When I was young, I used to pray for my future wife. I didn’t know who she was, but I knew she was out there, and God knew who she was. God knew who I would choose someday, and He knew who I was praying for, even when I didn’t.
Praying for someone we have yet to meet may seem normal to some. But to others, it probably sounds rather strange. After all, my future wife was a person I would choose, and I hadn’t chosen her yet. Could God really know who she was? And if God knew who I would marry, was I really free to choose her myself?
And here we run into a classic dilemma within the Christian faith. It’s where man’s free will intersects with God’s omniscience (His infinite knowledge). You may have heard of this dilemma before, as it’s a common objection to Christianity. Spelled out, it looks something like this:
Christianity says that people have free will and God is omniscient. If God is omniscient, then He already knows every action that I will ever choose. If He already knows this, then I am not free to choose something other than what He already knows I will choose. Therefore, people cannot have free will while God is omniscient.
If you are like me, thinking about this for too long will hurt your brain. After all, the line of reasoning seems to be logical. But it also contradicts two essential claims of Christianity. If this dilemma proves that God is not omniscient or that people do not have free will, it would greatly damage, if not completely disprove, Christianity (and I wouldn’t be a fan of that).
But I believe that this dilemma is not a contradiction at all. It’s puzzling, mind-bending, and even intimidating, but it’s not a contradiction. With a closer look at the argument, we’ll find that the argument simply does not hold water. Before we begin, let’s parse the argument out into parts.
Premise 1: God is Omniscient.
Premise 2: People have free will.
Premise 3: If God is all-knowing, then He already knows every action that I will ever choose.
Premise 4: If God already knows this, then I am not free to choose something other than what He already knows I will choose.
Conclusion: Therefore, people cannot have free will while God is all knowing.
We can accept premises 1 and 2 without concern. These are the claims of Christianity and the starting point for the argument. Right now we aren’t concerned with justifying these claims. Let’s move on.
Premise 3 is really a continuation of premise 1. For God to be omniscient means that He would know everything I did, everything I am doing, and everything I will do. If God does not know any of those three things, then He does not know all. So God must know my future actions with absolute certainty. Again, no problem here. Onward.
That leaves premise 4 (this is where the rubber hits the road). If God knows what I will do in the future, then I will not be able to act differently, because God has already seen the choices I will make. Put in other words: If I have a choice between A and B, and God knows that I will choose B, then I can’t choose A, right? (Dramatic pause) Or can I?
At this point, you might be thinking “What are you saying? If God knows you will choose B, then you can’t choose A. You don’t have a choice!”
I wouldn’t be so sure. To explain my reasoning, let’s look at a few types of knowledge.
You are driving home from work, anxiously awaiting the start of the football game. You pull into the driveway, plop on your sofa with a cold glass of soda and a bag of chips. Turning on the TV, you find that the game just ended. You missed it.
But you pull yourself out of your slump and (thanks to modern technology) find the game posted online. With a few quick clicks and the brief appearance of a loading bar, the game comes on and you are back in business. Whether the game has ended or not, you still don’t know the outcome. You sit and watch the game as if it were happening live.
Then the game ends, and the score is final. During the game, did the athletes have free will? If you answer no, then sports may well be played by robots. Of course they had free will! That’s why sports are so unpredictable. Athletes make their own choices freely.
Did the athletes have free will in the rerun that you watched, even though it was a rerun? After all, you were watching each choice after it was made. The athletes’ choices were finalized once they were made (hence the video will be the same every time you watch it), but the athletes still acted freely. Just because you watched it after does not change that.
“Now wait a second,” you object. “I didn’t know what would happen in the game. Anything could have happened for all I knew!”
Good point. So let’s change the story up a bit.
After missing the game you find it posted on the internet, and you begin watching, just the same as in the last scenario. Then the phone rings and you answer the call.
“Dude! Did you see that? It was a total shutout! I can’t believe the Jets crushed the Patriots! Oh, and the third quarter! Who could have guessed the quarterback would have ran with the ball on the first play! You would have…”
You hang up, crushed. Not only did you miss the live game, your (former) friend ruined it for you. In your pit of self-pity, you resolve to watch the game anyway. The quarterback ran with the ball on the first play of the third quarter, just as you knew he would. And the game ended exactly as you knew it would: a total shutout.
In the first example, you would have seen the game end the same way as it did in this example. But this time, you knew what would happen (at least the final score and a QB sneak). Could the outcome have been different this time? Of course not. The same choices were made, and the outcome was the same, regardless of how much you knew. Your knowledge of the outcome had nothing to do with the choices the players made during the game.
Let’s sum up what we know about past knowledge, and how it relates to free will: Knowledge of past decision does not take away the freedom of the decision. Put simply, if I know that you chose B yesterday, you still chose B freely. My knowledge of your choice didn’t limit your freedom.
“Okay, okay, I see your point. But you watched the game after it had ended. It is different if you would have known the results before the game. God knows everything before it happens, remember?”
It’s now time for an obvious question: If I know that yesterday you chose B, is it because you chose it? Or did you choose B because I know that you chose B? (I warned you it would be obvious).
“Duhh! You know that I chose B because I chose B. Any more questions, Dr. Obvious?”
Sounds good to me. Any knowledge of past choices that we have, we know because they were already chosen.
But would this hold true for future events? What if God knows one of your decisions in the future? Let’s use our A-B scenario again. If God knows you will choose B tomorrow, will you choose B because He knows you will? Or will He know it because you will choose it?
If you notice, this is the same obvious question we asked above, but set in the future. Is the answer so obvious now? No doubt, the rules get a little weird when we talk about the future. But I believe that the same is true of this question as in the previous: God knows what you will do simply because you will do it.
“Alright, that sounds poetic and all, but that doesn’t make a lick of sense. How can God know something that hasn’t happened yet? It’s impossible!”
In human terms, you are correct. Humans can’t know future events because they haven’t happened yet. But we need to look at one more attribute of God. Namely, He is the Creator.
God created everything. He created matter, energy, space, and time. And as the creator of all, He is not bound by creation as we are. For instance, God can see all of space at once (I might give myself an aneurysm if I even tried). This means that He is also not bound by time. Rather, He is outside of time. He can look at all of time and space at once. Everything is eternally present to Him, no matter when it happened.
This may sound difficult to imagine at first, but I believe that we can relate, in our own human way. Imagine that you are standing in the middle of a corn field that is covered in crop circles. You look around and see corn stalk all around, some standing, some knocked over. But you can’t really see any patterns. Now hop on a helicopter and fly one hundred feet above the fields. You would be able to see the patterns in the fields clearly from up there.
God sees all because He is not limited by space or time at all! He can see every inch of our world with clarity. He can see the big picture (like the pattern in the crop circles), or the minute details of smaller things. No moment is ever lost to God because He is not limited by time as we are. He can see every moment of our lives at all times, even before we live them.
Now let’s go back to our question: If God knew you will choose B tomorrow, will you choose B because He knows you will? Or does He know it because you will choose it?
Just like we know past choices because they already happened, God knows our future choices because they will happen. God sees your future decisions because He can see all of time at once. He is outside of time looking in. You will choose B tomorrow, and God knows that today. We are not forced to act as God knows we will. Rather, we make each decision freely as they come to us, and God knows exactly what we will decide each time, because He stands in eternity watching.
Let’s take a look at our original dilemma: “If I have a choice between A and B, and God infallibly knows that I will choose B, then I will have to choose B because God already knows that I will choose it.” Even after all of this discussion, the dilemma is still an intriguing one. I believe that is because it causes us to think about time and eternity in a way that we are not used to. It is like a fish trying to imagine living outside of water.
But there is no contradiction here. Knowledge of a past choice does not take away the freedom with which it was made. And similarly, God’s knowledge of a future choices does not remove man’s freedom to choose. To God, all things, past, present, and future, are forever present to Him. He knows what we will choose because He has already seen us make the choice. Man is free, and God knows all.
So when I look at my beautiful wife now, I can know that God knew who I would marry, and that I was praying for her all along.