Does God’s omniscience conflict with human free will?

Here’s the question from Come Reason Ministries.

Excerpt:

Hello,

Christian doctrine holds that God is all knowing (1 John 3:20), and humans have free will (Deuteronomy 30:19 is my favorite example). however, at my favorite apologetics debate board, I have seen skeptics raise an objection to these points several times. the basic logic behind their arguments is this:

  1. A being with free will, given two options A and B, can freely choose between A and B.
  2. God is omniscient (all-knowing).
  3. God knows I will choose A.
  4. God cannot be wrong, since an omniscient being cannot have false knowledge.
  5. From 3 and 4, I will choose A and cannot choose B.
  6. From 1 and 5, omniscience and free will cannot co-exist.

I have read many counter-arguments from apologetics sites, but they were either too technical (I couldn’t understand them), or not satisfying. so, I was wondering what would your input be on this issue?

Thank you,

Justin

Ever heard that one? Here’s Lenny Eposito’s answer:

Hi Justin,

Thanks for writing. This is a great question as it shows how even those who appeal to logic can have biases that blind them. Let’s examine this argument and see if it follows logically.

Premises 1 and 2 in your outline above are the main premises to the argument and are not disputed. The Christian worldview argues that every human being is a free moral agent and is capable of making choices simply by exercising their will, not under compulsion or because of instinct. Also, it is a long held doctrine of Christianity that God is all-knowing. The Bible says that God knows “the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10).” For omniscience to be truly knowledgeable it must be correct knowledge, so premise number 4 is also granted.

However, point number 5 is where the logic falters. Those who argue in this manner make the mistake of thinking that because God possesses knowledge about a specific matter, then he has influenced it. That does not follow at all. Just because God can foresee which choice you will make, it does not mean you couldn’t still freely choose the other option.

Let me give you an example. I have a five year old son. If I were to leave a chocolate chip cookie on the table about a hour before dinner time and my son was to walk by and see it, I know that he would pick up the cookie and eat it. I did not force him to make that decision. In fact, I don’t even have to be in the room at all. I think I know my son well enough, though, to tell you that if I come back into the kitchen the cookie will be gone. His act was made completely free of my influence, but I knew what his actions would be.

In examining the argument, the assumption is made in premise 3 that because God knows I will choose A somehow denies me the choice of B. That is the premise that Christianity rejects. Omniscience and free will are not incompatible and it is a non-sequitor to claim otherwise.

Thank you Justin for this interesting question. I pray that you will continue to defend the gospel of our Lord and may He continue to bless you as you seek to grow in Him.

That’s a great answer and should work in ordinary conversations.

More technical

J.W. Wartick maps out the arguments more fully with symbolic logic here on his Always Have A Reason blog. But I’ll just excerpt the gist of it.

Excerpt:

It is necessarily true that if God knows x will happen, then x will happen. But then if one takes these terms, God knowing x will happen only means that x will happen, not that x will happen necessarily. Certainly, God’s foreknowledge of an event means that that event will happen, but it does not mean that the event could not have happened otherwise. If an event happens necessarily, that means the event could not have happened otherwise, but God’s foreknowledge of an event doesn’t somehow transfer necessity to the event, it only means that the event will happen. It could have been otherwise, in which case, God’s knowledge would have been different.

[…]Perhaps I could take an example. Let’s say that I’m going to go to classes tomorrow (and I do hope I will, I don’t like missing classes!). God knows in advance that I’m going to go to classes tomorrow. His knowledge of this event means that it will happen, but it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t choose to stay in and sleep for a while, or play my new copy of Final Fantasy XIII, or do something more useless with my time. If I chose to, say, play Final Fantasy XIII (a strong temptation!), then God simply would have known that I would play FFXIII. His knowledge does not determine the outcome, His knowledge is simply of the outcome.

If we choose A, God would foreknow A. If we choose B, God would foreknow B. His foreknowledge of our choices is contingent on our making free choices.

I had to learn symbolic logic and Bayes’ theorem in college for my computers science degrees, and it’s pretty useful for understanding these philosophers. Philosophy is a lot like computer science, at least for analytical philosophy.

5 thoughts on “Does God’s omniscience conflict with human free will?”

  1. This is always confusing to me, I don’t understand how God’s foreknowledge of something changes the fact that we freely choose it, I don’t see a conflict. Picture you’re lost in the Sahara with no supplies for 2 days. I rescue you. I hold out 2 things and tell you to take 1. In my right hand is an ice cold bottle of water and in my left is a 4 day dead maggot riddled skunk. With my finite mind and the information I have at hand I can figure out what your going to choose, does that change the fact that you chose it? Now not only can God see what will happen as easily as I see this keyboard in front of me but he has infinte knowledge, he knows each and every one of us better than we know ourselves! Sure it’s a caricature of the argument but it’s still sound

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  2. I like the way W.L. Craig puts it. He says that those who make the argument against the compatibility of God’s omniscience /foreknowledge and uncoerced human outcomes are guilty of confusing “certainty” with “necessity”. When God knows that A will happen, it does not mean it had to happen (necessity), only that it will happen (certainty).

    JMG

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  3. I, too, am borrowing from William Lane Craig here. I think I got this from his book “The Only Wise God.”

    The premise incorrectly says, ” I will choose A and [cannot] choose B.”

    The correct phrasing of the premise, however, would instead be, ” I will choose A and [will not] choose B.”

    Its essentially the same answer given in the previous comments but it directly fixes the error in the premise itself.

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