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God’s Omniscience and Human Free Will: A “Macro” Approach

Is there free will? The believer will say, “Yes, because we’ve been given it. Of course there’s free will, the big guy says so. Who am I to disagree?” Well, that seems to me to be absolutely self-canceling nonsense.
— Christopher Hitchens[1]

Christian apologetics will often argue that the evils of mankind, even–and especially–those done in the name of a God, are the result of human free will. This argument is, in fact, essential to the framework of Christianity inasmuch as the first sin, in the Garden of Eden, which resulted in the downfall of mankind and casting out by God, had to have been the result of free will for the rest of the story to make sense.

The Christian belief would be null and void if humans did not have free will but were instead merely predetermined consequences of God’s plan. In other words, if a deity were in control of our lives from beginning to end, we would not, in effect, have free will, and we would therefore be merely pawns or “robots” commanded by this divinity. The idea of willfully choosing to sin would become irrelevant.

This article attempts to show the logical implausibility of an omniscient God and concurrent human free will by first examining the traditional approach, theist rebuttals, and then by introducing the macro approach. But before attempting to dismantle the Christian argument, groundwork must be laid as to what Christians believe about their deity.

Simply put, most Christians believe their God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, impassible, immutable, benevolent, eternal, transcendent, and immanent.[2]

“Omniscient” is defined as:

1) having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight;

2) possessed of universal or complete knowledge.[3]

“Free will” is defined as:

1) the ability to choose how to act;

2) the ability to make choices that are not controlled by fate or God.[4]

The issue of omniscience in relation to free will is not a new one, and it has been examined and discussed by theists of every flavor, as well as by atheists, for centuries past. These past analyses of the issue, from both sides, have looked at the premise from a micro-perspective.

What is meant by a micro approach to the issue? This is the traditional line of logic which assumes that God, having infallible omniscience, does not allow for human free will for the reason that our individual actions are infallibly foreknown. This is known as theological fatalism. A condensed summary of this argument might look something like the following:

  1. Necessarily, if God foreknows that I will do X, then I will do X.
  2. God foreknows infallibly that I will do X.
  3. Therefore, necessarily, I will do X.

It is important to note that this line of reasoning can only, at best, show that an omniscient God and human free will are incompatible, not that this God caused the action to be taken. This logic has been scrutinized by philosophers such as Aristotle, Aquinas, and Augustine to name a few.[5] Those who believe that God’s omniscience and human free will can and do coexist are known as compatibilists. Dr. William Lane Craig, a Christian debater and author, for example, purports that there is an “elementary logical fallacy” in this argument.

Craig explains that it is not necessarily true that anyone would, as in premise 3 above, do X. It is possible someone could refrain from doing X. However, if one were to refrain, according to Dr. Craig, “then God’s foreknowledge would have been different.”[6] This is merely semantics and is in effect a backpedaling or reversal the argument. If God foreknew that one would refrain from doing X, then premise 1 and 2 would not have read, “God foreknows that I will do X,” but instead, “God foreknows that I will refrain from doing X.”

This logical inconsistency between human free will and an omniscient God is so frequently debated–even amongst believers–that it has led some theists to a faith described as “open theism” which purports that divine infallible foreknowledge is not possible.[7] Open theism has received much criticism from other theistic believers and has even been referred to as “dangerous teaching that undermines the sovereignty, majesty, infinitude, knowledge, existence, and glory of God.”[8] Unlike open theism, the majority of Christians believe both that God is omniscient and that humans have free will, as described in the Bible.[9] It is this position of compatibility which this article addresses.

Before delving into God’s omniscience in relation to human free will, it is worthwhile to note that many atheist apologists take issue with God’s omniscience in relation to himself. That is whether or not God himself (or herself, or itself, if you please) has free will. This argument is presented succinctly by atheist author George H. Smith: “If God knew the future with infallible certainty, he cannot change it–in which case he cannot be omnipotent. If God can change the future, however, he cannot have infallible knowledge of it.”[10] It is also argued that omnipotence in itself is problematic with the often asked question, “Can God create a rock so heavy he cannot move it?” However, theists often refuse the premise of the logic in both of these issues by saying that this only makes sense in our understanding of logic in our world, and cannot be expected to apply to a being that is outside of our universe’s constraints.

These are interesting questions but can ultimately be dismissed by theists with unfalsifiable claims. Human free will in relation to God’s omniscience is not usually as easily dismissed.

Traditional theological fatalism is referred to in this article as micro in its approach because it generally only argues around a single event or action taken by one person in our known universe. The idea is that if logic can show that God infallibly foreknows this singular action, thereby eliminating that person’s ability to choose something else, then the totality of any human free will argument can be dismantled.

This argument is applied to both biblical accounts of omniscience as well as to hypothetical contemporary situations. Let us look at each example type.

The first time the issue of omniscience in relation to human free will comes into play in Christian theology is in the Garden of Eden. God has created a perfect scenario in which harmony abounds and there is no sin. In this setting there are two humans, Adam, which God had created from dust, and Eve, who God created using a rib bone of Adam. These humans have dominion over the garden and other animals and need only answer to God.

The story goes that in this garden there are trees with plentiful amounts of food and two special trees: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. A talking serpent engages Eve in a conversation about God’s rule regarding not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve is tempted and subsequently both she and Adam eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Following their infringement, the duo hides from God who asks things like, “Where are you?” and, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”[11] It is interesting that a God who knows everything would need to ask questions like that, or any questions at all for that matter. After their condemnation by God, they are expelled from the garden to prevent them from also eating from the tree of life, which would have resulted in their immortality.

This is the story, albeit very condensed and slightly paraphrased, of mankind’s first sin according to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). There are several incompatible ideas about free will and omniscience that arise from this tale.

To begin with, to believe that God is omniscient is to believe that even before he decided to create the Garden of Eden, he already knew that he would also create Adam and Eve, and subsequently every human that has ever lived or will ever live. In addition, God also knows every single one of these human’s entire life story, fears, desires, beliefs, time and place of death, and whether they will go to heaven or hell. God also must know what circumstances each human will encounter in their lives that will lead to them formulating their beliefs, fears, desires, and ultimately lead to their eternal reward or punishment.

God must know these things about every person before they are born and, in fact, even before the start of the universe.[12] That is to say, Christians believe that even before God decided to create the world in which we live he already knew that we would be born and whether or not we would go to heaven or hell. This is known as foreknowledge.

One might ask at this point, if God already knows the outcome of every single person’s life, and their final destination afterwards, what is the point of even creating Adam and Eve to begin with? If God wanted the heavens filled with souls he need merely wish it so, without subjecting humans to trials and tribulations by which he already knows the end result. However, theists will argue that God knows who will go to heaven and hell but it is the people themselves who choose, through free will, where they will end up.[13] This point, among many others, is why the question of free will is so important and also shows how essential it is to theistic belief.

The issue at hand, however, is whether the story of Adam and Eve is compatible with an omniscient Divinity. If God knew, before he ever created the Garden of Eden and placed the forbidden trees in its center, that the humans he created would eat from one of those trees, why did he place the trees there to begin with? Surely God himself contains the knowledge of good and evil, and is also immortal. Why, then, do trees which grant these powers even exist? Why are they made available to the one species that God also created with the capacity to disobey him?

Theists would argue that God did not want robots and that only with true free will would humans be able to genuinely love God and obey him. This raises another question, why did God create humans to begin with? Was he lonely for company? Was he depressed without anyone to converse with? Was he craving an inferior being that would worship him? And also, what is love to God? Does God need love? What was love before humans came into being?

These are very common questions that arise when considering the stories from Genesis in the Bible. Theists are quick to cite scripture showing that God did not need humans, did not have an ego to be fed, and was not lonely. God, according to the Christian apologists’ argument, created us out of love and, in fact, loved us before he even created us.[14] This still raises the question that, if he already loved us before we existed, why not leave it as such? God could have enjoyed the warm and fuzzy feeling of loving us without ever having needed to actually materialize us into being. (Food for thought.)

But even the argument that God did not want robots and therefore gave humans free will is intrinsically weak. Are these theists purporting that God is incapable of creating beings that can love him and also need not sin? If there are limitations to God’s ability then he is not all powerful. Interestingly, at least one notable Christian apologist has stated exactly this.

Dinesh D’Souza was asked, “Can an omnipotent God create a world of free will and no evil?” Dinesh answered, “I think the answer to that question is clearly no.” He goes on to say that free will is by definition the ability to do good and evil.[15] But this poses two issues: 1) to say God is incapable of something would mean he is not omnipotent, or all-powerful; 2) in the Garden of Eden both Adam and Eve had free will before eating from the tree, and yet there was also no sin or evil. They were free to choose how to spend their days, what food to eat, and what to name the animals and birds.[16] This free will did not require evil to exist, and could have continued without there being a crafty serpent or forbidden trees. For any theist to say that choosing what to eat, how to spend one’s day, and what to name things is not free will is to defeat their own argument that we have free will at present. So it seems Dinesh’s argument is inconsistent with both God’s omnipotence and the fact that a world with free will and no evil did already exist according to his own holy book.

So this comes full circle to the question, why is there a need to have forbidden trees to begin with? And why create a serpent that you know will successfully tempt another of your creations? If God infallibly knew that they were going to eat the forbidden fruit, then the human couple could never have done anything different. Is this free will? Theists may, of course, argue that God’s will is beyond our understanding, or that they could have done differently, though God would have known that too, but this a circular non-argument.[17] An important factor in this scenario is time. That God foreknew in the past what would happen in the future, as we understand time, is one of the main points that is often attacked by theists in the traditional theological fatalism micro-approach. We will examine this point later.

Now, this fatalist approach must also be examined from a contemporary “real world” viewpoint as the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden can too easily be dismissed as metaphorical. The following “real world” analogy is a common example of how many contemporary theists reconcile human free will with their deity’s omniscience:

Free will does not stop becoming free because God knows what will happen. For example, I know that my child will choose to eat chocolate cake over a bowl full of stinking dead mice. If I were to set them both before my child, it is safe to say she will not eat the dead mice. Knowing this is not taking away the freedom of my child since she is freely choosing one over the other.[18]

This analogy or something similar to it, usually a scenario involving decisions one’s children might make, has been used countless times by Christian apologists, including for example Frank Turek, Dinesh D’Souza, and C.S. Lewis, respectively.[19] The problem with this analogy is that it is a faulty analogy. Or to put it plainly, just because the premise of the situation is similar does not make the comparison exact–or even logical.

When a human presents their child or any other human with a choice we can make assumptions, based on our past experience, about what the other person might choose. No human can claim, however, to infallibly know ahead of time what the other will do. In the above analogy, a child is presented with chocolate cake and a bowl of stinking dead mice. Presumably, the child will not eat the dead mice and may instead eat the cake. However, this is not the same as omniscience and to equate the two, even in the form of an analogy, seems disingenuous.

The child may indeed eat one of the dead mice and not the cake. She may eat some of both. She may eat neither or ask for a third option. She may throw the food onto the ground. She may walk away from the choice completely. At best, we can try to understand patterns of human behavior based on observation. But humans are erratic at times and break the pattern of expected behavior. A father might be both surprised and disgusted if his little girl were to eat dead mice instead of chocolate cake. But an omniscient God is not capable of being surprised and would have known beforehand that this would happen, and indeed was always going to happen since the beginning of creation.

When humans have children, they have no way of knowing what exactly the child will look like, what grades it will receive in school, whether it will die in its first year or live past one hundred years of age. They cannot know who the child will marry, whether they will commit crime, what occupation they will hold, what principles they will cherish, what doubts they will harbor, or what instances in their life will influence these decisions and their personality traits. They also cannot know, even if they know the person intimately, whether that person will go to heaven or hell. This is very different from what theists claim their God is capable of.

It is claimed that God not only knows all of these things about every child, but also all of these things about every human in the history and future of mankind; even before he willed the universe into being God already knew every coincidence or chance meeting that would ever happen; that is, God has always known everything for all time. This brings us to the issue of time in relation to theological fatalism, as often addressed in theistic rebuttals.

Some theists state that God views the past, present, and future all at once and therefore foreknows what will happen without actually causing it to happen. This timelessness “solution” to theological fatalism was first proposed by 6th century philosopher Boethius and has been reused continuously by Christians since its inception.[20] This removal of God from time, in our understanding of it, seems to poke a hole in the traditional theological fatalism argument, or micro-approach as it has been called in this article. This is where the idea of a macro-approach comes into play.

The analogy of God as a programmer will be used to help explain this proposition. If God could think of literally an infinite number of different universes he could create, imagine each one from creation to destruction, know every detail of every creature’s life in each of these potential universes, and decided to create this universe–then he has decided the fate of everything. He has, to continue with the analogy, decided to “run this program” rather than any of the other programs or universes that he could have chosen. God must, if he is omniscient, also know every line of code in the whole program, from start to finish.

Even the fact that you are reading this article must be by God’s choice and design, as he must have imagined and been able to have created a universe instead in which everything had been the same up to now except that you did not read this article. We must also remember that the issue of time is not relevant in the macro approach because God’s infinite knowledge of the potential universes he could have created existed before he created this one, thereby creating time as the phenomenon we understand.

The logical steps to this macro approach look to God’s omniscience before any creation was ever willed into being. In layman terms this logic reads simply:

  1. Before the creation of the universe and time, there was a God.
  2. This God is both omnipotent and omniscient.
  3. This God, necessarily, knows of an infinite number of potential universes it can create.
  4. This God, necessarily, knows everything that will happen, and every action that will be taken, within every one of these infinite potential universes it can create.
  5. This God created the universe in which we live.
  6. Therefore, necessarily, this God has decided every detail of occurrence within this universe it created.
  7. Therefore, necessarily, this universe is deterministic and there is no free will for the agents within it.[21]

At first glance this may seem to not further the original argument at all. However, the difference is that the micro approach is potentially undone by the timelessness solution and can, at best, only show that an omniscient God and free will are incompatible. The macro approach takes this proposition one step further by attempting to demonstrate that God actually caused all of these actions by choosing everything that would happen from an infinite number of possibilities, and therefore humans have no free will, and whatever we do was carefully preselected by God before his deciding to create the universe. The macro approach is also unaffected by God’s relationship to time as we understand it since it examines his omniscience before creating our universe and time; rather than his omniscience in relation to individual human actions within our universe as in the micro argument.

The traditional micro approach does not consider that God, by his very nature, must have known of and imagined an infinite number of possible universes before time as we know it existed. Each of these infinite universes may vary widely or, more importantly, by only one microscopic difference. There must be a universe this God imagined in which everything was exactly the same as our current universe–except that one human had one extra hair on their head. And then there must also be a universe in which that human had two extra hairs. This microscopic difference in potential universes is literally infinite. And in fact we can plainly see from scripture that God takes a keen interest in these minute details, as in Matthew 10:30, “But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” One can also look to the theistic “fine-tuning argument” which claims God carefully crafted the parameters of our universe; again showing that he must have carefully selected everything before he created it.

With an infinite number of potential universes, God decided to create this one. That means that every micro decision any creature has ever made was always going to happen in this particular universe. Essentially, the unfathomable breadth of God’s omniscience, specifically before time, is arguably reason to believe that his crafting of this specific version of the universe means the universe is deterministic and there is no human free will.

In the form of a question: how did God decide, from infinite possibilities, what the universe he created would include? He selected from his own knowledge of possibilities every minuscule detail, from how many hairs were on each person’s head, to where they were born, to whom they be married. Surely, this must be understood as his decision to make our current reality, absent of human choice.

If you were to raise your right hand now, there are a trillion other universes God could have made in which you raised it slightly higher, lower, to the left, right, wiggled a finger, raised your left hand instead, did not raise either hand, et cetera and so forth. If God wanted you to do something else he would have created one of the other potential universes, and perhaps he did, but this article is not meant to discuss parallel universes, only the infinite potential universes that God must have known about before creating ours.

God had to decide on a number of factors, such as which transgressions each individual human would commit, whether mankind would even exist, whether or not there would be an afterlife, whether or not he would make the world a utopia, and so on. Of all the possibilities that could have been, Christians believe God decided to program or create a world in which Adam and Eve, even before God created them, were going to eat the fruit.

Even with this macro approach to theological fatalism it could still potentially be argued that God, in each of these possible universes, is not causing the actions of the agents within them but that he merely knows what will happen. However, this would relegate God to a passive observer. He has not simply happened upon our universe and sat down to watch events unfold, he designed it. Additionally, given an infinite number of possibilities, the decision to choose one reality to create rather than any other makes it intrinsically deterministic, in this author’s opinion. It seems with God foreknowing everything about every potential universe, down to the number of hairs on every human’s head, that his deciding to create this specific universe leaves us with only the illusion of free will.

To conclude, it seems logically incongruent that there is an all-knowing God who created a subservient species that has free will if that God already knows, even before creating them, every decision that every creature will ever make as dictated by his unique choice of which universe to build. It also seems, were the proposition true, that only a cruel God would create humans who he already knows he will send to hell. This brings us back to the first idea mentioned in this article: the theist’s claim that evil exists because of human free will. But if God has designed and selected everything, including the outcome of everything and every choice that every one of his creations would make, then God is ultimately responsible for the evil in this world. This God, which thankfully there is no evidence for, and for which there abounds evidence against, is not deserving of praise or worship.

* * *

This article is offered as a layman’s rebuttal to theistic (namely Christian) apologetic claims that their deity is omniscient and that mankind concurrently has free will. The author, thus far, has not been able to successfully find any previous use of the “macro” argument. It is therefore requested that any information found on this point be forwarded to the author so that proper credit can be given; as it is unlikely that this is the original use of the position (exciting though that would be). Finally, this article is not meant to answer the question of whether humans have free will or not, only to show that an omniscient God and human free will seem incompatible.

* * *

Mentioned in the text, in order of appearance:

[1] Christopher Hitchens, believed to have been stated during a debate. Video.

[2] The website ReligionFacts.com explains on this page what the Christian deity is known for by its followers. Explanation of, and biblical evidence for, God’s omniscience can be found here and here, as well as through a basic web search.

[3] Merriam-Webster dictionary definition for “omniscient.”

[4] Merriam-Webster dictionary definition for “free will.”

[5] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent page which details the theological fatalism argument, various proposed solutions, and the history of the issue.

[6] Dr. William Lane Craig explaining theological fatalism and why he feels it is flawed in this video.

[7] A description of open theism, including its beliefs and philosophy, can be found here on Wikipedia.

[8] The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) discusses the premise of open theism and declares it dangerous in this article. More charges against open theism can be found on the Wikipedia page cited previously [7].

[9] For Bible passages used to show that God is omniscient, see the links in reference [2].

[10] This quote was found in the Wikipedia article for open theism and is referenced as being originally found in George H. Smith’s book, Atheism: The Case Against God, (1974).

[11] The story of “The Fall” is found in Genesis 3 of the Old Testament.

[12] The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM), in an article about free will, mentions under the section titled “Logic” that God knew all actions before the start of the universe.

[13] The issue of predestination is examined and defended from a theistic perspective on this webpage.

[14] Christianity Today attempts to break down the issue of why God created mankind on this webpage.

[15] Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza was asked, “Can an omnipotent God create a world of free will and no evil?” This video includes his recorded response.

[16] The passages in Genesis 2 show that Adam and Eve indeed had free will before ever having sinned, and arguably the need for a serpent or forbidden tree to provide “choice” is null.

[17] Houston Baptist University has a webpage that attempts to address the issue of why God might have created the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and placed it in the Garden of Eden.

[18] This analogy quote was taken directly from an article on the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) website. Note that this is a separate article about free will than the one mentioned in reference [11].

[19] Frank Turek, in a debate with David Silverman, used the analogy that David knows that his daughter will commit sin but does not cause her to (about 1:38:00 into the debate). Dinesh D’Souza says, in the same video referenced for him above, that every time he turns to his daughter and says, “You shouldn’t have done that,” it implies she had the freedom to do it or not do it. C.S. Lewis, in this recording, uses the common theist analogy of a mother telling her children to do something which they disobey.

[20] See reference [5] for a description of the Boethian solution. Worth noting: Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski and other scholars have addressed the fact that the Boethian solution is not a complete or perfect solution.

[21] There are varying ideas of the compatibility of a deterministic universe and human free will. Daniel Dennett, a philosophy professor at Tufts University, explains how he thinks they are compatible in this interview. For the purposes of this article however, when speaking of determinism and free will, it is in the sense that a theistic deity has carefully created a universe from an infinite possibility of different universes in which the actions of each agent are all foreknown and thereby preselected. In this sense, determinism is applied to the universe and free will is negated from the agents within that universe.