Free will” occupies a central position in Christian theology. Without it, there would be no basis upon which a fair God could hold us accountable for our acts of rebellion against Him. But some Christians also hold a view that we are “predestined” before our births for either salvation or damnation. God is omniscient, after all, so how can it be that He does not already know everything we will do in the future, thus making our “free will” an illusion?
How should this apparent contradiction be approached and, more importantly, can it be reconciled? These are important questions to ask, but a proper sense of humility should lead us to an awareness that a definitive answer is probably beyond our present capability. The problem, in my view, is that our capacity to think is limited by our nature as temporal beings. Expecting us to make sense of how a timeless Being could view our life spans would be roughly like asking a fish to contemplate what running, skipping and jumping on land would be like. The frame of reference is the problem.
Here’s what I mean. When I think of salvation, I am thinking in a temporal or chronological fashion. I wonder what a person will do that may affect his ultimate destiny. Will a believer have a change of heart and die an atheist? Will an atheist repent in time and accept Christ? There is always an element of uncertainty and of surprise. God, of course, does not think this way. For Him, there is no past or future to wonder about, only an eternal present. There can be no surprise for Him, no uncertainty as to what the future might hold. He has full access to all parts of our lives at any “time” since He is not trapped by time, as we are.
An example from the world of computer simulations may help make the point. Years ago, I played a “first person shooter” game set in World War II. I quickly realized that my player was working through a series of predetermined challenges. For instance, as he approached a certain guard post, there was a sniper in a set location that would rise up and shoot him. This challenge was the same every time the simulation was run, so with some foreknowledge, the second time through I could take appropriate cover or react in time to keep my player “alive.” Eventually, I could “game” the system to the point that my player could reach the destination successfully. So, my player had “free will” (me, in essence) and a set of choices he was “free” to make. But this freedom was not unlimited. He could not change the simulation, nor could he leave it. He could alter the outcome somewhat based on what he did or did not do earlier in the simulation, but the possible decision trees were not unlimited. Ultimately, he either reached the final destination point or he did not. His environment was controlled to a large degree but “freedom of choice” was not taken away.
If the programmer ran a thousand players through this simulation, the results would no doubt be variable. Some players would do well, perhaps by previous experience or by talent, while others would fail quickly. The majority would probably fall somewhere in the middle. After they played, if the programmer were to view each step of the way for each of the players, he would see – in his present – what actions each player took given the limited choices available to him. By viewing these results, the programmer would see what choices were made, and as he ran through them, he could see how the player’s “free will” was exercised. But at this point, the outcome would be predetermined. Even if he sees a player doing well early in the simulation, the programmer would know what the ultimate conclusion was. This “foreknowledge” would in no way undermine the free will exercised by the player. Now God has no limitations like those of the programmer. He does not have to rewind the clock, because all times are present to Him. Consequently, he can confer free will and see the outcome even though none of the behavior ever surprises Him.
Just as in the simulation, it seems that God has not given us complete freedom of will. First, our power is limited. Thus, we can “will” something – such as success on a test – but be unable to accomplish what we will. Second, we are motivated by our innate nature, so that something that we have a natural inclination toward will probably impact the “freedom” of the choice. For example, if I love chocolate, then my choice to have chocolate for dessert is free, but I am not completely indifferent in making that choice. Third, we are not fully free to live the kind of life we might want to. We may desire “holiness” but our free will can never really get us there, due to our fallen nature. Fourth, our free will is exercised often in response to challenges that have been put in our path and for which we have limited possible alternative.
These considerations would seem to indicate that free will is not truly present. But what it really says is that we are not “free” to earn our way to heaven; we have neither the power nor the inclination to do what is necessary to get there. The good news of Christianity, however, is that we do not need to; all we need do is place our trust in Jesus Christ and allow him to do the “work” of salvation for us. And that choice we have been empowered to make, despite the corruption inherent in our current nature.
Even recognizing the limitations of our will, we nonetheless know intuitively that we do have a choice to make whether to bend our knee, and our will, to Him. As C.S. Lewis put it, we feel the law pressing down upon us and know we should follow it, and at the same time are aware that we do not, in fact, follow it. The Apostle Paul makes this point in the first chapters of Romans. Why would he talk about a law written on our heart leaving us without excuse if our actions and behavior were all pre-programmed? Why would Paul talk about those who want to get rich falling into temptation leading to destruction (1 Tim. 6) if they had no choice in the matter? Finally, when Jesus is asked by the rich man (Mark 10) what is needed for salvation, why did He not respond “there is nothing you can do, it’s already been predetermined”? This would have been a perfect time for Jesus to express that salvation was predestined. The many times Jesus said “go and sin no more” would also be meaningless if a person had no choice as to his future behavior.
Foreknowledge and predestination are, consequently, not the same thing. As in the case of the computer simulation, there is no conflict between God giving us free will and “foreknowing” how we will have used it. He possesses full knowledge and has in fact predestined some of what we will experience, without having removed the essence of free will from us – the essence being, of course, our freedom to rejoice in or reject Him.
In the final analysis, God’s knowledge of our choices does not prevent them from being our choices. We should use that freedom wisely.
Posted by Al Serrato