Discussion with Roger Olson about free will, choices, love, and God’s character

dr roger olson

I recently had the pleasure of interacting with the famed Dr. Roger Olson, a leading expert in historical theology, who is also well known for being an intellectual Arminian, and a popular critic of Calvinism. He was kind enough to respond to some of my comments on his blog. Below is a roundup of the discussion. Dr. Olson’s points are in blue, my responses in black. This post is a bit longer than usual, my apologies. At one point Dr. Olson quit replying (and I believe deleted my last post unless it was some computer glitch that did so), nonetheless I’m sure that has more to do with a lack of time, rather than lack of a response. While this is a topic of great interest, it will not directly lead to your salvation, and it is not presented this way. For the most part, the whole point of this discussion is not to attack or ridicule anyone, only to show that many of the accusations against Calvinism can indeed be applied towards Armininism, thus making it unfair that one side demonize the other.

The original question: Do we have free will in heaven?

It all started with Dr. Olson’s article critiquing John Piper for his views of God’s sovereignty. Olson stated that “I will not say Piper is not a Christian; I will only say that his view is worse, far, far worse, than open theism.” Eventually the discussion centered on a question someone asked by someone else on Dr. Olson’s blog:  “Will there be genuine free will in heaven for those who die in Christ, Dr. Olson? Just curious. If so, can a person in heaven who has genuine free will apart from God be cast out of heaven for hardening their heart?”

Dr. Roger Olson answered with appeal to the fact that in the eternal state believers will be perfected: “I believe the only answer to this is in the doctrine of deification.” It was clarified that in heaven sinners will be perfect and will not have the temptation to sin. They will be like God, and God is limited to doing only good, not sin, yet has a free will. Therefore, it was implied, there is no problem in Heaven for glorified saints to never choose evil and still have a free will.

My response: The inconsistency of anti-Calvinists.

That is a good answer though I find it a bit inconsistent. When it comes to discussing free will on the earth, it is defined by us having a subset of good and bad choices. When it comes to discussing free will in a glorified state, it now becomes allowable to discuss free will as having a subset of only good choices.

Coming from my obvious Calvinistic (but not hostile) position, it seems a bit… unfair to quickly make that switch. Being that I (along with almost all other Calvinists) am compatibilist, I find no conflict between “free will” and “only having good options.” Yet in most discussions with those who deem Calvinism atrocious beyond satanism, I am always confronted with a majority consensus that all people ‘must’ have the real option for good and bad in order to be considered truly free. The general idea is that it would be horrendous for God to not give people the option of choosing good and bad. And, most say, this must be a continuous choice, that love must be “freely given” consistently on a daily basis, otherwise it is not love, it is something wicked obtained by coercion. This is a common argument to demonize the idea that God changes a persons will.

So what I think I am seeing is that some Arminians, and more so, Semi-Pelagians are quite fond of criticizing Calvinism by saying “you guys believe that people are ‘unable’ to choose good vs evil, therefore you automatically believe God is forceful and coerces people. (Often pleasantly put as “God is then not a gentleman he is a rapist”). It is common to say any affirmation of a state wherein persons cannot switch from evil to good, or good to evil, is a form of divine compulsion. Yet when the state of glorified believers is brought up, and showcases humans in the exact state, albeit in Heaven and after already making a free will choice, it is considered quite loving of God to permit humans to never choose good or evil again. This is “explained away” or permitted because of deification/glorification. My main point here is that it is unfair to consider anyone who is pre-deification and cannot choose sin/good to be a “brainless robot” and then post-deification to consider that choice-less person normal and having free will.

The point here is not that God has the “free’est will” and yet is limited to choices that are not sinful, I completely agree, and Calvinists often point to that. The point is Arminians pounce on Calvinists who would use such a statement about God to state that having the ability of choosing good and bad are not necessary in order to freely make choices.

To again clarify it one more time, in the simplest of possible ways. It appears to me Calvinists have no problem with this (we call it compatibilism, the determinism and free will are compatible). Calvinists agree that people, by virtue of their nature and desires, are limited in choices BOTH on the earth and in heaven. Arminians and others, it seems, get very upset about the idea of having limited choices on the earth, but switch sides and consider it very normal if the person is glorified in Heaven. They only add a this work glorification or deification, and assume it explains the free will issue away. It is their ‘inconsistency’ that I am pointing out, not the fact that I genuinely think “Heaven is not free if we only have the option of good.” Indeed my Calvinistic view is perfectly compatible with deification removing my choice to sin, after all that is Calvinism, that God removes my ability to reject Him on the earth. Deification is literally the same thing, however, it only happens in Heaven, and it is the completion of that which began on the earth. That is, after all, what my idea of Irresistible Grace is, that God does a process within me which is the start to removing my choices to sin.

My suggestion in all this is that you take the logic of deification, which I agree with, and apply it to Calvinism. If the act of God’s power eternally limits glorified humans from ever choosing to stop loving God, and this is NOT the removal of a will, nor the making of one “a robot.” Then why should the act of election, which is the same process of limiting my choices to react positively to Gods call, cause you to be so angry and consider that it makes God one who forces people to be “robots?”

Dr. Olson’s response: First they choose, then they lose choices

You forget that Arminians believe those glorified in heaven (deified) will have freely chosen to be transformed by God. In Calvinists’ view, from the very beginning of their relationship with God, persons were denied the opportunity to accept or reject God’s grace. They were taken over and changed without their consent. Let’s think of an analogy. Suppose I’ve been married for ten years and love my spouse deeply. My love for him or her was free from the beginning in that it was not a condition imposed but a relationship embraced (when I could have done otherwise). Then someone comes to me and says “You know, many people waver in their love for their spouse. If you want it, I can give you a pill that will cause you never to waver in that love. It will solidify it forever.” There is a huge difference between my accepting that pill AFTER having entered freely into love with my spouse and being given that pill by someone without my consent BEFORE I even met my spouse (i.e., a pill that would cause me to fall in love with him or her and stay in love forever). The latter pill would make me a robot and my love for my spouse a farce. The former would not.

My response: So one can love without having a choice?

Dr. Olson, thank you for the response, I appreciate you engaging a regular Joe.

That is a valid point and did anticipate it. However, I don’t think it is an adequate answer to all of the questions I posed, let me explain. Primarily it would redefine the characterization of choice and love commonly used within the discourse of Arminianism. That definition being, love must always be freely chosen between two separate options, “to love or not to love,” otherwise it’s not love but a condition imposed. Once we have established that it is acceptable to take a person, remove their “power of contrary choice” and still consider them to have a real relationship with actual “love,” the only difference we deal with is who imposed such a state upon the person on whom it was imposed.

You make the explanation that it is indeed you who freely chose to impose such a condition on yourself. However, humans often make conflicting choices or change their choices. Such is the nature of having freedom, no? Tattoos are a great example of this. What someone chooses, freely, during their twenties is often very expensive to get rid of later. Why even with marriages, at least fifty percent end up in divorce. People often freely make different choices at different times. Indeed, if an organization existed that offered married woman a potion to give to their newly married husbands that obliterated the husbands will, many people would cry afoul. It would be said that such a potion demolished the man’s free will to love the woman. To truly love a person, according to the common definition, often used in the Arminianism/Calvinism discussions, love must be daily chosen, not imposed by any means.

It brings up some intriguing questions towards your underlying philosophy. If you chose to love your wife today, and in forty years would have freely rejected her, but the potion prevented you from doing that and kept your love, is it real love or a free choice? As a Calvinist, I would say absolutely, the potion saved you from stupid choices that your fallen nature would have made. I would say this is what irresistible Grace indeed it. As an Arminian, who elevates man’s choice in his destiny over Gods choice (God being an external agent) for that man, what would your answer be? It feels as if the potion (also an external agent) has altered your choice. You really would have chosen something else, but that potion compelled you otherwise.

My point here being that such an explanation as you provided, only further brings us together. We can both agree that it is indeed possible to have a real love, and a real relationship, without the power of contrary choice to exit that relationship. In the Arminian case, the human does make the first free choice giving away all his/her choices. Whether it is potion or deification, this removes our current state of free will, but keeps love and relationship intact. So someone in this choice-less state is still capable of being in an eternal relationship, not as a robot, but having real agency and real love. From the Calvinist standpoint (which I’m sure you are familiar with) this would only change in the fact God makes this choice for us, but, very importantly, we believe He does this with our best intention at hand. We freely chose to be rebels against God to such a degree we would not want to make this choice to love God. And instead of a prevenient Grace that offers the human some number of choices, our prevenient Grace so illuminates the human mind, that we abruptly fall in love with God, not under compulsion, but because we are finally able to see His beauty, it is a natural response. It’s as if we all put on rose colored glasses (sin) and when God takes them off we naturally fall in love with other colors. Willingly not out of coercion or compulsion. I fell in love with my wife but don’t consider it a free will choice, for the moment I saw her I had no choice but to love her. I couldn’t think of anything but her and didn’t, to my knowledge, have a tangible power of contrary choice, it was merely a theoretical idea. To clarify the semantics, for Calvinists, this act was not a condition imposed, but a magnificent beauty unveiled that caused a natural ripple effect within us.

Again, I would submit to you, we both believe it is indeed possible to truly love and have a true relationship without having the power to freely choose a contrary choice. There may be an asterisk differentiating the two views, but only on the origin of this state.

The other, and even bigger issue often glossed over is the state of those in hell. I personally believe that those in such a state are hardened to the point of falling into a downward spiral” of hate and rebellion that CS Lewis mentions. To put it this way, that the “doors of hell are locked from the inside.” That is because in Adam all freely chose sin and became rebels. In hell they continue hating God, because they have rejected him since earth and are dead in sin, it would take an act of God to resurrect them in order for them to “unlock the doors.”

From the Arminian perspective, however, there are unanswered questions. If the power of contrary choice plays such a dominant role in Arminian theology and it is taken away in hell we have a condition similar to… Calvinism:
1. Has prevenient Grace been taken away in hell? If yes then men are totally depraved again and those being given over to judgement have no desire to choose an alternative exactly like in Calvinism. (You would reply “aha but they freely chose sin at one time, to which most Calvinists would say “All sinners are not under compulsion and freely choose, why we all state that Adam and Eve also had libertarian free will as everyone’s representatives, doing exactly what we would do. The first sin was a free will choice.”)
2. How is it fair that people are eternally punished without being able to unchoose it? Would hell not quicken someone to believe in God? Yet while on the earth we insist that fairness dictates an alternative, in hell there is no alternative. It seems as if this exposes a double standard.
3. Arminians often (rightly) seek to create some level of fairness, but what about situations where one lived until he was 18, rejected Grace and is now eternally damned, while another had 80 years, and only choose to accept Grace at 79. Perhaps the first would have chosen it later as well, and now in hell would definitely choose it, yet he has no option? He could say “God I would have gotten to heaven if I had more time to wise up.”

Sorry for the long ramble.

Dr. Olson’s response: “Interesting questions… but can you answer mine?”

I apologize for not being able to respond in detail–that is, to each point. Time constrains. But one thing disturbs me. Repeatedly my Calvinist critics bring up the issue of “fairness” as if I brought it up first. I avoid it. When and where have I ever claimed that God must be “fair” I always raise the issue of God’s love because Scripture does. You (and others) put words in my mouth when you claim that “fairness” is the issue. It is not. It is God’s love. I have said this so often and so loudly here and elsewhere that I am dismayed that Calvinists keep raising it as if I raised it. I haven’t. Also, about heaven, you overlook the fact that in heaven there will be no temptation. Even if we do have power of contrary choice there, there will be no opportunity to exercise it for evil. Now, you raise interesting questions. But can you answer mine? In what sense is God good, loving, if he predestines people to hell. (And here I mean predestination in the Calvinist sense of unconditional selection–even if only by “passing over them.”) Election is unconditional. Why doesn’t God elect everyone? The only answers I ever get are 1) “for his pleasure” (which only deepens the problem of God’s goodness and love), and 2) because hell is necessary for the demonstration of his justice (which undermines the power of the cross).

My response: Those are loaded questions with too many presuppositions

Dr. Olson, again thanks for even reading this, I understand you are a very busy person. If I may be so bold, I would suggest that you allow for a few false dichotomies. Either one freely chooses, or is coerced (not allowing for compatibilism which is a middle road). Also, either God loves everyone equally or else He is completely unloving (not allowing for God’s special love towards His Bride to define Him as loving.) If you take away the false dichotomies our beliefs are even closer. My main point here is NOT that Calvinism is “better” but that all of these same criticisms you often bring up, can be applied to Arminianism. The only difference is they are a bit more subtle, yet they are there.

Regarding the fairness issue, I apologize, it is so often touted by many, I may have glossed over the fact that you don’t use it. Though to put it into perspective Calvinists believe God is fair in judging sinners for their sins, because they sinned out of a free desire, not out of compulsion. Sinners are not sinners because it was imposed on them, but they personally imposed sinful nature onto themselves. That is a point we both start with. Calvinist’s who say God ordained the fall, also say it happened of libertarian free will. (Perhaps in the same sense as if I put teenage boy into a room (garden) with a playboy magazine (tree) and told him to stay away (don’t eat the fruit), what I really did was ordained him to freely look on the magazine, yet he really did choose it completely of his free will.) Perhaps you may argue this is not free will, or this is not the meaning of ordain, but from a majority (infra) Calvinist perspective this adequately describes what we believe, not the logical conclusions some might try to extrapolate about us.

QUESTION 1: “In what sense is God good, loving, if he predestines people to hell?”

Well, you too, by affirming to certain statements would agree that “God predestines people to hell.” In Arminian theology God predestines to create a hell. (How is that loving?) In Arminian theology God predestines to choose those that freely accept Him AND God also predestines send to hell those that do not. (How is that loving?) In Arminian theology God knowingly (omniscience) creates persons who He knows will end up in hell of their free will, but He didn’t have to (omnipotence) create them. (How is that loving?) In Arminian theology God could forcibly drag someone to heaven, but predestines to allow that person to make the stupidest mistake, which God does not permit them to “unmake”, for which they burn for eternity (How is that loving? I would rather force my child into their room screaming and kicking, rather than let them fall into a pit where they would burn for eternity. ) So you see, one could equally accuse Arminianism, as well as all of Christianity, of showing a God who is unloving, if one really wants to.

From the Calvinist perspective I would say God is fair to those whom He punishes, for freely choosing rebellion against Him. God is then loving to those whom He chooses to take punishment for. At the judgment He is fair to the goats, and loving to the sheep. In the OT (Ex 34:6-7 for example) we see the Bible often call God loving (to His elect Israel). Yet He also commands the Israelites to slaughter those peoples who freely chose to become His enemies. If the Bible can call such a God loving, One who only works with Israel, ignoring the Egyptians and Philistines, even commanding their punishment, why can you not? If I love my family and give everything for them, then shoot a brutal murderer who attempts to kill them, am I not loving? Do I have to equally love the murderer to be truly loving?

QUESTION 2” “Why doesn’t God elect everyone?

First off, lets agree that we both have a mystery when we talk about the “why.” From your side the mysterious reason is within the human mind (or soul or etc). From my side the mysterious reason is within the mind of God. We both appeal to mystery. Yet, I would argue humans are finite and far less mysterious. Psychology has studied the mind of man for a short time and claims to know much, theology has studied the mind of God for much longer, and still knows far less. It’s easier to understand human motives rather than God’s. These two mysteries are what present us problems, though it is “by logical conclusion” not by something either party teaches.

On the Calvinist side, one could look at God and claim that He is not good or loving because He did not save everyone, even though He could have. Or that his choice was arbitrary if not based on something within us. I think there are simple answers. First, must God really save every single rebel to be good? He is the measurement of goodness and morality, it is part of His nature and defined by Him, not by what we impose upon Him. Second, must He love everyone in the same way to be loving? I don’t think so, much in the same way a husband doesn’t have to love all women in the same way as his “bride” (I accept that Biblical syllogism as very intentional). Third because God’s choice is not made based on anything that within us, does not make it arbitrary? No, that presupposes full knowledge of God’s motives. God is mysterious and beyond our comprehension, why could He not have chosen to save some from their sinful choices for a good reason within Himself that we simply can’t fathom (yet)?

On the Arminian side, logically, one could look from Heaven to those in hell and still say “there was something better within me than in them. When both of us were given the same choice, I chose well, they did not. If all of us received the EXACT same grace, why did I choose better… except that I am better.” While I agree when given an analogy of depositing a check, it does seem to illustrate that “not rejecting” Grace is not a work. Yet it conveniently ignores the comparison of a rebel sinner with a saint and the reason for ones goodwill response vs the others rejection of Grace. What if everyone received free money checks? And some cashed them, while others didn’t, half could boast “the reason I have money is because I wasn’t a lazy bum like you and actually cashed my check!” When comparing all people, and their final fate, one cannot avoid this situation wherein one can say “Sure, it was Grace, but we all got that, the reason it worked on me and not you is because you responded worse and I did better.” Saying that the reason one chose to accept and another reject Grace is a mystery only serves to obscure this point. In the end there is no way to really get around it, some will be able to say “’I’ didn’t reject Grace, but ’you’ were not as smart/wise/good as I was, by some mystery, and ‘you’ didn’t do as well as I, for you rejected Grace.”

Here Dr Olson brought up two common Calvinist answers to the question of ”why does God elect some and not everyone?” He also briefly suggests the reasons they always fail. The first is “for his pleasure” (which only deepens the problem of God’s goodness and love) and “because hell is necessary for the demonstration of his justice” (which undermines the power of the cross). Some comments on the two common answers:

1) “for his pleasure” (which only deepens the problem of God’s goodness and love)

Must God save everyone in order to be good? Then by that definition we ought to be universalists, surely it’s a “greater good” to save people from hell kicking and screaming rather than to preserve the “good of their free will” by casting them, irrevocably, irreversibly, irretrievably into a hell He created and predestined to accept sinners? Must God love everyone in the exact same way to be loving? How can, in Arminianism, the God who personally, equally, intimately, loves Joe the Atheist and cast him into hell, without at least spending eternity trying to get Joe to choose to leave hell every day? If God must love Joe in the same exact way as Apostle Paul, in order to be loving, why not care more about Joe’s eternal torture than preserving Joe’s free will? Why not come visibly with a Damascus type light from Heaven to convert Joe, surely that would at least get Joe’s atheism out of the way? In any sense, I would say the idea that some are chosen to be liberated from their inner evil, and others are passed over and allowed to make their own wicked choices can indeed serve “for Gods glory.” He receives glory for being fair and just in judging some for their bad choice to sin, and saves others from their bad choices to sin. To some He gives the unfairness of love, to others He gives the fairness of justice.

2) because hell is necessary for the demonstration of his justice (which undermines the power of the cross)

I think this issue genuinely applies to Arminians as well. First, God could have not created a hell to demonstrate His justice, but in Arminian theology God predestined to make a hell. He also predestined that sinners would be put there, not only satan. No matter how hard we try, we cannot avoid this fact. Second, God could have, conceivably, applied full atonement on every person (and Arminians often say He did). God could have paid for every single persons, every single sin, including their unbelief and their rejection of his prevenient Grace. God could have set up the following situation: multitudes appear before the throne of God for judgment. God tells all who fully and finally rejected Him in life that He fully and finally atoned for their sins, including that very unbelief, and even their act of rejecting Christ and rejecting Grace. They have no sin on them for full justice was already paid, they have been completely purified. They are completely free to enter heaven for their sins are atoned. Only those want to freely abandon their gifted righteousness, and of free will, walk to hell and jump in are free to do so. This would have proved your point, hell is not necessary to demonstrate justice and God loves every single person in exactly the same atoning way. There is nothing at all, from theology or philosophy to suggest this idea would have been impossible. If I can imagine such a scenario, surely God can as well, no? Yet in Scripture we see a very different idea. God doesn’t do something like that, instead He judges and casts wicked rebels into hell (for those same sins which Arminians say were fully atoned). Either case, in Arminianism, the same exact issues of hell and an unequal love of God are there. God could avoid hell with any number of scenarios (if I can think of that, surely He could have as well) but He intentionally didn’t.



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