If God Already Knows What We’re Going to Do, How Can We Have Free Will?

Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Josh:

It says in the Bible that God knows our every word before it even leaves our tongue. If God already knows what we’re going to do, then how could we have free will?

Thanks for the great—and classic—question, Josh. I’ll get right to the point, and then we’ll explore the question in a little more depth.

The most basic answer to this question is that knowing something is not the same as causing something.

If I hold a book up in the air and let go of it, I know that it will fall to the floor. But I do not cause it to fall to the floor. Gravity does that.

In the very same way, God knowing what we will do does not mean God causes us to do it.

Further, the very idea that God “already” knows what we “will” do in the future is human, time-bound thinking, and a misunderstanding of how God knows everything. God does not look into the future and see what’s going to happen. Rather, God sees everything from an eternal state of being outside of time and space. God simply sees and therefore knows everything that to us is past, present, and future.

In other words, just as you and I can survey an entire scene from the top of a hill or mountain, and see everything in it in one view, so God can survey the entirety of creation, not only taking in everything that exists everywhere in all of space all at once, but also taking in everything that exists in all of time all at once.

But just as our seeing a vast panorama from a mountaintop doesn’t cause that scene to be the way it is, so God’s seeing everything that exists in all of time and space does not cause all of those things to be the way they are.

View from a mountainWe’ll look at these things more closely in a minute. But first, let’s take a look at the Bible passage Josh is referring to.

The Bible on God’s foreknowledge

Here is the relevant Bible verse, in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely. (Psalm 139:4)

However, this and similar translations are probably reading a little too much into it. In the original Hebrew, there is no “before.” Here it is in Young’s Literal Translation:

For there is not a word in my tongue,
Lo, O Jehovah, Thou hast known it all!

And in the traditional King James Version:

For there is not a word in my tongue,
but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether

In other words, the Hebrew is talking about God knowing everything about what we are saying, rather than God knowing ahead of time what we are going to say.

Yet a passage later on in the same Psalm suggests that God does know everything about us before it even happens:

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:16, NRSV)

Though we could quibble about this translation as well, the general message is clear enough: God knows what we will be not only as we are forming, but before we have been formed.

And this is supported by a whole series of passages that speak of God knowing and declaring what will happen in the future. Here are three of them from the book of Isaiah:

See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them. (Isaiah 42:9)

Remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My purpose shall stand,
and I will fulfill my intention.” (Isaiah 46:9–10)

Who is like me? Let them proclaim it,
let them declare and set it forth before me.
Who has announced from of old the things to come?
Let them tell us what is yet to be. (Isaiah 44:7)

Further, the first epistle of John in the New Testament states flatly:

God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. (1 John 3:20)

Everything includes . . . everything. If there were some future thing God didn’t know, then God would not know everything.

In short, though God’s foreknowledge is not a major theme in the Bible, the Bible does make it clear that God is omniscient, and that God’s omniscience includes knowing the future. Which brings us right back to Josh’s question: If God knows the future, how can we have free will?

Knowing is not the same as causing

Once again, knowing something is not the same as causing something. If I drop something, I know it’s going to fall, but it’s gravity, not my knowledge about gravity, that causes it to fall. My knowing how things work doesn’t cause them to work that way.

“Yes,” you say, “But you didn’t create gravity. God did!”

Good point. God did create the universe, and everything in it. So for God, unlike for us, isn’t knowing things the same as causing them? After all, it was God who made everything to exist the way it does, and caused everything to happen the way it happens!

Whoa there!

That’s really a whole different issue, and a whole different question. Let’s not get the two confused.

Is God’s knowledge the same as causation?

The question Josh asked is, basically, whether God’s knowledge of things that we think of as the future (more on that later) means that God, not us, causes them to happen, so that we don’t actually have free will.

And the simple answer to that question, once again, is: No. The fact that God knows things doesn’t necessarily mean God causes those things. Knowledge and causation are simply not the same thing. Just because God knows our future actions, that doesn’t mean God causes us to do those things. Only that God knows that’s the action we will take. (But once again, for God it is not in the future. We’ll get to that soon!)

The question this often gets all tangled up with in people’s minds is whether God determines everything, or whether God has created at least some of the universe—we humans—with the ability to decide and determine things for ourselves.

In other words, did God give us free will? And what about the rest of the created universe? Did God give some sort of free will to everything God created?

God created the universe with free will

On these questions, my belief is that everything God created has a certain level of free will, and that humans have the greatest level of free will. For an extended discussion and explanation of this, please see:

God: Puppetmaster or Manager of the Universe?

Short version: God creates the universe in such a way that even though all of its power to exist and to act comes from God every moment, still created things act on their own initiative, with a certain level of randomness or free will, in doing the things they do.

This is especially true of human beings. We act by our own choice from the abilities and power that God gives us.

Specifically, God gave us the ability to make choices, otherwise known as free will. But we, not God, are the ones who actually make those choices.

For example: a car

Consider, for example, an automobile manufacturer and the cars it manufactures.

The auto manufacturer creates a car with an engine, a drive train, wheels, a body, and various controls.

But once the car rolls off the assembly line, does the auto manufacturer make it go?

No. The car itself does that, as controlled by its driver. The manufacturer doesn’t push the car along the road. Nor does the manufacturer inject the fuel and air mixture into the cylinders and send pulses of electricity from the battery to the spark plug to ignite it. The car does all of this on its own, based on its design by the manufacturer, and at the will of its human driver.

In short, once the car is made, it, not the manufacturer, causes itself to drive down the road when the driver turns the key, puts it in gear, and steps on the gas pedal.

Do the manufacturers know that the car will do this?

Yes.

Do the manufacturers cause the car to do this?

No. The car itself does it, based on the abilities the manufacturer gave it.

Our free will is real, and it is what makes us human

­We humans are, of course, far more complex than cars. But the principle is the same. God gives us certain equipment and capabilities. But we, not God, are the ones who actually do things with that equipment and those capabilities.

In other words, God doesn’t cause everything we do. Rather, God gives us the ability to do what we do. We act on our own initiative, using the abilities that God gives us, to do what we want to do.

That is why we have not only a sense of having free will, but we actually do have free will.

Sure, we’re not radically free. There are many things we wish we could do that we can’t do. And there are many things we do because it was drilled into us by our parents or teachers. But each of us does have the ability to make decisions about what we will and won’t do. And that includes deciding that even though Mom and Dad ingrained this habit into us, we’re going to break the habit and do that instead.

Our ability to make these decisions about our own life, our own actions, and our own character is what makes us human. And that’s especially true when we make ourselves work hard to change who we are and what direction we’re going. We are at our most human when we are doing the hard work to change our character and our life based on a decision we’ve made about who and what we want to be.

God does not “see the future”

Now let’s get back to the question Josh actually asked, and look at the second point I made at the beginning in response to it.

We humans live embedded in time and space. We are here and not there. We are in the present moment. The past has already happened. The future hasn’t happened yet. It is very difficult for us to think about anything without thinking in terms of space and time.

However, God exists outside of space and time.

Space and time, we now know, are properties of the physical universe. Modern physics tells us that space and time are not some external gridwork in which the universe exists and moves. Rather, space and time are simply two different attributes of the physical cosmos. Without the existence of the material universe and the physical entities that compose it, there would be no space and time.

This means that there is no such thing as “before the universe was created.” Before the universe was created, there was no before and after. Time simply didn’t exist. From a theological perspective, time came into existence with the creation of the physical universe. All of those questions about what God did before God created the universe have no meaning.

Instead, God exists in a state of being that is beyond and outside of space and time. In the being and consciousness of God, there is no time and space.

God does not have the limitations that we do of being in this space and at this time, and not in all of the other spaces and times. For God, all of space and time are a present reality in an eternal now. In other words, God sees everything everywhere, and all things in all time—what to us is past, present, and future—all at once.

From God’s perspective, there is no such thing as God “knowing the future.” For God, there is no future, and no past. It is all in the present to God. God simply sees everything, everywhere, in every time, just as we stand on a mountaintop and see the whole vista spread out before our eyes at once.

God does not know “what we’re going to do”

For us, living within the arrow of time, the future is still unknown and largely undetermined. We can have some ideas about what will happen, but we don’t know for sure what will happen.

A lot of what will happen to us depends upon the choices we make. If we decide to get drunk instead of going to work, we’re going to lose our job, and our life is going to fall apart. But if we then decide to get sober, we can rebuild a good life for ourselves. Sure, it will be hard work. But that is something we can decide to do, and thereby change the course of our life. And once again, the very decision to change our life, and the hard work we do to carry out that decision, is what makes us human.

God doesn’t “know what we’re going to do” in the usual sense. God isn’t looking into our future from the present and saying, “Josh is going to buy a new car.” Once again, God is not embedded in time the way we are. God looks at everything from outside of time.

In other words, for God, Josh is buying that new car, and Josh is being born, and Josh is dying and going to heaven. God sees the whole sweep of our life from the eternal present in which God lives. For God it’s not something that is going to happen. It’s something that is happening.

Who decides what we’re going to do?

Does this mean that God causes us to be born, or to buy a car, or to die, or to go to heaven?

No.

  • Our parents are the ones who caused us to be born.
  • We’re the ones who decide it’s time for a new car.
  • All sorts of factors go into determining the time of our death. Doing stupid things in a car could have something to do with it!
  • And we are the ones who decide whether we’d prefer to spend eternity in heaven or in hell.

In other words, even though God sees, from the timeless state in which God exists, everything we choose and everything we do throughout our entire lifetime, we are still the ones making those choices, and we are the ones actually doing the things we do.

That’s because God has created us with the crucial, human capability of free will, especially in the moral and spiritual course we will take. That free will is God’s most precious gift to us after God’s love and our life itself. And our free will is a gift that God will never violate or take away from us.

In short, we make the choices. God simply sees our choices.

God sees everything, and therefore knows everything. But God has created a universe, and us in it, so that we can decide for ourselves what we will do, and who we will be.

This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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11 comments on “If God Already Knows What We’re Going to Do, How Can We Have Free Will?
  1. larryzb says:

    We also took up this issue some time back. God stands outside of time, thus He see what our future choices will be. It is such a stumbling block for so many, but His “foreknowledge” does not condition our free choices.

    • Lee says:

      Hi larryzb,

      Right. The main stumbling block is that it’s hard for us living here in the material world to think outside of space and time. God’s “knowing the future” strikes time-bound thinking as meaning that the future is already determined.

  2. Dave says:

    Excellent. Thank you.

  3. Jacob says:

    Hi,

    I just wanted to let you know that I think your writing style is fantastic. It’s clear, concise, and it’s explained a topic that I’ve had a hard time reconciling for a long time. Thank you for this site!

    Jacob

    • Lee says:

      Hi Jacob,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words, which I appreciate very much. I’m glad this article was helpful to you.

      Godspeed on your spiritual journey!

  4. Griffin Bonnin Jones says:

    This article was a great deal of help, so thank you for writing it. But I was wondering, if God sees everything in all of time and space, then from his perspective, are events in his “life” (creating the universe, becoming Jesus, etc.) in the past, or is he always experiencing them?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Griffin,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and question. As mentioned in the article, it is hard for us earth-bound humans to think outside of time and space. But for God, who is outside of time and space, “past” and “future” have no meaning, because they are not how God experiences things. Rather, God experiences everything that to us is past, present, and future in an eternal present.

      So in a sense, yes, God is “always experiencing” everything. But that “always” is not something that progresses in time, as if God experiences everything in one moment, and then in the next moment, and then in the next moment as we humans would. Rather, it is a timeless “always” that is an eternal, unchanging state, above and beyond time. This is not something we can fully grasp because it simply isn’t part of our experience, which inevitably involves change taking place from one moment to the next.

  5. Seeking to understand says:

    Hi Lee,

    This post is of great interest to me… But I’m still confused about this subject…

    You said God’s foreknowledge doesn’t mean the future is already determined, but… if it’s not already determined, how can anything from the future exist for God to know?

    In the past I did some reading/studying on Open Theism, which holds that God’s omniscience means He knows everything there is to know, but that the future is not “settled” yet, so God knows it as a huge set of open possibilities, and since He knows what His own plans are, plus everything about the past and present including everyone’s character, thus He is able to declare the end from the beginning with great accuracy, even though the future is not settled yet.

    That made a lot of sense to me, and at the time felt like such an epiphany that it added layers of color to my understanding of God, but now I’m wondering if I need to back-track from that belief a bit, and if so, how far.

    I do understand and agree that God is outside of “time and space” as we understand it, with its measurements and limitations and so forth, but is God also beyond experiencing events in a sequence? Beyond cause and effect? If so, how can He have a true relationship with humans? Doesn’t relationship necessarily involve responding to each other in a back-and-forth manner?

    Back when I believed in the idea that God has exhaustive knowledge of every detail of the future the same way He does of the past, I still believed in free will, so I had figured that God had sort of “imagined out” all the possibilities and versions of how the history of the world could play out, depending on how He chose to respond to each human decision, and then instantiated the best version by acting on those pre-planned decisions. Thus it seemed like He had already done all of His responding to us, and sort of gotten it out of the way before He created us, haha…which seems silly looking back on it, and is the “black-and-white” version of the picture of color I alluded to earlier.

    It also made sense to me when the proponents of Open Theism said things like, if you’re holding an important letter in your hands and pray for it to be good news before you open it, isn’t it kind of too late for God to change it at that point? (Not to get off on a tangent about how inappropriate it might be to ask for something like that to begin with and expect God to be willing to change it…it’s just a simple illustration for the idea in question…which is whether God could, if He wanted to, go “back” in time, as seen from our perspective, and change His chosen action in response to something we just did.)

    So that’s the background I’m coming from as I try to understand your statement that God sees the whole human timeline as a panorama and that everything is “now” for Him… I’m trying to figure out how the whole panorama could *exist* for Him to see, if the future isn’t settled or determined…? Could one imagine part of the terrain in the analogy as being a bit blurry (the part that depends on what choices we humans are going to make but haven’t made yet)?

    At one point you said “All of those questions about what God did before God created the universe have no meaning.” This doesn’t ring true for me – those questions feel very meaningful. Extending the claim that God does not change to cover even His knowledge (as opposed to His character, which of course I agree does not change), would seem to imply that humankind has eternally existed for God to know about, just as God has eternally existed (if God’s knowledge of the whole history of the universe is as unchanging as you say). This just doesn’t make sense to me. Can you help clarify if I’ve misunderstood something you stated or if I’m just missing some important piece of the puzzle? Thanks!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Seeking to understand,

      As I said in the article, it is very difficult for us human beings to think outside of time and space. We are embedded in time and space from birth. Everything we experience in this material world takes place in time and space.

      For God, that simply isn’t the case. God is not a material being. God did not “grow up” in the physical universe. God exists above and beyond the entire physical universe. Yes, God does enter into the physical universe, especially as Jesus Christ. But that still doesn’t place any limitations on God’s knowledge or power. (For some further thoughts on this, see “If Jesus was God, How was God Still in Heaven?”)

      The reason questions about what God did before the universe was created have no meaning is that there is no such thing as “before the universe was created.” Before the universe was created, there was no time for there to be a “before” in. Time and space were created along with the material universe. They are properties of the material universe, and have no meaning outside of it.

      Consider how we perceive and measure time, and what time is.

      Time is a measure of the regular, cyclical passage of objects through space. The oldest and most basic units of time for us human beings here on earth are years, which are based on the earth’s regular orbit around the sun, and days, which are based on the earth’s rotation on its own axis. We have divided these basic units of time into seasons, hours, minutes, and seconds so that we can measure smaller units of time. And now we measure very tiny units of time with atomic clocks based on the motion of electrons around atomic nuclei.

      In every case, the principle is the same: time is measured by material objects moving through space. Where there are no material objects moving through space, there is no time. How can there be time “before the universe was created” when no objects existed that could move, there was no change, and there were no events whatsoever?

      Psychologically, we humans measure time by the changes we go through from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood to old age. And on smaller psychological timescales, we measure it by the changes we go and the different things we do throughout the day. Psychological time involves changes in our life and character. But if God’s character does not change, how could time apply to God? God, the Bible tells us, is unchanging. This means that time simply doesn’t apply to God. Where there is no change, there is no time.

      I’m aware of Open Theism’s view of God knowing all of the possibilities for the future. But that still assumes that God is embedded in time, and experiences things as they unfold in time just as human beings do. The reality is that God sees time and space from outside of time and space. So just as we can see an entire scene from a mountaintop, while a person within that scene sees only a few trees and houses in the immediate surroundings, God sees the entire “scene” of time and space even while we humans see only the short span of the time and space in which we are living.

      However, as the article says, just as our seeing an entire scene laid out in front of us doesn’t cause the scene to be the way it is, so God’s seeing the entire scene of time and space laid out before God doesn’t cause things to unfold as they do. We, who are embedded in time, still make choices, and those choices affect the future and change it. God simply sees, from outside of time what those choices and their effects are.

      The trick is not to think of God as “seeing the future.” For God, there is no future, nor is there any past. It is all a present reality for God. So things are not “determined beforehand.” Cause and effect still play out within time, and still determine what the future will be when it has not yet happened.

      I know all of this is very hard for us time-bound humans to grasp. It is necessary to do something that is very unnatural to us: raise our minds out of time and space to see things from a timeless, spaceless perspective. As you bend your mind to accomplishing that challenging trick, you’ll be able to understand these things a little more clearly, even if they are still brain-benders.

      About God’s relationship with us, from God’s perspective, it is not an unfolding relationship, even if it is from our perspective. God has a living relationship with our entire being, past, present, and future. That is why God can provide things in our present that are calibrated to help us spiritually in the future.

      When we pray for things, God doesn’t change them according to our prayers. Rather, the prayer brings about an inner change and opening in us, both individually and as a community, making us better able to receive what God already wants to give us—and is giving us as much as we open ourselves to receive it. God doesn’t change what’s in the letter. But our openness to God in prayer helps us to better deal with and respond to whatever is in the letter.

      I hope all of this is at least somewhat helpful. Please feel free to continue the conversation if you wish.

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