This was originally part of this question However, it's really a separate line of logic (and therefore a different question, imo). If others prefer, I can remerge this into the original.

God is omniscient. He truly, literally knows everything. God knows whether or not I will sin. God can (and does) direct certain people to prevent them from choosing one way or another.

Exodus 4:21 (NIV)

The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.

Clearly, this is an instance where God stepped in and prevent Pharaoh from making the decision.

Since he controls decisions and knows what decisions I will make, do I truly have free will? Or do I only have free will in the inconsequential things (which isn't really free will, after all)?

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    Knowing the outcome of an event does not mean you control the outcome of an event. It is easy to know who won the world series in 1994 (answer: nobody--there was a strike). But me knowing this does not mean I caused the outcome. Omniscience alone has nothing to do with free will. I think the question you're asking is more about omnipotence.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Sep 7, 2011 at 1:25
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    @Flimzy I clarified the title. It's even more specific than omnipotence, but the fact that he's been recorded to manipulate. Thanks for that catch! You were right about that.
    – Richard
    Commented Sep 7, 2011 at 1:39
  • It really depends on what you mean by "controls" and "free will"... "Control" can mean He is the cause in every instance, or it can mean that He has the ability to control the outcome in some way. "Free will" can be used to refer to a complete freedom to choose, but can also be used to refer to an independent faculty possessed by each person (or believer) which influences choices, along with circumstances, God's intervention, etc. The answer is "yes" in one set of definitions and "no" in another.
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 20:57

13 Answers 13


From a purely practical standpoint, ie removing all theological considerations for a moment, we have free will. I can decide to get up and have a glass of water right now. I can flex and relax the muscles in my fingers to make a fist or open my hand. Perceptually I am controlling my body, my thoughts, and making decisions. When I interact with other people, I perceive an ability to formulate my responses independently of their interaction with me.

Whether I have complete free will, limited free will, or all my actions are predetermined, I cannot perceive anything beyond this immediate moment, and I cannot perceive active outside interference with my free will, and therefore the only logical way to act is as if I have free will. The many verses in Scripture instructing us to behave, choose, and think certain ways seems to back this up - for example:

Jos 24:15 NIV But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."

Pro 1:10 NIV My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them.

And yes, I am aware of other passages which support predestination and would seem to contra-indicate free will. My only point is regardless of the flow of time and causality from God's perspective, we don't have this eternal or future perspective available to us and must practice making the best choices assuming that we do have free will.

  • Great answer. Dt. 29:29 says, "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law." We should be careful not to spend too much energy "putting ourselves in God's shoes".
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 20:47
  • From man's perspective, we have free will to choose good or evil. But taken to its logical conclusion, it would suggest that man can thwart God's will. For example, if man is fully free to choose good or evil, Pilate could have chosen to let Jesus go. However, Acts 4:27-28 indicate that Pilate did exactly what God had predetermined He would. Did Pilate have free will? No doubt his decision was "free" from his perspective, but it was foreordained by God. Thus, in the end, my conclusion is that God is sovereign over our choices, but we are held accountable for them.
    – Matt Davis
    Commented Aug 19, 2013 at 13:54
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    What I hear when I read this is "Your question is pointless. It feels like we have free will, so go choose the right thing!" I agree with this, so +1. Although it really doesn't answer the question. ;)
    – Richard
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 17:00
  • @Richard, +1 for "it doesn't answer the question".
    – Pacerier
    Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 19:29
  • I am not saying the question is pointless. If I thought it was pointless I wouldn't have spent time formulating an answer. My fear is that many people get hung up in an endless debate over it, and there is no definitive way to prove or answer the question, or the debate would have ended centuries ago. I can present good arguments for both sides. That is why I skewed out of trying to definitively answer it and present a practical perspective that might solve the deadlock for some people.
    – Bork Blatt
    Commented Jul 29, 2014 at 10:23

As each plague struck, Pharaoh was more than willing to let the Israelites to relieve the plague. But as each curse was lifted, his pride took hold and his heart was hardened out of stubbornness, not because of God deactivating his free moral agency.

God knew the type of man Pharaoh was, and what his reaction to the plagues (and the lifting of each plague) would be. Pharaoh's heart was hardened because of his reaction to God's signs and wonders (i.e. "God hardened Pharaoh's heart").

Here are a few quotes from the Exodus story that illustrate why Pharaoh's heart was hardened.

Exodus 8:15 (KJV) But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said.

Exodus 8:31-32 (KJV) And the LORD did according to the word of Moses; and he removed the swarms of flies from Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people; there remained not one. And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go.

Exodus 9:6-7 (KJV) And the LORD did that thing on the morrow, and all the cattle of Egypt died: but of the cattle of the children of Israel died not one. And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not one of the cattle of the Israelites dead. And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go.

  • So if God knew the type of man Pharaoh was, the Pharaoh had no opportunity to change his mind - it was determined. => no free will. Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 13:46
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    @user I believe God simply foreknew what Pharaoh would do when presented with "the truth". To me, saying that the presentation of "truth" to Pharaoh removed Pharaoh's free will is a bit of a stretch. Pharaoh always had free will, God just knew in advance what his choice would be, and used that knowledge to show His power.
    – Bob Black
    Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 19:54
  • If God knew it before, and can't be wrong, which free choice did the Pharaoh have? He only could do, what God already knew - nothing else, no choice. Maybe the Pharaoh thought he had a choice. A foreseeable future excludes all alternatives. Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 21:33
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    @user My understanding of God's foreknowledge doesn't include God meddling with our choice. He's simply looking ahead through time (from eternity) and observing our actions in advance. This is a complex topic - you might consider turning your thoughts into a new question to make it easier for others to contribute.
    – Bob Black
    Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 22:52
  • Did I talk about meddling? No. I already tried to explain it elsewhere with the Mississippi. I know in advance, that the water will reach the sea in future. And the river has no free choice. But I'm not meddling with the water. Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 23:08

A simple answer given by the Orthodox seems to be that God foreknows, but that simply means he knows what we are going to choose before we choose it. This does not mean that he makes the choices.

As an example of this approach we have a few quotes:

St. Methodius of Olympus ca.260-martyred 311 a.d.

Now those who decide that man is not possessed of free-will, and affirm that he is governed by the unavoidable necessities of fate . . . are guilty of impiety toward God Himself, making Him out to be the cause and author of human evils.

St. Maximus ca. 580-662 a.d.

After quite some time, three men of high rank, Theodosius, Bishop of Caesarea in Bithynia, and the patricians Paul and Theodosius, were sent by Constans and Patriarch Peter to win over the saint. They were joined by the Bishop of Bizye, and alternately flattered and threatened Maximus, testing his faith and posing various questions. They began by introducing themselves, then requested Maximus to sit down. Bishop Theodosius asked, "How are you faring, my lord Abba Maximus?"

"Exactly as God knew I would before the ages," replied the saint. "He foreordained the circumstances of my life, which is guarded by providence."

"How can that be?" objected Theodosius. "Did God foreknow and actually foreordain our deeds from eternity?"

The saint said, "He foreknew our thoughts, words, and deeds, which nevertheless remain within our power to control; and He foreordained what befalls us. The latter is not subject to our control, but to the divine will."

"Explain more exactly what is in our power, and what is not," requested Bishop Theodosius.

"My lord, you know all this," answered Saint Maximus. "You only ask to try your servant."

The Bishop admitted, "Truly, I do not know. I wish to understand what we can control and what we cannot, and how God foresaw one and foreordained the other."

The venerable Maximus explained, "We do not directly control whether blessings will be showered upon us or chastisements will befall us, but our good and evil deeds most certainly depend on our will. It is not ours to choose whether we are in health or sickness, but we make determinations likely to lead to one or the other. Similarly, we cannot simply decide that we shall attain the kingdom of heaven or be plunged into the fire of Gehenna, but we can will to keep the commandments or transgress them."

(The Life of Our Holy Monastic Father Maximus the Confessor and Martyr)

St. John Damascene ca. 676-749 a.d.

We ought to understand that while God knows all things beforehand, yet He does not predetermine all things. For He knows beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that there should be wickedness nor does He choose to compel virtue. So that predetermination is the work of the divine command based on fore-knowledge. But on the other hand God predetermines those things which are not within our power in accordance with His prescience. For already God in His prescience has prejudged all things in accordance with His goodness and justice.

Bear in mind, too, that virtue is a gift from God implanted in our nature, and that He Himself is the source and cause of all good, and without His co-operation and help we cannot will or do any good thing, But we have it in our power either to abide in virtue and follow God, Who calls us into ways of virtue, or to stray from paths of virtue, which is to dwell in wickedness, and to follow the devil who summons but cannot compel us. For wickedness is nothing else than the withdrawal of goodness, just as darkness is nothing else than the withdrawal of light While then we abide in the natural state we abide in virtue, but when we deviate from the natural state, that is from virtue, we come into an unnatural state and dwell in wickedness.

(Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book II, Chap XXX)

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    I'm torn on this. The St. Maximus quote/story answers the question well and completely. However, your summary up top doesn't agree with what Maximus us saying. It seems to be competing ideas.
    – Richard
    Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 19:29
  • 1
    He dictates all the circumstances that are not controlled by our wills. I think they're in agreement. As for his final comment, it may suggest a Calvinistinc interpretation, but that would be wrong. It is God's choice to save, and he chooses to save all. Not all respond to this salvation; but being given it was not in any soul's power to cause to happen.
    – user304
    Commented Oct 1, 2011 at 21:49
  • @RiverC, How does Maximus' quote reconcile with Exodus 4:21 "but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go"? When Maximus state "it's not ours to choose whether we are in health or sickness", does it mean that it's not pharaoh's to choose whether he will or will not let the people go? If it's not pharaoh's choice to make a choice, then it would seem that for at least some choices, we do not have freewill. Is this analysis correct?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 19:52
  • "This does not mean that he makes the choices." Not in action but in design. He designed human nature and mechanism that makes the choices. He decided all of the parameters and attributes of human nature, including all things that influence decisions, a-priori, without any human input. If I design a racist AI, link it to a robot arm attached to a machine gun that subsequently guns down Jews, then I'm responsible for ALL actions of that AI, regardless if I also give the AI some moral center, while simultaneously designing it to be weak and susceptible to racist ideas and negative influences.
    – user6552
    Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 18:44

God being omniscient typically is understood to mean that God knows the future, and so He knows what people will do and any choice we make is therefore, in some fashion, "predetermined". I think this is more a misunderstanding of what it means when we say that God is all-knowing.

It is true to say that God is omniscient (Psalms 147:4-5). However, we also are given free will, and God gave us the ability to make choices. These don't necessarily contradict. Firstly, we understand that God exists outside time (as we know that God is eternal and created the universe, and therefore created time). That means He doesn't operate on our timeline. You may think of this in light that the fabric of the universe itself is composed of spacetime, and space and time are intertwined--you cannot have one without the other. God, existing outside of that, is not confined to the bounds of time.

You can look at our timeline as if it was a path on a map. There is a clear starting point and path leading up to where we are right now (our history), but the future is less certain. There are clear paths on which we may take, and God can see all the possible choices and outcomes at the same time. He also knows our hearts, so He knows what path we may be inclined to take at the moment, but He doesn't necessarily know our ultimate choice. This is what is meant by God being all-knowing. He doesn't know what our future will be, but He knows all possibilities of what it may be, which includes the path we will ultimately choose to take.

In regards to Pharaoh, that is a tricky passage but God isn't affecting his free will. Pharaoh chose to refuse them from leaving, but because Pharaoh had sinned against God, God removed his protection from him. This is similar to what is stated in the New Testament, when it is said that when we sin, we are no longer under the auspices of God's protection. God is said to have hardened Pharaoh's heart, just as our hearts become hardened when we sin (Romans 1:28). He did not make Pharaoh sin.

This ultimately was to God's plan, though, as God works all things to good.. Through the signs that God performed through Moses, the Jewish people came to believe and it formed much of the foundation for the Jewish faith for years to come there and after (the Passover, of the 10th sign, and Moses' handing down of God's Law to the people of Israel). In some ways it foreshadowed Christ's coming, as well (Jesus being the sacrificial lamb, as stated by St. Augustine in 435).

You would remember that Pharaoh eventually decided to let them leave. That shows that Pharaoh still had his free will. And later he eventually gave pursuit. But the term "God hardened his heart" is more a statement on what happens when we sin, instead of a description of God bypassing our free will. God is allowing us to harden our hearts, but it is not a direct action.

  • 2
    +1 Nicely put. But, if God is outside of time, can't he see the future as well as the past? Our life would seem a "line of choices" to Him. He would know both the beginning and the end (alpha and omega). If that's the case, then he knows before we're even born the outcome of our lives. Therefore, he would be able to manipulate every aspect of it so that our choices are not our own. I suspect that I'm wrong, but where am I confused in this?
    – Richard
    Commented Aug 31, 2011 at 19:37
  • @Richard There isn't a clear future ahead of us. Our choices are our own. But, God can see the outcome of any and all choices we could make. Commented Aug 31, 2011 at 19:44
  • @Richard I would argue that the passage you linked (Jeremiah 1:5), while it says that God knows us, and that is weighty, it doesn't necessarily mean that He knows the full outcome of our lives. "Knowing", in this case, actually more refers to God giving us life/existence. (newadvent.org/cathen/08673a.htm) Commented Aug 31, 2011 at 23:06
  • <obsolete comments removed> Thanks for updating the post with references.
    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 10:28
  • (-1) for "He doesn't know what our future will be, but He knows all possibilities of what it may be" -- this is not backed by Scripture at all.
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 20:50

Think of it this way. You are thinking that God's will is some kind of fate, and it may be or may be not. But just because God knows what you are going to do, it does not mean that God controls you.

There is a difference in being omniscient and being able to control your actions. God does not interfere with our will unless it is necessary. Why? Because He wanted to give us free will.

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    Could you support this idea with some scripture?
    – wax eagle
    Commented Aug 31, 2011 at 19:42
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    This is hiding behind a finger. When is my next action decided and by whom? If God knows before me my next action, then choice is an illusion.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 14:13
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    There is a difference in knowing and controling. Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 14:35
  • Being able to control your action, and doing so, are two different things. You can stop a child from touching a hot oven, or you can let it happen. Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 14:34
  • Acts 4:27-28 indicate that not only did God know what Pilate and Herod would do, their decisions were foreordained. Genesis 50:20 indicates that while Joseph's brothers intended evil by selling him into slavery, God intended the very same action for good. Was Pilate free in his choice? Were Joseph's brothers? Are we? From our perspective, our decisions are free, but Scripture indicates that God is ultimately sovereign over them.
    – Matt Davis
    Commented Aug 19, 2013 at 13:59

Free-will and choice are concepts that only make sense to us because we are bound to linear time and we travel time from past to future. There is nothing preventing a supernatural entity from seeing our whole life at once, including all our choices, and being all-knowing while preserving our free will.

Of course though, this only shows how mysterious and unknowable is the concept of God--but then again this should not be a problem for people approaching God through Faith (which absolutely does not depend on understanding an unknowable God).

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    Your first paragraph was great, the second one not so much. As finite creatures we cannot know God fully but we DO KNOW HIM because he has revealed himself to us. Galatians 4:8-9.
    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 8:49
  • There is nothing preventing a supernatural entity from seeing our whole life at once, except that 'seeing' implies light and eyes, so I don't see how 'seeing' makes any sense outside the scope of nature. Or seeing something, without a brain. But the Christian answer is, that his ways is not our ways, and the fact that he can't be understood is what makes him God. Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 21:44
  • I agree with you that free-will and choice are linear constructs. Without our linear view of time, free-will and choice melt away. However, supernatural entities aren't necessarily outside the bounds of time. It would take an super-chrono (if you will) entity for that.
    – Richard
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 16:54
  • @Richard isn't that a tautology though? An entity outside the bounds of time is by definition a "super-chrono" entity. It doesn't need to have its own time though.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 18:09
  • @Sklivvz Well, supernatural simply means beyond nature. So, the Greco-Roman deities would be supernatural, yet they were bound by time. One day for them was one day for us. I've heard it argued that angels, demons, and Satan are all supernatural, but bound by time and that only God is beyond time.
    – Richard
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 18:15

Much of the Old Testament does not apply to our life. For instance, we are not likely to be asked to set our son on fire.

We do have complete free will. But that does not mean its for us to use. I prefer to believe that it is intended for us to give it up. We can see evidence of it in the Bible and throughout society regardless of what time period. The will of people leads them down the wrong path every time. We are cursed with the burden of selfishness. We cannot overcome the temptations of this life by our own will. So without God, we are willfully cursed. But by surrendering our will and following His, our life becomes something completely different. Some have said that our will mixes with God's. NOT. We have been told that we cannot serve two masters. It means that our will must be God's and only God's.

Think about the virtues that comes from carrying God's will. Humility, compassion for others, empathy, modesty, and self sacrifice. Jesus displayed all these things. And He exercised them through self deprivation and constant striving for God's approval. He was a faithful servant in every way. And He told us to do the same. The virtues do not come any other way. For us to be unwilling to sacrifice this life is the same as following our own will.

Now with those things said, you might wonder, then how can millions of people today even know God at all since they seem to be led by their own will? They don't know God. That is my answer. They are deceived into following a false doctrine. Popular religion is false. The churches carry it. Therefore, one must follow God's knowledge as it is written. You cannot attend church one day a week and learn all there is to know. YOu have to devote yourself to learning and understanding God's will. it must become you overall goal in life. It cannot be a hobby. There is too much to know.


I've heard two great statements from prominent Christian philosophers on this matter. And, I think they accurately represent and explain the core Christian free-will beliefs quite nicely.

The first is from Professor Peter Kreeft, and I'll paraphrase it because I can't recall which lecture it came from (so, link pending ...). But in effect, everyone who writes any sort of fictional (and sometimes nonfictional) literature can adequately understand the basic concept of free will. You start with a story, and that story has characters. The author writes the characters, but he also allows the characters to be who they are, to make their own choices. They're predestined in some respect and they're placed into the the story by the author. But, a good author doesn't contort them or bend them to achieve his end. He let's them make their own decisions. He lets them develop "on their own" whilst still knowing and zeroing in on the story's ultimate end.

And the second statement, which fits very well with Kreeft's idea, is from C. S. Lewis.

The love of God lights up the fires of hell.

I don't have the full context, but when C.S. Lewis wrote this, I think his intention was to primarily note how the knowledge of, but absence of God's love is what primarily "burns" us in hell. However, it's also notable and implied here that God sustains us in everything we do. As we make wrong choices, if God cannot change our minds (because He doesn't infringe on our free will), He essentially enables us.

In other words, if Pharaoh's is going to choose a hardened heart, God, by His very nature and role, hardens Pharaoh's heart.

God's call and command is to love. But, in keeping with free will and His own love for our being, God ultimately enables and fuels every decision we make, for better or worse. He doesn't eliminate characters from the story when the characters turn evil. It would destroy the story. It would ruin the ending, which is ultimately good. Rather, He maintains the integrity of the story, of which He knows the ultimate end is good, and He writes (hardens the heart of) the character as he or she is.


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “free will” as: “voluntary choice or decision ”

Did God give man “free will”? Does man choose?

Christians believe that the Bible is the “Word of God” and if the Bible is nothing else, it is a petition from God to mankind. So why would God petition mankind if man does not have the ability to choose? It is foolishness to argue with someone that is not culpable.

Free-will is not the same as an independent-will. An independent will is identified in the Bible as a “hard heart”. Pharaoh was “hard hearted”, and he was non-responsive to God. God used Pharaoh’s hard heart for His own purposes, God can do this because God is eternal. He is not bound by space or time.

Man’s fellowship with God is intentioned for man to do the will of God. Jesus said: “For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:50).

A “free-will” does not mean that wills are free for the taking, Jesus paid dearly for the "wills" of His followers. Faith is the real issue: Romans 4:16 says: “Therefore [it is] of faith, that [it might be] by grace”. Faith enables God’s grace, faith is honor and respect, a faith-relationship enables the highest love.

Our freedom really only extends to a slave's choice in determining whom we will serve as master. To Whom will you be a slave to? Jesus says: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).

God eternally knows your finished work, He knows every choice you have made! Omniscience means that God knows all things, He is not bound by time, He simultaneously knows the beginning and the end.

So the question is: Since he controls decisions and knows what decisions I will make, do I truly have free will? "Controls Decisions" is the hinge point of the question, is the hardening of the heart the same as forcing a decision? Parents often receive blame for the adult lives of their children, Pharaoh had every benefit the World could offer, his heart was turned from God, He served himself.

Pharaoh had a so called "free will" and God used Pharaoh's self-serving heart for His own purposes.

  • So, I don't have the choice on what I eat or what I wear. I only have the choice to choose follow or oppose God? Is every choice we make--regardless how banal--is a choice to follow or oppose God?
    – Richard
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 12:26
  • @Richard, Secondary choices that already predominate in serving ourselves is still essentially mammon! Obsessions? Do you receive life as from the Lord and thank Him for food clothing and shelter from your heart?
    – Rick
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 16:32
  • Soo... I have a red shirt and a white shirt. I choose white because it will be a hot day outside. This is... self-indulgent? I'm mostly trying to understand where the boundaries lie in order to better grasp the full ramifications of what you are implying.
    – Richard
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 16:41
  • @Richard, If you truly want to understand the "ramifications" we might spend more time determining how to discern more obvious areas of choice, rather than the subtle areas that you have identified.
    – Rick
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 17:52
  • @Richard, I for one often serve myself, this however does not change the truth in what is being said and we do have the choice in whom we will serve.
    – Rick
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 17:54


There is a common misconception that arises from the use of the phrase "free will" without proper definition. "Free" in the context of "free will" is usually used to mean "unfettered" as in "unfettered will", this clearly is a logical impossibility, since I can have the "will" to fly unaided, but I cannot fulfill that will. So, "free will" in an objective, non-theological sense, does not mean the ability to do everything I wish, instead it means something closer to "I am free to desire anything". In a theological sense, especially in the Biblical context it means something importantly different.

"Free will" in the Biblical context usually more precisely refers to the question of "Are humans free to choose to do good vs evil?" or "Is a person unhindered in choosing their eternal destination (heaven or hell)?" We can see that narrowing the question down immediately makes it easier to find an answer in the text of the Bible.


Before I address the question of God hardening Pharaoh's heart, let's see what Jesus had to say on the matter:

John 8:34 Jesus answered them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin."

The mark of a slave is that they are, by definition, not free. Committing sin shows us we are not spiritually free in any respect. Paul then clarifies this further:

Ephesians 2:1 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins,

The mark of one who is dead is utter inability to do, think, feel, decide, or anything other than.. well, rot and stink. A dead person has no will, and a spiritually dead person has no spiritual will. So, we can see right away that we definitely do not have an unfettered will, nor an unhindered will. We are slaves to sin, and sin has domain over our will and therefore our actions. This is why we need God to be the initiator, and why Christ says that he leaves the 99 sheep that are safe to go find and rescue the one that is lost. (Notice that it is us who are lost, not Christ, and we are not the ones who go out to look for and find Christ, it is He who finds us.) But again, Paul sheds some clarity in this, by quoting from the Old Testament.

Romans 3:10 As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; 11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. 12 They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.”

And Genesis has the following to say:

Genesis 6:5 Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

And Jeremiah this:

Jeremiah 17:9 "The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?"

So, before being saved and redeemed, our will is only continually desiring evil, all the time. And it is only the common grace of God that restrains evil men from being as evil as they could be, and doing the evil they wish to do. This explains why we haven't wiped ourselves off the face of the earth in our evil. So again, our will is not unhindered, it is enslaved to sin.

Pharaoh's heart

As to your question about Pharaoh, we now see that when the Bible tells us that God "hardened" the heart of Pharaoh, it wasn't that God made Pharaoh do an evil that Pharaoh did not want to do. The word "hardened" itself gives that away. Just like clay hardens into the position it had before being hardened, meaning it is no longer malleable as it was before, so too was Pharaoh's heart hardened. It was hardened into the evil "shape" it already had before its hardening. What this means theologically is that God withheld repentance from Pharaoh, which can only be understood if you understand that repentance is a gift from God, and that only God can grant that repentance.

Most discussions about free will usually by necessity address the issue of the Biblical commands to repent and live holy lives. Or, "Why does the Bible say we must repent, if we don't have free will?" Well, because the command to repent does not hinge upon our ability to obey it. We don't say our secular laws should be abolished because we find some people unable to obey them, so too with God's perfect law. He commands us to repent because we must repent. But, as we saw above, if repentance is a good thing, we cannot do it, and nobody does it.. except God first grant it.

Adam and Eve

But, within Biblical christianity I believe there to be little to absolutely no doubt that God did grant humanity free will. Adam and Eve had completely unhindered wills, completely free to live holy lives, obeying their Creator, or.. not. They entered existence as perfect sinless beings, Created in the image of God. But they chose to sin, sin entered creation, corrupting all of it, and as descendants of Adam and Eve we now inherit their corrupted nature:

Romans 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned— 13 (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. [...])

Adam and Eve (specifically, Adam) sold humanity off in slavery to sin. And even if we reject this position, we must still accept Jesus' statement that sinning means we are slaves to sin. Slaves with wills, but not free ones.


It is important to clarify also, that though God is sovereign over all creation, including the will of man, it does not actually mean that He controls the will of man at all times. Also, being omniscient, knowing everything that will happen is not the same as causing everything to happen. Though, again, God is sovereign, and omniscient, I just wanted to clarify that these things are not the same.

In summary, we do have a will, but it is bounded by what is possible, and the common grace of God, who does not allow us to be as evil as we could be, and as slaves to sin, we definitely do not have free will. Even after redemption, our will is a result of the new nature He gives us, the new heart (which is a Biblical metaphor for "desires", ie, the fruit of our will) so in a sense, even after being freed from sin, we still do not have a truly "free" will, it is still bounded by what is possible and by the sovereignty of God.

Hope that answers your question.


Your will is not as free as you suppose. Your upbringing, culture, personality, conscience, friends and acquaintances, role models, and the media have shaped you in many ways. For instance, if you are shy, your decisions at a party would be different than an outgoing person’s choices.

The community has further restricted your will by laws regulating your conduct in public, including in your home, on the streets, school, and workplace. Drugs, alcohol, and medication may also inhibit your free will, discouraging or encouraging you to take steps a sober person may never take.

The sanctified Christian’s free will is different from the free will of the unregenerate, although both share many of the same limitations. The Christian can tell God, “Lord, I give you my life. I give you permission to bring anything into my life to conform me into the image of your son. Use me to fulfill your purpose for me.” We enjoy free will the most when we learn of God’s will and voluntarily give ourselves to it. God is in control because we have freely of our own will given him permission to work in our lives.

The Christian freely limits his actions, thoughts, and words to the direction of the Word of God. In doing so, the Christian finds greater life as God indwells that person. The Christian, freed from the forces of sin, has the liberty to say yes to God’s will. The person controlled by sin can only say, “I can’t follow God.” So when God controls the believer's decisions, it is because the believer has invited God to work through her. This control is something accepted by faith.

As we see by the example of Pharaoh, we can't know how far God controls the decisions of others unless He reveals it.


My two cents (maybe four):

Just like a parent is wise and knows what can or in many instances, "will" happen when their children make certain decisions, the parent doesn't make the choices for their children, because they have free will. I don't think we should use the word "control" where God is concerned, because God doesn't "do" like humans "do" (i.e., "control"). GOD simply "IS". GOD simply "EXISTS" and God exists in all things at all times. When we exercise our free will, remember, God IS, meaning that the very fact that you can even do anything, means that God is in it. Why? Once again, BECAUSE GOD IS! Nothing exists apart from God because God is all there is and ever was (regardless of what you call this higher power/force)! Just because the decision we made may produce pain in our lives doesn't necessarily mean we missed the mark. It means that we produced something that vibrated on a lower level (like not acting in love), thereby causing undue anxiety, stress, etc., in our lives...Doesn't mean that God had nothing to do with it or even controled it. YOU had everything to do with your own actions. Make sense?

  • By the way, in references to a parent not making choices for their children, I mean "grown" children.
    – Punkin1959
    Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 4:46
  • 1
    Welcome to the site! This next has nothing to do with the quality of your answer, it's just standard to help new visitors avoid misunderstanding the site (as I did at first.) As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following two posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": the help page and How we are different than other sites? Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 12:27

In a comment to sidran32's answer you say:

Therefore, he would be able to manipulate every aspect of it so that our choices are not our own.

Yes, I believe he would be able to do that if he wanted to, but he won't.

Just as you would let your dog run into an electric fence so that it would learn to not try to attack the neighbor dogs through the regular fence, he won't control our lives to prevent us from making mistakes and, through them, learning.

On the other hand, regarding him blessing our lives when we're in a time of need:

If you heard your dog yipping and it had gotten caught on the fence and is continually getting shocked; you'd go help it.

He loves us and will help/comfort those who call on him in his own time.

  • 2
    Or He could be manipulating us all the time! Would we know better?
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 14:20
  • 1
    True. Not only that, but how do we know he won't manipulate us? And how would we know that we've been manipulated?
    – Richard
    Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 19:31

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