An Age-Old Dilemma
The Bible clearly states two ideas that seem to be at odds with each other, that some skeptics say create an outright contradiction. On the one hand, there are many passages, plus narrative examples, that clearly demonstrate that God knows what is going to happen. Not only that, but that God has determined what will happen. He is the author of History, not reactively meddling when He finds out what humans are doing. Rather, what humans are doing is what God knew what they would do because history has been written already, like a novel. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end, and we’re just living it out, moment by moment.
We may be surprised by events as they happen, but God is never surprised.
On the other hand, the Bible clearly states and assumes that we are free creatures who have a choice to do whatever we please, if we are able to do it. Not only that, but we are accountable for what we choose, and not just what we choose to do, but even for what we choose to say or think about! But it’s easy to think about how this could seem impossible. How can I, doing what God decided I would do, be responsible for what I do? If God has already written history, could I have done differently than I did?
For example: God knew that I would choose to put on black pants this morning. Could I have chosen gray shorts? If I had chosen gray shorts, when God knew that I would wear black pants, well... you see the absurdity that results. God can’t know something in the future if that future thing might not happen. That would be more like an educated guess, a prediction. But God doesn’t predict; He has absolute knowledge of the future.
There is a way around this. So far, we’re thinking about the order this way: First, God knows something, and because He knows it, it will happen. However, this makes an assumption that isn’t true, and the clue to our mistake is in the word “because”. “Because” has the word “cause” in it. What we’ve done is assume that knowing something causes something. But of course, this isn’t true.
I love examples, so here’s another one: Let’s say I give my son a bowl of ice cream and a bowl of raw kale, plus a fork and spoon, and I tell him he can eat from one of the bowls. I know (almost with 100% certainty) that he will grab the spoon and eat the ice cream. Now, did I *cause* him to eat the ice cream by knowing he would? Of course not. He made the choice freely.
What we’ve done is somewhat reverse the order of things. Instead of saying that he ate the ice cream because I knew he would, we say that I knew he would eat the ice cream because it was a fact that he would. Because a future event will happen, God knows that it will.
A) It’s true that I wore black pants this morning.
B) God knows all truth, past, present, and future.
C) God knew that I would wear black pants.
So, this does solve the logical problem of being free to do what God knows you will do. However, it sets us up for a problem with scripture. What it seems to imply is that somehow the truth of what happens is *prior* to what God knows. It makes God’s knowledge seem to be the result of the thing being true, as if the truth *caused* God’s knowledge. This feels very close to saying that God is not the author, but has simply already (by looking into the future) read the book that we are currently writing with our free choices. This would be like if someone from the 1920’s traveled to the future and read Harry Potter, then came back and told someone the whole story before it had been written.
But this isn’t how God’s knowledge is portrayed in the Bible. God is not reading someone else’s book. He wrote the book already. We are doing what God decreed we would do.
Defining Free Will and Accountability
But let’s talk for a second on what it means to act freely in the first place. Essentially, you are free to do whatever you want to do, if you have knowledge of it as an option, and you have the ability to do it. Back to my son, for example: He knew that he could choose between two foods and two utensils. What he wanted was the ice cream and he wanted it to be easy to eat. He was able to eat the kale with a spoon, or the ice cream with a fork, but he didn’t choose those options because what he really wanted to do was eat the ice cream with as little effort as possible. He acted in accord with his desire and his ability. If he had known that there was a carton of ice cream in the fridge as an option, however, he would have taken that instead, but he only knew of these two options and chose what he most desired and was able to do.
I think this just basically evident. We do what we want to do and whatever we have done is because it was, in some way, accomplishing what we wanted. Even if you don’t want to go to work, you go anyway because you like eating groceries and having a place to live. You want to support yourself more than you want to quit working. We often do what we don’t want to do, as a means of getting what we most desire.
And why do we desire what we desire? Because it is in our nature. We are, to a great degree, the products of our environment, and the constraints of our physical and mental capacities. We have a temperament, and it seems to be simply a part of who we are. Who we are, in a sense, determines what we desire. It can be tempting to say that this relieves us of accountability, though. How can we be held responsible for just doing what comes naturally? On the other hand, we know intuitively that we are responsible for doing what we do. There is a tension there.
Even the person who denies the existence of God, believing we are the products of natural processes over time, cannot deny that we are responsible for our actions. They may argue in a classroom or a blog that free will is an illusion, but they do not live this way in the real world where people absolutely must be held responsible for harming other people, at the least. There is something completely undeniable in our psyche that 100% knows that we are responsible for our choices. If someone doesn’t recognize this, we say that they have a mental disorder and need treatment.
And how are you more responsible for your action then if you desired to do it? Even secular court systems recognize that there is more culpability, and subsequent penalty, for a premeditated murder than for involuntary manslaughter. If my son accidentally knocks one of those bowls off the table and it breaks, I don’t hold him responsible. If he intentionally pushes it off, though, he’s in trouble. Knowing that he wanted to break the bowl makes him more responsible. Even if you think free will is an illusion, you know that this is true about accountability.
God knows what will happen because what will happen is true, and God knows all truth
Knowing the future is not what causes the future.
The future is true because God has already written it.
We can do whatever we want to do if we are able, and everything we have done has been according to our desire and ability.
Everyone is accountable for doing something they wanted to do
Let’s get one thing out of the way. This is not a contradiction. It would be a contradiction to say that God is sovereign, and God is also not sovereign. It would be a contradiction to say that we have free will and we do not have free will. That is not what I am saying. I am simply saying that God is in control of what happens, while we are freely choosing to do what we want to do. It seems like these couldn’t both be true, but they can. Let’s create another scenario to demonstrate.
I like to ask people if they have ever played chess. Most people have. I ask if they’re very good. Most people aren’t, so this example usually fits the person. If you’re a very good player, though, you can still see the point.
Are you good at playing chess? - No.
Have you ever played against someone who is very good? - Sure.
Did you make all your moves of your own free will? Were they the choices you wanted to make, and were able to make? - Yeah.
Were you in control of the game? - No, not at all.
So here we have a situation where a person has free will, but the other person accomplishes exactly what they intend, which is to win the game. There is no contradiction, nor is it impossible that one person can control another person who is acting freely. This is analogous to our situation with God. In the first book of the Bible, Joseph is sold into slavery by jealous brothers. He lives a life filled with hardship but ends up being second in command in the land of Egypt. He also saves many people from famine because God gives him a vision of the future. When he meets his brothers again, they fear what Joseph will do to them. Joseph has the right to condemn them, because they did their evil according to their own desire. However, Joseph forgives them, and he gives an insight into how God is in control. He says, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good”. Like a master chess player, God set things up in such a way that the free actions of people brought about exactly the good intentions of his Will.
Of course, the chess game is analogous, but not exactly the same. The difference with God is that God has determined what moves we will make. So, it seems that we still have our problem. But not if we change our view of determination a little. Remember that our free will is that we can act according to our desire, which is a result of our nature and our personality developed by our environment and experience. God, the master chess player, not only knows what moves we could make, He knows what moves we will make, because He knows our nature. In fact, our nature is a product of the things that God set up with other persons and events prior to our existence. He knows what moves we will make because he knows what moves we will desire, just like I know that my son will choose ice cream and a spoon because I know what he desires by his nature.
The difference with God is that he knows everyone’s desire, and they have that desire because he created them and put them in positions where they would, of their own free choice, choose what He wanted them to choose. He has set up history in such a way that it will simply occur as He has arranged it. He set something in motion that will occur, and it will occur as a result of each of our own free choices. And each of our own free choices will set about the environment and experience that will change other people’s personalities such that they will choose according to their own desire, accomplishing exactly what God has set ahead of time to be true.
You might think of it as something like dominoes, where God has set all the pieces and they fall exactly as He desires. However, these dominoes have choice to fall or not. It just so happens, though, that God has set them in exactly the place where they will choose to fall because they wanted to fall. We do what we want, and so are accountable for what we do. However, we are placed in a position in history in which doing what we want accomplishes exactly what God has set about to accomplishing.
Embracing the Tension
I think what may be helpful is to consider the two Biblical ideas, God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, as being two descriptions of reality from different perspectives. From God’s point of view, He has decreed what will be and therefore knows what will be. From our perspective, we are free to choose as we desire and that is what we do. So, when the Bible speaks of our accountability and choice, it is speaking about how things appear from our perspective. When it speaks about the total sovereignty of God over all history, then it is speaking from God’s perspective.
Like the novice against the master chess player, though, we can never fully understand how this works, at least not in detail. We can admit our ignorance and lack of skill, and accept our place in the history of God, though, and take responsibility for our choices freely made. This idea can produce different reactions in different people. For some, the idea of never being able to win a game is infuriating. It seems unfair that, no matter what we choose, we are choosing what God wanted us to do. Some people will topple the board and quit the game instead of being manipulated by a God who never lets them win. Unfortunately for them, God knew that they would topple the board and the game, as it were, is much bigger than the board. We are in the world that God created and we can only play by the rules given ahead of time.
For those who know and love God, however, it is a different story. What we know is that God is Good. God is Love. It is a great comfort to us that God is in control. There is peace, knowing that even our worst choices will be “repurposed”, so that what we intend for evil, God intended for Good. For those of us who know an All-Powerful, All-Knowing, All-Present God, we are grateful that it is He who is in control and not us. We know that if we were in control, we wouldn’t last a day without destroying ourselves. Praise be to our God who has given us the dignity of free choice, but protects us from the full consequences of those choices. Praise God.