Does God’s omniscience conflict with human free will?

Here’s the setup for 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.

UPDATE: Here’s another one from Sam Harper. I would click through just to read his funny author profile.

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

  1. I think it becomes easier to understand (or easier to accept at least) if God’s knowledge is placed in physics context. Since He created the universe, He also created time. Therefore He lives outside of time. I don’t know what it is like to live outside of time anymore than I know what it is like to live outside of this planet. I can guess that one of the characteristics of living outside of time and observing it is that you can see all points of it simultaneously, just as you can observe the surface of an object and see both ends and everything in between simultaneously.

    So in this paradigm, God does not have foreknowledge, but has already observed the choices, from out point of view, that we will make in the future.

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  2. I totally agree that premise 6 is wrong. Because as noted knowing (certainty) is not causing (necessitating). I like the go to class vs. play FFXIII example. God knows the choice that will be made.

    However, I think that under some different Christian doctrinal views one could challenge premise #1 depending on how you define free will? Can a person contingently choose A or B? Basically under the exact same circumstances can they really choose A or B? Or given the same circumstances will they always choose A, and only under different circumstances can they choose B.? Not everyone will answer that the same.

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  3. Foreknowledge does not necessitate causality. God can ‘know’ what we will decide (of our own free will) without ‘causing’ us to make that choice. Thus, we can have a free will, even though God knows in advance precisely what we will decide.

    This is not deism. I am not suggesting that God plays no role whatsoever in human affairs. And He does have the ability and right to make individuals do (or think) a particular thing (temporarily setting aside their free will in the process) whenever He chooses to do so. The argument that humans have free will does not mean that God never supersedes that will. It merely means that He allows free will by default, and intercedes only when He deems necessary. Even then, He gives each person ample opportunity and enlightenment to accept Him and His offer of salvation if they will.

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