One good question to ask an atheist is if they believe they have a “free will.” This question will present a response that will assist you in the direction of the conversation in one of two directions.
It will present either the answer in the affirmative, which means that you are dealing with someone who is more of an agnostic. The response to the negative is indicative that your skeptical conversant is more along the lines of embracing a scientism.
That being said, atheists who reject the idea that they have a free will are what as known as eliminative materialists. Eliminative materialism is the view which denies the existence of mental entities. Seeking an ideal scientistic mindset, they argue that an ideal scientific account of the world would contain no reference to material entities such as “beliefs” or “sensations.” So all that is present, they argue, are the chemical reactions to stimuli around us, which provide no freedom to respond. We are in essence, “moist robots.”
What I would like to address in this posting is an answer to this question of whether or not we have a “free will.” Some in a particular theological sway might contend, as the materialist, that we do not have a free will. But what I am referring to here is the idea that a loving God made us as free creatures being able to choose or reject, act or not act, love or not love freely, without being a “cosmic chess piece.”
In other words, it is the God who made us that gives us the opportunity to make choices freely that genuinely affect our destiny. In fact, the world’s current sinful state is directly related to free choice that were made by the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. They exercised as much freedom to reject God’s commands as much as you and I freely chose what we had for meals today. God created man in His own image. Man is not a “cosmic chess piece” being moved around by some puppeteering God, but a free creature which is a reflection of His loving nature.
What Free Will Does Not Mean
When we speak of free will, it does not mean that man can do whatever he wants. What we choose to do is in keeping with our nature. We may choose to walk across a bridge or not walk across it. W cannot choose to fly over it because our nature prohibits us from having the ability to fly.
In the name way, man cannot choose to make himself righteous (right before God). The reason is because his nature is fallen and as a result, we are not able to cancel our guilt (Romans 3:23). So in essence a free will is very limiting when it comes to limiting our nature.
Living in a world full of evil this limited free will does not dismiss us from being accountable to something or Somebody. For Christians, the Bible is clear that we are not only have the ability to choose, we also have the ability to make wise choices.
To give you an example of this, God chose in the Old Testament a nation of people, Israel. Those within the nation of Israel bore a responsibility, even an obligation to choose to be obedient to God. Those who were outside of the nation of Israel were freely able to choose to believe and follow God as well. We see two women in the Old Testament that did so in Rahab and Ruth.
Over in the New Testament, sinners are commanded over and over again to (freely) “repent” and (freely) “believe”(Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Acts 3:19; 1 John 3:23). Every call to repentance is a call to freely choose. The command to believe assumes that the hearer can freely make the choice to obey the command. Of course this is not without the wooing of the Holy Spirit persuading the person to freely make that choice.
Jesus identified the problem of some unbelievers when He told them, “You (freely) refuse to come to Me to have life” (John 5:40). Clearly, they could have come if they wanted to; their problem was they freely chose not to. “A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7), and those who are outside of salvation are “without excuse” (Romans 1:20-21).
Eliminative materialists, aka scientistic anti-theists, believe that there is no such thing as free will. That does not change the fact that they freely make the choice to say what they say, write what they write, or even pick what they choose to eat for meals during the day. Nevertheless, they are still without excuse before the God they do not believe in.
How can man, limited by his misuse of his God given freedom to carry out the sinful nature, ever freely choose what is good? It is only through the grace and power of God that free will truly becomes “free” (John 8:32, 36) in the sense of being able to choose salvation (John 15:16). It is the Holy Spirit who works in and through a person’s will to regenerate that person (John 1:12-13) and give him/her a new nature “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). Salvation is God’s work. At the same time, our motives, desires, and actions are freely voluntary, and we are rightly held responsible for them, whether they are good or bad.