This is a huge question. Do let me know if its immensity makes it off-topic for this site. I will start out my question with a quote from Schopenhauer:

A man can do what he wills, but not will what he wills.

The Basic Argument logically proves how free will defined as will over one's will is logically impossible due to the infinite regress it entails. If we have this definition of free will, and we exercised will to shape our will, then this meta-will must also have been shaped by our meta-meta-will, and so on.

So, if one wants to be logical, this sense of free will must be abandoned. What we are left with then is the definition of free will implicit in Schopenhauer's quote; free will is the ability to do what you want. That's not as clear-cut as it sounds like, as there are many additional details that needs hashing out. However, regardless of those details, we are left with the very counter-intuitive idea of a supposedly benevolent being punishing us for things that are, ultimately, beyond our will.

What we want at any given moment is determined by who we are and our environment (and the randomness inherent in both of those). We do not have ultimate control over these things. If I could create a sentient, conscious robot that is programmed to want to destroy things around it, and it is given free reign to do so, then it has free will, yet to punish it for being destructive would be ridiculous. It chose to, but it didn't choose to choose to.

So, if we do not will what we will, why does God punish us for our will?

  • Welcome to the site user110391. Just a point about asking questions on here: To ask "Why God..." does something or other, requires evidence that the claim is true. To ask "Does God..." do something or other avoids an assumption that he does. The question is then seeking information to determine whether God does that, or not. The question as it stands makes an assumption based on what Schopenhauer believes, and that is what makes it complicated to deal with. You can certainly cite him if you think God does this but the Q would sit better as "Does God..." Just a suggestion!
    – Anne
    Commented May 9, 2023 at 12:14
  • 1
    What Anne said, plus, even more appropriate for this site than "Does God …?" would be "Which denominations believe that God …, and why?". That way you could expect to get the same answer from a Catholic, an Atheist, a Hindu, or a Buddhist. In theory this is a sectarian site, and questions and answers should be worded objectively. Commented May 9, 2023 at 23:09

4 Answers 4


Free will--in the sense most Christians believe in it--is misrepresented by Schopenhauer's argument; I will summarize 3 reasons for rejecting this characterization of free will:

  1. It incorrectly conflates our "free will" with our "desires". "Free will" does not describe "freely wanting things" - this is just a sleight of hand using different definitions of the word "will". Free will refers to the non-deterministic ability to choose among multiple options.

  2. It is possible to want 2 mutually exclusive things at the same time. A person on a low-sugar diet may genuinely want the promised results of the diet and want a nonstop menu of sugary snacks. In such circumstances, the decision made is not simply the aggregation of various desires, it is a prioritization among desires. Many of our choices pit short-term gain vs. long-term loss & vice-versa.

  3. It is possible to change one's desires--this is a major plank of Christian belief

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,

23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.

25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-25, compare the alternatives discussed in vss. 16-21)

If we invite that Spirit into our lives it will begin to change our desires.



We may desire many things, some of which conflict with each other. Free will gives us the capacity to act, to choose which voice we will yield to.

I don't necessarily contend with the view that humans pick the desire that is the most compelling in the moment, but I suggest the analogy would be better cast in different words:

We choose which voices to listen to; we choose which influences to entertain. Many voices compete for our attention; we control which speakers get turned up and which speakers get turned down. While we may well follow the voice that speaks the loudest, we set the volume.

  • Schopenhauer is correct. We don't do what we desire but what our intellect perceives to be good, which usually correlates strongly with our desires. Salvation is the process of convincing ourselves that things we perceive as good but aren't, aren't. It is very difficult to achieve salvation, so you have to have faith that your struggle with falsely accepting bad things as good will somehow resolve, even if it seems impossible.
    – Fomalhaut
    Commented May 11, 2023 at 7:24

OP: What we want at any given moment is determined by who we are and our environment

True. But, if one is religious, one objectively knows whether something is wrong, and can choose not to do it for that reason, suppressing what one happens to want at that moment.

And if one is a Christian, it is a duty to develop and grow one's character to no longer want to make choices that are known to be wrong. Eventually there won't be any inappropriate wants.

That is, we get to decide "who we are" by changing ourselves. That's what the word "repent" means:

To repent is to regret so deeply as to change the mind or course of conduct in consequence and develop new mental and spiritual habits.
repent | Online Etymology Dictionary

The trick is to regret it before it happens.

The Basic Argument seems to be based on there being no objective morality, which for Christians doesn't apply.

Christians don't avoid making bad choices for fear of punishment.
Christians make good choices because that's the right thing to do, and eventually because what they want to do ends up being the right thing.

(I also disagree with the idea of God "punishing" someone, as opposed to someone suffering the consequences of their choices. But that should be a different question.)

  • What if you do not want to do what is right? There is no such a thing as an intentional, unwanted action. There is such a thing as conflicting desires however, but it is the sum of your desires; their constructive and destructive interferences; that amounts to the driving force that is your will. You do not control whether or not your desire, if any, to do good is what comes out on top in that battle of desires.
    – user110391
    Commented May 9, 2023 at 1:55
  • @user110391 asks "What if you do not want to do what is right?" — Then you are not a Christian. Commented May 9, 2023 at 2:06
  • "You do not control whether or not your desire … to do good is what comes out on top in that battle of desires" — But you can. And a fully converted and baptized Christian has God's holy spirit available to assist with the process of developing a perfect character. Philippians 2:5 says "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.". 1 John 2:6 says "He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.". Matthew 5:48 says: "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.". There are many similar scriptures. Commented May 9, 2023 at 2:08
  • "Then you are not a Christian". So? God 'punishes' non-Christians too, right? Also, if you are able to actually control your desires via God's spirit after a genuine baptism, then it follows that all real Christians do what is right all the time. So, then I ask you, are you a real Christian and do you do what is right all the time?
    – user110391
    Commented May 9, 2023 at 2:09
  • @user110391 says "it follows that all real Christians do what is right all the time" — No, it follows that all real Christians want to do what is right, and their goal is to eventually always do right. But people do slip up, and they do sin. But as Christians they later regret the choice and repent (literally change their minds), and ask for and receive forgiveness. Each true repentance brings them one step closer to perfection. Commented May 9, 2023 at 2:15

The definition of free will that I and, I would venture to say, most other Christians use is what is called libertarian free will. It can be summed up as the ability to do otherwise, but it means that for any action you take or decision you make, nothing caused you determinitively to make that decision. This includes your environment, people influencing you, even your own desires and urges. You are the ultimate origin of your decision.

Our desires can and do influence us, but they do not rule us, and we can choose to do what we do not desire.

What you describe is almost more like compatibilistic free will, which I would agree is no free will at all, rendering our decisions a mere necessary byproduct of our circumstances, and hardly something it would be just to punish us for.


Don't worry about the immensity. Christian theology has grappled with "free will" for ages, and after fruitful engagement with modern philosophy, Christian philosophy has produced a logical and realistic account of the phenomena of "free will" in human souls.

By the way, the most likely interpretation of the quote (as explained in this Philosophy.SE question) is

"you are free to do whatever you desire, but you are not free to choose your desires"

Christian theology concurs with the above by appealing to empirical data that it's very easy to assent to follow our desires, good or bad, but especially bad ones. Christian theology teaches that our free will is BROKEN, biased to do what we know to be wrong. Most groups agree that since we are born our will is dominated by concupiscence which hijacks our attempts to do good. Paul talks about this in Romans 7:14-25. No one will dispute the fact that all humans are "enslaved" by self-centered desires ("not free"), unless they exert extra effort to overcome them. Sometimes natural love makes it easier to wish the good for others (children, lovers, etc.) and then to actually do the good acts, but we all realize it's not sufficient sometimes.

But please understand punishment correctly. In Christian theology, God punish us for the sinful ACT (fruit of the will), but NOT usually for the WILL per se, especially if we are fighting our own desires which induce us to will harm. Even if we succumb to sinful acts or to "sins of the heart" (like cursing others, lust, or envy), the punishment is mitigated by many factors that are "straitjacketing" the will such as addiction, ignorance, biological factor, passion of the moment, history of abuse, etc. People of goodwill recognize that they did wrong (the Catholic formula is "in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do") and would be induced in their conscience to confess their sins in front of God and to cry out for deliverance of their broken will. God (out of his abundant mercy) will forgive the sins and (upon request) will infuse grace to strengthen their will so they can potentially succeed when they try again.

Some Christian philosophers such as Eleonore Stump proposes that the will has three positions, not two: assent, rejection, or quiescence. Even though our will is broken, we can at least opt for "quiescence", the posture that allows God to strengthen our will by grace (i.e. increasing our love). This is God's way of preserving our free will; God will not force his grace on us. See this paper Grace and Freedom: Examining Stump's View of the Quiescent Will.


Christianity teaches that we cannot "assent" to heal our own broken will ourselves since we are trapped in the conflict of wanting to love and don't want to love at the same time. We need God's supernatural assistance which God offers unilaterally but which we are powerless to positively "assent" to receive it (because of this conflict).

But by freely putting our will in "quiescence" setting instead, we can acquiesce ("cease resisting") to receive the needed grace to fix our broken will. In this video, Eleonore Stump likens it to a child agreeing to receive a vaccine injection where the child neither rejects nor positively desire the vaccine (how many child says "please give me a vaccine?"). God only punishes us when our will is in the "rejection" setting (i.e. refusing the gospel when it is fully understood), thus refusing God's grace that could have assisted us in wanting to want to love (second order will) so we are put in the process of growing to want to love and be loved (first order will).

  • You suggest that Christians, because their wills are broken, are "biased against doing what we know to be wrong." I think you mean to say that since a Christian has a broken will, he or she is biased against doing what is RIGHT. Or, to put it differently, since a Christian has a broken will, he or she is biased to do what is wrong. (Jeremiah 17:9--The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?) Commented May 10, 2023 at 11:18
  • @rhetorician Thanks for catching the typo! Commented May 10, 2023 at 12:35

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