Author Greg Koukl
Published on 06/17/2024

Can Choosing God Be a Matter of Free Will if He’s Threatening Us with Hell?

Greg and Amy respond to the accusation that choosing God isn’t really a matter of free will if we’re being threatened with Hell if we don’t choose him.


Question: How can one call it free will when the results for not choosing to believe in God are Hell? “Yeah. Free will. But if you don’t believe in me, you will be punished for eternity.” Why can’t I choose not to have free will, then? It’s like setting up a challenge for my kids I know most will fail with eternal consequences.

Greg: Well, first of all, you can’t choose not to have free will. That makes no sense. It’s contradictory. Choice entails a measure of freedom. Secondly, this is confusing freedom with consequences. In other words, what the question presumes is, it’s not really free for me unless there are no consequences.

Look, you can choose to eat poorly, and then you get fat. “Oh, that wasn’t my free choice because I never wanted to get fat.” Well, wait a minute. You made choices that led to this consequence, and you knew they would lead to this consequence. It is no less free because the consequence is one you don’t like, and if you don’t like being fat, then you say, “Okay, in order to be skinny, I can’t do what I want. I have to what choose other things.” Yes. That’s right. You’re exercising your will in a different direction to have a different consequence.

So, this has nothing to do with freedom. It has to do with consequence, and there are all kinds of consequences to our free choice. Now, if you want to exercise your freedom to give a negative consequence, okay, there you go. Then you live with that. Or you can exercise your freedom to have a positive consequence. But what the demand seems to be is, “I want to exercise my freedom in such a way that there is no negative consequence to any choice that I make, or else I’m going to complain that it’s not really free.” Sorry. You’re not going to get out that way. It still is free. It is your choice. You’re making the choice, and there are consequences to the choices you make. And, by the way, that’s life. That’s not just eternal life. It’s all of life.

If a person is aware that they have options, and they choose one option rather than the other, regardless of the consequences, then their choice is free. It’s not determined. It may be influenced by the consequences. You may have a reason for choosing one thing over another, but just because you have the reason—avoiding the consequences, for example–doesn’t mean your choice isn’t free. A reason is that in virtue of which a person chooses. Choosing for reasons is not an example of determinism. By the way, I got that from William Lane Craig. We have reasons. The reason we choose freely might be to avoid a negative consequence. That doesn’t mean the choice isn’t free. We have a reason—in virtue of which we choose—that doesn’t determine the choice. It influences why we choose what we choose.

Amy: I think one problem that might be happening here is he doesn’t understand the nature of what Hell is or what this choice is or why people go to Hell. Because we all understand the concept of, let’s say, a jail in our society. You are supposed to do XYZ. If you don’t do XYZ, and you do something else, you go to jail. We understand that. We don’t say, “Well, that’s crazy. Now, people don’t have free will, because you’re telling them not to murder, and they’re going to put them in jail if they murder.” Well that sounds so odd to us, because we understand that’s how things work. So, I think what might be happening here is that this person who’s making this objection doesn’t understand the nature of Hell, and what Hell is there to do is to punish evil. If you do something wrong, you will be punished for it because you have done something morally wrong.

Now, how does choosing Jesus come into this? Well, if you are joined to Jesus, he will take your punishment, and you will be forgiven. So, it’s not simply that, “Well, either you follow me, or I’m going to put you in Hell.” It’s, “Hey. You are going to Hell because you have done all of these wrong things. But there’s chance for a pardon if you have faith in me—if you have faith in Christ and you have all of your sins forgiven.” So, if someone brings this up, I think what you have to do is explain the nature of what’s going on so that they don’t think it’s just, “Hey. You can choose me or Hell, and so therefore I’m going to force you to choose me.”

Greg: That’s such a good point. I do think there’s a lot of confusion there. So, I went to the philosophical side. You went to the theological side. And the theological side is actually the more important one here because, the fact is, we are law breakers, and when you see it from this perspective, what God is offering is something wonderful that is a pardon for the crimes we have all committed. It’s the criminal saying to the governor, “Oh, this is not fair. If I don’t take your pardon, I’m going to jail. Well, what a jerk.” But that’s really what it amounts to.

The issue here is justice, and God has made a rescue for us from the penalty of our own rebellion against him. Then, people turn their nose up to it, and they say, “Well, that’s not really freedom.” Nevertheless, when all is said and done, it doesn’t change reality. Someone may still think, “Oh, well, that’s not really free because if I don’t accept his pardon, then I’m going to be punished for my crime.” That’s nonsense. Well, okay. Fine. You’re welcome to that. Guess what? You’re still going to be punished for your crimes, and you’re foolish if you don’t take advantage of the pardon that is free that is being offered you.

Amy: And being punished for your crimes is not an arbitrary thing. We’re actually talking about justice. We’re actually talking about the right thing that should happen if you’ve committed moral crimes, which we all have. So, if you can explain this is a matter of justice—it’s not just this arbitrary, hey, do this or this, either choose me or have punishment—no, it’s, first of all, don’t do evil, because if you do evil, you will be punished. And guess what? You have done evil, and now you need a pardon. So, I think so much of this just comes back to people not understanding what we are talking about, and that’s, kind of, on us because I think, as Christians, we haven’t done the best job of explaining what our position is. So, if you can just help them understand the basics of what’s going on here in terms of justice and mercy, this might go a long way with someone who has this objection.

Greg: I agree with you, Amy, that we need to do a better job, but sometimes even when we do a really good job, our view gets mischaracterized. This is like a straw man. You probably remember the atheist, Doug, who called me on the show, and we did an hour together, and we’ve had other conversations, of course. To him, it’s just carrots and sticks. That’s it. You do what I say, you get a carrot. You don’t do what I say, you get a stick. That’s the threat of Hell without any willingness to engage the substance of the issue. To me, it’s irresponsible—in terms of rational thinking—to disparage Christianity in that way when you don’t have to look far to know that the program is quite a bit different than carrots and sticks—though, you know, that doesn’t make Christianity true. What it does show, though, is the way it’s characterized oftentimes is just unfair, even when Christians are clear, as you just were about the justice issue.

Amy: I’m just going to throw one more thing out there because when it comes to whether you do this or be punished, yes, that’s a matter of justice, but this isn’t just about justice. This is also about what we were created to do and where we will thrive, and that is with God. So, it’s not only that it’s a matter of justice if you go to Hell if you don’t get a pardon. It’s also the fact that God is calling us—God is sending the gospel out into the world—because it is better to be with God. That’s who we were created to be with. We were created to be in relationship with God. By giving people the gospel and warning people against Hell, he’s also pointing to where the joy is.

Parents do this with their children. They’ll tell them to do what’s right, and they’ll make a case for what’s right, and they’ll say, “But if you do what’s wrong, you will be punished.” There are two sides of that. There’s the reward for doing what’s right, and there’s the justice for doing what’s wrong. So, again, this is something, I think, that gets lost, especially with people who see this as merely carrots and sticks. What gets lost is the idea that it is actually a joy to be with God. There’s actually reward just in being with God. He is the reward. He’s who we were created to be with. So, I don’t want to lose sight of that, either, and when you talk about people making it into a straw man, there’s so many parts of this that they miss. So, hopefully we can help people understand that a little better.