Monday, April 11, 2011

Rob Bell's error about God and free will


Bell's new book has the goods to make it an important work for thinking Christians to consider, but it has an unacceptable position about how God, free will, and love are related.

0. Although there are many good things in Bell's book, I won't take time here to list those. But there is one particular issue on which I think the good Reverend is in error. Apparently, others are bewitched by his position too. First, let me review where this position is, and then show how it can go wrong. Last, I'll make a case for why he (and others of piety) should have a change of mind on the matter.

1. Here's a relevant quote which showcases the worrisome position at hand:
“God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end,” Bell argues, “even at the risk of relationship itself. If at any point God overrides, co-ops, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us the freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is” (103-104). Therefore, “love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us,” says Bell. “We can have all the hell we want” (113).
I think the key premise (KP) where he and others make a mistake is this one:

KP = If at any point God overrides, co-ops, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us the freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is.

2. Sentences of the type KP are called "conditionals." To show that a conditional is incorrect, one must show how the first part can be true while the second part is false.

2.1 Take this conditional, for example: "If an Okie is a preacher, then s/he drives a Mercedes." Part one is "An Okie is a preacher" And part two is "S/he drives a Mercedes." Now then--can I find an Okie who's a preacher, and who DOESN'T drive a Mercedes? Yes, I can. I are one. So's all the preachers I know around here; why, even the District Superintendent just drives a Buick! Thus, this particular conditional about Okies, preachers, and Mercedes can't be correct, since the first part could be true while the second part's false.

2.2. So now, could KP be shown incorrect just like the above Okie example? Yes, yes it can. Part one is, "God overrides [...] us the freedom to chose." And part two is "God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is." Now then, can I find a case where God overrides freedom, but where God HASN'T violated the fundamental essence of what love even is?" Yes, I can. Here's how:

3. Right now I'm about to grab one of two Reese's Peanut Cutter cups from the orange package in front of me. I could use my left hand, or my right. Happily, God is subtle and knows that even a falling sparrow can greatly affect future states of affairs. Stipulate outright that God co-ops, or hijacks my human heart, robbing me the freedom to eat a Reese with my left hand (forcing, thus, my right hand to do it). Furthermore, God did so with the foresight to greatly subvert, or even outright eliminate, the high-probability risk of a busload of kids plowing into my car five days hence, killing us all. In this case God has NOT "violated the fundamental essence of what love even is." Not for me--I'm glad God did it! Not for the kids, or their parents, or their friends--they're glad God did it! God's overriding my left-handed will shows he loves me, them, and all related parties. God's motive is loving; God's outcome is good. Indeed, all parties praise him for making this tiny, imperceptible over-ride on just one sub-component of my will.

4. In conclusion, then, KP is incorrect (first part can be true, while second part false.) That's why Bell and others that think along similar lines are in error about God when they claim, "If at any point God overrides, co-ops, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us the freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is." Indeed, one should ask God daily to override those little, throw-away sub-actions that one could care less about. Yes, I want to eat that Reese cup, oh Lord; hijack not that choice. Yet, whether by my left hand or right--not my will, but Thine alone.

O.

REFERENCES

[ * ] Rob Bell "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived" HarperOne (March 15, 2011)

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14 Comments:

At 3:29 PM, Anonymous popester said...

Very well put Dr B. I was slightly worried that you were picking on a straw man, but after rereading what bell said and the universal claim he makes, I can see your point and totally agree. It makes me wonder if Rev Bell had made a less stronger claim if it would be ok. However, I can see his hesitation. Suppose that one of these so called KP's you talked about involved the necessary death of one person. Say god smites one person or causes a specific set of things to happen where one person loses his life to later save the lives of millions (eg aborting Hitler). Why would god then do something so minor and save a bus full of kids by causing you to use another hand, and not abort hitler and save millions of jews? Would you have to appeal to "mystery?" God's ways are beyond our ways. This to me seems a very weak position (not to mention you example almost makes God seem utilitarian, and is utilitarianism loving, as is normally understood?). Thus you can see why Rev Bell would make such claims. If you claim God interferes you get all sort of little niggles. However, making the claim that god doesn't, you seem to escape them.

 
At 4:02 PM, Blogger Thomas Jay Oord said...

The key in your example comes when you ask us to "stipulate" God can "co-opt" your heart. If God can do this, God should be doing this in every instance we find genuine evil in the world. (Definition: genuine evil is any act, all things considered, that makes the world worse than it might have been.)

I don't know about Bell. But it seems to me that the kind of co-opting you mention involves a limitation of freedom through constraint of options whereby God would be culpable for failing to limit freedom by constraining options so that God could unilaterally prevent evil.

Always enjoy hashing out these issues with you!

Tom

 
At 4:20 PM, Blogger brelfielfan said...

what if god didn't hijack your human heart in the resees example but instead hijacked your left arm, rendering it physically incapable? He still hasn't touched your heart right?

 
At 11:51 PM, Anonymous Les Bennett said...

i agree that his argument has the flaw you outlined in it, but your example could still be interpreted to fit his argument.

"God [saved you and the kids from the deadly wreck] with the foresight to greatly subvert, or even outright eliminate, the high-probability risk of a busload of kids plowing into my car five days hence, killing us all. In this case God has NOT "violated the fundamental essence of what love even is." Not for me--I'm glad God did it! Not for the kids, or their parents, or their friends--they're glad God did it!"

What if by allowing the busload of kids to live led them to an even worse fate than the death they would probably meet in the wreck? would that not infer that killing them in that wreck was mercy? if they had gotten in the wreck, does that mean that God didnt love them since he could have saved them? just a thought that i was curious about.

 
At 12:10 AM, Blogger JJC said...

Are you saying you reached for the Reese's PB cup because God made you right-handed instead of left-handed and thus your natural inclination over-rides your desire to reach for the cup with either hand?

Or are you saying you reached for the Reese's PB cup because God over-rode your freeness in that moment?

Another way to ask this question is: when exactly, in this hypothetical did God override your freewill?

I'm not trying to be difficult - I just found that part hard to decipher.

Syn. Man.

 
At 9:34 AM, Blogger Kelly said...

Maybe Rob Bell should take your logic class?

 
At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can see how this question would relate to prayer, too... What if you prayed for safety for your family, and this is how God chose to keep them safe - by selecting the hand you ate your Peanut Butter cup with...

But here is the question I have for you. What if God does not choose to work through our decisions (our free will) but through circumstance or situation?

What if he sent a wind to blow a nail to the center of the road in order to blow out a tire and stop the death of your poor family?

Yeah, this sounds silly - only about as silly as the significance of which hand to eat your Peanut Butter cup with, though.

I think a person could argue that God does not manipulate free will just as easily as you could argue that there are some cases when it would be appropriate... but my question is, why would God choose to manipulate free will when there are thousands of other ways of doing it.

You are correct - it would *seem* to be loving, but *only* if there are no other options available that do not involve manipulating free will. I doubt there is ever such an occasion.

What do you think?

-NH

 
At 3:32 PM, Blogger Brint Montgomery said...

NH -

Thanks for the comments. I agree that once one allows that God will causally interact with the system, whether he does so directly, in terms of co-opting sub-components of our freewill; or, indirectly, in terms of causing some non-agent effect in the world, then by handedness or tire-blowout, it's the same issue. Namely, is God doing what's best when God acts at all? I tend to think yes. Also, whether by sub-component will-coopting, or by incidental activity, it's really probably an issue of efficiency for God.

Typically it's thought that God must do the morally best act. Are we also committed that God must do the most efficient act? I'm not so sure on that one, since God does not have energy requirements as do finite beings.

 
At 10:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would you agree, however, that God's love is based on the free will he has granted us, or that on the other hand, free will was given to us to demonstrate our love towards God?

 
At 11:14 AM, Blogger Brint Montgomery said...

Anonymous, that was an interesting question, so I wrote about it at length:

http://brintmontgomery.blogspot.com/2011/06/free-will-to-love-god-or-free-will-from.html

 
At 6:13 PM, Anonymous A- / B+ said...

There is only one problem. I do not know if I can see you as a preacher, Mercedes or not. Let me try... yep. Not happening.

Other than that, I sat through Open Theism and agree- free will, love, God acting in our best interest, blah blah blah. On to the next post related to this one.

 
At 1:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm having some trouble following this. Please connect the Reese's, eaten with whichever hand, with the busload of kids and subsequent outpouring of gratitude to a loving God. I missed that somewhere and no matter how hard I wrinkle my brow and grunt, I can't make the connection. TIA for the help.

 
At 2:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One other thing ... why assume that you will use your right hand to eat the Reese's? How are you being forced to do anything? God apparently has simply interjected himself, not into your decision-making process, but only into your execution process. So long as we are assuming things, can we not assume that you will recoil in horror at your inability to use your left hand (a not-unreasonable assumption), and in your state of discomfiture, forget all about the Reese's? And if you don't eat the Reese's with either hand, does that condemn the kids? And you, as well?

 
At 10:20 AM, Blogger Brint Montgomery said...

The point of the Reese example is merely to show that when we freely chose an action, we do not freely choose all the constituent events required to impliment that action. Another way to put it is this way: of the set of events that make up an action on our part--the position of the finger, the moving of the arm, etc.-- most are themselves irrelevant parts of achieving our goal. Yes, they are required, such as the event of moving fingers a certain way to pick-up the Reese; but, no, they are not relevant to what we plan to do when deciding.

Now, it's just at the point of these irrelevant events where God could act, on the one hand, and yet not overwhelm our freewill. on the other. Thus, God can accomplish subtle ends, and we can accomplish our freely chosen goals, and on an "able-to-do-otherwise" definition of freewill. But that's at odds with what Mr. Bell was claiming in his book. He doesn't think God can work cooperatively this way. Instead, Bell thinks God overriding freewill violates a fundamental human essence. Bah! That's a shallow understanding of any alleged God-human interaction, and why I find Bell's view of freewill is unconvincing silliness.

 

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