Does God’s Foreknowledge Negate Man’s Free Will?

QUESTION. It seems to me that divine foreknowledge does not eliminate human free will, but several people that I know believe that it does. They say that if God knows what will happen tomorrow, that means it is an established fact, removing any free will choices one might make tomorrow. What do you say about this?

ANSWER. This objection to divine foreknowledge today comes especially from the recent theological movement known as “open (or openness) theology,” or “open theism.” It has been picking up steam since the 1980s; some of its major representatives are Richard Rice, Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and Gregory Boyd. The following discussion of this question is from my recent book, God Most High: What the Bible Says About God (2012), pp. 99-101.

One of Open Theism’s objections to foreknowledge is that it is impossible for future contingent events, including future free-will choices, to be foreknown, simply because they do not yet exist. The future has not happened yet; there is no future to be known. The impossibility of foreknowledge is not a weakness on God’s part; it is simply required by the nature of things.

How do we answer this objection? First, we note that the Bible teaches divine foreknowledge. We cannot reject it simply because we cannot understand it. Second, we must remember the qualitative distinction between the transcendent, infinite Creator and us His finite creatures. We cannot limit God to the things that fall within the realm of human possibility. God in His infinite nature certainly can do things we cannot do and cannot understand. Wondering how God can know the yet-to-happen future is a legitimate query; but we will probably never be able to answer it to our satisfaction. Thus we must be content to leave the “how” of foreknowledge in the realm of mystery, and accept its reality just because the Bible teaches it. It is the height of arrogance to reject such a glorious divine reality only because we cannot wrap our puny finite minds around it. (See Cottrell, “The Classical Arminian View of Election,” in Perspectives on Election: Five Views, 114-115.)

Open Theism’s main objection to divine foreknowledge, voiced by Calvinists and these non-Calvinists alike, is that such foreknowledge of man’s future acts is incompatible with free will. I.e., if God has foreknown from before creation every choice that everyone will ever make, then all human choices are fixed or certain and therefore cannot be free. Foreknowledge thus rules out free will in any true (libertarian) sense. As one Calvinist says, “Infallible foreknowledge of an event presupposes the necessity of that event and therefore precludes its real freedom” (Donald Westblade, in Still Sovereign [Baker 2000], 71). Openness theologians make the same point: “If God’s foreknowledge is infallible, then what he sees cannot fail to happen. . . . And if the future is inevitable, then the apparent experience of free choice is an illusion” (Richard Rice, in The Grace of God, the Will of Man [Zondervan 1989], 127).

Here we flatly deny the validity of this claim, and declare that foreknowledge in no way negates the contingency or freeness of free-will choices. Foreknowledge does not cause or determine any of the events so foreknown, any more than an observer’s witnessing of present events that are unfolding before him has any causative influence on those events. On the contrary, it is the events that cause the knowledge, whether it be present knowledge or foreknowledge.

Also, once an event has occurred, it becomes a past event and thus becomes “fixed” or “certain” in the sense that it cannot be changed. But this does not mean that any free-will choices involved in that event are somehow robbed of their freeness, just because the event has taken on the characteristic of certainty. Here is an example. Let’s say that I ask you to watch with me a video of a sermon that I have watched before. Then I say at one point in the video, “I know exactly what the preacher is going to say next. There is no question about it. He is going to say such and such.” And then on the video the words are said just as I predicted. Did my “foreknowledge” of these words in any way affect the freedom of the preacher to say them? Not one bit. My certainty as to what will happen on the video in no way affects the integrity of the sermon as originally preached. In fact, my certainty is dependent upon the sermon as preached. God’s foreknowledge works in a similar way, except He sees the reality of events before they happen instead of afterwards. But His foreknowledge no more affects the contingency of the events than does my after-the-fact knowledge of a past event.

It is in fact true that all future events, including free-will choices, are certain to happen as foreknown; but the foreknowledge is not what makes them certain; it only means that they are certain. Then what makes them certain? The acts themselves, as viewed by God from his perspective of eternity. All would agree that past events are certain. What makes them so? The simple fact that they have already happened the way they happened. The acts themselves have made them so. This same principle establishes the certainty of foreknown future events. Their certainty is not settled by God’s foreknowledge; rather, God’s foreknowledge is settled by the reality of the events themselves. The fact that God sees them “ahead of time” from His perspective of eternity does mean that they are going to happen as God sees them, but they are going to happen because of the genuine free choices of the subjects involved.

But still the critic asks, if future choices are certain, how can they be free? The source of the confusion seems to be that both Calvinism and Open Theism are reading too much into the concept of certainty, wrongly equating it with necessity. This error is seen in Westblade’s assertion that “infallible foreknowledge of an event presupposes the necessity of that event” (71; italics added). But even Augustine argued that foreknowledge does not negate free will, calling such an idea “strange folly!” Arminius said that only God’s decree makes something necessary in the sense that it must happen; His knowledge only makes it certain in the sense that it will happen. The proper distinction is between “must occur” and “will certainly occur.”

Thus we conclude that the objections to foreknowledge are invalid. Even before creation God had true foreknowledge (prior knowledge, prescience) of all future events, including all free-will choices. Even though this foreknowledge means that every future event is indeed certain to happen as foreknown, in itself the foreknowledge does not render any future event necessary and therefore does not negate free will.

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Does God’s Foreknowledge Negate Man’s Free Will? — 17 Comments

  1. Thank you Dr. Cottrell, in simpler terms I might understand, before I was formed in my mother’s womb (pre-creation decision), God fast forward the VHS tape of my life decisions (free choices) to the end (foreknowledge), then went back to the beginning of the tape and hit record. Right?

  2. Dr, Jack cottrell How can you Relate your Statement in foreknowledge to Permissive Will of GOD? if GOD Give Permission to Others so meaning HE FOREKNOW Them and He is the One who Decreed their DEEDS??

    • The alternative to God’s PERMITTING something to happen (which his foreknowledge shows is ABOUT to happen, based on the created causes that are constantly operating) is deciding to PREVENT that thing from happening, via his own supernatural intervention into the cause-and-effect processes (in the form of special providence, or miracle, or supernatural spiritual action). God’s purposive “decree” would apply only to the latter case, i.e., his decision to PREVENT something via his own action. His decision to simply PERMIT something to proceed to happen would not be a decree to cause that thing to happen, but a decree to decide not to prevent it from happening. Thus the only decree operating in God’s permissive will is NOT a decree to cause the creature to do something, but is only a decree that he himself will NOT do something.

  3. Who decides who will be saved? God or the individual? God loved Jacob but hated Esau before they were even born, I understand this had to be from God’s foreknowledge of the boys. But some are teaching that it is all God’s choice as to who is saved with man having no part/no choice. I thought we all had to opportunity to choose Christ or refuse Him?

    • God chooses (or decides) the conditions under which He will save any given sinner, but the sinner himself or herself decides whether or not he or she will meet these conditions. The former is an expression of divine sovereignty; the latter is an expression of human free will.

  4. If God knows the outcome of every decision every person will make forever, then what’s the point of us having to live them out? What I mean is, if the final score is already in the books, why play the game?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be silly, but if God knows the decisions people are going to make then I feel it’s safe to assume he knows who will, and won’t, eventually be saved. Who will accept our efforts to share Jesus and who will sadly reject him. If there are some people whom he knows will never accept him, why would he allow us to waste out efforts on them? It seems that if God already knows the outcome of everyone’s decisions, sharing Jesus is less about converting people via the actual message and more about just finding the person who’ll say yes.

    And maybe that is how it is, I don’t know. Heck, maybe I’m not even supposed to know. Maybe that’s just part of the mystery of life.

    • You are confusing cause and effect. God’s foreknowledge does not cause the events that he foresees, but vice versa. The events cause the foreknowledge. If the events do not happen in real time, there would be no foreknowledge. God’s foreknowledge of these real (but future) events cannot be a substitute for the events themselves. Just remember: what God foreknows are REAL EVENTS. Cancel the events, and there is no foreknowledge. Cancel the game, and there is no final score.

  5. We live in the context of time which was created by God with the physical universe. He is outside of time so can see everything in time, past present or future. I think the big problem is that many do not understand that God is outside of time and so He can see our future. We still have free will in the understanding of time being created by God. Something to consider in the mix, I believe. So simple and yet profound. God stepped into time when miracles were performed. This also helps us better understand the Incarnation. Jesus came into time and was still not constrained by time and He left and will return at the end of time.

    • I take a different view of God and time, but I will not go into it here. One can see my essay, “Understanding God: God and Time,” in Evangelicalism & the Stone-Campbell Movement, Volume 2: Engaging Basic Christian Doctrine, ed. William R. Baker (ACU Press, 2006), pp. 64-85. Basically I believe it is a mistake to say that God is “outside of time” as such. The classic view of the timelessness of God, which says that everything for God is one eternal now, raises many more problems than it seems to solve.

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