In various religions it is often preached that god has given humans free will. But at the same time those religions preach that there is punishment for sinning.

Assuming a god does exist, and god does punish people for sinning, doesn't that contradict the idea of free will because if humans know they will be punished by god for sinning, it might stop them from doing the action in the first place?

  • 4
    If you replace "punishment from god"/"god does punish"/"punished by god" with "punishment by your peers", would that significantly change the question?
    – user3164
    May 4, 2013 at 20:26
  • @Gugg I understand that you're trying to make this question more politically correct, but it's specifically targeted to the idea of a god-given freewill contradicted by the idea that the God(s) can punish you if you don't do what they want. May 5, 2013 at 0:28
  • 1
    @RandomDuck.NET I'm asking for some logical clarification. Political correctness isn't involved.
    – user3164
    May 5, 2013 at 6:25
  • According to Islam the free will is limited only to life in this world and by death the free will is finished and then result of deeds starts. May 5, 2013 at 14:21
  • 1
    @Gugg Being almighty, knowingly allowing and then punishing, is what I think the difference would be from one's peers.
    – user2411
    May 7, 2013 at 18:11

12 Answers 12


I honestly cannot understand what this has to do with free will.

Free will is hard to define, but roughly the philosophical definition is independence from external physical influences. If we have free will, then we are by default independent from these influences. Then, if we are told that certain actions will incur punishment, which is an external physical influence, nothing changes at all.

Suppose you get a glass of water and want to drink it. If you have free will, then it is your independent decision to drink it. Then, suppose I tell you than though the water will quench your thirst, I put something in it to make it taste very bad. If you had free will before I told you about this "punishment", you will still have it afterward: it is still completely your decision. Knowledge of punishment is merely a factor in this decision - if you have free will from other influences, then this one too will not determine your choice in any way. There's nothing special about punishment that makes it more physically determinant than everything else in the world.

Thus, whether God punishes us has nothing to do with free will. We either have it or we don't, and in either case punishment plays no role in determining our freedom.

  • Well said. I said essentially the same thing - but you expanded on it very nicely.
    – Vector
    May 6, 2013 at 0:00
  • Sin is a moral failing, not a physical one, so the definition of free will shouldn't encompass "external physical influences", but rather freedom from moral compulsion (not influence alone, but compulsion). This is a quibble though - the logic of your answer applies the same way.
    – LightCC
    Mar 17, 2017 at 4:02

The idea that there is free will is usually defended by believers, who think that idea is need to defend the existence of evil in the world despite a God be all benevolent. What is contradictory is not punishment that supposedly results from the misuse of free will, but why it is good for humans to reduce the evil, but not good for God to do precisely the same thing? Just as we have a duty to curtail another person’s exercise of free will when we know that they will use their free will to inflict considerable suffering on an innocent person, so too does God have a duty of this sort. Do you think that one should not intervene to prevent someone from committing rape or murder? Free will is merely the ability to choose among available options. The ability to have all options available is not free will but omnipotence. Humans are not able to kill each other by simply wishing it; does the lack of this ability mean that humans do not have free will? There are already restrictions on humans' ability to kill each other. People in heaven are not capable of harming each other; otherwise, it would not be heaven. So, do people in heaven lack free will? God does not have human free will as high importance. According to the Bible, God killed millions of people. Surely that interfered with their free will, considering that they did not want to die. Furthermore, the Bible suggests that God knows the future and predestines people's fates. That, too, may interfere with human free will. In addition, there are many obstacles to free will in our present world (famine, mental retardation, grave diseases, premature death, etc.) and God does little or nothing to prevent them.

What is the evidence of moral lessons to learn from evil? If God's lack of moral development does not take away from his perfect goodness, then why would we place such a high value on our moral development, as opposed to always being this way? The justification and value of the qualities developed through experience with evil is precisely because they are useful in overcoming evil. If there were no evil, what is the value of God to permit evil in the first place? What are the chances that we can know what God wants we learn, when he allows for example a one-year-old orphan to be killed by a natural accident and is never found or missed?

If evil is necessary because it secures a greater good, then we humans have no duty to prevent it, for in doing so we would also prevent the greater good for which the evil is required. God must permit the man to do evil for the sake of a greater good without the man to expect to know for which greater goods the evils are needed, because God is inscrutable and morally perfect. We have no duty of the placing of lightning rods. We have no duty of cancer treatment. The loss of inference from our behavior to its moral real effects turn God commands indiscernible from no goodness at all. Since clearly exist evils that we prevent or try to prevent, because we suspect that there aren't such greater good from evils, it follows that the evidence is that we do not trust that God's goodness or omnipotence exist. If is precisely the prevention acts what God wants, we would rejoice in each new evil because it would give us an opportunity to prevent future instances of that evil. We would be celebrating the AIDS epidemic, because the thousands or millions who have died and will die agonizing deaths from this disease will give us the 'outweighing good' of the opportunity to prevent future instances of AIDS. This lead us to see every conceivable evil state of affairs as compatible with the existence of God's goodness, and in that case the notion of God's goodness is rendered meaningless. We don't have any warrant for thinking that God is behind everything instead of a Perfect Devil.

  • 1
    Some of this seems largely paraphrased from Wiki's entry on the Problem of Evil; is there any chance I might be able to persuade you to clarify which pieces of this might be original?
    – Joseph Weissman
    May 7, 2013 at 16:33
  • Oops, citation is necessary, a sentence from Wikipedia actually. Thanks. May 7, 2013 at 16:49

Arthur Schopenhauer highlighted some of his views:

According to Schopenhauer, whenever we make a choice, "we assume as necessary that decision was preceded by something from which it ensued, and which we call the ground or reason, or more accurately the motive, of the resultant action."[34] Choices are not made freely. Our actions are necessary and determined because "every human being, even every animal, after the motive has appeared, must carry out the action which alone is in accordance with his inborn and immutable character." [35] A definite action inevitably results when a particular motive influences a person's given, unchangeable character. The State, Schopenhauer claimed, punishes criminals in order to prevent future crimes. It does so by placing "beside every possible motive for committing a wrong a more powerful motive for leaving it undone, in the inescapable punishment.

I would tend to agree that if there is an even more powerful motive not to commit an action than to commit an action, although an individual might want to commit that action, that individual would not commit that action in the end.


Martin Luther's Heidelberg Disputation implies just the opposite.

Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin. Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.

Here is a well-known religion that believes in a god (Lutheran Christianity), and it says we have free will to do evil. That religion says we're trapped in a state where our efforts just increase sin (which as you point out is a reason for punishment). There is not a contradiction because we have no active capacity to do good.

  • 1
    "There is not a contradiction because we have no active capacity to do good." That's a contradiction to 'free will'... Pretty gruesome religion...
    – Vector
    May 5, 2013 at 22:35
  • Mikey, then this is only a religion for those who see their inability to do good.
    – pterandon
    May 6, 2013 at 16:21
  • Hmm... why should 'those who see their inability to do good' need a religion at all? Just because it's a mandate from God? To limit the extent of their ability to do evil?
    – Vector
    May 7, 2013 at 2:00

There are counter examples in the sphere of ordinary human life:

  1. Smoking is generally understood have many ill effects. One can say one is punished for smoking. But this does not stop many people from smoking.

  2. There are penalties for criminal activity but this does not deter criminals.

One does not suppose in both of these situations that there is a lack of free will in the protagonist, but perhaps an excess of it. One is wilful.

Of course you have brought God into it, and maybe this complicates this rather simple situation I've drawn out. Is it an Abrahamic god such as Jehovah, God or Allah? Or Spinozas God? Or one of the many gods in the Hindu pantheon? Or the inscrutable Brahman in Hindu Upanishadic Philosophy/monotheism?

  • 1
    It's pretty clear from the OP that it's a god which is inclined to punish — so not Spinoza's god. May 5, 2013 at 16:43
  • @deBeaudrap: Fair point. But he also mentions 'in many religions', and though I didn't say explicitly I wanted to point out there isn't one POV within a religion about what God is and therefore the idea of punishment is open to complication. May 7, 2013 at 16:46
  • But from the OP: "Assuming a god does exist, and god does punish people for sinning, doesn't that contradict the idea of free will because if humans know they will be punished by god for sinning, it might stop them from doing the action in the first place?" May 7, 2013 at 17:06
  • @deBeaudrap: a god, not The God? Still punishment is something I associate with the Abrahamaic religions - I'd be interested to know whether there is a rough analogy in Zoroastrianism/Hinduism/Buddhism. I would suspect that there is. In the Greek Tragedies/Myths the gods wrecked punishments on mortals. May 7, 2013 at 17:18

I'm not going to give you a well-formed theological answer, but an advice of where you might find an answer. What you should read is the letters between Leibniz and Arnauld. I found it here : http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/mickelsen/texts One of the best letters I've ever read about human free-will, god's free will, how to join both and evil's explanation.

To understand them well, you can also read his "Discourse of metaphysics" : it's very very short. Since I'm not a native english speaker, if you need help to find refined sections, please let me know and I will search.


If god did exist and does punish humans for sinning, "technically" would that not be obstructing with humans' free will?

For example, if I want to steal something from a shop, but I know God will punish me by killing me for stealing from the shop, obviously I would not want to die and would not steal from the shop.

I still have the choice to steal from the shop or not, but since I know I will die if I steal from the shop, it is such a great deterrent that I will decide not to steal from the shop although I want to steal from the shop. Isn't that obstructing with my free will, although not 100%?

  • 1
    This may be true if the punishment is immediate. By placing the punishment far in the future its effects is weakened. Our will much less 'obstructed'. But more precisely it was never obstructed in the first place. Suicide bombers for example choose to sacrifice themselves for honour. May 11, 2013 at 3:34

To elaborate further on the other answer if we did not have free will then a God that is indeed fair and just would not actually punish us for our actions in the first place. Seeing as we have no control over them in the first place. You may have to be the cause of a action to be held responsible for the action in question.

In various religions it is often preached that god has given humans free will. But at the same time those religions preach that there is punishment for sinning.

Assuming a god does exist, and god does punish people for sinning, doesn't that contradict the idea of free will because if humans know they will be punished by god for sinning, it might stop them from doing the action in the first place?

The fear of punishment has never really stopped anyone from doing bad things. If the death penalty can not stop people from killing one another I doubt any punishment God can give can stop people from sinning.

If we are to extend your argument to its logical conclusion the Government in which you live in may also teach that their is a consequence to murder in cold blood. In its quest for what it deems to be a good morality it has also outlawed or banned certain activities.

Does this now mean you are not free to kill a person if you really wanted? I do not think that the banning of an action or the promise of consequences to said action has any bearing to whether you are free to do the thing or not.


God is a real scumbag for punishing many of us good people everyday, and rewards the very evil ones. But why is that?

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  1. Free will gives you freedom of choosing one or many out of options before you. These options differ from one another because of different results they could produce. Opting on of those options depends on your thought, mindset and requirements.

  2. Punishment by GOD is because of evil things done by you(for yourself or others).

So, if you are choosing something which is good for you(Your thought, mindset and requirements drives this) but not-so-good, neutral, bad, evil and destructing for others(others include your surrounds, society, Universe, all living, non-living being which is also part of GOD creations) and you understand this effect as well then you have attracted punishment in the same degree.

Thus punishment acts like driving force for choosing options.

So punishment and free will does not contradict if understood this way.


it might stop them from doing the action in the first place?

It MIGHT... then again it MIGHT NOT - that is free will - no compulsion: You can freely decide to commit the crime and accept the punishment. Or you can simply decide to not believe the warning. Regardless of warnings or exhortations (which one subjects oneself to only voluntarily) the individual always has the ability to evaluate and decide their own fate.

All this is within the province of 'free will'.

"Hell is paved with great granite blocks hewn from the hearts of those who said, 'I can do no other.'"

Heywood Broun

  • I think perhaps the question is in effect: if the god doesn't want to use brute force to try to keep us from sinning, why does it feel free to use inducements instead? What purpose does it serve? May 7, 2013 at 17:10
  • @NieldeBeaudrap 'why does it feel free to use inducements...?' Not a good question IMO: They are not 'inducements', so much as information. The Mosaic religions (I believe the question is essentially based on such a world view) lay out the options - risk vs reward. God informs you of both - you decide after becoming well informed. When a financial advisor informs of your options - where you stand to gain and where you stand to lose - are you COMPELLED to take any particular action? No. You simply become better informed so as to understand what options are appropriate for you. Same here.
    – Vector
    May 8, 2013 at 0:35
  • The difference being, of course, that in the financial sphere there is uncertainty. If you adopt the premise of a Mosaic religion, you are not merely being 'informed' of options, with 'risks': you are being told certain consequences of them. In each case, they are "submit to my will or be punished". How is this superior to removing will in the first place, unless the Abrahamic god is keen for opportunities to punish, or desires explicit submission? May 8, 2013 at 11:38
  • @NieldeBeaudrap:'The difference being...': Incorrect: There is uncertainty-risk. The ways in which God weighs things are not known to Man. The consequences are never certain: all depends on how each action is evaluated and how all interacts with the Universe at large. I am intimately familiar with the scripture and commentaries in their ORIGINAL LANGUAGES: we have nothing there but recommendations, not certainties. 'keen for opportunities to punish': No. even according to your reasoning, are not the rewards also made clear? One can construe a god as keen to reward as to punish.
    – Vector
    May 9, 2013 at 0:41
  • Keenness to reward would be more plausible if the reward were less conditional, and the behaviour to be rewarded less under the god's control. If I am keen to help others, I do so; if I attach strings to my aid, it shows an overriding agenda; and if I threaten punishment for disobedience, this shows a hunger for power over those I threaten. To what purpose, in the Mosaic religions, to make a tree whose fruit caused people to sin, and why make creatures capable of choosing to eat it? Why bother with the step of creating potentially disobedient thralls? What is this meant to accomplish? May 9, 2013 at 11:21

Free Will exists meanwhile there are limits to its application. Free Will can be translated as the liberty that the will has to choose between at least two options. If God punishes you for a wrong action, it does not limit your option to act otherwise. What God is doing is offering in an incentive for doing the Right, or acting in the best way. He has offered us a limited version of Free Will to our mind.

  • Who says this? Could you add some reference?
    – user2953
    May 26, 2013 at 20:31
  • I am trying in this case just to use only my rational view based on what I have read and analyzed on my own. If you want to debate me, I will be glad to reply to you. IF you think is not so intellectually bright or insightful, show my why? May 26, 2013 at 21:21

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