Breakfast with an All-Knowing God

It is an old conundrum. If God knows my future, do I still have the freedom to choose? Let us say, for the sake of argument, that God knows that I will eat porridge tomorrow for breakfast. Is it possible for me to do otherwise? Could I make myself a bowl of grits instead? If the answer is “no,” then it seems I lack the freedom to choose: God’s foreknowledge trumps my free will. If the answer is “yes,” then God does not know everything after all: He is something less than the God of theism.

Either solution is unpalatable. Most of us, I venture, have profoundly strong intuitions when it comes to choice. We know there are times when our options are limited, or when the choice is a very difficult one to make. We also know there are times when we are compelled to act against our will. On plenty of other occasions, however, we experience a genuine sense of deliberation. My breakfast selections seem largely up to me and are absent any sensation of an irresistible, invisible Hand guiding me to the box of oats.

If we are not free to choose, then we cannot be held accountable for our acts. We could point the finger at almost anything other than ourselves – our genes, our home life, society, or even the Devil. But most of us will recoil at this idea. At the very minimum, our own experience with deliberation leads us to believe that others must be making choices as well. Choice is a persistent human phenomenon that cannot be readily dismissed by armchair theorizing. For thousands of years, the laws of diverse civilizations have reflected those deep-seated intuitions by offering an exculpatory defense in situations where our choices are obviously limited (e.g., in cases involving duress).

This connection between choice and responsibility will be in full view at the Final Judgment. A good God and a just God surely would not hold us accountable for actions that are beyond our control. The same God would want us to choose a life of service to Him over devotion to false gods (Joshua 24:15).

All of this would seem to preserve human free will, moral accountability and God’s goodness, but where does it leave God’s omniscience? One increasingly popular approach surrenders any hope of reconciling the God of theism with the experience of human choice. This view, known as Open Theism, points to passages that speak of God’s regret (Genesis 6:6) and God’s surprise (Jeremiah 32:35) and concludes that God’s knowledge of the future is constrained by human free will. We have yet to make our choices and so there is nothing for God to know.[1]

My ambivalence to the alleged paradox of God’s omniscience and human freedom matches my reaction to other paradoxes, such as the old argument about suffering. It is baffling to me how anyone can claim to proceed logically from the first premise that God is all-powerful and all-loving, to the second (controversial) premise that there is an excessive amount of suffering in the world, and then to the deductively certain conclusion that God does not exist.[2] Similarly, it bothers me not in the slightest to learn that God knows me completely (Psalm 139), and thus knows what I will have for breakfast. My wife can make some pretty solid predictions about my future behavior, and she assures me she is only partially omniscient, in addition to having eyes in the back of her head like all good mothers.

On a more serious note, paradoxes that are “resolved” to the detriment of God’s perfection are prone to judge His nature against imperfect human standards. The potential trap in even speaking of divine foreknowledge is that, for God, there is no past, present and future as understood in merely human terms. God lives in what Augustine described as the “ever-present eternity.”[3] He is the One Who is, Who was, and Who is to come (Revelation 1:4). He is the One for Whom the passage of time transcends human reckoning (2 Peter 3:8). God knows our future free choices because He is, in a sense, already there.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, January 2010, p. 7.]

[1] Bruce A. Ware. God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000, pp. 32-33.

[2] A point argued ably and definitively by Alvin Plantinga in God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974.

[3] Augustine. Confessions. tr. and ed. by Albert C. Outler, 1955, 11.8.16.

© 2009 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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