This past Sunday I attended an adult Sunday School class at the local church I frequent. We happened to be studying the 18th chapter of the gospel of John, the section where Jesus is interviewed by Pontius Pilate and ultimately condemned to the cross.
For some reason, the people in the class betrayed an almost desperate need to affirm Pilates's freedom of the will regarding his decision to send Jesus to the cross. "Pilate could have set Jesus free," they said. "God could have found some other way to accomplish His purpose." But is that the truth?
Hadn't Christ just a night before in the Garden of Gethsemane passionately prayed three times for exactly that thing: that if there would be any other way than the way of the cross, God the Father would allow it? If Jesus the Son, well-beloved of the Father, had prayed and mourned in agony, His sweat becoming like great drops of blood, pleading for some other way ... if there had been any other way, would not the Father have granted it?
Jesus had in fact been announcing to His disciples for some time that He was headed to the cross.
Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.” But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken. (Luke 18:31-34 NKJV)
The purpose of God was for His Son to hang upon a Roman cross, and the road to a Roman cross led through the Roman government, and the Roman government meant Pontius Pilate. While I would agree with my classmates that Pilate's will was in accord with the decision he ultimately made, I would also contend that his will was not necessarily "free" in the sense that 21st-century Americans mean.