The basic question this study will attempt to very briefly and incompletely answer is “Does God’s foreknowledge preclude man’s free will?” Some say it does. They see a dilemma between the two concepts. Others argue that God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will are perfectly compatible.
First of all, the Bible clearly teaches man has free will. Many scriptures could be adduced which demonstrate that man has the freedom to either obey or disregard God’s will. For instance, Joshua charged the children of Israel, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve” (Josh. 24:15). Jesus said, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15-16). Upon hearing Jesus’ teaching, “the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him” (Luke 7:30). On and on the list could go. Each example shows that man has a real choice of various and sundry options.
Those who argue that God’s foreknowledge does preclude man’s free will argue that if God knows what is going to happen in the future, then nothing else can happen but what He knows. If nothing else can happen, then man cannot be truly free but must do what God already knows. If we could do something other than what God already knows, the argument goes, then God would be wrong and, thus, not omniscient and, thus, not God. In order to get around this alleged dilemma some argue that God limits His knowledge of some future events. By limiting His knowledge, they argue, this allows man to exercise free will.
However, the Bible just as clearly teaches that God is omniscient. The Bible teaches that God’s knowledge is infinite (Psalm 147:5). God knows the secrets of men and the thoughts of their hearts (Psalms 44:21; 94:11). The thrust of Psalms 139 is that there is nothing that God does not know. Job finally was made to understand that no thought can be withheld from God (Job 42:2). There is no searching of God’s understanding (Is. 40:28). God knows what things we have need of even before we ask (Matt. 6:8). He searches all hearts and understands all imaginations of the thoughts (I Chron. 28:9). The Lord asks, “Can any hide himself that I cannot see?” (Jer. 23:24). He knows all of His works from the beginning of the world (Acts 15:18). And God even declares “the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Isa. 46:10).
How, then, can this seeming paradox between God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will be harmonized? Consider the following.
First, it helps to understand God’s relationship to history. God is not part of the time line of human history waiting to see what unfolds. From the scriptures above, God clearly stands outside of time, above time as it were, looking down on our history. At any one moment, we see but a very thin, incomplete slice of time and space from our finite, fallible human perspective. But God sees everything, everywhere that happens at all times. Because God sits on this lofty perch, He can see the choices that people are making in the future just as He can clearly see the choices made by people of the past, and just as He can clearly see the choices made be people of the present time.
To be clear, it is not that He is forcing these choices, but He observes the choices of free will agents. In other words, the problem with the Limited-Knowledge Position is that it assumes that which it is trying to prove–namely, that if God foreknows a thing, then there is no free will. This can be seen when one understands that the event happens not “no matter what I do,” but precisely because it is what I decided to do! In other words, it happens not because God foreknows it, but God foreknows it because it is what happened!
Second, if knowing what happens in the future precludes man’s free will, then why doesn’t knowing what happened in the past preclude man’s free will also? I ate a cheeseburger today. I know this. Does that mean now that I had no choice in it? That I could have done nothing else? It is true that now I could make no other choice, because I have already eaten the cheeseburger, that time is passed. But God sees the future just as we see the past. For God to know what I will do in the future no more precludes my free will tomorrow than my knowing the past precludes my free will yesterday!
Finally, the case for God’s limited knowledge must overcome an extremely formidable obstacle–-the scriptures. Not only is God’s word replete with refined statements on the extent of God’s knowledge, it is also filled with examples of God’s foreknowledge of events and choices of men which in no way limited man’s free will actions.
In concluding, let me mention just one example. It was God’s will that all in Noah’s day repent of their sins. Inspiration tells us that God was longsuffering and waited in the days of Noah (I Pet. 3:20). Noah preached for 120 years to bring man to repentance (Gen. 6:3; II Pet. 2:5). Yet in God’s foreknowledge, He had Noah build an ark that would only hold Noah and his family (or at least a very few people) and two of every kind of animals. God said “the end of all flesh is come before me” (Gen. 6:13). God foreknew that everyone else would reject the truth. While God sent Noah preaching righteousness to the world that then was, He had Noah build an ark that would not accommodate every person in the world. If God could not have known or limited His knowledge of the future moral choices of all the individuals in the world, then, for all God knew, every individual may have repented.
So much more could be said, but to summarize: The Bible teaches that God is omniscient and it also teaches that man has free will. These two concepts are not contrary one to the other.
Eric L. Padgett