Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

Each of our lives is shaped by multiple forces — the friends we choose, the parents we didn’t choose, and the socioeconomic class background that we had little or no control over. So can we say we are mainly the product of our background? It’s a question to us from an anonymous young man, a college student.

“Hello, Pastor John! I’m majoring in psychology right now. One of my professors is a ‘radical behaviorist,’ and I have recently taken a course in learning and behavior. In this course, my instructor teaches that, according to B.F. Skinner’s ideas, man is basically a product of his environment and his reinforcements. In other words, Skinner argued that we are mechanical and do not have free will because we only act according to our reinforcements. Is there objective information that refutes Skinner’s ideas from a biblical perspective? And is there evidence outside of the Bible that suggests we do have free will?”

We have to start with the definition of free will in terms of the behaviorists like Skinner, because the behaviorists, he’s saying, are the ones denying that we have it. So, we have to ask, What are they denying? We can’t just dump our definition in there and expect their statement to make any sense. We have to know what they mean.

Locked in the Natural World

So, what do they mean? What do Skinner or the behaviorists mean when they deny that we have free will? Well, they mean that human beings are unable, in their natural capacities, to choose contrary to the strongest natural influences on them. That’s what they mean — namely, the environment that Skinner referred to and the particular kinds of reinforcements that the environment gives up in the natural world.

This is so important to grasp: Since behaviorists are naturalists — that is, they don’t believe in the supernatural — they define free will without reference to the supernatural, without any reference to God, or the human soul, or the work of the Holy Spirit, or the blinding effects of sin and Satan. So, they operate totally within a box called the natural world. And when they deny the existence of free will inside that box, they have to define it in those natural terms. So, the free will they are defining doesn’t have anything to do, in their minds, with the supernatural; it’s simply naturalistic, mechanistic.

And what the term free will affirms in this naturalistic world is that human choices always have natural causes — not supernatural ones. And the strongest natural cause in the environment will decisively control our choices. So, human beings do not have this kind of free will; that is, they are not able, in their natural capacities, to choose contrary to the strongest natural influence.

Fast Bound in Sin

Now, if the person who wrote us this question is asking me to give evidence from inside the Bible or outside the Bible that such a free will does exist, I can’t do it, because it doesn’t. I agree with the behaviorist that human beings are not able, in their natural capacities, to choose contrary to their strongest natural influences.

Of course, the behaviorist and I agree about the nonexistence of this kind of naturalistic free will — or we do believe in this kind of naturalistic bondage — for very different reasons. He believes in it because he rejects the supernatural. I believe in it because the supernatural tells me that it exists; that is, human beings, apart from the supernatural, are in fact in bondage to their strongest natural impulses.

The Bible teaches that human beings are not able, in their natural capacities, to choose contrary to their strongest natural influences — not because there is no supernatural, but because sin and Satan work together to imprison man inside his love for this world in very naturalistic terms. That’s why Paul calls the unbeliever a “natural” man (1 Corinthians 2:14). He’s dead to spiritual perceptions that could set him free to be influenced by God’s truth and beauty.

So, if there is no supernatural reality — no God, no divine truth, no divine beauty, no divine saving action in this world — then the behaviorists are right. Man is a slave of the strongest natural influence in his environment. That’s what the Bible teaches the natural man is in bondage to. If the behaviorist is to be shown to be wrong, he has to be shown wrong not just about the human will, but about God and about the deeper reality of human nature when that nature is born again by the Spirit of God.

Everybody Knows

I’m taking the question now in that direction: Is there evidence outside the Bible that God exists and that human beings have a residue in their very souls of God’s imprint on them?

And the answer is Yes. And the answer is given in Romans 1:18–21 and 32. Paul says, “What can be known about God is plain to them [all humans], because God has shown it to them” (Romans 1:19). And here’s what he means: he doesn’t mean in the Bible; he means in nature.

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God . . . (Romans 1:20–21)

Wow, what a powerful statement. All human beings know God.

. . . although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21)

So, Paul believes that God is not dependent on the Bible to show that he exists or that he is powerful or that he is worthy of thanks and honor. Behaviorists are responsible to know these things. The fact that they rule them out is because they are, as Paul says in Romans 1:18, suppressing the truth. They are guilty for this. And then in verse 32 Paul completes a long list of sins and says this:

Though they [all humanity] know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:32)

Wow, everybody knows. In other words, not only are the truth and beauty of God written in the natural world for all to see and be responsible to, but the truth and beauty of God’s will — his moral will — are written on the human heart. And people really know that many immoral acts are wrong, but they suppress that knowledge in order to justify their own behavior.

More Than Meets the Eye

So, the answer to the question is that if there is only a natural world, the behaviorists are right about the nonexistence of free will, understood as the natural capacity to choose contrary to the strongest natural influence. To prove them wrong, one needs to show them that they are already wrong about God and man: there’s more than the natural world.

Then they would have to pose the question of free will in a different way. They would have to ask what human freedom means if God ultimately governs all things, including the human will. But that will have to wait for another episode of Ask Pastor John. I will only leave a tantalizing clue.

My definition of the highest, most lasting human freedom — namely, Christian freedom — is the capacity of the human will to be swayed by truth so that choices are made that glorify God and leave no regret in a thousand years. And that capacity is only granted when we are set free by the Holy Spirit in new birth.