Slaughterhouse-Five and the Problem of Free Will
I recently read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. At first glance, the novel is about war and funny-looking aliens from outer space. Yet, at its core, it is about deeply human issues—issues of philosophy and morality. Moreover, Slaughterhouse-Five is not only a prized contribution to literature, but also a work dedicated to significant questions of theology.
Slaughterhouse-Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s novel about his experience in the firebombing of Dresden, Germany. On February 13, 1945, Dresden underwent an Allied firebombing that killed roughly 25,000 civilians. Writing about such an atrocity would be no easy task. In the fight against post-traumatic stress, Vonnegut uses science fiction—episodes wherein Billy, the main character, encounters beings from outer space—to ease his mind and alleviate the pain of looking back on the tragedy of Dresden.
Let me be frank: Slaughterhouse-Five is not for the faint of heart. The novel is incredibly cynical, depressing, and uncomfortably funny. Because of this, Slaughterhouse-Five is hardly discussed in Christian circles. Yet, Vonnegut’s blockbuster novel has a lot to offer for healthy theological conversation.
It is equally important that the reader understand that Slaughterhouse-Five is, essentially, an anti-war novel. But, it is not just an anti-war novel. Boiling down the complexity to this one category robs the reader of appreciating Vonnegut’s wisdom, literary style, and his ability to use humor as a means of communicating life’s greatest questions. It is our job, as Christians, to discern these questions with virtue.
Free Will and Determinism
The reader relives Vonnegut’s experience through the fictional character of Billy Pilgrim. At a turning point in the novel, Billy is abducted by Tralfamadorians, aliens who see all of time simultaneously, who change his perception of reality. Instead of experiencing time linearly, Billy sees time, like the Tralfamadorians, in the fourth dimension—past, present, and future all at once. Events that occur at different times for humans are happening concurrently for Billy and the Tralfamadorians.
Given the fact that Billy sees all of time at once, he is thought of being omniscient. Because Billy comprehends all the details of his life—including his abduction and death—he succumbs to apathy. He finds himself so blinded by his knowledge that his abduction seems meaningless. With this attitude in mind, Vonnegut writes:
Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room… [and] turned on the television.
Vonnegut is portraying the dichotomy of determinism, or predestination, and free will. It is the author’s belief that, given God’s omniscience, free will is an illusion. If God is all-knowing, he either actively brings about everything that happens or allows such things to pass. Thus, humankind has no real autonomy. Billy, understanding this, decides not to avoid his abductors. He can’t avoid them.
This dichotomy is especially evident in the episodes set in Dresden. Billy Pilgrim is no representation of the “battle-tough” soldier. He loses his weapon, helmet, and the majority of his clothing. With a heel missing from one of his shoes, Billy hobbles up and down helplessly. The Nazis even take pictures of the horrid condition of this hobbling American soldier to use as propaganda.
Due to his omniscient condition, Billy realizes that putting any effort into the war would be in vain. The dichotomy of predestination and free will desensitizes Billy to death. Just as he is careless about his own life, so is he indifferent about the destruction of Dresden. In addition, he can find no real fault in this atrocity—determinism has robbed humanity of all moral responsibility. This uncomfortable concept is exhibited when Billy first gazes upon the city:
… the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead. So it goes.
Vonnegut’s whimsical and jarring imagery intends to shock the reader. It is at this point that our ideologies—ideas of theology, philosophy, and moral obligation—collide with experience. Here, Vonnegut challenges the reader to reconcile ideological perception with reality.
The Christian Perspective
Vonnegut’s personal objection to Christianity, along with the dilemma of the novel, is such: because God must be omniscient, “everything is predestined and free will is an illusion. Life is meaningless.” I am of the opinion that this objection is, oftentimes, not handled properly.
Predestination, as it refers to the determinism of all things, is explicitly present in the biblical text (Ephesians 1:4-5; 11, Acts 4:27-28). Notwithstanding the proper mention of the word, God’s omniscience is undeniably present in both the New and Old Testament narratives (Proverbs 16:33, Romans 8:28). The Bible calls believers to “rejoice and be glad” and “choose life” (Matthew 5:12, Deuteronomy 30:19). These commands promote the ability of human action—or, the concept of free will. Similarly, Christ’s call for us to love him with the entirety of our hearts would be an illusionary task if the heart was manipulated against the will (Mark 12:30). There lies a tension between God’s ability to know and our ability to act. Not only are there direct references to these concepts, but Scripture also promotes these ideas in narratives.
The significance of free will is underlined by the belief that autonomy renders meaning. No one is championing the idea of free will for its own sake. Adherents promote this doctrine because they believe it gives purpose to human life. Believing that God’s omniscience negates free will, Vonnegut portrays Billy as without any sense of meaning. There are different routes to take in solving this problem.
According to the Biblical text, God’s sovereignty and man’s autonomy are certain realities. However, what is not certain is their relationship to one another. Independent of each other, God’s sovereignty and man’s agency are both true. In logically comparing the two, one may seem to negate the other.
Believing that the absence of free will renders despondency, the first option is to say that God is paradoxically omniscient—“paradoxically” meaning that God’s sovereignty is, assumably, not meticulous and cannot negate free will. In other words, free will is certain and God’s sovereignty is a mystery. Yet, this limits God’s omniscience and challenges essential theology present in Scripture.
The second option is to say that predestination and free will are mutually exclusive truths: they have nothing to do with each other. In this scenario, the believer would accept God’s determinist character and leave free will as a mystery. Because the question of meaning lacks a solution in this scenario, the believer would be constrained to find solace in biblical commands and not in personal autonomy.
In logically comparing the two, we cannot comprehend the depths of this paradox. It is not that free will and determinism, independent of each other, confuse the believer. As previously mentioned, the mystery lies more in how these two realities relate to one another—and this confuses us. No amount of philosophizing or reasoning will give us the answer we desire. Scripture speaks into this mystery, but it may not be as definitive as we would want it to be. Answers may never come for these inquiries. Ultimately, we must shift our lack of understanding of these complexities from frustration to peace—peace only Christ can give.
Defending the Faith
This is the moral: We have to be careful about answering questions of skepticism. The dichotomy of predestination and free will has turned many away from Christianity. We, Christians, must engage the philosophical world with grace and humility, lest we turn a questioning soul away.
The Proverbs says:
When pride comes, then comes disgrace,
but with humility comes wisdom.
The combination of knowledge and pride is the Christian’s sinful crutch. Genuine knowledge—knowledge of things theological or philosophical—is accompanied by wisdom. And true wisdom, says Socrates, is “in knowing you know nothing.”
Although God’s ways are incomprehensible and we may, in some abstract way, truly know nothing, we must find solace in the call to make an intelligible and humble defense for the hope that is in us.