Many who’ve been introduced to the notion of God’s omniscience eventually ask, “If God knows all things, including my choices before I make them, then are my choices really free?” Understandably, it is difficult to swallow the idea that we may not be “free” in any absolute sense. That our choices are not solely our own is not very palatable, especially for Westerners who tend to cherish (read “worship”) our freedoms. It seems we have this tenacious bent to believe that our choices really do matter, so much so that no other can possibly influence, much less determine, them.
Ironically, when we make choices that result in negative consequences, we are less likely to hold on to a strong sense of free will, at least when it comes to bearing consequences for our actions. Adam was quick to renounce his “free” involvement with Eve when indicted by God in Eden (Gen. 3:12).
When, as a believer, we discover that God knows all things in advance, including the results of every choice made even before we decide, then somehow we feel cheated out of our freewill.
To get a grip on this difficult notion of God’s omniscience and our freewill, it’s important to define carefully what we mean by what we say. There are different definitions of “freedom” for which philosophers and theologians argue. Therefore, depending on how we define “freedom” will have a great deal to do with how we understand God’s omniscience intersecting with our freewill (or should I say our freewill intersecting with God’s omniscience?). As with any discussion, defining carefully what we mean with our words goes a long way toward advancing our understanding and promoting solid communication.
I’ve wrestled with this issue and written a paper that outlines 4 stages in human history where human freedom is altered due to something that happens in our basic makeup as humans. Each stage carries with it a certain kind of “freedom.” In other words, not all “freedoms” are created equally. Without rehashing all of this, you can refer to Augustine and Freedom: Some Tentative Philosophical Reflections. Reading that carefully will provide a good introduction to Augustine’s thought that, I believe, remains a force to be reckoned with.
Most who’ve not thought more critically about what freedom means hold to some idea of “autonomy,” which is tantamount to choosing anything whatsoever without any constraint. This form of freedom (i.e., autonomy), I suggest, does not exist. Read on and you’ll see why.
Essentially, humans, by their free acts of thought and/or behavior, do not have the ability to change God’s knowledge of what does or what may occur. This is not to say that God’s knowledge of future events causes human free acts. Only, that no activity is outside the scope of God’s knowledge. Therefore, freedom is confined within the parameters God’s foreknowledge.
On the deterministic side of things, consider this logic between omniscience and freewill:
- God’s knowledge is true and consists of all things past, present, future, and contingent, including those acts of the human will.
- Since God’s knowledge is true and comprehensive, no human can perform any act that would in any way modify or make false God’s knowledge.
- Therefore, all expressions of human freewill are confined to the boundaries of God’s knowledge.
Put differently, humans, by their free acts of thought and/or behavior, do not have the ability to alter (i.e., make false) any aspect of God’s knowledge, since God’s knowledge is “true” and encompasses all that is or could be. For example, if it was a fact in God’s mind yesterday that today I would be writing about this topic, then I am not free to change that fact, since all the information in God’s mind is “true” or potentially “true.” While I am free to write about a different topic, God would have known that instead. Free acts of the will, therefore, exist solely within the parameters of God’s knowledge. This is not to say that God’s knowledge of future events causes human free acts. Simply because God knows what will or might occur does not entail that He is the cause of those occurrences. This does require, however, that God’s omniscience is the stage upon which all human actions play out in time. If God’s knowledge is true and comprehensive, and nothing occurs that has not been known, planned, or permitted by him, then humans are not “free” in any absolute, autonomous sense. Human freedom, therefore, is relative to or confined by God’s true and perfect knowledge.
Now, to say that human freedom is confined does not entail a contradiction. It is to say that there is no such thing as “autonomous” human freedom. I simply have a qualified understanding of what freedom is. To be autonomous is to act without any persuasion or influence whatsoever, and I suggest that no human acts occur in a vacuum. Instead, all acts are influenced by some force, be it our knowledge, inclinations, environment, or whatever. Therefore, there are no autonomous acts isolated from these forces. When we introduce the notion that God knows what will occur, we are not saying that God determines an action by his knowing.
Finally, and to offer some framework within which to understand freewill, there are two ends of a spectrum here: determinism (every choice/attitude/thought, et al. is determined and no one has the ability to choose otherwise) and libertarianism (choices are entirely autonomous and un-coerced by any external or internal forces). I find neither end of the spectrum very philosophically appealing or existentially viable (it does not fit in my head nor in my world). There is a position in between called “compatabilism” in which both freedom (carefully defined, of course) and God’s omniscience coexist where neither cancels out the other, but both work in concert to achieve the overall plan or blueprint of God’s decrees, known only to him.
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29).