The Freedom to Believe--A Lie
December 18, 1975. October 6, 1984. December 20, 1996. What do these dates—representative of three consecutive decades—have in common? The answer is that each represents a day in that particular decade on which an eminent evolutionary scientist died. In the decade of the ’70s, it was Thursday, December 18, 1975, when Theodosius Dobzhansky, the world-class geneticist of The Rockefeller University, passed away. In the decade of the ’80s, it was Saturday, October 6, 1984, when George Gaylord Simpson, the renowned paleontologist who served as a professor at both Harvard and the University of Arizona, died. In the decade of the ’90s, it was Friday, December 20, 1996, when Carl Sagan, the acclaimed astronomer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cornell University, passed from this life.
Each of these evolutionists was a multi-talented, highly intelligent individual who was well known and widely respected, both by those within and without the scientific community. Because of their reputations, and the lifetime achievements that in some cases had made their names household words, their passing did not go unnoticed by those involved on either side of the creation/evolution controversy. The evolutionary colleagues they left behind invariably penned glowing tributes acknowledging the tireless dedication that their now-deceased coworkers had demonstrated on behalf of a common cause. Those same colleagues repeatedly emphasized the profound scholarship that these men had exhibited through the years as they promoted and defended evolution; simultaneously, they expressed their deep regret that the concept of evolutionary thought now had lost such remarkable and powerful champions.
Creationists, on the other hand, had a somewhat different reaction. While certainly they shared the grief at the loss of a valuable human life, and while they deeply regretted the various circumstances surrounding the death of each of these men, other feelings could not help but surface as well. For example, it is extremely difficult for those who believe in God, and who accept the biblical account of creation as the correct explanation for the origin of the Universe and its inhabitants, to comprehend fully how intelligent people can accept the naturalistic concept of organic evolution. In fact, one of the most mind-numbing mysteries for those who do not believe in evolution is trying to understand the rationale of those who do. In every decade, whenever an evolutionist of the stature of a Dobzhansky, a Simpson, or a Sagan dies, one of the first questions that comes to mind is this: How could someone who possessed such obvious talent, and such undeniable brilliance, spend a lifetime believing, promoting, and defending a concept as false, and as meritless, as organic evolution?
The answer to such a question is to be found, at least in part, in the fact that when God created humans, He endowed us with freedom of choice. We often refer to that freedom as “personal volition” or “free moral agency.” The truth of the matter is that God did not create mankind as some kind of robot to slavishly serve Him, without any personal choice in the matter. This stands to reason, considering Who God is. The Scriptures describe God as being, among other things, a God of love (1 John 4:8). But is it not true that love allows freedom of choice. Ask people who are responsible parents. Do they love their children? Certainly. Do they—because of that love—allow those children freedom of choice? Indeed.
God, Who often is depicted in Scripture as a loving Father, is no different in this regard. Even a cursory survey of the biblical text documents God’s desire that man, as His creation, possess, and employ, freedom of choice. For example, when Joshua—who had led the Israelite nation so faithfully for so long—realized that his days were numbered and his hours were few, he assembled the entirety of that nation before him and, in one of the most impassioned pleas in Holy Writ, urged them to employ their personal volition in a proper fashion when he spoke these words:
And if it seem evil unto you to serve Jehovah, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether gods which your fathers served that were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve Jehovah (Joshua 24:15).
Joshua’s point was clear. The Israelites, individually and collectively, had the ability, and yes, even the God-given right, to choose whether or not they wished to follow Jehovah. As the text continues, it indicates that on that particular occasion they chose correctly.
And the people answered and said, Far be it from us that we should forsake Jehovah, to serve other gods;... And Israel served Jehovah all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua, and had known all the work of Jehovah that he had wrought for Israel (Joshua 24:16,31).
In the New Testament, the principle is the same. When Jesus condemned the self-righteousness of the Pharisees in John 5:39-40, He made this observation: “Ye search the scriptures, because ye think that in them ye have eternal life; and these are they which bear witness of me; and ye will not come to me, that ye may have life.” The Pharisees of New Testament times possessed the same freedom of choice that the Israelites of Old Testament times possessed. But while the Israelites to whom he spoke chose to heed Joshua’s plea and obey Jehovah, the Pharisees to whom Christ spoke chose to ignore His plea and disobey God.
Two chapters later, when Jesus addressed the Jews in their own temple, the text indicates that they marveled at His teaching (John 7:15). But Jesus demurred, and said: “My teaching is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man willeth to do his will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from myself ” (John 7:16-17). Jesus’ point to the devout temple Jews was no different than the one He had made earlier to the legalistic Pharisees. God has imbued mankind with the ability to choose. If a person wills, he can accept God and His teaching, but God never will force Himself on that person. As the apostle John brought the Book of Revelation to a close, he wrote: “he that will, let him take the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17). The operative phrase here, of course, is “he that will.”
But what of he that will not? Freedom is accompanied by responsibility. With freedom of choice comes the responsibility to think carefully, choose wisely, and act forcefully. Freedom of choice always works best when tempered with wisdom and good judgment. For that reason, to use just one example, parents who allow their children freedom of choice do not give them just freedom of choice. Rather, they provide their offspring with rules, regulations, and guidelines intended to help them use that freedom of choice correctly. If the children heed their parents’ admonition, it is likely that wisdom and good judgment will prevail.
In mankind’s relationship with God, it is much the same. In addition to giving us freedom of choice and personal volition, He has provided the rules, regulations, and guidelines that He knew we would need to help us use our personal freedom wisely. When we obey the rules, follow the regulations, and adhere to the guidelines, our lives are enriched. When we disobey the rules, refuse to follow the regulations, and ignore the guidelines, the opposite effect occurs. The Proverbs writer commented on this aspect of human life when he remarked: “The way of the transgressor is hard” (13:15). Jeremiah wrote: “It is not in man that walketh to direct his own steps” (10:23).
Thus, in every human activity the process of recognizing, believing, and properly utilizing truth is vitally important. Especially is this true in the spiritual realm. Jesus tried to impress this upon His generation when He said: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). The same principle operates even today, almost two thousand years later. If knowing the truth makes us free, surely, then, not knowing the truth makes us captives of one sort or another. When we refuse to acknowledge, and believe, the truth, we are susceptible to every ill-conceived plan, deceptive scheme, and false concept that the winds of change may blow our way. We become captive to error because we have abandoned the one moral compass—truth—that possesses the ability to show us the way, and thereby to set us free. What we as humans so often fail to realize is that we are not involved in a search for truth because it is lost; we are involved in a search for truth because, without it, we are!
Some, however, have elected to employ their freedom of choice to ignore or disobey the truth—or both. They are the spiritual descendants of the first-century Pharisees; they could come to a knowledge of the truth, but they will not. Paul said: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22). Strong words, those! Why would the apostle use such terms to describe some of the people of his generation? His reason, according to the text that follows, was because “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).
Is this not an apt description of the evolutionists of our day? Have they not “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator”? Is this not what evolution does best—exalting the creature over the Creator? And all in the name of “science”? When Paul wrote his first letter to Timothy, he warned: “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called” (1 Timothy 6:20, KJV). To the Colossians, the apostle to the Gentiles wrote: “Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world” (Colossians 2:8).
The simple fact of the matter is that we are responsible for what we choose to believe. Using the personal volition with which God has endowed us, we may choose freely to believe the truth, or we may choose just as freely to believe error. The choice is up to each individual. And once that individual has made up his mind that he prefers error over truth, God will not deter him, as Paul made clear when he wrote his second epistle to the Thessalonians. In that letter, he spoke of those who “received not the love of the truth” (2:10), and then went on to say that “for this cause God sendeth them a working of error, that they should believe a lie” (2 Thessalonians 2:11). What a horrible thought—to go through life with the absolute freedom to believe a lie! This concept is of such a serious nature that it deserves sustained attention.
What are the potential consequences of actually believing a lie? An Old Testament example addresses this very issue. In 1 Kings 13, the story is told of an unnamed young prophet whom God sent to deliver a stern rebuke to king Jeroboam for having established idol worship at Bethel. God commanded the prophet: “Thou shalt eat no bread, nor drink water, neither return by the same way that thou camest” (1 Kings 13:9). Yet an older, lying prophet met the younger prophet and said: “I also am a prophet as thou art; and an angel spake unto me by the word of Jehovah, saying, ‘Bring him back with thee into thy house that he may eat bread and drink water’ ” (1 Kings 13:18). The young prophet accepted at face value the older prophet’s instruction—false though it was—and on his return trip home was slain by a lion sent by God as punishment for his disobedience (1 Kings 13:24). The young prophet believed a lie—the end result being that he incurred the wrath of God and suffered the loss of his (physical) life. Pity those today who similarly choose to believe a lie—the end result being that they incur the wrath of God and suffer the loss of their (spiritual) life.
On Sunday morning, September 3, 1893, the late Restoration preacher, J.W. McGarvey, presented a powerful sermon titled “Believing a Lie,” the text of which has been preserved in print. In that lesson, McGarvey remarked:
Notice, now, that it is not a bad man, but a brave and good man, who is thus overcome. Even such a man is not free from danger at this point. Many a man just as brave and true in many particulars, has been led to his own undoing by the belief of a lie.... The fate of the young prophet cries out like the blast of a trumpet to startle us from our fancied security, and makes us look around to see if we, too, are in any such peril (1958, pp. 331,333).
McGarvey’s point is well taken. The young prophet probably meant well in what he did. In all likelihood, he was both brave and good. Furthermore, he may have been convinced that, as he strayed from God’s commands, all the while he actually was engaged in believing and acting upon the truth. But none of this saved him from the fate that awaited him because—regardless of how brave or good he was, and regardless of how much he thought he was involved in believing the truth—he ignored, and disobeyed, the truth God gave him, and ended up believing a lie. As McGarvey went on to say:
The lie which he believed led him to disobey God. His disobedience was the immediate cause, while the belief of a lie was only the remote cause of his death.... You can see now very plainly that this incident happened for a type, as Paul said of many other Old Testament incidents, and that it was written for our admonition. It was written to warn us against the belief of a lie. In view of the solemn lesson now before us, taught both in the Old Testament and in the New, it becomes a question of transcendent importance, How shall we be sure that we are not believing lies...? (1958, p. 333).
Indeed, the fate of the young prophet should make us want to examine our own lives to see if we, too, are in peril of condemnation as a result of having believed a lie. Frequent self-examination of our beliefs, and the evidence upon which they are based, is a good thing, and much to be desired. The consequences of believing a lie are too painful, and too permanent, for us to grow complacent.
But what, exactly, was Paul suggesting when he stated in 2 Thessalonians 2:11 that “God sendeth them a working of error, that they should believe a lie”? Was the apostle teaching that God purposely causes men to believe error?
No, he was not. Paul’s point in this passage was that because God has granted man personal volition, and because He has provided within the Bible the rules, regulations, and guidelines to govern that personal volition, He therefore will refrain from overriding man’s freedom of choice—even when that choice violates His law. God will not contravene man’s decisions, or interfere with the actions based on those decisions. The prophet Isaiah had recorded God’s words on this subject many years before when he wrote:
Yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations: I also will choose their delusions, and will bring their fears upon them; because when I called, none did answer; when I spake, they did not hear: but they did that which was evil in mine eyes, and chose that wherein I delighted not (Isaiah 66:3-4).
Concerning the people who refused to have God in their knowledge, and who actually preferred believing a lie to believing the truth, Paul repeatedly stated that “God gave them up...” (Romans 1:24,26,28). In his commentary on the Thessalonian epistles, Raymond C. Kelcy observed:
There is a time in the progression of sin when God gives a man over to that which he prefers. The man prefers a lie.... God gives the man over to the belief of the lie which he prefers. In a sense it might be said that the means by which a person is deceived is God’s permissive agency—not God’s direct agency (1968, p. 157).
There is an exact parallel in the instance of the Pharaoh who battled Moses and Aaron over the release of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage. Several times the biblical text records that it was God Who “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20,27; 11:10; 14:8). Are we to understand, therefore, that somehow God caused Pharaoh’s stubborn disobedience? Certainly not. The simple fact of the matter is that God did not cause Pharaoh to harden his heart and disobey, but instead permitted the pagan king’s actions. The Scriptures speak to this point when they acknowledge that Pharaoh himself “hardened his heart” (Exodus 8:15,32; 9:34-35). [See related article, “Pharaoh’s Heart Weighed in the Balance.”] In their commentary on the Pentateuch, Keil and Delitzsch addressed Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, even after he witnessed the miraculous plagues sent by God.
After every one of these miracles, it is stated that Pharaoh’s heart was firm, or dull, i.e. insensible to the voice of God, and unaffected by the miracles performed before his eyes, and the judgments of God suspended over him and his kingdom.... Thus Pharaoh would not bend his self-will to the will of God, even after he had discerned the finger of God and the omnipotence of Jehovah in the plagues suspended over him and his nation; he would not withdraw his haughty refusal, notwithstanding the fact that he was obliged to acknowledge that it was sin against Jehovah. Looked at from this side, the hardening was a fruit of sin, a consequence of that self-will, high-mindedness, and pride which flow from sin, and a continuous and ever increasing abuse of that freedom of the will which is innate in man, and which involves the possibility of obstinate resistance to the word and chastisement of God even until death (1981, pp. 454,455, emp. added).
Pharaoh’s hard heart was not God’s doing, but his own. God’s permissive agency was involved, but not His direct agency. That is to say, He allowed Pharaoh to use (or abuse, as Keil and Delitzsch correctly noted) his freedom of will in a vain attempt to thwart God’s plans. Throughout history, God’s actions have been consistent in this regard. The psalmist wrote:
But my people hearkened not to my voice; and Israel would not hear me. So I let them go after the stubbornness of their heart, that they might walk in their own counsels (Psalm 81:11-12).
In Romans 11:8, Paul (quoting from Isaiah 29:10) stated concerning the rebellious Israelites: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear.”
In every generation, God has granted mankind the freedom of self-determination to be blind to the truth, and in so doing to believe a lie. E.M. Zerr put it well when he said:
The Bible in no place teaches that God ever forces a man to sin, then punishes him for the wrong-doing. Neither does He compel man against his will to do right, but has always offered him proper inducements for righteous conduct, then left it to his own responsibility to decide what he will do about it (1952, 5:159).
The world generally looks upon people of the stature of Dobzhansky, Simpson, or Sagan with awe. Their scholarly attainments are many, their academic credentials are impressive, and their world-class reputations are undisputed. They spend lifetimes building legacies that will remain long after they have passed from these earthly scenes.
But when they die, it causes some among us to ponder the point of why people of their intelligence believed as they did. It causes us to question how someone so brilliant could reach the conclusions they reached. And it causes us to reflect on the fact that it is possible to waste a lifetime allegedly searching for truth, all the while remaining firmly entrenched in error.
A few months before he died, and while battling what he knew was most likely a fatal disease with no cure, Carl Sagan granted an interview to Parade magazine, which was published in the March 10, 1996 edition under the title of “In the Valley of the Shadow.” Included in that interview was this statement from Dr. Sagan:
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking (1996, p. 18).
How terribly sad. Here is a man who knew—perhaps as well as anyone in the world—how to do exhaustive research. Yet for some reason, he never researched the historical evidence (provided by the resurrection of Christ) for the very thing he admitted he “would love to believe”—life after death.
It is heartbreaking indeed to witness the death of men such as Dobzhansky, Simpson, and Sagan who, by worldly standards, are the very epitome of brilliance and accomplishment. But the great apostle Paul warned:
Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?... Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For behold your calling, brethren, that not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called (1 Corinthians 1:20,25-26).
Later, in his first epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul wrote of those “who have no hope” (4:13). No hope! What a chilling thought—to be endowed with the freedom to believe, only to spend a lifetime believing a lie and end it all with no hope.
Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch (1981 reprint), Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Kelcy, Raymond C. (1968), The Living Word Commentary: The Letters of Paul to the Thessalonians (Austin, TX: Sweet).
McGarvey, J.W. (1958 reprint), Sermons (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).
Sagan, Carl (1996), “In the Valley of the Shadow,” Parade, pp. 18-21, March 10.
Zerr, E.M. (1952), Bible Commentary (Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth Foundation).