Do We Really Have the Freedom to Choose?

There are aspects of our current teaching about God’s character that are problematic. But because our leaders generally do not encourage open dialogue about dissenting doctrinal views, some are reluctant to probe into those difficult areas to avoid the “rebellious” tag. Consequently, we “accept” proffered explanations suggesting that some questions about God are mysteries and are unprofitable avenues to pursue. We intuitively file such inscrutable questions into the mental “mystery” column. One such mystery is why evil continues around us if the creator God knows the future and loves us.

Why, for example, does an all-knowing God, who should be privy to his created beings’ future bad actions, still create them? It is one thing to create a Hitler, or to allow his maturation if unaware of his murderous potential. But we deny that there are future actions our God may not know. It is something entirely different to grant such a being the privilege of life still knowing in advance that he will cause a holocaust. Yet we affirm this, analogizing that, like Jeremiah (1:5), God knows our beginnings and our futures.

We Christians are aware of the conundrum of positing belief in an all-powerful, omniscient and loving God who somehow still allows preventable evil. One explanation we’ve advanced for this seeming incongruity in God’s character is the concept of freedom of choice; the notion that God gives everyone the opportunity to make autonomous choices for good or ill.

Writing as background on Creation, Ellen G White describes the centrality of this concept to show that God is not capricious or arbitrary:

Without freedom of choice, his obedience would not have been voluntary, but forced. There could have been no development of character. Such a cause would have been contrary to God’s plan in dealing with the inhabitants of other worlds. It would have been unworthy of man as an intelligent being and would have sustained Satan’s charge of God’s arbitrary rule. (Patriarchs and Prophets, p 49)

One implication growing out of this thinking is that freedom of choice is sacrosanct. And further, that God’s respect for man’s free choice is so important Satan is allowed free rein to do his worst, so long as humans retain this freedom. If our autonomy is secured at such high cost, then it behooves us to guard it carefully.

But do we truly have such freedom to choose our lives’ courses?

We often suggest, sometimes too casually, that God gave us freedom of choice, and it is our improper use of this gift that damns us. I push back against this argument because I think it assumes too much. This is because our very ability to make appropriate choices is mediated by a complex web of independent variables.

One crucial variable that significantly impacts our future directions, but which still lies completely outside of our choice options, is where we were born. Nobody chooses the environment or circumstances of their birth. Being born into poverty or plenty, servitude or power; being born boy or girl, black, brown or white, is part of an endless mix of inherited circumstances that shape our futures.

It therefore makes a difference relative to the future trajectory of our choices if, for example, we are born into a Christian family or not. Even if we are born into a Christian household, it matters if that context is Adventist, Baptist, Catholic, Mormon, or any one of a myriad versions of Christianity.

Who among us had any say in their parentage? And we are increasingly becoming aware that, for some, “love” should not be the overriding factor in choosing life partners because children resulting from certain unions are predisposed to contracting an avoidable disease. This, for instance, is what happens if two dominant carriers of the sickle cell gene have children. Their offspring will have the disease. And unless these parents don’t intend to have children, it would be negligent if they don’t consider the implications. These children, with no choice in how they arrived in this world, would come saddled with a painful, debilitating disease that would compromise them physically for life.

So, whether or not we recognize the dynamic interplay of unchosen forces that can dramatically affect the decisions we make in our adult years, there is little doubt that, as we grow up, our choices are significantly influenced by past circumstances. This may explain, at least in part, why only a small minority of people change religious affiliations as they mature. Children from Islamic households generally remain Muslim in adulthood, as do those born into Christian, Hindu, Jewish or any other religious group.

Consider a girl born in Afghanistan to Muslim parents. She would spend her school days in a madrasa, perhaps in Kabul, if they would have her, learning from the Quran. But, if born in Connecticut, she would likely attend a grade school and learn about the separation of church and state, as etched in the American constitution. Thus, from the very beginning, an individual’s course in life is deeply affected by the external environment, without choice.

Even if we discount the role of our environments as contributory to, and determinative of the choices we make in life, our very ability to comprehend God’s call or response to his love could be severely impacted by our mental capacity. Many diseases and health conditions – Alzheimer's, Dementia, Down's Syndrome, Psychosis, Alcoholism – make it difficult to choose wisely. The usual response to such questions about free choice limitations is a general idea that God will take everything into consideration before relegating each of us where we belong; and that God can be trusted to handle the details in an equitable manner.

I too have no doubt that God is trustworthy and can be counted upon to make the appropriate determination where each of us ends up after our earthly lives. But it seems to me that the grounds for sorting out our relative merits and demerits under present arrangements are challenging at best. Often, discussions of this nature risk consignment to academia only. But we must resist such easy impulses because a small scratch beneath the veneer and we are confronted with sobering real-life implications.

I was eleven when my mother died and left all five children with no primary parents. My two younger siblings and I were in elementary school. The extended family of uncles and aunts from both families convened, as was the custom, to “distribute” us children among those able and willing to absorb us into their own families. My older brother, Emmanuel, who had just turned 18, could not conceive of a home elsewhere and left, never to be seen or heard from again. The remaining four, two girls and two boys, were dispatched to three different homes hundreds of miles apart. The girls were taken in by my maternal grand aunt, and Benjamin, the youngest, and I went to two other maternal relatives.

It is Benjamin’s fate that still haunts me, though Emmanuel’s is never far behind.

In grade school I passed for a semi-good student, but Ben, three years my junior, was the brilliant one who we all knew was marked for academic greatness. When our diaspora happened, I was taken in by a Muslim uncle. Though himself uneducated, he prized education above all else and spurred me to academic success. Ben, on the other hand, ended up in the home of an aunt, a Christian. Ben’s new family was in the moonshine business and he was conscripted before he knew what turn his life had taken. He never set foot again in a classroom.

Ben is now an alcoholic. I have always wondered what could have been if Ben and I had traded places. So yes, later in life, we do tinker at the margins of choice, which then gives us the illusion of possessing the freedom to chart our paths. But do we really?

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

there is excellent discussion in this article…

one thing that egw teaches, which i believe is extra-biblical, and therefore intriguing, is the concept that our eternal destinies don’t necessarily align into the either/or of heaven and hell…specifically, she teaches that the black american slaves who were kept in ignorance through no choice of their own, and who therefore had no meaningful opportunity to respond to god’s grace, will neither be saved in heaven, nor lost in hell…they will be as though they have never been, while their white masters will be required to answer for their sins, EW:276…

i believe this raises the possibility that there are other groups whose cases will be handled in a similar manner…

Woah, really? I’ve never heard of this teaching and it strikes me as bizarre. In a traditional annihilationist view, isn’t hell and “never having existed” pretty close to the same thing, metaphysically? It seems manifestly unjust to treat humans who have had no exposure to God or the gospel the same as someone who has heard but rejected, right?? This is a tough problem, but that strikes me as a doctrinal answer so poor it doesn’t even count as a theodicy.


Matthew ,
God knew that He had made a massive, monstrous mistake, very early in this world’s tragic trajectory.

A very few generations after Adam, humanity had succumbed to Satan, and the whole world was EVIL, causing God to,regret His creation.


In my humble opinion, a truly loving God, foreseeing millennia of miseries for mankind ahead, would have compassionately ended it all, right then.

He should have destroyed the wrongdoers in the flood, and translated Noah and his family to heaven.

But God, selfishly consumed with His own “vindication”, allowed mankind’s miserable march onwards for multiple more millennia.

You are patently correct when you promote parentage and place of birth as being pivotal in predicting people’s personal destinies…

Your own family story is HORRIFIC .

I was born and raised in Africa, so I am acquanfed with third world poverty.

My travels have taken me through the filthy favelas of Rio, and the sordid shanty towns of India.

The vast majority of humanity have no flush toilets, no running water, no hot showers, no heat in winter, and an infant mortality rate of fifty per cent.

The majority are malnourished, if not starving.

Those unfortunate enough to be born in tropical zones are ravaged with malaria, parasites, Ebola and other ghastly afflictions, while lacking medical care.

While visiting medieval aristocratic castles in France, I learned that these palaces were plagued with pests: rats and mice everywhere, flies buzzing around the unsanitary chamber pots (no flush toilets !). Infrequent bathing, became the impetus for the French perfume industry! (to,mask the body odor from lack of hot showers )

Even the king’s bed was infested with fleas and bed bugs. And the reason for the tapestries on the walls was to keep out the damp, because the huge high ceilings made heating impossible.

If the French aristocrats endured such discomfort, what was the fate of the impoverished peasants?

Mankind’s MISERY is monumental and momentous, from medieval times to the modern era…

A truly compassionate creator would have culmimated this calamitous catastrophe, centuries ago, with a FAST TRACK Second Coming.

Surely, Christ’s crucifixion on Calvary had already sealed/substantiated/satisfied the requirements of the “great controversy “ way back in AD 31?

Our anguish, agony and atrocities could be aborted with an accelerated apocalypse.

But doomsday is deliberately, indefinitely deferred resulting in destruction, devastation, deprivation and ongoing tribulations, travails and trials.


as i understand it, “never having existed” means never having existed…hell means the lake of fire at the end of the millennium…

what egw is saying is that there are people who won’t be saved who won’t suffer in the lake of fire…in other words, there are at least two categories of people who are lost: those who are as though they’ve never been, and those who suffer in the lake of fire…the lake of fire option is biblical, but the “never having existed” option is what’s new…

… or, more correctly, “but the ‘never having existed’ option is what’s non-biblical




You gullibly quote EGW as if she were INFALLIBLE

The reality is that we never know which phrase/paragraph/page/.chapter was borrowed/stolen/plagiarized.


i think it’s more accurate to say extra-biblical…non-biblical implies a contradiction with the bible, which egw’s unique teaching doesn’t do…

actually, robin, i didn’t quote egw…i merely cited her…and for the record, i believe egw was a fallible as the bible writers…

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Reply Deleted by Dennis Hofer

Amen! The problem we like to give themselves is trying to determine the eternal destiny of others. That is not our judgment call.

Benjamin’s fate in life, this life, was truly tragic indeed. That is all you and I can say. Your life has not ended as yet though, and who knows what circumstances might cause you to “curse God and die”, but allow Benjamin’s character to shine forth even from the doldrums – making his lot ultimately more desirable than your own.

God takes responsibility for everything, and He knows how he is going to right wrongs. But, from an earthly perspective, it is obvious that parents, elders, leaders and the older generation bear responsibility for the choices they make not only for themselves but for those in their care for generations to come.

When the Jews sought the death penalty for Jesus Christ, Pilate tried to dissuade them. But they insisted that Jesus must die. “When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but that instead a riot was breaking out, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘You shall bear the responsibility.’ All the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!” Mat. 27:24-25

So said, so done. But even in that self-condemnation of future generations, though real – the eternal destiny of a Jewish child, crying bitterly as his parents were torn from him and thrown in the gas chamber, while he was left to languish alone in a makeshift rat-infested ghetto, is NOT for any man to decide.

You do have freedom of choice, while the Holy Spirit is speaking to you in that still small voice, whether you’re a child in Africa or Europe, among Muslims or Christians, whether you are old or young:

  1. to heed and do the right thing, or
  2. ignore and do the wrong.


extra-biblical, non-biblical, unbiblical, not in the Bible, Ellen White’s opinion or idea …

You can choose any one. You have that freedom; but …

I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works.

John, The Testimony of Jesus Christ


I’m not really going to quibble over what’s Biblical or not, I’m more interested in the philosophical/theological side of it. I have a hard time understanding how the distinction you (or EGW) is making is relevant. When we die, under both naturalistic and SDA belief structures, it is like we never existed, apart from the memory of our lives that is carried on by those who are still alive. I always understood the “lake of fire” to be a relatively immediate and permanent death for the wicked, not eternal torture as is often believed in other Christian sects. So if there’s not a significant difference in terms of suffering, then it seems like according to this statement from EGW the only real difference in fates between the wicked (permanent death in the lake of fire), and a slave who never had any reasonable access to the gospel (it’ll be like they never existed) is whether they are remembered or not. Neither has access to eternal life or any reward or relationship with God. In fact, it seems like the wicked might be getting the better deal! I would presume that some of those destroyed in the lake of fire might be remembered by the righteous who live on in the Kingdom, while those who are “like they never existed” receive true metaphysical oblivion. That’s… an odd theological perspective. Regardless of the grounding or truth of the claim, it seems prima-facie unjust.


If I recall correctly Ellen was discussing the disposition of slaves who were treated so
badly, so socially deprived that they had developed very few human attributes – Ellen
called that “brute, brutish”. She stated that these poor slaves who died would NOT be
raised in the resurrection, but would remain in the dust as if they never existed.

Can we extrapolate this particular statement to other persons living or dead? I would NOT.

This is HOW I remember reading the quote when I was a kid.

The NT writers say that LOVE is the fulfilling of the Law. Perhaps LOVE in a person’s life and
behavior is the CRITERIA for approval to the gates of Heaven.
God can always have “Remedial Classes” up there during the 1000 years.


Probably not that much different as there are other important factors that play significant roles in our growth and maturation other than just environment. There are children with severe psychological problems who were brought up in the same environment where children thrived and developed. Among children exposed to traumatic experiences some resulted to having PTSD while others coped and went on to live normal lives. It now is well known that human character is shaped by an number of factors, the major one being temperament and environment.

Check out this synopsis on what is temperament. This is a landmark study.

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Alcohol is a great anesthetic to the brain.
Overwhelming Trauma like you and your siblings endured, which is beyond description
in words might ONLY be surpressed by alcohol when the PAIN becomes too great.
Perhaps you and your other siblings over time learned to deal with the Pain. Perhaps
Ben was never in a position where he could. And still is not.


james, Rev 20:12-13 doesn’t contradict EW:276…as you know, Rev 20:5 explains to us that Rev 20:12-13 is talking about the dead that weren’t raised to life at the first resurrection, which is the resurrection before the millennium, at the second coming of christ…in other words, Rev 20:12-13 is talking about the lost…this is not saying that everybody who ever lived is being raised in one of these resurrections…what egw is saying is that there are people who will not be raised in either of these resurrections…they’re as though they had never been…they’re neither saved, nor lost…

this isn’t a contradiction…it’s an amplification…

to be lost means suffering the justice of god without a mediator…it is true that the lake of fire will eventually end in permanent death - the second death - but this isn’t the same as never having existed…a person who’s never existed doesn’t experience the wrath of god…for a person experiencing that wrath, it’s the last thing he’ll know…

you have a point if we equate non-existence with permanent death…but i don’t think we can equate the lake of fire with no lake of fire…i see a big difference…

Amen, brother. That’s truly Biblical.


How is that “lake of fire” anything different than an “ever-burning hell”? God needs the sinful person to SUFFER? Why?


well, as i understand it, an ever-burning hell lasts forever…it is a form of everlasting life…the lake of fire, on the other hand, lasts until justice is meted out on an individual basis…it comes to an end as the result of the permanent death of all the lost…

death, and the suffering involved, is the penalty for sin…if the sufferings and death of christ don’t cover us, we will suffer and die in the lake of fire on our own account…

the lake of fire is the justice component of god, which is as real as the love and mercy component…this is why truth is so important…there are real consequences involved…

You may be surprised. They’ll be plenty in eternity with all the saints communing with God and gaining greater blessings from the tree of life every month. They probably had no idea who Jesus is, nor kept a Sabbath day, but recognized by the things that they observed that there was a creator God and that they also had compassion on their fellow occupants of the earth.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matt 22: 37-40

Rom 2:13 (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.

14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:

15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)

16 In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ

“For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Gal 5:14. Love is the word.