested, I will not be found wanting! I walked on water with you. I’ll go to the grave with you.”
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.”
(In the John 18 version of the story, this is the relative of the man whose ear Peter cut off, who says he saw him in the garden of Gethsemane with Jesus. So the “your accent betrays you” means he heard Peter’s voice not that long ago when they came to arrest Jesus.)
Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. Matthew 26:69-74
The other question this raises is that if God says you’re going to do something, can you not do it? Can Jesus have a failed prophecy? I’d venture to say that most Christians agree that God can’t lie, and can’t be wrong.
So then, why would God use his infallibility against his creation in matters so serious as Peter denying Jesus…and Judas betraying Jesus?
What about his free will?
I often refer to Calvinism (or determinism) as a “consequence of reality.” It’s not as if God was up there scheming, “How can I take away their choice and make these people my robots?”
To think that is to misunderstand omnipotence. The traditional understanding of omnipotence is a logical contradiction. God can’t do anything he wants. He can’t contradict himself. He can’t change his mind. In fact, he can’t change at all.
For I am the Lord, I change not Malachi 3:6
He can’t lie.5
He can’t create a rock to big for him to carry.
He can’t retire.
“Oh man, I’ve been God forever. I’m tired now. Here, you take over.”
Because he’s God. He’s not a man. He’s not an alien. He’s not a really smart AI. He’s not a wizard. If he could lie, or create a rock too big for him to carry, or stop being, he wouldn’t be God. He’d be Clark Kent.
There are things God can’t do, simply as a consequence of him being God. Not because of any motive on his part. Does God have a motive for being unable to contradict himself? Or is that just the state in which he exists?
Anyways, those are some of the bible stories which changed my mind about free will, slowly – very slowly – over the years.
Neither did Pharaoh.↩
For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. ↩
The doctrine that if you sin, even a little bit, you open the door to attack from Satan, is a false doctrine. It creates a ton of scared little Christians always looking over their shoulder for the Devil. Always explaining any bad thing that happens in their lives as the result of some hidden sin. The truth is that sin has consequences, yes. But as a child of God you’re covered by the blood of Jesus that forgives your sins. God may discipline you because you’re his child, but Satan will never have any modicum of authority over you or access into your life. “You are not your own, you were bought with a price.” You sinning does not grant Satan access.↩
There was a song we used to sing in high school chapel called Blessed be the Name of the Lord. During my Charismatic Prosperity Gospel days, I’d keep silent during the “He gives and takes away” part, because Kenneth Copeland told me that Job spoke wrongly of God when he said that. After reading through the whole story, I’ve come to disagree with Kenneth Copeland.↩