Free Will or Fate?

Following the shocking anthology series, Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker and team have produced an interactive film called Bandersnatch. Bouncing off of a concept that has been used in the video game world for some time, the movie allows you to make choices about how the story will turn out as you go along. Every five to ten minutes you are presented with a choice of two ways the story can go. There are multiple pathways and several endings at which you might arrive (some much better than others, I might add).

“Program and Control Man”
[SPOILER ALERT] The film follows Stefan, a young video game programmer who’s working on a new game. The game, like the film itself, allows the user to make choices throughout that could change the outcome of the story. The user thinks that they have free will to determine the direction of the game, but in reality, Stefan is really determining the direction the game will go. As Stefan tries to design the perfect game, certain events cause him to question if he is really in control of his own actions or is merely a puppet on a string, like those who will play his game. A mysterious game creator named Colin tells Stefan the “truth.”

Warning: This video contains some strong language at the 1:09 marker

Colin goes on to say that PAC-MAN isn’t just a game, it’s a nightmarish reality in which we all live.

After his meeting with Colin, Stefan begins to lose his grip on reality. He can no longer tell what is real, and he becomes convinced that he is being controlled by an outside force. The irony of course, is that we are controlling him from behind our screens as we make choices about what Stefan does next. The film is disorienting because we are faced with the same questions that Stefan is asking. Is there any free will? Are we really in control? Do we actually get to change or alter Stefan’s story? Or have the creators of the show already selected the endings for us?

At one point in the film, we must make a choice between two options, both of which are criminal and unsettling. In real life, anyone with a trace of morality would not choose either. It’s easy to think that we are really in control up until this point. But when we get here, we face a dilemma. Is there really any free will when you must make a choice between two things that are evil? At another point, we must choose between committing a crime or “backing off.” Selecting “backing off,” as it turns out, actually ends the movie. Then you are asked if you would like to go back and choose again. But choose what? You can only choose the crime! I remember shouting at the screen “Oh come on!”

Like those who will play Stefan’s game, we really do not have any option. Similarly, we may think we are in control, but a bigger hand is controlling the outcome, determining the direction the movie’s story will ultimately take. Like PAC-MAN, we are stuck as consumers in a nightmarish world without free will. This is why the film is so effective in communicating this vision of life. Stefan thinks that he is in control of the game, we think we are in control of Stefan, and everyone is duped. Perhaps there is no free will after all.

At the Mercy of the Fates
For many people, this is exactly how the world works. We are stuck in a machine grinding its wheels, our actions are determined and there’s nothing we can do about them. The fittest survive, the weak die, self-interest and hedonism prevail. Our choices are already made for us. Free will is an illusion, nothing we do ultimately matters. The universe, as Dawkins says, is “Blind, pitiless, and indifferent.”¹

This is a radically different view of the universe than what the Bible teaches. According to the Bible, we can make choices. We are not subject to fate or manipulated by some unseen hand. In fact, the God of the Bible can actually be defied. If we want nothing to do with God in this life, God is not going to force us to endure eternity in his presence. This is why C. S. Lewis argues that all who are in Hell ultimately choose it.²

No one forced Adam and Eve to eat from the tree, just as no one forces me to shout at the person who cuts me off in traffic. Furthermore, our actions have real consequences in this world. Every day we must make choices about how we will live life. Will we choose forgiveness or hold a grudge? Will we befriend our neighbor or will we shun them for how different they are? Intuitively we know that some of these things are wrong, this is why we feel guilt when we do what we know is wrong. But suppose you had no free will at all. You would be, as the film communicates, “absolved of all guilt.” Why? Because your actions aren’t really your actions. You have no real choice in the matter, so how can you be blamed?

By the same logic, what sort of God would punish us for things that we can’t actually control? Well, the gods of Greek mythology might do that. Even if you’re not a student of Greek mythology, you are probably familiar with the name Oedipus Rex, the tragic Greek hero who married his own mother. If you don’t know the story, you might be tempted to think that Oedipus was a pervert. But if you read the story, you will discover that Oedipus actually has no say in the matter.

When Oedipus is born, his parents receive an oracle saying that he will kill his father. To avoid this fate, Oedipus’ father orders Oedipus to be killed. However, he is saved by his mother and eventually ends up in the home of the king and queen of Corinth, where he is raised thinking that they are his parents. Later, Oedipus receives an oracle that says he will marry his own mother. To avoid this fate, he flees from the king and queen of Corinth. In his flight, he kills a man in a quarrel, becomes king in the man’s place, and marries the man’s wife. As it turns out, this man was his father and Oedipus has unwittingly married his mother. Despite Oedipus’ attempt to avoid his fate, the joke is on him: he has no real freedom to avoid his fate.

Who is in Control?
Both Stefan and Oedipus are trapped in a world where, ultimately, they have no free will. Unlike these stories, the Bible teaches that we have the ability to choose and that we will be held accountable for what we do here in this world. Does this mean we are in absolute control and that everything is up to us? No, God is still in control. He has a plan for the world, and he will make all things new one day. He will work to accomplish this despite the evil that we do. How is this different from Bandersnatch or the Oedipus story? It’s different because God holds us accountable for the individual actions that we take in this world. He does not erase the consequences of our choices, though he may work through those choices or in spite of them to accomplish his plan.

Suppose that a drunk driver crashes his car, accidentally killing a small child. We know that the driver deserves punishment. The law demands that he pays the penalty, since he willfully chose to drive illegally under the influence of alcohol. Can God bring good out of this situation? Certainly. In this instance, the young child might be with God, and the driver might come to repentance. Both of these outcomes are ultimately part of God’s plan to bring us into relationship with him. However, it was not God’s intention that someone should get drunk and kill another person. Though forgiveness and reconciliation are possible, the child’s parents will always feel the loss and pain of this tragedy, and the driver must live with the guilt of his crime for the rest of his life.

This is not the place to get into arguments about exactly how man’s free will and God’s sovereignty work. The simple answer is that we don’t fully know. We have a hard time holding these two ideas simultaneously, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem for God. What we do know is that God is sovereign and his will will be done on earth as in Heaven. He will have the final say, and he will make all things new in the end. We also know that humans can choose right and wrong, their actions have consequences, and they will be held accountable for the choices they make.

After watching Bandersnatch or reading the story of Oedipus, it’s easy to believe that we really are just trapped in a world of fate. It’s easy to believe that we really have no choice and that our actions don’t matter. If we don’t take time to reflect, we might just start to believe that this is how life really is. However, isn’t the movie itself proof that that is how life really is? Aren’t we just at the mercy of the film’s creator, perpetually forced between two options? Fortunately, the answer is no, we are not trapped in this world and that is not how life really is. Because you and I have a power that Stefan doesn’t have. We can turn off the TV.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.