Does God’s omniscience conflict with human free will?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

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? I actually had that one posed to me by a guy I used to work with who had a Ph.D in computer science from Northwestern. So this is an objection you may actually hear.

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.

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

  1. I don’t love Lenny’s answer because he doesn’t KNOW that his son will take the cookie. He assumes he will, and he’s probably right, but he doesn’t know for sure. Wartick’s example with FFXIII is a bit better.
    Personally, I like the “Back to the Future” analogy.
    In the first movie, George punches out Biff in the parking lot of the dance. He didn’t have to; that was his free will and we watched as he made the decision.
    In the second movie, Marty travels back to that moment and watches the punch again. He knew with 100% certainty what would happen — he was essentially omniscient since he had already been at that point in time. However, the fact that Marty already knew what was going to happen didn’t affect George’s decision in any way.

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  2. This is a problem until you accept that God is not constrained within time and space. In fact, He made both.

    When He said “Let there be light” He brought the quantum elements of it (energy, mass, and speed, which is time x distance) and their physical relationships into existence. God doesn’t just “know the future” like some Svengali with a time machine. He sees all of human existence laid out before Him, including all those billions of individual daily choices by human beings. Likewise, your “free will” is a relative fart in the wind. You have it, so get over it. You’re better off surrendering to His.

    If you struggle with your free will existing within God’s omniscience, your God isn’t big enough.

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  3. Just stirring the pot. Here is a paper that I wrote at Biola that was returned read and graded seventeen hours after I emailed it to Dr. Jones. He teaches libertarian free will.

    On Sun, Feb 11, 2018 at 7:00 AM, WINTERY KNIGHT wrote:

    > Wintery Knight posted: ” 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 apolog” >

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  4. I have always envisioned it like us watching a movie. When the movie was being filmed did the actor have free will? He had a choice, at that time, to go with the script or, really, do whatever he wanted, but we see already what he has done. Though we are viewing his actions and we know exactly what will happen every time we watch the movie, did he not have free will at the time it was filmed? In like manner God has already seen our lives and our choices. Does it change our free will? No, but it doesn’t change the fact that, no matter how many times He sees the story of our lives the story stays the same because to Him it has already happened.

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  5. One question though, if God can see that a future outcome is that a particular person will choose to reject salvation then could God choose to see to it that the person is not created? Could God say “I saw that this person was going to reject me so I saved him from hell by choosing to not create him”.

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    1. Hello. This is talked about in Romans where it talks about God creating some people as “vessels of wrath” who can’t turn around and complain to their Creator that he created them even though they would rebel. I’m not bothered by this because as long as they are responsible for rejecting God, then they’re responsible. Part of God’s plans to save the ones who will respond to him is to allow the ones who don’t to live and to make their bad choices. Think of how many people become Christians because of suffering evil caused by others who reject God. I can’t speak for everyone, but when I was little, I remember thinking that I ought to give God every chance because I was sure I didn’t want to be lumped and judged the same as the evil people.

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      1. I believe seeing what we call evil in that world, after we die or God ends this world will seem absolutely trivial in the long run.
        It will have allowed a system like the parables of separating the wheat from the chaff. And the true followers of God will have had the chance to show their faithfulness in a life where though we had good logical reason to believe in God it is not like we physically see him around us. That faithfulness and things we develop in life likely have a plan in our continual transformation as we one day will all enter into the true existence with God

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  6. As far as we know there were only two creations of beings recorded in the Bible. Angels that were created on perfection and many of them chose of free will to turn from God and then our world with humans as the being created on the likeness of God.

    Some will choose God others reject him.

    I assume that in the nature of God he I pleased to have people choose to follow him and not a world full of robots with no choice

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  7. In modern physics, time is a physical dimension, like length, width, and height. In flatland (length and width: see Edwin Abbott’s book, Flatland), an overhead view of flatland’s world would be inconsistent with that world’s reality, unless the physicists of that world had developed a theoretical, 3D spatial field. An actual overhead view of flatland would not be possible for its inhabitants, but such a view would be recognized as possible theoretically. The contradiction between choice and omniscience only emerges if we refuse to see time as a spatial dimension. But if time is viewed as a spatial dimension (what physics refers to as space-time), then God’s ability to see future decisions becomes no more contradictory, at least theoretically, than the average person’s ability to see a plane a few thousand feet in the air or traffic coming down the street.

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