Do people have free will, or are their choices somehow determined? Yes.
Each of us has only one basic choice: will we trust and obey God, or will we not? Trusting God is called faith. Failing to trust God is called sin. Rejection of God entirely is called unrighteousness. Everyone, consciously or not, makes that choice–not once, not even daily, but continuously. Probably no one makes the same choice every time it is presented. Probably our conscious, deliberate choices and our unconscious choices do not consistently coincide. But we all make the choice for or against God one way or another all the time.
Over the course of our lifetimes, we make one choice more often than the other. We can change our predominant choice, again consciously or not. But whatever side we eventually choose absolutely determines everything else in our lives. It determines how we respond to the favorable and unfavorable things life dishes out to us, and those responses have consequences.
Critics of Christianity frequently ask, “What about the people who have never heard of God and know nothing about him? How can Christians claim that God, if there is a God, judges everyone on the same basis, admitting some to heaven and condemning others to hell?” The short answer to that question is that they ask about a nonexistent category. Everyone has enough revelation of who God is to either choose him or reject him. Place or time of birth, the nature of the surrounding society, childhood experiences, intellectual activity: none of that matters. It’s only the surface of a person’s life. God looks deeper. Nobody can see into the heart of anybody else. We have a hard enough time seeing into our own. But God can see, and he judges on that basis. (See 1 Samuel 16:7.)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “but the righteous man shall live by faith.”
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. — Romans 1:16-19 (NASB)
The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is power for believers. And remember, we can know only our own heart, and that only imperfectly. We can hear what a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, atheist, etc. says with their mouth and what they do. If we cannot look on the heart, we can certainly look at the gospel.
God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel. It is revealed in the written gospel that comprises the Christian Bible. It is revealed in the unwritten gospel presented to each person’s heart. God has made it evident to each of us. The righteous, those who choose God’s way, shall live by faith. Sin, on the other hand, is anything that is not from faith. (See Romans 14:23.)
Righteous people sin. After all, no one’s perfect. “No one’s perfect” is as good a definition of sin as you can hope to find. Knowing the truth by revelation, righteous but imperfect people can still on occasion turn away from God’s will. Their predominant choice is to follow after God. All choices have consequences, but God has promised to make bad things turn out good for everyone who loves him. Or, as Paul puts it here, the gospel reveals God’s righteousness from faith to faith. Among other things, that means that as someone momentarily lapses from faith and learns God’s ways better as a result, revelation of God’s righteousness grows along with the faith.
Unrighteousness–more serious than sin
The unrighteous, though, are another matter. They, too, know the truth of God by revelation, but they suppress it. They choose to turn away from God and try to induce others to do the same, likely as not by denying or hiding the truth. In the US, why else would so many people make up various “rights” that can only be won by suppressing the right to free exercise of religion explicitly granted in the Constitution? Why have atheistic regimes always been oppressive?
Unrighteousness amounts to calling God a liar. So if God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel to believers, what is left to reveal to the unrighteous. Wrath. God cannot reveal unrighteousness, for the simple reason that he is not unrighteous. The gospel, the good news that calls all to his righteousness, speaks to believers. The unrighteous, who reject and suppress the gospel, can accomplish nothing in the world but harm. God reveals his wrath in love for the righteous.
Only the righteous will enter the kingdom of heaven. The unrighteous want no part of it anyway. So what becomes of them? They want nothing to do with God. They would prefer to be wherever God is not. That is the meaning of hell. When Jesus referred to the Gehenna of fire, by the way, “fire” is not the most important word there. Gehenna was the name of Jerusalem’s trash heap. Spontaneous combustion must have broken out in various places, but that’s merely incidental. No one will be consigned to that trash heap except those who refuse to spend eternity anywhere else.
But hell is not God’s preferred method of dealing with the unrighteous. He would far rather that they lay down their arms and embrace the gospel. That way, they cease to be unrighteous and become righteous. They’ll receive God’s grace and salvation in place of judgment. Adam, the generic human of the Old Testament, rebelled against God and chose unrighteousness. The whole human race deserves the scrap heap. The gospel is that, by God’s righteousness and grace, no one has to end up there.
Photo credits: Fire angel, Some rights reserved by Clearly Ambiguous
God is good, Some rights reserved by David Woo
Burning trash, Some rights reserved by Justin Leonard