Free Will & Determinism

We watch Faust in a puppet play and we think about free will. We recognize that we are watching a puppet on a string in a puppet play, and that perhaps the answer is in front of us.

Do we have control of our lives, or are we like Faust as a puppet, controlled from above, controlled from below, unable to change our destiny?

Can Faust repent and be saved or was his damnation or salvation decided long before he was born? Is he personally responsible for anything he has thought or done?

The Faust legend has been rewritten many times. The various author’s ideas about the nature of the Universe, any route to salvation, and the possibility of humans achieving it determine Faust’s progress. It’s not surprising that over time Faust can go from demonic to heroic . Faust reflects society and European society has gone from a fear of God and the literal devil to one preoccupied with humanity and quality of life on earth, at risk of forgetting its divine nature.


In the beginning God created the Universe, and everything in it. He created the Earth and the sky, and gave it all a spin and it was good. It ran like clockwork.

Everything in it was a manifestation and a revelation of His intent. God’s intent was the cause, and all things and events subsequent are the cascade of effects.

In the progression of the heavens one could see the progression of God’s intent. It was written in the stars.

According to the biblical book of Genesis, we are special. Created in the image of God and given dominion over all the plants and animals.,1 We are number two in the Universe. Second in command.

As Number Two, we aren’t really a part of the Earth, it shelters and nourishes us, kills us or makes us unhappy, but one way or another, that is God’s will, and one has to respect that. We’re just visiting. We’re with God and the Earth is soiled and dirty, the Devil’s plain to roam. Adam and Eve ate forbidden fruit, and were banished from the Garden of Eden. This sin is passed down for all generations, except God offers salvation from death to those who have faith in God, are obedient and don’t sin. But since sinning and being ejected from the Garden of Eden, our free will is weak.

Christianity assumed everything in the Bible was at least inspired and directed by God and true. No need to inquire further. There are no accidents. Trying to evade your fate as God planned is ungrateful and defiant. But which fate of all possible fates is your fate and how do you navigate through it?

Determinism and Indeterminism

In philosophy, determinism is the idea that everything in life is exactly the material and predictable step-by-step consequence of all that has preceded it.

Indeterminism is the idea that no, it isn’t.The past does not fully determine the future.

Predestiny and Free Will

Christians say that God created the Universe and is all-knowing and all-powerful. Humans are sinful and may after death be punished or annihilated for their sins in life, or be saved and granted eternal life after death. How to get saved, if it is even possible to change one’s fate, is not entirely known, and of course it matters to Christians, so they’ve tried to figure it out.

In religion, predestiny is the idea that God has already decided if you are saved or not. There is nothing you can do about it.

Free will is the idea that in life you can make your own choices and that your decisions arise from yourself independently of outside influences.

Free Will and Salvation

In Christianity, there is a concept of limited free will just concerned with religious salvation. This free will is the idea that you can choose internally and independently to change your destiny after death. You can become saved or damned depending on how you choose to live your life. Some believe that you can have free will in life, but that your salvation is still fixed.

Determinism and Indeterminism; Predestiny and Free Will

The combinations of philosophical and religious dualities have implications for different Christian denominations because salvation is central to Christianity and exactly how you can be or get saved (beyond faith) is debated. A church settles on one combination about the nature of God and the Universe and that defines and distinguishes them by structuring and constraining what they can say about salvation. Similarly, variations on the Faust legend depend on an author’s beliefs.

In an entirely determined universe, none of us, Faust included, is capable of doing other than what must be done. It makes no sense to punish or damn us for what we can’t control.

Without free will, nothing we do in life can affect our chances of salvation. Being good, being moral, mean nothing–at least as far as salvation is concerned.

With free will, everything we do in life affects our chances of salvation.


In the 15th century leadership of the wealthy and powerful Catholic Church had become a political prize. It did not represent true Christianity and many felt it was necessary to return to foundations, primarily limiting to the Bible to find out what true Christianity was. That then revived questions of salvation and free will that were still being debated when Faust was first published in the late 16th century.

Early Faust – Faust and Faith

Borrowing from older tales embellishing the story of a local magician who lived in the 15th century, the earliest available printed text comes from a Lutheran printer working in an early Lutheran part of present-day Germany.


Do we have limited free will within a deterministic universe because we’re special? That’s a common viewpoint. It works and it feels good. The Universe can be determined while we can retain our free agency. God is all-powerful and we are truly special: we are masters of our own lives.

We can have free will in life yet not have free will in our salvation. This is the Protestant Lutheran position where salvation is yours and Faust’s to refuse.

Modern Lutherans believe that while salvation is predetermined, it can be lost when one does not seek or accept God’s forgiveness. Lutherans say “have faith” but also teach that you will only have faith if you are already saved. Faust, who had studied religion and been unmoved, might have recognized his destiny. Yet he remains responsible for his own fate.2

It’s nice that when faced with a conundrum such as predetermined salvation which is not guaranteed, Lutherans are willing to live with it. Sometimes you have to accept you can’t know something. Like any of this you might think, but it matters, because understanding affects our attitudes about responsibility and justice.


God invented clockwork. It’s the mechanism of science and technology. He knows what’s going to happen. He knows if you’ll be good. He also knows if you’ll be saved.

But if God knows everything, are we helpless? If we are puppets, then worship by puppets in a determinate universe only reflects God’s vanity and loneliness, and we are blameless and faith is empty.3 We are free of responsibility, morality and duty in respect to salvation–and also in life if we have no free will in life. Do the time, do the crime?

If we have no free will in life, we have to dispense with blame and punishment, praise and reward and find another approach such as understanding and acceptance followed by practical solutions.

Calvinism, a form of Protestantism, believes that salvation is entirely predestined. 4 Calvinists are not notably immoral or amoral. Morality isn’t dependent on religious belief.

In Faust’s predestined world, if God liked you enough to save you it seemed reasonable that God’s favour would be expressed in your life, like being high-born. This justified social rank and service. Without knowing if you were saved, you’d certainly want people to assume you were. It’s part of keeping up appearances, belonging to the right crowd and leveraging social credit. The usual social climbing and pretense. Maybe this is where morality is born, under a watchful gaze.

Where salvation is predestined, doing good or charitable things cannot contribute to salvation, and many Protestants treat them only as a manifestation of faith. You do good because you are good. It doesn’t make you better.

In England in the late sixteenth century, Christopher Marlowe’s environment was Calvinism and Anglican with remnant Catholicism and a Cambridge education. Marlowe’s faith (if any) and how it relates to his Doctor Faustus is debated.


In contrast to a determinate universe, in an indeterminate universe there is opportunity, there are possibilities; perhaps–with free will–control, but also perhaps none because randomness is not free will. There are still no guarantees about free will or salvation, which may be predestined, already known by God as if existing outside of time.

If this is an indeterminate universe, can God know everything, and crucially, is he really all powerful? Then we might ask, is he really a god? Is there another, more worthy and superior God? Who’s on top of the pile of gods?

Whether the Universe is determinate or indeterminate it is possible we are capable of free will in life and can secure our salvation through faith and through our good works or charitable deeds. This is the Catholic position. Unfortunately, that tempted them into the business of selling reduced punishment for sins in exchange for donations, a destabilizing and defiling practice which the Protestants reversed contemporary Christianity to avoid, returning to foundations.5

Catholicism teaches free will and the value of good works.

Although predestinarian in the sense of God’s intent and foreknowledge, Catholic tradition supported free will and would have offered Faust a chance of redemption that in Lutheran tradition wasn’t possible. His salvation was his to trade away freely. Catholicism also would have offered Faust the chance to formally repent and seek protection and forgiveness, through a priestly intercession (although God wasn’t obliged). Protestants don’t have priests, something that made many Protestants uneasy in a time of literal belief that they were as exposed to the devil as Faust, and there was no divine magic to shield them.

Goethe, raised Lutheran, but a free-thinking Christian in later life, was influenced by Greek humanist philosophy, Deism and Pantheism (and Catholicism, etc.) and consequently had the means to save Faust. Goethe’s God is present and actively interested in Faust’s challenges. Faust’s striving, his manifestation of his free will, helped save him. The intercession of love and Faust’s good works led to his salvation.


Things have changed over the centuries. Grounded in an expectation that the Universe really did resemble a clockwork mechanism, and that through reductionism and material determinism, the Universe could be dissected, studied and controlled reliably, and we could chart our own course, our salvation clearly evidenced and guided by our progress, guided by God and reason.

The scientific method, Newtonian physics and Copernican astronomy fit the cause-and-effect model nicely. There is no room for inexplicable causes. Individual effort was necessary and rewarded. Maybe you couldn’t change your salvation but you could try and it was your responsibility to try.

Actually, science and technology have subsequently revealed that there are things that don’t seem to follow the deterministic model, don’t obey obvious cause and effect, and might support free will, but these quantum-level influences are probabilistic and random, like flipping a near-infinite number of coins to eventually achieve an expected result.

We have also discovered that dispensing with indeterminism and free will does not need to have negative consequences as we learn that many of the apparent evils of the world are not evil, but are conditions we can understand and mitigate. It’s very similar to the effect of determinism in science: by eliminating the idea that there are influences we can’t understand, we can muster the forces to understand. Times have changed.

We might take a moment to consider our place in our quest for knowledge. When it comes to the big questions about the Universe and the way things are, we still don’t have the answers. Between determinism and indeterminacy, between free will and destiny, between particles and waves, are there other answers?

One thing we might try to understand is that the distinction between ourselves and the Universe is based on the belief that we are separate, which is an internal prejudice without reason, a matter of perspective. We are not simply observers; not just visiting.

From the internal side of that divide flows the impression of ability or agency and free will. The brain models the Universe with itself as God, in control. It is less pleasant to think that not only are we only in the flow of all things, but we are the flow of all things. We have limbs to change direction. Is that our free will? That we turn to follow the lure like a fish in a river? Again, like Faust?

The debate is not over. What does God think about as he watches us go through our days. Does he really have free will? Is he responsible for the burden of our sins and suffering or is he a puppet god, one level down?

Our destinies are unknowable. So is religious salvation. Free will or not, the actor acts and the audience waits to find out if Faust is damned or saved and to speculate on why and how.

  1. Suggesting both separateness and a free will. []
  2. “Lutherans adhere to divine monergism, the teaching that salvation is by God’s act alone, and therefore reject the idea that humans in their fallen state have a free will concerning spiritual matters. Lutherans believe that although humans have free will concerning civil righteousness, they cannot work spiritual righteousness without the Holy Spirit, since righteousness in the heart cannot be wrought in the absence of the Holy Spirit. In other words, humanity is free to choose and act in every regard except for the choice of salvation.” <> and: “I confess that mankind has a free will, but it is to milk kine [e.g. cattle], to build houses, etc., and no further.” Martin Luther, Table Talk. []
  3. Christianity identifies Jesus as God, so Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was conceivably God’s atonement for His sin. []
  4. The Calvinistic doctrine of predestination is a doctrine of Calvinism which deals with the question of the control God exercises over the world. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, God “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass.” []
  5. The Catholic position of encouraging good works had led it into corruption from the sale of salvation in return for donations. They were not literally selling salvation, just the promise to petition God to forgive you, but also reducing your Earthly punishments imposed by the Church. []