If God is omniscient then He knows everything you and I are going to do in the future. But if God knows everything we’re going to do in the future then how are we free to do otherwise? Is there any way we can answer this paradox?
I can remember it like it was yesterday. The first objection to Christianity and the existence of God I had heard at that point. One day, during a lazy browse through Youtube, I stumbled across this young chap who liked to call himself the “Friendly Atheist.” Why he decided to label himself as such I did not know. Even today the name comes across as terribly discriminatory and condescending to his fellow atheists but I digress. The first argument I heard him present was a paradox. The “Free Will Paradox” it could be called. It goes as follows,
“If God knows everything we’re going to do in the future then we don’t have free will. If God doesn’t know everything we’re going to do in the future then He is not omniscient.”
This paradox has been used quite frequently as a “gotcha” argument against the existence of God. Christians emphasize the importance of free will but if God is omniscient then we do not have free will for we cannot decide to do something that will surprise God. To explain this further let’s picture our lives as a timeline that runs from point A to point Z (A being the moment of birth and Z being the moment of death). Say I was born at 11:30 on Wednesday night. God already knew this would happen, of course, because He is omniscient. However, God also knew that when I turned two and began to take my first steps I would stub my toe on the leg of a table at 1:25 P.M. on Friday morning. It is impossible for me to avoid this outcome. I will stub my toe at 1:25 P.M. on Friday morning and there is nothing I can do about it. Therefore, one of the most prominent ideas in Christianity is contradicted by the very nature of its God. At this point, we may wipe the dust off our hands and go on with our godless lives.
Of course, that would be the conclusion if we decided to stop right there, but there are a couple of ways this has been answered. The first way is to use the premise of the paradox against it. God knows what we’re going to do in the future because He is omniscient and His knowledge is infinite. He knows us more than we even know ourselves. Because He knows us He also knows what we are going to do at any given time. If I am hungry, for example, He knows I will pick something I like or that is healthy over something I don’t. No one will argue that I cannot pick the food that I dislike but that I will not eat what I dislike. The same logic can be applied to God.
The problem with this answer is that it’s terribly limited. It cannot answer for most accidents or anything that happens outside of my control. What if I happen to bust a tire? I would obviously never choose to run over a nail and bust my tire but God still knew what was going to happen. So His knowledge must be outside of ours. Although God does know us deeply that cannot be the extent of His knowledge for He is able to know about events that sit outside of our control. Moreover, instead of helping us refute the paradox it may only serve to make things worse because we are now forced to look at things as if they were in God’s control instead of ours. Now the skeptic can argue that we have no free will because we have no control over our lives. We are but an invented character in a grand story, moving through scenes and events that have already been written and laid out.
Following this some attempt to refute the paradox by arguing that atheism, either as a materialist worldview or a lack of belief in God (the definition is not important), does not provide sufficient grounds for free will itself. It is argued that on a strictly materialistic worldview the illusion of free will is really nothing more than predetermined electrical neurons firing off in our brains. Everything we do is determined by the chemical wiring in our brains.
If this were true then it may help diffuse the accusation behind the paradox but we’re still left with the same problem. We really haven’t gotten anywhere.
The problem from the beginning is that we have assumed the premise of the paradox is correct. The heart of the paradox lies in the line “God knows everything we’re going to do in the future.” It is not a question of knowledge but of time. If I exist in point B on the timeline and God knows what will happen to me at a random moment in point D on the timeline then I do not have the freedom to decide otherwise. The events on my timeline are already set.
This is an embarrassing misconception.
When skeptics throw out this paradox they assume that God is bound by time in the same way we are bound by time. C.S. Lewis notes that this is simply not so. God is not bound by time, He is above and beyond time. This is a truth theologians have taught for centuries. If we live on a timeline that goes from point A to Z then God is not on the timeline itself, rather, He is the paper the timeline is written on. Every moment in our past, present, and future is God’s now. He is as present in our future as He is in our present and past. We, on the other hand, are present only at the moment we are living in. For us, history exists only in books and written words and the future exists only in our imagination. We set goals and ideals for the future but the moment we achieve those goals or realize those ideals does not exist until we reach that point on our timeline. However, for God, the moment we achieve those goals exists long before we even began to create them because God is already living with us at that moment in our time.
Lewis notes that when someone is bound by time their lives are also dependent on and bound to it. There is no point after Z for us on this earth and we cannot retrace our steps into the past and become children again. We have no choice but to move forward, leaving behind a piece of ourselves every day. For me, yesterday’s me has ceased to exist. But God’s life is not bound to anything but Himself. He exists fully in every moment of our lives. He has no history and no future. The Incarnation, for example, may be history to us, a period in time from Christ’s birth to crucifixion, but it is a timeless truth to God about how His humanity is a part of His whole divine nature. It is not a case of God foreknowing or foreseeing our future, as if we were nothing but a program or fabricated story, but a case of God living in our future and seeing us do whatever we do in that time. He is a loving father who is with us at every moment and every step.
So let’s now rewrite the paradox and see if it holds up.
“If God knows what I am doing right now then I do not have free will. If God doesn’t know what I am doing right now then He is not omniscient.”
This seems quite nonsensical, doesn’t it? God knows what I am doing now just as well as anyone who watches me and sees me.
In conclusion, there is no such thing as the free will paradox where the Christian God is concerned. The argument is nothing more than the result of taking an assumption as fact without bothering to test it.