Does punishment from god contradict the idea of free will?


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?


Posted 2013-05-04T19:55:25.707

Reputation: 109

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. – Battle of Karbala – 2013-05-05T14:21:29.097

I don't really see how this addresses the question. – Niel de Beaudrap – 2013-05-07T17:08:30.103

4If you replace "punishment from god"/"god does punish"/"punished by god" with "punishment by your peers", would that significantly change the question? – None – 2013-05-04T20:26:27.017

@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. – RandomDuck.NET – 2013-05-05T00:28:01.270

1@RandomDuck.NET I'm asking for some logical clarification. Political correctness isn't involved. – None – 2013-05-05T06:25:01.957

@Gugg - the question is PERFECTLY clear logically - it's a question about religion. Duh! – Vector – 2013-05-05T22:37:46.457

I think Gugg is trying to clarify the effect of punishment on free will, whether 'God' is involved or not. Does my child have free will despite my punishment of him? If so, does punishment from God differ qualitatively? – Ask About Monica – 2013-05-06T19:00:31.013

1@Gugg Being almighty, knowingly allowing and then punishing, is what I think the difference would be from one's peers. – None – 2013-05-07T18:11:06.203

@Gugg: It's like a government saying that its citizen have freedom of speech, and then jailing those that publishes papers or broadcast speech about some certain unspeakable truths. Punishment by peers are punishment from those of equal status/power; punishment by god/government is punishment by those in power (government and god isn't exactly the same though, government get their power from the collective of peers, while god just have it; but it doesn't change the asymmetry of power between the punisher and the punished) – Lie Ryan – 2013-06-02T00:51:11.060

Assuming god is the system that defines how things work. And you operate in it by expressing your free will.If your decision turned out to be wrong(wrong motivation that is) you will run in to the karma comes back around idea and experience punishment (that may come in many different ways) as a correction.If you do the same action again,and have the same bad experience afterwards,you can conclude that you will have to change your expression.Hence, you get a self learning system: consciousness.So the punishment, is merely a self-correction/learning-mechanism.It's not contradicting – Mike de Klerk – 2013-09-09T13:31:08.107



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.


Posted 2013-05-04T19:55:25.707

Reputation: 7 064

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 – 2017-03-17T04:02:09.083

Well said. I said essentially the same thing - but you expanded on it very nicely. – Vector – 2013-05-06T00:00:00.207


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.


Posted 2013-05-04T19:55:25.707

Reputation: 3 058


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 – 2013-05-07T16:33:16.890

Oops, citation is necessary, a sentence from Wikipedia actually. Thanks. – Annotations – 2013-05-07T16:49:26.783


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.


Posted 2013-05-04T19:55:25.707

Reputation: 121


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.


Posted 2013-05-04T19:55:25.707

Reputation: 135

"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 – 2013-05-05T22:35:41.323

Mikey, then this is only a religion for those who see their inability to do good. – pterandon – 2013-05-06T16:21:48.153

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 – 2013-05-07T02:00:53.380


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?

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2013-05-04T19:55:25.707

Reputation: 1

1It's pretty clear from the OP that it's a god which is inclined to punish — so not Spinoza's god. – Niel de Beaudrap – 2013-05-05T16:43:37.740

@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. – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-05-07T16:46:56.470

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?" – Niel de Beaudrap – 2013-05-07T17:06:45.657

@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. – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-05-07T17:18:44.727


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 : 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.


Posted 2013-05-04T19:55:25.707

Reputation: 1


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%?


Posted 2013-05-04T19:55:25.707

Reputation: 17

1This 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. – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-05-11T03:34:54.493


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.

Neil Meyer

Posted 2013-05-04T19:55:25.707

Reputation: 2 161


  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.


Posted 2013-05-04T19:55:25.707

Reputation: 7


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


Posted 2013-05-04T19:55:25.707

Reputation: 471

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? – Niel de Beaudrap – 2013-05-07T17:10:03.107

@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 – 2013-05-08T00:35:15.523

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? – Niel de Beaudrap – 2013-05-08T11:38:31.290

@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 – 2013-05-09T00:41:35.787

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? – Niel de Beaudrap – 2013-05-09T11:21:32.880

@NieldeBeaudrap:'if I attach strings to my aid... overriding agenda.' What agenda? Perhaps to give your beneficiary the gratification of EARNING something, rather than being simply the recipient of handouts. 'Why bother with the step ... potentially disobedient thralls?'. Leave out that step: What sort of creature do you have? Man? Not according to the Mosaic religions. The ability to CHOOSE and to ACCOMPLISH embody the ESSENCE of MAN. Utopian world views espouse the idea that mindless creatures bathed in pleasure are the 'Crown of Creation'. Not so the Mosaic religions. – Vector – 2013-05-10T05:02:04.280

What reason is there to be proud of being wilful? Your whole approach presumes that having a wilful creature is better. Why? Why is it better to have a creature struggle to feel the gratification of reward — is this not just fetishising the human condition of struggle, which it is in the power of a creator god to suspend? And still: why make wilful creatures, only to try to sway those creatures to your will afterward? I doubt either of us will convince the other on this point, but these points are why I find your answer less than satisfactory to address the question asked. – Niel de Beaudrap – 2013-05-10T09:33:04.310

The question assumes the POV of the Mosaic religions. I believe you yourself agreed to that. If so, your questions are all off point and represent a fundamental misunderstanding and ignorance of Mosaic precepts. My answer is entirely correct based on the premise of the question. Your obvious ignorance of the subject matter should preclude you from commenting on it. :-) – Vector – 2013-05-10T19:37:05.923

If the only answer to "why did the Abrahamic god create people with free will and then decide to punish those who exercise it in a certain way" is "because that is by definition what the Abrahamic god did", then I'm not sure why you would bother to answer. – Niel de Beaudrap – 2013-05-10T22:40:13.540

@NieldeBeaudrap - "why did the Abrahamic god create people with free will and then decide to punish those who exercise it in a certain way". That was not the question. The question was if the potential for punishment precludes free will. On that question I answered quite clearly and correctly. As someone else mentioned in one of the answers : Laws do not remove a criminal's free will to commit crimes. – Vector – 2013-05-10T23:27:02.307

That question is not the literal question asked by the OP, but it's clearly implicit, inasmuch as it means anything for choices to be "free". In contract law, in many English speaking countries at least, we recognize that coercion is a condition which invalidates contacts, for good reason. Even if we suppose that "will" is "free" despite the evidence of chemistry, why do we take divine coercion less seriously in theology than we take mundane coercion in law? – Niel de Beaudrap – 2013-05-11T00:04:56.660

As I explained, there is no coercion. Look up the legal definition before you start quoting Law. When have you ever seen God stop someone from doing evil or force them to commit good? Or intimidate someone into going to a house of worship to hear preaching, or read the Bible, or to commit an injustice? NEVER. Besides, your arguments preclude you from bring the Law into things: all Law is unjust in your world, since it precludes the exercise of free will. – Vector – 2013-05-11T00:38:07.817


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.


Posted 2013-05-04T19:55:25.707

Reputation: 27

Who says this? Could you add some reference? – None – 2013-05-26T20:31:02.260

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? – AleTheologian – 2013-05-26T21:21:01.407