Unsurprisingly Dante, who wrote a whole trilogy on the final fate of souls was deeply interested in Free Will:
You men on earth attribute everything
to the spheres’ infuence alone, as if
with some predestined plan they moved all things
You are free subjects of a greater power
a nobler nature that creates your mind,
and over this the spheres have no control.Purgatorio XVI
But is it that simple? Does the fact that a “nobler nature” e.g. God, creates our mind free us or enslave us?
“You shall speak all that I command you; and Aaron your brother shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you; then I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring forth my hosts, my people the sons of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgement. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord . . . “RSV Exodus 7:1-5
One of the consequences of Divine Simplicity, the idea that the nature of God is utterly simple and indivisible (which is necessary so that God can have no creator), is that the Divine Will and the Divine Intellect are really one and the same thing. God knows things because he wills them, and he alone knows what he will will. Thus omnipotence and omniscience are one and the same thing, and all things, even human actions are caused by the Will of God. How then can humans have freedom?
Note that God prophesizes to Moses that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart and yet Exodus also says:
“But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go.”RSV Exodus 8: 32
During the initial plagues it says “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened” leaving it ambiguous as to who is doing the hardening. The chapters on the third and fourth plagues attribute the hardening of the heart to Pharaoh. The fifth plague is ambiguous: “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened.” Then around plague six we read:
“But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them; as the Lord had spoken to Moses.RSV Exodus 9: 12
Things can be caused by God’s active will or his permissive will or by God’s active will in light of some circumstance permitted by his permissive will. Indeed the Bible argues that all human suffering has its cause in the rebellion of our first parents – it was not in the divine nature to directly create an imperfect world.
So God creates Pharaoh with a mind and intellect and places in Pharaoh’s heart certain desires. These desires can be fulfilled by good actions or by bad ones. Indeed without desire we would never act. So that we act at all is attributed to the Will of God.
Whatsoever Pharaoh does, is in some sense caused by God because God is the cause of Pharaoh’s existence. However, God has created a world where sin and virtue are habit forming. The more we do what is right, the easier it is stay on the right path. The more we do what is wrong, the more likely we are to find in ourselves a hardened heart.
In this sense, God could be seen as “hardening Pharaoh’s heart.” Pharaoh is indeed making the choices with his own will, but the spiritual physics God has willed to exist are also at play.
Nonetheless, the saga of Exodus is sometimes used to discuss predestination. There are many competing theories of Predestination in Catholic circles. Some, following a theologian named Molinda, seem to separate the divine will and intellect. It is held that God foreknows what his creatures would in fact do in any possible circumstance (including circumstances of Grace). Thus, the only sense in which some are predestined or not is that of all possible sets of circumstances God made this one, with its foreknown (but not forecaused) choices when God could have made any other possible scenario. God can give two souls equal grace and foreknow that one will cooperate and be saved and the other damned. God may also foreknow that he could give more grace to the soul that will rebel, but for his own reasons choose to not give this additional grace. Again, Under the Molinist system two souls can receive equal grace and one be saved and the other damned. God does indeed give different graces to different souls but sometimes a soul is saved by a lesser grace and a soul is damned despite receiving extra grace.
It is argued though that this system seems to break the laws of causality. Under the above system, that a person chooses X or Y in a given circumstance (since we are considering grace as part of the circumstances) has to be completely separate from divine causality which would seem to make human choices uncaused causes. If the soul has the power to do either in a given set of circumstances why does it in fact do one and not the other?
There is another view that argues that a creature’s goodness, including the good to in fact make the right choice, is the result of the Love of God. Thomas Aquinas writes:
In us [humans] the will in loving does not cause good, but we are incited to love by the good which already exists; and therefore we choose someone to love, and so election in us precedes love. In God, however, it is the reverse. For His will, by which in loving He wishes good to someone, is the cause of that good possessed by some in preference to others. Thus it is clear that love precedes election in the order of reason, and election precedes predestination. Whence all the predestinate are objects of election and love.New Advent Summa Theologica Part 1 Question 23 Article 4
When we Love, we are acting in response to some goodness that is already there. When God loves, there is nothing, and God from his love creates all that is Good, and only permits what is lacking in that goodness.
God permits some shadows in this world because they help his creatures understand certain parts of his nature and allows for the growth of virtue. The difficulty in this system comes when we are dealing with moral choices of the highest caliber, the ones that separate the saints and the damned. Molinists argue that this system seems to set some up for failure.
Those who wish for predestination to be simply a way of stating God’s foreknowledge believe that their view can be squared with Aquinas. I doubt this.
The other camp, that opposes Molinda, who call themselves Thomists (some take objection to them taking Aquinas’ name as their own), argue that the fact that you have the power to do something, does not mean that you will in fact do it. Fire has the potential to cook, but it does not cook in all circumstances.
God gives to all persons the good of an intellect and will and these are under no coercion. But to some God acts in a permissive manner such that while having the power to do good, they in fact choose ill. To some God acts in such a manner that while they always retain the ability to do ill, they are moved by God’s grace to freely choose the better option. If all goodness is caused by the Love of God, that these people have not only the good of being able to choose but also the good of in fact choosing rightly is to be attributed to the Love of God.
Put another way, in the Thomist system there is grace attached to the divine will that it be effacious and grace attached to the divine permission that it may be resisted.
For the Thomist thinker that the sinner sins is attributed to God’s permission, but that the saint does what is right is attributed to the active Will of God. Both are considered free because each is aware of the other choice, has a nature compatible with the other choice and is under no coercion to not pick the other choice.
It is argued that different effects need different sorts of causes. A saintly act, being ordered towards God, needs God as the ultimate cause. A sinful act being ordered to earthly pleasures only needs an earthly cause and the divine permission. In this way we own our sins, but are indebted to God for our virtues.
If this is making your head spin, you are not alone.
Thomas’s writings and the Bible’s verses on free will can be maddening as we read both:
On the contrary, It is written (Sirach 15:14): “God made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his own counsel”; and the gloss adds: “That is of his free-will.”Summa Theologica New Advent Part 1 Question 83 Article 1
On the contrary, It is said (Wisdom 14:3): “But Thou, Father, governest all things by providence [Vulg. But ‘Thy providence, O Father, governeth it.’].”Summa Theologica New Advent Part 1 Question 22 Article 1
Even Dante when he asks the Saints in heaven about Predestination is admonished that some of these mysteries even escape the angels:
But that soul in the heaven which is most pure,
That seraph which his eye on God most fixes,
Could this demand of thine not satisfy;
Because so deeply sinks in the abyss
Of the eternal statute what thou askest,
From all created sight it is cut off.
And to the mortal world, when thou returnest,
This carry back, that it may not presume
Longer tow’rd such a goal [understanding predestination]to move its feet.
The mind, that shineth here, on earth doth smoke;Longfellow Translation Divine Comedy Paradiso XXI
From this observe how can it do below
That which it cannot though the heaven assume it?”
Holy Predestination Batman!
Clouded though our intellect may be, let us illustrate this further: I want you to imagine Batman is holding the Joker over the side of the Gotham City Bridge and is seriously considering letting go (Batman: The Man Who Laughs). It’s been a rough day for Bruce Wayne and finishing the Joker off is starting to seem like a swell idea.
Bruce Wayne’s nature is compatible with either choice. If he lets go he remains the kind of creature who could, in fact, have made the choice to keep the Joker alive. If he brings the Joker back in to safety, his nature is compatible with him changing his mind and throwing him back over again. But while doing the one, he cannot do the other and vice versa.
Under the Molinist system, God foreknows what Bruce Wayne will in fact do given the grace he has been given, and deigns not to increase or lessen that grace even if doing so will result in a different outcome. God is held only to foreknow what Bruce Wayne will do. And it would seem (though some would object to this) that we are forced to view God’s Knowledge and Will as separate things.
Under the Thomist system, God will either permit Bruce Wayne to give into his rage such that Bruce Wayne indeed freely makes the choice, but that choice could not have happened without the divine permission. Or God will give some Grace to Bruce Wayne such that he will freely choose the better option. His soul has the power to resist that Grace, but that Grace will be designed by God in such a way that the soul, while retaining the power to resist, will in fact not use that power. In this system God’s Knowledge and God’s Will are one and the same, this being the key difference between the two systems.
Admittedly, Batman liking to see himself as a self-made loner would probably hate both theories.
Interestingly in the comic batman says “I can’t. Damn it. I can’t.” in reference to leaving the Joker to his death. I.e. he feels something of his moral code in himself so strongly that he feels compelled to keep the Joker alive. The fact that this moral code is emblazoned in him, whether by grace, providence or circumstance, does not mean he is not free. Indeed by acting in accord with his deepest desires he is expressing his freedom even as it explains why one choice happened and not the other.
Would Another Way Be More Loving?
Regardless of which free will / predestination system you accept, a Christian believes that a person’s choices are the result of that person’s nature (his intellect, will, desires etc. etc.) and the operation of Grace.
If we could get a better choices by having God make a better nature, you aren’t really loving the original person. You are just creating a different person in their place.
So if Bruce Wayne chooses to let go of the Joker we could prevent this act by creating a different person under the Cowl, but that isn’t loving Bruce Wayne, that is creating someone other than Bruce Wayne in his place.
What about changing Grace? I would argue that changing grace commits more or less the same error but on a cosmic scale.
If we are made in the Image and Likeness of God, we can only be who we are if God is who He is. To change Grace, would be to change God, which would be to change ourselves.
We do what we will. We are what we are because of the Love of God. To wish it otherwise would be to wish ourselves out of existence.
We live in a sinful world. We can choose to say that because of that we will not believe in God. Or we can choose to trust that God is indeed working his plan in and through the sinfulness we see. That God exists and is compatible with the world in which we live is indeed somewhat frightening at first glance.
But there is something of beauty at being the result of the Love of God. Permission can be an act of Love. God who is Truth and the cause of truth, permits people to fall because in His mind that is what is authentically them, and God permits people to rise because that is what He sees to be authentically them.
We are the result of the Love of God, and that is perfectly fine with me.
The key to deal with any anxiety around predestination is to pray. Regularly, but not obsessive compulsively. God has obligated himself to answer prayers and if you ask God to be saved and then act on that prayer with gratitude, the grace to make the right choice will surely be yours, even if occasionally God deigns to let you learn by mistakes.
“Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.RSV Matthew 7:7-12
If you would like to read more, I would recommend Predestination by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P. It is a dense book, and overthinking freewill may not be healthy for a scrupulous soul. But if you are of an academic bent in the spiritual life, I highly recommend it.