The Nature Of Free Will

A few weeks ago, I was asked about how our own choices and actions interact with God's will. The question was essentially this:

How do we reconcile the fact that God controls every aspect of our lives, and yet holds us responsible for our actions?

This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer in theology, and I don't think anyone has a comprehensive answer to it. Nonetheless, I'd like to explore this question in this post. Now, let me start out by saying that it is impossible for us to know for certain the answer to this question because we are not God. Yet, we may find some of the theories rather helpful in understanding Christianity a little better 1.

The notion of free will poses a real problem for those such as myself that assert both of the following:

  1. God is omniscient and omnipotent; that is, he is all knowing and all powerful. There is nothing that transpires that does not do so according to God's will. He is in total control.
  2. God holds us responsible for our own actions. If we live a life of rebellion and sin, we will be condemned to an eternity of suffering. Likewise, if we live life in the style of Jesus, we will forever enjoy an intimate relationship with God himself, and share in his glory.

The second point tends to imply that we have some degree of free will, because if we did not, it doesn't seem realistic that God would hold us responsible for our actions. And yet, how can our will be free if God is omnipotent and omniscient? What makes this a problem is the notion that God's knowledge that something will occur necessitates its occurrence. The argument goes something like this: if God knows for certain that something will happen in the future, then it is true that it will happen in the future. This would be just as true if today were yesterday as it is true today, which means that if the something God knows will happen does not eventually happen, then his knowledge of it happening must be wrong. Therefore, his knowledge that an event will occur necessitates it.

Extending this to the idea of free will, we find that if God knows that we will do something, then we have no choice but to do it, because if we didn't do it, God would be wrong in his knowledge, and we know that God is not wrong in his knowledge. Therefore, our lives are predetermined by God and everything that transpires does so according to his plan, and thus we come to the conclusion that free will does not exist and we cannot be held responsible for our actions.

If this is true, then Jesus was wrong and the entire Christian faith is disproven because Jesus holds us to a high moral standard and details how our eternal fate is determined to some extent by the way we conduct ourselves. Even though it is made clear in the Bible that God is the mover, and he leads us to faith and works in us through the Holy Spirit, we are ultimately held responsible for our sin. We will pay for it if we do not believe that Jesus already did for us. If we were merely puppets of God, it would be totally unfair for him to punish us for something he made us do. And yet we know also that God is just.

There appears no way to reconcile these conflicting ideas, but all hope is not lost for the Christian. We must recall that we are pondering the existence of God, and our mortal minds are simply not capable of comprehending his divinity. Now, many would argue that this is merely a default answer to tough questions that we don't actually know the true answer to, and indeed many people use it this way. So instead of stopping there, and to convince you that I am not simply using it as a default answer to hide my intellectual incompetence, I will attempt to outline one of the most convincing theories I've reasoned with, knowing full well that there is no way to know for certain that it is true, but accepting it as tenable enough to continue on in my faith.

This theory, which I think is supported reasonably well by the Bible's depiction of God, is that God is not bound by time. Being the creator of time, he cannot, because it would be contrary to his nature. A metaphor I like to use is one of a computer programmer. A computer programmer creates a computer program that is executed. He carefully constructs the program, and he has complete control of it at all times. There is no scenario in which the program can exercise any control over the programmer, because the programmer exists in a domain that is entirely transcendent and unknown to the program. So it is with anything we create. If you build a chair, you are not suddenly enslaved to that chair. It has no power over you because you exist in a state of being entirely incomprehensible to the chair, as the chair cannot comprehend anything at all compared to you. By the very nature of something being created, it is subordinate to its creator.

And so it is with God also; God, being the very creator of time, need not himself be bound by it. It therefore stands to reason that he is beyond it. Outside of it, if you will. If this is true, then we can't hold God to a specific model of past, present, and future knowledge. Consider this summary of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call "tomorrow" is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call "today". All the days are "Now" for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday, He simply sees you doing them: because, though you have lost yesterday, He has not. He does not "foresee" you doing things tomorrow, He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow's actions in just the same way---because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already "Now" for Him.

This is most certainly not a perfect synopsis of the issue at hand, but I think it is a good start. This way of thinking seems to eliminate the need for God's knowledge of future events to necessitate their occurrence, thus granting our free will and therefore explaining how we are held accountable for our actions. However, it leaves us wondering about God's omnipotence. It perfectly explains his omniscience, but undermines his power, relegating him to a mere observer of what happens, without any actual control of it. Unfortunately, this means the problem is only partly solved. We still have an issue with the claim that God is all powerful. We now believe that we do have free will, and thus it is appropriate that we are held responsible for our actions, but we do not know how that free will interacts with God's providence. We suppose that he is in total control of everything, because if he were not, he would not be God by definition. But the same problem still exists: if he is indeed in total control, then how are we free to make any decisions?

I think Molinism [^2] is an acceptable answer to this question. Molinism is the belief that God utilizes counterfactuals---or, "middle knowledge"---to maintain his omnipotence and achieve his will. It is perhaps best explained as follows:

God's knowledge is so complete that it also consists of the knowledge of what someone would do in a hypothetical situation. It therefore stands to reason that he knows what everyone would do in any hypothetical situation that can be conceived. Therefore, if it is God's will for something to happen, he would simply cause the hypothetical events in which it would happen to actually occur. In this way, we are still acting totally out of our own free will, because God only actualizes scenarios, but we still act in them.

God therefore carries out his will without denying us our free will. We simply act within the boundaries of what God wills---in a sense, God merely sets up a framework within which we are confined to act, but the actions are very much our own. This seems to make sense in that all the arguments are satisfied: God is in total control; his will is in no way at risk of failing, and yet we are still acting on our own accord within the boundaries of his will. Therefore, it is not unrealistic to accept that we are morally responsible for our actions, because even though God knows how we will act because he put us in a situation in which he sees the outcome, we ultimately are still the ones acting.

Additionally, to clarify a point already made above, God sees our present actions in the exact same way as our past and future actions, yet we don't suppose that because God is observing our present actions, we have no control over them. So it is, then, with our past and future. We can no longer suppose that the fact that God knows the events of our future necessitates their occurrence, because he is simply observing those events in the exact same way we would observe the events of a baseball game.

[2] Molinism (Wikipedia)

  1. I personally enjoy pushing logic and reason to their absolute limits, because I find that it strengthens faith. The Christian faith is not without reason; it is beyond it. Christians don't---or shouldn't, anyway---disregard reason. But it is important to note that reason can only take us so far. It is precisely at the limit of reason that faith begins. 

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