I may have blogged about this idea before, but repetition never hurt anybody… At first glance, it seems that if people have free will, then God must not have a plan after all. In other words, you can believe that people choose to do bad things, or you can believe that God willed that they do bad things, but you can’t believe both.
And yet, the Bible seems to indicate that both propositions are true. For the former, it makes little sense for God and the prophets to tell people to repent and turn away from their sinful ways, if you don’t think they have free will.
On the other hand, you have passages like this (Ex 9: 8-12):
8 So the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take for yourselves handfuls of ashes from a furnace, and let Moses scatter it toward the heavens in the sight of Pharaoh. 9 And it will become fine dust in all the land of Egypt, and it will cause boils that break out in sores on man and beast throughout all the land of Egypt.” 10 Then they took ashes from the furnace and stood before Pharaoh, and Moses scattered them toward heaven. And they caused boils that break out in sores on man and beast. 11 And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils were on the magicians and on all the Egyptians. 12 But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh; and he did not heed them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses.
In case the context isn’t clear, Moses and Aaron are demanding that Pharaoh release the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt. You would think God would want Pharaoh to do the right thing. Yet sometimes (as the passage above makes clear) we are told that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart; we’re not told that this Pharaoh was just a mean guy.
An atheist can of course just chalk it up to another contradiction in the Bible and move on. But I don’t think it’s a contradiction, and in fact I think anyone who has ever written fiction can understand why.
Suppose I ask you if Professor Moriarty has free will. Your answer will be yes. In contrast, if somebody had been drugged or hypnotized into attacking Sherlock Holmes, then we might say, “That guy wasn’t committing a crime; he was under someone else’s control.”
Those are perfectly sensible things to say, even though Arthur Conan Doyle ultimately planned out everything that Moriarty does. We can say, “Well, within the world of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Moriarty has free will.” Right, just as within our world we have free will. The really interesting thing about God’s story–history–is that the Author is Himself one of the characters in the story and communicates with other characters. (As smart as Holmes was, if you were living in one of those stories, and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in a pamphlet containing a message, wouldn’t you heed Doyle’s remarks even more than Holmes’?)
Again, this won’t really resonate with people who have never written fiction, but if you create characters and “get to know them” as the story develops, there really is a sense in which they take on a life of their own. If you have thought out the details beforehand, then you know what “has to happen,” but you also can’t “force” it by making characters do things that are, well, out of character–at least if you want to write good fiction.
When it comes to God’s story, He has invented the most interesting characters ever. And He painstakingly develops the backstory for each one of them, even minor characters that don’t seem to be that important for the major themes. Finally, God’s story is incredibly realistic, obeying an internal consistency that is so astonishing that many of the characters think there is no evidence of an Author.