Human free will and divine foreknowledge – a logical contradiction?


  • Question from NP, United Kingdom

    Does human free will override divine purpose? If God knew Adam and Eve were going to fall, why didn’t he prevent sin in the first place?

    This is one of the huge debatable areas of theology, namely that of predestination, but couched in slightly different terms. It does of course rely on the ‘classic’ concept of God, namely that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. It may be of interest to know that this view of God was absorbed into Christian theology from ancient Greek philosophy, as Christianity became the dominant religion in the Hellenistic world. Some people get around the problem of God’s foreknowledge of events by denying this classical description of God as being a later intrusion into Christian thought.

    However, if we continue to hold what has become the traditional Christian view of God, we are faced with a conundrum. Either God created morally wilful beings and knew that would act immorally, but decided to create them anyway, or he did not know how they would act and therefore ‘sin’ could not be prevented. That leaves Christians with an interesting choice – either God allowed sin to occur, or God was unable to prevent it.

    The former solution – that God allows sin as part of his divine plan – reaches its apogee in the hyper-Calvinist doctrine known as double-predestination. This is a view of God’s omnipotence that borders on fatalism, stating that God has predestined the ‘elect’ to eternal life and sinners to eternal damnation. Human free will is virtually negated in this doctrinal position. The latter option is often found in the various ‘free will arguments’, where God is assumed to have limited his own knowledge of what will happen in order to give created beings some kind of free will. Many of these arguments stumble because the ‘free will’ they describe is only ‘free’ because God wills it to be so. Human free will is thus just as tightly dependent on God’s will initially as in predestination.

    The Biblical account is equally confusing. Certainly in the Old Testament, the children of Israel seem to thwart God’s intentions to the point where Yahweh gives up on them. In the New Testament there is a strong emphasis on God succeeding despite opposition from contrary spiritual forces or human agency. This opposition is credited with being real and possibly able to affect God’s plans, or at least delay the inevitable.

    According to the Bible, God seems to want to work in partnership with human beings and, although wrathful when disobeyed, is portrayed as being unwilling to merely impose his will. The Genesis account, however literally we take it or not, is a touching story which seems to imply that God genuinely did not expect disobedience. That may be why God decided the only way to make amends for the disruption in creation was to enter it as a human being and negate the effects of sin through dying within the confines of the creation He had made.

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