God and free-will

I will not even attempt to make the following language lovely. It is too early on Saturday morning. (By early on Saturday morning I mean 12:40pm). Second disclaimer, this is meant as a technical argument, not a beautiful depiction of what Christians believe. If you would like to make the following more emotionally punchy, try the following – http://bit.ly/Adagioforstrings. Probably better then, as such, to read this all a bit slowly and carefully.


I do not believe that the concept of a God is necessarily incongruent with the concept of free will. I think that a person can believe both that God is in control of the universe, and that human beings are free to make meaningful decisions that shape their lives.

Now, when a believer in God says something like this, or something like, ‘We are responsible for the decisions we make, but God’s in control,’ many an atheist has shot up, riding upon the rising foam of a tidal wave of epistemological incredulity, surging towards the neighbouring seashore of the sunbaking theist, who had the raw nerve to utter such senseless oxymoronic waft, screaming, from the top of their tsunami, that, ‘Either God is in control, or we are free! One or the other, sunbaker!!’

A more moderate person might say something like this – God, if He exists, knows all of our future decisions in advance. If I see before me a cup of water, and consider whether to pick it up for a drink, or leave it for another time, then God knows in advance which decision I will take. If I drink the water, then I was always going to drink the water, and God always knew it. If I don’t, then I was never going to, and He knew it.

Does this mean that we have no free will? If we are bound to do what He has already known, does this erase our autonomy?

I think absolutely not, the whole thing is a confusion of causation.

Imagine a fork in a road, with a man, Ben, about to choose which direction he takes. God already knows which choice Ben will make, and let’s say that Ben will choose path A. Let us lay out two alternatives then:

  1. Ben must choose path A because God foreknows that He will choose path A.
  2. God must foreknow that Ben will choose path A, because Ben will choose path A.

2. is of course a more accurate picture of what is going on here. God’s foreknowledge isn’t *forcing* Ben to do anything. Rather Ben’s doing things is shaping God’s foreknowledge. The causation is running in the opposite direction, not from God’s foreknowledge to Ben’s decisions, but from Ben’s decisions to God’s foreknowledge.

The reason that this is confusing, is because it implies backwards causation through time, not the most natural concept to push into the brain. We are used to things that come after being caused by things which come before. But here we specifically have God’s foreknowledge, at the beginning of time itself, being shaped by what Ben would eventually choose. This isn’t a logically incoherent concept, it is just something we aren’t generally used to. In fact backward in time causation is a common occurrence in quantum mechanics, so this sort of process even does occur within our universe.

So, if God chooses to create a universe which contains free will, He is constrained to create only those universes in which people do things that they freely choose to do. If Ben wants to choose path A, then God cannot create a universe in which all else is equal, and Ben chooses B. That would violate Ben’s free will. As such, imagine God surveying an enormous number of possible universes that He could potentially actualise, and then narrowing His focus to those in which every action that every being takes is freely chosen. Within this limitation He would still have a vast ensemble of possible worlds to choose between, and He would choose presumably either the best, or if there is no fixed ‘best,’ then one of the better ones (we could call this a HD universe).

Within this universe, everything that happens is as He foreknows, everything that He foreknows happens, He is sovereign and in control, and the citizens are free to do as they choose.

There may be occasions, within this universe, where God places His interventionary hand into events, correcting the odd decision, parting the odd red sea, answering the odd prayer, and so on. We could then say that people are perhaps not entirely free with respect to God, but they are substantially free, or meaningfully free.

With freedom comes responsibility. If we are free to choose between path A and path B, then we are responsible for this choice, despite God’s foreknowledge. A choice of paths may not be a meaningful moral choice. But a choice between murdering a rabbit, and giving it a back rub, is a meaningful moral choice. Similarly, if I was a jaguar shark, and I was deciding whether to eat a passing scuba diver names Esteban, this would be a significant moral decision. http://bit.ly/s75ldh. God would have foreknown whether we would kill or massage, eat scuba divers or not, from the beginning of time, but this would not prevent us from being wholly responsible for our decisions.

Our sub-optimal choices are called sin. If God is just then He owes us an exact and fair punishment for all of our sins. He then sends Jesus to Himself freely take this punishment off us, and onto Himself, if we freely choose to repent, accept His Lordship, and accept the great transaction.

Ultimately, this post is just intended to try to defend my view, that a person can quite sensibly believe both that a human being is free, and that God is sovereign, or in control of things. Or at least to suggest that God’s foreknowledge does not directly contradict this freedom.


One thought on “God and free-will

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s