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.
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!
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:
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?
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?
- 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: