How can God know the future unless he causes the future?

By James M. Rochford

Calvinist J.A. Crabtree argues, “Only on the assumption of divine determinism is the divine foreknowledge of free-will choices a rationally plausible doctrine.”[1] In other words, in order for God to know the future, he needs to cause the future. How might we respond?

First, we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to limit God’s foreknowledge. It is certainly mysterious how God’s foreknowledge can allow for human freewill. But this is not a contradiction. For God to explain his omniscience to us might be impossible—perhaps like a human explaining the rules of chess to a chimpanzee. God has revealed that he knows the future, and who are we to say how God knows this? Philosopher Jerry Walls writes, “Do we know that God can’t know what free agents will decide without causing or fixing those decisions? Why isn’t it possible for God’s knowledge of the future to be flawless and yet no more determine the future than our knowledge of the past determines the past?”[2]

Second, this objection commits a fallacy of logic called the MODAL FALLACY. An example of the modal fallacy is this: “Because something is true; therefore, it is necessarily true.” We can see the problem with this fallacy when we consider the past, rather than the future. For instance, it is true that I ate bacon and eggs for breakfast this morning, but it is not necessarily true that I ate bacon and eggs; I could have eaten something else. Similarly, just because God knows all future truth claims, this does not make them necessarily true. God’s foreknowledge is chronologically prior to the events, but his foreknowledge is not logically prior to them.

Third, knowing is not the same as causing something. Again, let’s appeal to the illustration above: Just because you know what I ate for breakfast this morning, does this mean that you caused me to eat it? Obviously not. Similarly, in the film Minority Report (2002), three humans called “precogs” can see the future and stop crimes from occurring. While they know what will happen, they are not causing these crimes to occur. If this was the case, the future policemen would arrest the precogs, rather than the criminals! In the same way, God’s knowledge of the future identifies what humans freely choose to do, but he doesn’t cause them to do anything.

Some have created models for explaining the antimony between freewill and God’s sovereignty. Consider the show To Catch a Predator.[3] On the show, producers entice child molesters to meet young girls through internet chat rooms. When the molesters decide to meet up with the girls, the film crew brings the Police to trap and arrest them. If you watch the show, the men often plead, “I’m innocent! This was entrapment!” However, the Police retort by saying, “No way! You freely chose to meet this girl for the express purpose of molesting her. You’re going to jail…” Some have argued that this illustration is similar to God’s sovereignty and human freewill. Perhaps God allows us to enter into situations, knowing that we will freely choose a certain path. It is, therefore, extrapolated that God places every human in a specific situation, knowing how he or she will freely choose (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). While no model is perfect, various models demonstrate that sovereignty and freewill are not logically contradictory concepts.[4]

However, once again, we should recognize that this is speculation. We need to remember that we should hold to the coexistence of God’s foreknowledge and human freewill—even if we can’t perfectly explain how these fit together. If we should appeal to a “mystery” anywhere, it should be here!—not regarding God’s moral character.Fourth, Calvinism and Open Theism both err over the truth of God’s foreknowledge. To answer this difficulty, Calvinists claim that God knows the future by causing the future. On the opposite extreme, open theists err by claiming that freewill invalidates God’s knowledge of the future; therefore, he doesn’t know the future! But both views are wrong. Instead, we should hold both biblical teachings (e.g. foreknowledge and freewill) and say that we don’t know how God knows the future, but he does, because he says so!

[1] J. A. Crabtree, “Does Middle Knowledge Solve the Problem of Divine Sovereignty?” in The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1995), 2:429.

[2] Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I Am not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity, 2004), 61.

[3] Craig, William Lane. Response to Gregory A. Boyd. In Four Views on Divine Providence. Zondervan Counterpoints Collection. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2011. 226.

[4] Advocates of libertarian freewill should make the caveat that freewill is not the same as free choice. Even though we have freewill, it doesn’t follow that we are free to do anything we want. I’m not free to speak German (because I never learned it). I’m not free to bench press eight hundred pounds (because it’s too much weight). I’m not free to incinerate someone alive with mind power and telekinesis (because “thought-killing” doesn’t work). Therefore, we do not always have free choice, even if we do have freewill. For instance, a prisoner might will or desire to escape from prison, but he does not have the choice to do so. Moreover, the Bible teaches that sin is addicting (Rom. 6:6, 16ff). Therefore, our decisions often feel out of our control, because we have forfeited our freedom due to poor decisions (e.g. alcoholism or drug addiction).