My recent reply to a question on free will generated lots more questions and comments – which usually happens when I tackle any of the great mysteries of God, life and freedom. Here are some examples:
D., from New York City, wrote in part: “Many people, in fact (and I count myself among them), do understand how/why the two concepts (of God’s omniscience and our free will) are not mutually exclusive, based on God having created the concept of time, and therefore being outside of its boundaries. (Being a Trekkie, and having seen the “Back to the Future” movies certainly helped me develop an understanding of how a being can exist “outside of time.”)
A: I can join you in enjoying “Star Trek,” but I’m afraid I can’t join you in using it to prove or disprove the great mysteries of God and free will. Now, if you had used “I Love Lucy” as your theological touchstone, I might sign up.
T., from Irvine, Calif., wrote in part: “Knowing and causation are two different things. I may know it’s going to rain tomorrow; that doesn’t mean I caused it. In Psalm 139:4, King David writes, ‘Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely,’ and in verse 16, ‘all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.’
“This clearly indicates God does know what we’ll do next. If God doesn’t know what we’ll do next, He is not truly sovereign, but rather reactionary to his creation. The prophets were chosen by God before they were born. They did not become prophets of their own will.”
A: It comes down to this question: Are we truly the authors of our own lives? We must be if we are to be morally accountable for our actions. We must be if we are to choose freely to love each other and God, and we must be if we are to be truly set apart from all other living creatures who are moved by instinct, not by free moral choice.
The swallows don’t choose to return to Capistrano. They’re driven to return, coerced to return. They can’t decide not to return. God created them to migrate and so God knows perfectly what they will do. However, God made us to choose between good and evil, between following and disobeying God, and because our choices are free and not predetermined, God cannot know what we will choose.
We are in nature, but not a part of nature by virtue of this unique freedom of the will. Freedom is the essential prerequisite for moral responsibility. This is why we are not morally culpable for coerced actions. An act that God knows we will choose is in this sense coerced because we can’t make another choice. God does not cause our choice, but God cannot know our choices. We can predict the weather, and predict how our children will behave, but these are just predictions, not certain knowledge.
God may know that “the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Genesis 8:21), but God cannot know if we will choose evil now. This is why God set before us a choice between blessing and curse, between life and death, so that we can choose life (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
This limitation of God’s omniscience is why God “regretted making man” before the flood (Genesis 6:6), and this is why God put the forbidden tree in the Garden, not because God knew what Adam and Eve would choose, but to see and learn from what they chose (Genesis 2:16-17).
It’s time for us to see God’s gift of free will not as a limitation, but as God’s greatest gift to humanity. Free will frees us from being God’s puppets and enables us to become God’s partners.