For those who believe in free will, Genesis 20:6 presents an interesting problem. Abraham was traveling in Gerar. He feared one of the inhabitants might kill him, so he could take his wife Sarah, to be his own. To spare his life Abraham lied to Abimelech, king of Gerar, saying Sarah was his sister. Abimelech took Sarah to be his wife, but he did not have sexual relations with her. In a dream, the Lord told Abimelech the truth about Sarah, and that He had prevented Abimelech from having sexual relations with her.

How is it that God prevented Abimelech from having sexual relations with Sarah? Was Abimelech denied freedom of his will? Walter Schultz, a philosopher from Northwestern College, proposed an answer to these questions in the latest volume of Philosophia Christi (Vol. 10, 2008) that I found both interesting and plausible.

Humans are free rational agents, meaning they have the freedom to choose among options apart from external constraint. They also have intentions, and initiate acts that serve to fulfill those intentions. Intentions can be either proximal, or distal. A distal intention is future-directed (e.g. an intention to vote in the next election), while a proximal intention is directed at the here-and-now (e.g. an intention to raise my arm). There is an imperceptible, but real temporal gap between an agent’s exercising of his mental power to choose X (proximal intention), and the actual execution of that choice. Furthermore, time is required both to form the intention, and to act on that intention to fulfill it.

Schultz proposes that God was able to prevent Abimelech from sinning without depriving him of his free will by intervening during the formation of his freely chosen proximal intention, interrupting the conditions necessary for Abimelech to complete his proximal intention, thereby averting the otherwise certain outcome. On this view, God intervenes after the human agent has freely chosen X, but before the effect. From the human perspective, we would consider this a case of akrasia, or weakness of will, similar to the person who says, “I always wanted to travel to Europe, but never seemed to get around to it.” The person intends to do X, but find themselves unable to do so for reasons they do not fully understand. So Abimelech freely chose to have sexual relations with Sarah, but God interrupted the completion of his proximal intention, thus aborting its effect.

What do you think about Schultz’s theory?