My last post conveyed some reflections on the origin and purpose of free will. I tried to make the case that free will is not a design flaw that condemns us to hell; it is rather a valuable gift which we should use wisely. Not every agrees, though, that we actually have free will, or that the concept of free will is at all compatible with the Christian view of God. As one skeptic put it:
To rephrase the skeptic’s question: If God be omniscient and omnipotent, how can we be anything but robots?
The first step in answering this question requires that we define the terms used. Roughly speaking, “omnipotent” means possessing all power while “omniscient” means having all possible knowledge. A “robot” is a machine designed to perform particular functions. Robots possess only that amount of power or knowledge that a designer places into them. Robots do not, consequently, possess free will. They don’t imagine better ways of performing tasks, nor do they complain that they are not appreciated by their masters.
As Christians, we believe God is omnipotent and omniscient. Stated in another way, we believe that there is nothing beyond God’s power or beyond his knowledge. All things that are capable of being done – all things that power can accomplish – He can do, and all things that are knowable, He knows. There is nothing doable or knowable that is beyond His reach. We also assert that human beings are not robots. While they are created, they are living beings and not machines. Moreover, they possess free will, so that even though there are limits as to the choices they can make, they are in fact exercising meaningful choices about their future.
One further term needs to be considered: foreknowledge. It is this concept that lies implicit in the skeptic’s challenge. Spelled out, it would go like this: if God has total knowledge, then he has foreknowledge of events in our future. But if the future is already set in God’s mind, and God cannot be wrong, then we must act in the way that God “foresees.” But if that is the case, then it is God, and not us, that directs our actions.
Two things come quickly to mind: the first is that this challenge has no intuitive appeal. Even as I write these words, I am well aware that I could choose otherwise. While there are many things I have no desire to choose, it is plainly apparent to me that writing this is simply not something that I must do. The more I reflect on it, the more I realize that I am controlling much of my destiny. In other words, I feel nothing at all like a robot. Even if some outside force began to control my body, or affect my ability to think, I realize intuitively that some part of me would remain aware of this, and would will to resist it. In short, I am at my essence a willful “I” that controls certain things around me, beginning with my body and mind.
The second, and more important, thing is that foreknowledge does not require control of the future. As limited and temporal beings, our minds cannot really grasp what foreknowledge entails. The passage of time, in the sense that we experience it, is a serious limitation upon us. We move in one direction only; we see only dimly the past and the future is at best an exercise of our imaginations. While God may be in some sense temporal, time – as we experience it – could not limit His potentiality. For God, all things must exist in an eternal present, which His omniscience allows Him to access without limitation.
Consider an analogy: football fans around the country look forward to Sundays this time of year. They like nothing better than sitting back and enjoying the game unfold, as their favorite players and teams implement a game plan tailored to taking advantage of their opponent’s weaknesses. Knowing how the game will end takes a lot of the fun out of seeing it played out. That’s why many people who can’t watch the game live will record it, and will intentionally keep themselves in the dark about what occurred. As they watch the recording, others who have already seen the game will not, however, be in the dark. They will have complete knowledge of what occurred. And no amount of wishful thinking or cheering on the part of the later viewer can alter what they “know” is about to occur on the screen.
Though some in the audience have “foreknowledge” of the event, that foreknowledge does not involve control of the players. It would be foolish indeed for the later viewer to accuse the person who knows the outcome of the play of having controlled it. Nothing about that knowledge of the outcome of the game could in any way influence the game. The two are simply not causally related.
The skeptic fails to see that God’s “view” is similar. He “knows” what we are about to do, because to Him, we already did it. There is no before or during or after time for him. All times (and places) exist in His present. But knowing what we do does not require that God control what we do, any more than it did in my example. Indeed, to hold to such a view would be to lessen God’s power. It would mean that He lacks the power to create beings who possess free will, simply because He has knowledge of how they used that free will without having to “wait” for it.
What is the point, the skeptic may ask. I submit the point is that only one thing is really at play and that one thing is love. Love, as we know, must be freely given and received to have any value. So, if we are to share an eternal loving relationship with God, we must be sufficiently free to make that choice real. We may lack the ability to do many things, including the ability to earn our way to heaven, but what we do possess is the ability to accept the gift God has in store for us, or to reject it and remain in rebellion against Him.
Robots can do many things, of course, but learning to love their creator is not one of them.
Posted by Al Serrato