Is there a dilemma between God’s omniscience and human free will?
[Originally published on Helium 23 February 2009]
…a problem that seems incapable of a solution
The argument: God knows all. He can see into the future as well as into the past. He knows what you are going to do even before you do it. If you were able to do something other than what he foresaw, then God would not be omniscient. Therefore, either a human cannot have free will or God is not omniscient.
What does the Bible say?
Over and over in the Bible, we are instructed to do certain things. The wicked are punished, and the righteous are rewarded. We are instructed to believe, to choose and to act.
19 I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live:
~ Dt 30:19
Does it make sense for God to tell Israel to “choose” if there is no free will? What about punishment? If people have no free will, then is it justice to punish people who were simply doing what they were supposed to do?
The animals were created by God speaking. We see something different when man was created. We again see something different when woman was created. We see God creating humans in a “hands on” fashion. God breathed life into Adam, which was much more intimate than how the animals were created. Man and woman were created in the “image of God” (Ge 1:27).
Human beings are different than the animals. Animals go through their lives guided by “instinct”. Animals have a spiritual component in them that guides them as to when to mate, when to migrate, when to hibernate, etc. Humans are different. Humans mate at irregular times. Humans often fight nature to build homes rather than migrate or hibernate (although hibernation during the winter might be tempting). Humans create art, music, poetry and other things that have nothing to do with survival. Unlike animals, these things are not species-specific, but humans are very diverse in how they express themselves.
God is creating His family. We are given the opportunity to become sons and daughters of the Most High. He chose to create, how to create and what to create. He has given us a similar ability to choose because we are created in His likeness.
It is difficult to talk about omniscience without a discussion of how God is omniscient. The simple answer is we don’t know. However, there are hints of this in the Bible. God is the Great “I Am”. He exists, He has always existed, and He will always exist. Even the statement “I Am” is present tense. It is as though all time is in the present for God. Does that mean He is outside of time itself? He created all matter and all energy, and we know time and these elements are related. He created all that is visible and invisible (Col 1:16), and time is certainly invisible. Did He create it as a medium for Him to move in, like we move along a highway in one direction or the other? We do not know for sure, but it would seem more likely that He stands outside of time itself since it is His creation. If this is so, then He would be able to view all of time as we can look in 360 degrees to see a panorama on top of a mountain.
I know what I did yesterday. Does that knowledge change what I did yesterday? Of course not. Why then is it assumed that God violates our free will simply because He knows what we will do first?
When children are young, we might tell them not to touch the hot iron. If we doubt they are paying attention, we might repeat it or ask them to repeat back to us what we said. If the child is very young, we might try to protect it from itself. However, beyond a level of maturity, it is better to let the child learn the consequences of disobedience rather than set the expectation that we will hover over them every minute. The child has free will. We may even know what the child will do once we turn our backs, but we will allow the child to follow through on its decision nonetheless. It isn’t because we are mean, but we allow this so the child is not stunted in its growth.
Our Heavenly Father will do this with us as well. Adam and Eve made a choice. Did it have to be that way? No, they could have chosen otherwise, but God desired children so much that He allows the consequences of free will.
Does God place limits on us? Certainly. He created us mortal so that we will not live forever. Until these last days, He limited humans in various ways so as to not accelerate the evil of human nature until near the end of His timeline. That does not take away choice. This should be evident. A prisoner is limited in her/his movements and activities. The prisoner is told when they can eat, sleep and exercise. Do prisoners have free will? Yes, they do. They can choose to obey, disobey, escape, riot, study law, write poetry, learn a craft, and so on. Their choices may be limited, but they can choose. Their free will cannot be taken from them.
Yet, God will not make choices for people. He may react when appropriate, and He has done so in the past. Reacting to punish sinners or reward righteous behavior, though, still means those people initially made choices to warrant the reaction.
In spite of what some teach, salvation is a choice. It is a gift, that is true, but we can either accept or decline this gift. God predestines who will be called in this age. Unfortunately, some will love their sin and reject salvation, and they will be condemned to the second death (Rev 21:8).
What trips some up on this doctrine, though, is God’s promise to those who love Him:
28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
~ Ro 8:28
However, wouldn’t “all things” include free will? Doesn’t God want those who are willing to join His family? God wants people to see Him out.
29 But if from thence thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul.
~ Dt 4:29
11 Seek the Lord and his strength, seek his face continually.
Seeking is an act of free will.
God’s sovereignty includes giving people choices. He grants people free will. His power is such that no decision we can make will disannul His ultimate purpose of building His family. He wants us to make the choice for Him (2Pe 3:9), but He will not force us to make that choice.