Q&R: If Christ ‘draws everyone,’ does he violate free will? Bradley Jersak

QUESTION

     In John 12:32, Jesus promises, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” That seems like good news for everyone because the only contingency is whether Christ will be lifted up (crucified). But it raises questions. What about free will or human agency or a willing faith response? Isn’t that coercion? How is that love?
RESPONSE
     Theologically, God is love and does not force, and if he could force, he would be evil for neglecting force. Love must be consensual in the sense that not even God can violate agency… so any response to God is preserved as truly willing.
     HOWEVER…
     Jesus’ language of “I will DRAW everyone to me” – ἑλκύσω – draw, drag (as in a dragnet) – is VERY strong. How can grace be irresistible but not coercive?
     My best guess is that we lose no agency if it’s a matter more of seeing than of choosing.
     In Paul’s reflections on his own conversion (which certainly appeared coercive), 2 Corinthians 4 reveals that his conversion was more akin to having his vision restored than having his arm twisted.
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
     The blindness that prevented Paul from believing was healed to that he could now see the truth of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ without hindrance or deception. At last he could truly freely respond.
     This prospect excites me if, as Jesus says, a day comes when “…every eye shall see him” (Revelation 1:7) and as John says, “We know that when he appears, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).
     St. Maximos the Confessor identified our ultimate face-to-face encounter with Jesus Christ (“when he appears”) as generating the restoration or healing of our “natural will.” By natural will, he meant that every human being was created with a will to always desire the good. But in this life, through the fall (however we conceive that), human will has obviously become dysfunctional. We vacillate between pursuing the good or turning from it. Yes, we still have real agency to make choices (however awful or self-destructive they may be) but to call that ‘free will’ is a bit of a stretch.
     Maximos sees this and seems to say it would be unjust for a good, just, and merciful God to condemn someone who “cannot believe” because they are spiritually blind. So at the final judgment, there must be a healing of our spiritual eyes that allows us to finally, freely respond… And with the healed will of a restored human nature, we would naturally respond and be authentically willing to embrace the love of Christ.
     What makes this all possible? Maximos focused on foundational healing of the human will in Gethsemane, when Christ as our human representative exercised his will to surrender to his Father’s will in complete trust that he is good. Somehow, that event established the possibility and eventual reality of our healing in Christ. But we need not delay that reality for the afterlife. If saying our YES to the Good now makes for an eternal quality of life, why not follow Jesus in saying our YES now, even if for the moment, even if imperfectly? At least that’s the invitation I’m hearing.
     Lord Jesus, heal my eyes wherever they remain resistant to the Good. Heavenly Father, heal my will wherever it defies trust in the Good God. Holy Spirit, make me whole so I willingly follow the path of life. 
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Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More