Does God’s Knowledge Eliminate Our Free Will?

imagesGrappling 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

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  1. Fred Gilham says:

    Don’t know if you’re a fan of Gregory Boyd; he’s one of the proponents of “Open Theism.” His book SATAN AND THE PROBLEM OF EVIL argues that God has perfect foreknowledge of everything, but his knowledge of the future includes “might”s and “might not”s as well as “will”s and “will not”s. The contradictory of “will” is “might not,” not “will not.” Thus every possible event in the future either will happen, will not happen, or “might/might not” happen when it is the outcome of a free choice.

    Previously I just applied the “modal fallacy” argument to this issue, put as follows:

    This is true:
    It is necessary that if God knows something will happen, it will happen.

    But the following is false:

    If God knows that something will happen, it is necessary that it will happen.

    (This is called the modal fallacy.) Instead, the following is true:

    If God *decrees* that something will happen, it is necessary that it will happen.

    This captures the distinction between [fore]knowledge and predestination—Romans 8:29 seems to make explicit the fact that there is a distinction between them.

    I’m not completely sure where I stand now; Boyd’s view allows one to make sense of all the places where the Bible says that God repented, or God changed his mind, or God *will* change his mind if we change our actions. It also deals well with the way moral responsibility interacts with God’s sovereignty (IMHO).

    • al says:

      Interesting questions. No, I haven’t heard of Boyd so I can’t comment on his work. I’m not sure how to completely make sense of the distinction you note. I generally view passages relating to God changing his mind as reflective of our perspective; that’s how it seems to us. In other words, God speaks to us in a language we understand (eg. the sun rises and sets) whether or not it is technically accurate from a different perspective.

  2. zilch says:

    If God is omniscient, “might or might not happen” is nonsense. If God is omnipotent, how can anything happen that He didn’t want to happen? Logic, guys.

    • Al says:

      Zilch, that’s easy, if you consider what “free will” means. What God wants to happen, in that setting, is that we exercise our will freely. That includes the possibility of rejecting him. If he overrides that by making us accept him, he would be at cross purposes; he would negate free will. Since God is omnipotent, he has the power to allow us to make free will choices even if he also wants us to freely choose to accept his gift of salvation. Your difficulty lies in implicitly denying what free will entails.

      • zilch says:

        al- you are saying that God has the power to suborn logic, because if God is omniscient and omnipotent, “free will” is logically meaningless: it simply can’t logically be the case that God knows what we will do, has the power to make us in such a way that we will do whatever He wants, and we still get to “decide”. These things are simply incompossible. If God can transcend logic in this way, then there’s no point in any discussion about Him whatsoever.

        • Al says:

          Zilch, logic does not compel that result. Your premise that he “has the power to make us in such a way that we will do whatever He wants” is the issue. He made us to have free will; he “wants” us to use our free will. He desires that we freely choose him, but he does force that result. Consequently, God’s will has two possible modes – he can will a result, but he does not have to; he can instead will that we have the freedom to choose. He could not do both – i.e. he cannot will a particular outcome while at the same time willing that we freely choose, as this is a logical contradiction that “power” – omnipotence – cannot overcome.

          • zilch says:

            Al- can God make a power of two equal to a power of three or five? If not, why not?

            The same applies to omniscience, omnipotence, and free will. The three simply do not fit together logically. God cannot know what we will do (omniscience), have the power to have created us in such a way that we will do whatever He wishes (omnipotence), and at the same time give us free will; that is, not decide Himself what we will do and not do.

            If God granted us free will, He is not omniscient and/or omnipotent. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

          • Al says:

            Zilch, words have to possess meaning in order for us to have a discussion. A thing that is “two” is not equal to a thing that is “three” or “five.” It’s like asking me why a “skytx” isn’t the same as a “krinxgge.” I can put sounds together but unless they relate to a particular conception that we both can hold in our minds, there is no meaning, just the exchange of sounds. Two, three and five are examples of conceptions; they cannot become the same thing unless we abandon rationality. The problem with your analysis is that “omnipotence” does not mean what you imply it means. God did grant us free will and he retains his omnipotence. In other words, he can do all things that “power” is able to accomplish. If he wanted to make us robots, he could have done so. He chose instead to let us make choices. He had the “power” to do that, and he did. He “knows” what we do/did because all times are eternally present to him. You are insisting that God is controlling our every choice, which is why you believe there is a contradiction. He is not. Our exercising choices does not “limit” God’s power as we have no control over him; we are acting in the manner in which he desired (freely) even though the things we choose displease him, and even though he could have done otherwise by making us robotic.

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