Grappling with temporal concepts is an intriguing mental exercise, but one that often leaves people with more questions than when they began. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the question of reconciling our capacity for free will with God’s ability to “see” the future. As one skeptic put it:
I have never been able to find a way to reconcile the ability to see the future with free will. For a simple example: you are presented with two doors, one on the left and one on the right. God knows that you will choose the door on the left. Given this, is it possible for you to choose the door on the right? If not, how can you say you have free will? If you say that God simply knew you would choose the left door, I would argue that that really isn’t free will in any meaningful sense. God supposedly knows everything that will happen before you are ever born, so if all your choices are set beforehand, how can they possibly matter? Furthermore, if God knows you will “choose” Hell before he creates you, why does he simply not create you? Personally, I would much prefer nonexistence to eternal torment. Is God deliberately creating people knowing they will end up in Hell? Then I would call him evil. Is he compelled to create people regardless of what he sees in their future? Then he doesn’t have free will, which would certainly be an interesting interpretation, but one I doubt many people share. Is there some other explanation? If so, I can’t think of it.
There is a lot to untangle here. And while certainty is not possible, some reflections on the nature of God may help to make sense of this apparent puzzle. The first step is to realize that God is simply not “bound” by time. While there may be temporal aspects to his nature – that is, he is able for instance to count, which implies a sequence of time – he is not trapped in the “present.” He neither has to recall the past nor speculate about the future – he has access to all earthly times in his “present.” Scientists tell us that the universe is a space-time continuum. It makes sense to us that we could, with enough power, see the entire physical universe; it would simply be a matter of having the ability to travel to all possible locations. Similarly, God can “see” all points in time, since he is “outside” of this flow of events, in the same way that he is “outside” of the universe he created. Time and space are simply different aspects of this physical universe.
I am able to consider these types of questions, because I have access to my mind and my thoughts. This access conveys to me a sense of the freedom of my will. For example, nothing is compelling me to write at this moment. Every day, I make numerous decisions for which I know I could do otherwise. It is true that these choices may be influenced in some fashion. Each of us may have compulsions or desires that motivate some behavior, but in the end, we act volitionally. Indeed, our entire justice system is predicated upon this understanding. Other than the criminally insane, we recognize that those who choose to commit certain crimes, regardless of their motivation, are worthy of punishment.
So, to answer the skeptic’s question: God allows us to choose the door on the left, or the door on the right, and then he “watches” our choice. He watches not in a temporal sense, wondering about the future and then experiencing contentment or disappointment; there is no learning for God. He “watches” in the sense of awareness of the choices made, and the disposition of the “heart” that accompanied those choices. It is not unlike reading history – I am already aware of the choices that were made, just as some future historian may read an account of our times and become aware of our choices. But none of this awareness or knowledge alters the freedom I experience in my “present” to make that choice.
The question then becomes, as the skeptic asked, why did God nonetheless create us? I don’t think this question can ever be answered, other than by stating a tautology. God created us because he thought creating us was better in some sense than not creating us. Understanding why a particular choice is “better” than a competing choice requires an understanding of what the standard is by which these things are being measured. My suspicion is that God viewed the ability for some to freely enter relationship with him as a good sufficient to overcome the negatives of torment for those who use their free will to reject him.
While the skeptic may prefer “non existence” to hell, this choice is not up to him. The choice as to ultimate dispositions lies with the one who created. What is implicated, I concede, is the question of fairness. Creating sentient beings with the sole purpose of inflicting torment upon them is cruel. This, in essence, is what the skeptic is contending. But this conclusion fails to consider that the opportunity for salvation is open to all. Christ came to save all men, not just some. But that salvation is not forced upon us. Indeed, having made the decision to create men and give them free will, allowing no one to rebel – to choose separation from God – would prove that he had not given us free will after all.
And this leads to the final consideration: what then is the nature of the punishment that God has in store for those who rebel? Is it some form of eternal torture, with God relishing the pain he is inflicting? If so, then the skeptic is right in labeling this as evil. But there is an alternative, one that once again requires a consideration of the nature of time. God is an eternal being. He has no end. And if he indeed created us to be eternal as well, then what happens to our souls when we depart this life goes on without end as well. Christianity teaches that God is the source of all goodness, all light, all that is positive. Let’s say God intends the least response possible as a consequence to those who maintain their rebellion against him. What would that be? Would it not simply be separation from him? The same kind thing we do, by way of locking our doors or obtaining a restraining order, against someone with whom we wish to have no contact?
And what does such separation look like? To spend eternity knowing that the source of all life and all goodness is there, but now – and forever more – unattainable? Consider the implications of that for a moment, and you will begin to get a glimpse of what eternal torment derives from.
God was not evil in creating us for union with him. He gave us free will and will hold us accountable for our choices. We may not like the alternatives, but the solution to our “problem” – assenting to God’s providence and placing our trust in Jesus – is available to all of us.
Posted by Al Serrato