What Is a Truly Free Will?
Part One of an Interim Report on That All Shall Be Saved

by David Bentley Hart

Woman with a tiger

I should explain. I am in the process of preparing a kind of “interim report” on my recent book That All Shall Be Saved, in preparation for a number of public events, and perhaps in anticipation of a second edition of the text. And the editors of Public Orthodoxy have kindly offered me a venue in which to issue installments of that report, in the hope of refining it in the process. A good part of that report will consist in a kind of itinerary of its overarching argument. When writing the book, I had not properly appreciated how deep an emotional attachment some of us have to the idea of a hell of perpetual torment for the derelict and unenlightened. And so I had not imagined that the final product would provoke critiques so dazzlingly unrelated to my actual argument that I would be obliged repeatedly to recapitulate the book’s basic structure. Such, however, has been the case.

In the normal course of things, of course, an itinerary begins at the beginning and ends at the end. But I want to leap ahead. The book is organized around roughly half a dozen themes, the last of which concerns the nature of human freedom and attempts to defend the reality of an eternal hell as a correlate of that freedom. This part of the argument has proved the most difficult for some readers to grasp, and so I want to dilate upon at a somewhat more deliberate pace than the others. Hence it is also the one with which I should like to begin.

Among the more curious reactions to this aspect of my book has been the occasional suggestion that I have somehow revised the meaning of freedom. Another has been the accusation that I am arguing for some form of total determinism. One critic described my view as a form of “compatibilism” (see below), which is a term fraught with difficulties. Actually, though, on this matter my argument is nothing more than a fairly straightforward restatement of what Christ says in John’s Gospel: that “everyone committing sin is a slave to sin” (8:34), but that “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:32).

Admittedly, I do reject any simple late modern libertarian model of freedom—the idea, that is, that the will is free to the degree that it can spontaneously posit any end for itself whatsoever, without any prior or more general motive or rationale—but that is only because such a model is clearly nonsensical. I start from the assumption that rational liberty and freedom of the will genuinely do exist, and for just this reason I conclude that the “free-will” defense of the idea of an eternal hell is logical gibberish. Far from constituting some sort of outlandish revision of our understanding of freedom, my argument hews faithfully to classical and Christian tradition, and to every coherent account of free will from Plato to Iris Murdoch. That is to say, I define perfect freedom as the unhindered realization of a rational nature in the end that fulfills it as rational. I assume also that, for finite intellects, such freedom involves a deliberative ability to choose among different courses of action. All I reject are two logically impossible notions: that there can be rational freedom that is not first set into action by a “transcendental” final cause, and that freedom can exist in any way except in direct proportion to the rational competency of the agent.

Thus, it is somewhat misleading to call mine a “compatibilist” view of free will (except with some very precise definitions being attached). Daniel Dennett, for instance, is a true compatibilist in the best modern analytic sense: that is, he is a physicalist determinist as regards human actions, but he also believes that, at the level of empirical consequences, the sheer complexity of the physical causal chain that produces human actions can also be described as free choice. That is, he believes there are two very different but compatible ways of describing a single empirical reality, one blindly “mechanical” the other intentionally “purposive”; nevertheless, he is still certain that this empirical reality can in principle be reduced without remainder to purely empirical physical forces that only appear to be purposive. There are two different levels of reference, but not two different levels of operation. For Dennett, every “free” act is the emergent result of an incalculable sequence of small, mindless, material causes.  In the same way, he allows that one may say that one has a “soul,” but only so long as one grasps that this soul is composed of millions of tiny robots. I believe exactly the opposite: that the will really does act purposively, towards an end that operates upon it as a real final cause of rational liberty. Rather than believing that the will is empirically determined and lacks any transcendental teleology, I believe that the will is empirically indeterminate precisely because it is transcendentally determined to an actual transcendent end; and, under the canopy of that orientation, the mind and will are able to pursue various finite goods freely, choosing between them as realizing different aspects of the Good in itself.

 What, after all, makes any choice free? Principally, a telos. To act freely, one must conceive a purpose or object and then elect either to pursue or not to pursue it. But for this purposiveness—this final causality—the will’s operation would be nothing but a brute event, wholly determined by its physical antecedents, and therefore “free” only in the trivial sense of “random,” like an earthquake or a purely neural impulse. To be free, one must be able to choose this rather than that according to a real sense of which better satisfies one’s natural longing for, say, happiness or goodness or truth or beauty. What allows one to choose between different possible objects of rational volition is an intellectual orientation toward some rational index of ends that are desirable in and of themselves.

Hence there can be no real empirical freedom except under the canopy of a prior transcendental determinism. There must be a “why” in any free choice, a sufficient reason for making it. You prove this every time you choose a salad at lunch rather than a plate of broken glass. I long for a particular work of art, say, because I have a deeper and more original longing for beauty that it can partially satisfy; and this ultimate horizon of desire gives me a context for evaluation, judgment, and choice. We need not even posit the ontological reality of those transcendental ends to affirm this (though, of course, Christians are obliged to believe in the reality of Truth and Goodness and so forth). We need only recognize that such an orientation is the necessary structure of thinking and willing, and that every finite employment of the will, to the degree that it free, depends upon this deferral of rationales toward ends beyond the empirical.

Which brings me back to my book. There my argument is not that we cannot reject God. It is that we cannot do so with perfect knowledge and perfect freedom, and so the “free-will defense” of an eternal hell rests upon a logical fiction. Sheer choice in and of itself is not freedom. The more irrational a choice, the less free it must be; but, the more one knows, the more rational one’s choices become. But, then, the more free one becomes, the more inevitable become the choices one will make.  In a sense, a lunatic has a far larger range of real options than does a sane person, but only because he or she also has far less freedom. The lunatic might choose to run into a burning building on impulse, to see what it will feel like to die in flames; a sane man, because he can form a rational judgment of what can and cannot satisfy his nature, lacks so expansive a “liberty.”

Consider, for instance, Frank R. Stockton’s classic story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” A handsome young courtier who has had the effrontery to conduct a romance with his king’s daughter is sentenced to the arena, where he must open one of two doors (as he chooses). Behind one waits a fierce and famished tiger, ready to devour him; behind the other, a beautiful maiden, ready to become his wife. These are the only two fates permitted him.  And he does not know which door is which. The princess, however, who is watching from the gallery, has discovered which door leads to which fate, and she discreetly signals to him to open the door on the right. The question the story leaves hanging is whether she has yielded to jealousy and directed her lover to his death, or whether she has yielded to her love for him and sent him to the arms of another woman. But we can simplify the tale.

Let’s say instead that the young courtier, with no one to guide him, has a choice between a door behind which that tiger is still crouching and another behind which the girl of his dreams (say, the princess herself) is waiting. First of all, which door should he want to open?  If he is perfectly sane and healthy, the latter, obviously. We can agree, I hope, that one of the conditions that allows him to make a truly free decision in these circumstances is that he is not captive to some sort of dementia that would render him incapable of judging whether it is better to be torn to shreds by a wild beast or to be happily wedded to one’s beloved. But that means that his freedom—his liberty from delusion, that is—has already reduced the range of his possible preferences toward one of the two outcomes.

Then, secondly, under which conditions can he better make a truly free choice between the two doors: In a state of perfect ignorance regarding which door is which (such that whatever choice he ultimately makes will be primarily a result of chance), or with a secret knowledge of which door is which, perhaps procured from a friend in the court (which allows him to choose with full rational liberty)? Obviously, the latter. The more he knows, the freer he becomes. But, then also, the more inevitable becomes the choice he will make. In fact, what follows is not really a “choice” at all; it is a purely free movement of thought and will toward a rationally desired object. He has been liberated from the need to choose arbitrarily, and has thus been determined toward an inevitable terminus by the reality of his own freedom.

It is easy to see how such considerations apply to the popular but ultimately vacuous claim that hell could be the ultimate free choice of a rational spiritual nature. Such a claim, momentarily beguiling though it be, cannot survive serious scrutiny. To the very degree that a rational creature might reject the one transcendent reality that can alone satisfy its deepest needs and desires, that creature is in bondage. An injured, damaged, deluded person might behave in such a manner; but never a free person. Freely, sanely, deliberatively to elect misery forever rather than bliss is a form of madness. To call that madness freedom, in order to soothe our consciences and continue to reconcile ourselves to a picture of reality that is morally absurd, is to talk nonsense. And, too, there is a deeper metaphysical logic here to be considered. It turns out, on any careful consideration of the matter, that only God himself—the infinite and transcendent Being, Goodness, Truth, and Beauty that is the source and end of all reality—can be the necessary “final cause” that makes rational freedom logically possible. So no perfectly free will can choose any ultimate end other than God, and to the degree that a rational nature attempts to reject God it is simply deluded. In fact, an attempt at final rejection is the most that any such nature could ever accomplish, since a spirit’s ever deeper and more primordial longing for God is the whole substance of its rational volition. God—unlike a creature—could never appear to a spiritual nature as merely one option among others, which could be rejected without intentional remainder. What makes all election or rejection on the part of a finite agent possible at all is his or her unremitting transcendental longing for God. Thus, God himself is the transcendent orientation in respect of which any merely finite object can be rejected, and so even in trying to reject God one is expressing a still deeper longing for God. So, just as God cannot positively will evil precisely because he is infinitely free, neither can we will evil in an ultimate sense, inasmuch as his infinite liberty is the source and end of our liberty too. Only in him are we truly free.


David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox theologian, cultural commentator, and author. His book That All Shall Be Saved was published in 2019 by Yale University Press.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.