Thursday, August 31, 2006

God, Time & Freedom

Let’s shift gears into something more philosophical.

I’ve been discussing some of these issues over at a
friend’s site. I’m also in the middle of a philosophy class that I’m teaching for IWU’s College of Adult and Professional Studies. So it is no surprise that I’ve been thinking about God’s relationship to time and about human freedom to make real choices.

The traditional view holds that God is outside time. This is so widely accepted that to question it appears to be flirting with heresy. Yet I feel that there is something wrong with this view as it is commonly held.

I also have the sense that the
Open Theists are on to something important. But this position has some problems of its own and is labeled heretical by many Christians.

It seems to make sense that time began at creation
as Augustine suggests. In the same way that God is “outside” creation, he would also be “outside” time. Of course, if the biblical account is true, then God must be able to “enter” both creation and time. Otherwise he would be reduced to the “god” of Aristotle.

It is difficult for us to imagine any existence outside time. It is not unlike the difficulty a deep-sea fish might have imagining life on “dry land.” And we must be cautious when we speculate about “how things work” outside time. But let’s see if we can make some sense out of this.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument the standard position that God is outside time and that he
knows the future exhaustively.

In the standard view, God sees all of time “at once.” He sees the “past,” the “present” and the “future” in what we would call “now.” If God knows the future in every detail, then the future must be “fixed.” In other words,
we cannot do anything contrary to what God already knows we will do in the future. Consequently, we are not free to make real choices.

However, we seem to have the sense that our choices are free and that they are real. Some would argue that this is
only an illusion. Others say that “libertarian freewill” is an affront to the sovereignty of God. Some resort to a philosophical sleight of hand that essentially has God manipulating our wills leaving us “free” to do “what we will.”

But these explanations are not very helpful. Some are worse than the problem they try to solve. I maintain that they seem satisfying to their adherents only because they’ve repeated them so many times and gotten “comfortable” with them.

I think I may have a new angle from which to address this issue. At least it’s new to me. I haven’t seen it anywhere. However, if it is true, I am probably not the first one to think of it. If I’m the first one to formulate it, it’s probably not true.

I believe the problem is created when we collapse our view of the future and God’s view of the future.

For God, the future already exists. It is “fixed” much in the same way that the past is fixed for us. From God’s perspective the future cannot change.

However, for us the future does not yet exist and is “flexible.”

As long as we look at the future only from God’s perspective, we don’t run into any difficulties. And as long as we look at it only from our perspective, everything is fine. The problem arises when we combine these two perspectives. Then we run into paradoxes and contradictions.

We are left with,
“If God knows the future exhaustively, how can we make free choices?”

The Open Theists say that God does not know the future exhaustively. They say that this is a statement about the nature of the future not about the nature of God. They say that the reason that God does not know the future is because it doesn’t exist until we make our choices in the present. Their critics argue that this reduces God to less than all-powerful and all-knowing. But if the future doesn’t exist, then God is not diminished by not knowing it.

But I don’t want to get sidetracked into a discussion about Open Theism. I just want to borrow the idea that the future doesn’t exist until it becomes the present.

We assume this as we go about our lives. We are confronted with a decision and make a choice. It could be a relatively insignificant choice about where to eat dinner. Or it could be a bigger choice about where to live or work. We agonize over many of these choices as if the future will be (partially) determined by what we decide.

The problem comes in when we insert the data about God knowing the future.

In programming language, this is a “data mismatch.”

If you told a computer to divide 25 by a ham sandwich, you would get an error. These are two different kinds of information. You can perform math on a number. You perform other operations on a ham sandwich. But they don’t belong together in the same operation.

Our view of the future and God’s view of the future do not belong together. Our view is from within time. God’s view is outside time. The future is still open to us because it does not yet exist.

Another way to get at this is by using the framework of relativity. Einstein has shown that there is
no absolute “now” or “public time.” By combining our “now” and God’s “now” we are treating them as if they are the same. This is what creates the paradox.

These are just some ideas. Let me know what you think. It seems to make sense to me. But you may see a fatal flaw in the logic. Or you may raise some questions that I haven’t considered.

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”


coach d said...

My oh my how I love your mind Rod!

Anonymous said...

Don Johnson says

God created space and time, or as Einstein would say spacetime. I believe God limits himself to allow anything but God to even exist. God limits himself thru convenants, as he is not a covenant breaker.

Steve Sensenig said...

This kind of thought is really good and helpful. I cringe when I see this type of thinking dismissed out of hand by many Christians. But, as I always say, if what we hold to so strongly is true, then why fear questioning it?

I have been doing a lot of thinking about this very topic in recent months, and while I haven't necessarily articulated it in the same way you have, I have begun to wonder if Open Theists aren't "on to something". (As opposed to just "on something", which is how they would be characterized in some circles!)

For many years, I have seen "time" as a construction in correspondence with God's grace: i.e., He cannot tolerate sin, and so in His framework, He destroys sin the instant it enters the world. But for our sake, He created time as a "bubble" in which we have the opportunity to respond to redemption.

This theory I have just described obviously requires the "God is completely outside of time" presupposition. But your analogy of the deep sea fish imagining life on dry land is very appropriate, and makes me wonder if I've gone too far in my past thinking.

Frankly, I'm a bit weary of trying to "figure out" God. Yet your post approaches this idea with a much more open (no pun intended) attitude, and does not weary me.

Now, I think I'll go have a ham sandwich since you brought that up! ;)

steve :)

Bruce Gerencser said...


Thanks for asking the questions without having all the answers. Your post shows you are "aged" and as we become more "aged" we think more often of such things.

Life was much simpler when I was a 22 yr old young preacher. I had all the answers. I even had answers for questions that weren't being asked.

Life is filled with complexity, difficulty and we are wise to tread carefully and with much humility.

Your post will be dismissed as liberal drivel by some.........Thank you for thinkinbg out loud about things that many people, if they were honest, would admit to thinking about.

Am I really choosing to type this entry, by my own free will? Of course I am. God gives me the strength and mental ability to do so........but I do the typing, and the thinking, and the.......

Understanding the freeness of my choices is what ultimately led me from Calvinism. I just couldn't blame God for what I had done :) I am pretty sure at the judgment God won't be taking the blame either :)


sacred vapor said...

Hi Rod,
enjoyed the post.

I don't really see the problem between foreknowldege and free will, for just because someone ‘knows’ what will happen does not mean that the actions themselves were (are) not free choices.

For example, suppose that you found a magical video of a sports event that hadn’t happened yet. So, viewing this magical tape, like a crystal ball, you got to watch the Superbowl before it happened. When the game finally does get played, are the actions of the players any less free?

BTW… I am not stating that this is how God operates (as a spectator); I am just making the point that I don’t see the logical problem in the foreknowledge/freewill debate.

I really like the Middle Knowledge (MK) position moreso than Open theism. I think there is a lot to learn from MK, which hasn't been fully explored in a practical sense. Like how does MK apply to Christian living.

anyway, this comment is getting a bit long. I have a primer (post) I did on MK if you are interested.


Pastor Rod said...

Keith (aka coach d),

Thanks for the compliment.


I also believe that God places limits upon himself. But the question here concerns what is possible theoretically.


How was the sandwich? I'm glad you found the post help and not wearying.


How did you know that I'm an old man? But I suppose 50 might sound young to some people :-).

As I read the Bible, choice seems to be one of the main themes.


The problem is that if the future is "known," then it cannot be changed. Have you ever watched a taped sporting event when you knew the outcome? The players really have lost their "freedom." They had freedom when it took place. But now they can only do what is recorded on the tape (or TiVo).


amylynn870 said...

Okay, here’s a response for a layman…

Until class, I had never really thought about God and time. I mean I know God knows all, including what we will do and what will come of us, but I just carried the view that God set everything in motion and away we went. God freely gave choice to us. After all, do we not have the choice to serve Him or not? But I never thought that He controlled our choices, if He did, would we not all serve Him? If He has always controlled choice, would Adam have eaten the apple?

I do believe that God operates on a different time level than our own; however, it is hard to believe that He controls our every decision. God definitely knows the future, as He is an all-knowing God, but maybe He chooses not to view what we call the future. Is that a possibility?

Amy Jones (one of Rod's students)

Tim Stinnett said...

I believe that God knows my future even though I don't know it yet. By this I mean that I have the free will to make decisions that affect my life and my future, and God allows that to happen.

He knows the future in all of its forms. God speaks to us, and urges us to move in a certain direction. If we do this we have a certain future - God knows what it is. If we choose not to listen, we have an alternate future, but nonetheless, God knows what it is.

God is not taking away my free will simply because He "knows" my future. He's directing it, but I still have the ability to ignore His direction.

I must admit now as I close this post that the question of my own death may be a flaw in this argument. Since God knows how and when I will die, how do the choices I make ultimately get me to that point? Hmmm. That's a question for another class. My brain hurts already!

Juanita Lockett said...

This is a really deep thought and a fine line: however, whenever I need an answer, I always refer to the Bible. Although I may not understand, if I really trust God I will trust His word. Proverbs 3:5&6 assures me that my life and footsteps are being designed and directed by God.

Do I control my life? Only God knows. Do I make all of my own choices? Only God knows. But, I do know that the Bible says in Psalm 90:1 says "from everlasting to everlasting you are God." I choose to trust Him.

mark o wilson said...

You've stretched me Rod -- good stuff. Concerining the open theists (or open futurists) -- I don't see what squabble is all about really. From the stuff I've read, it's nothing more than warmed over Wesleyan arminianism, moved over a quarter of an inch to the left. Those who cry foul, are generally those who consider pre-deterministic Calvinism to be the core of orthodoxy.

Pastor Rod said...


This is one of the problems in the church. We accept certain "facts" without thinking through the implications. Some people believe that God can do anything. Even after I give them specific examples of things he cannot do, they have difficulty giving up this "facts" that they've always believed.

Thanks for your comments.


My next post will make your brain hurt and your eyes hurt. Thanks for thinking along with me.


It is certainly good to trust God and to trust the Bible. But we need to struggle with some of these questions so that we can be sure who God is and what his word says.


I agree with what you say about the Open Theists. Thanks for stopping in.


Liz Clarke said...


God created everything!! Including, but not limited to, time, our will, past, present and future. He already knows what our future holds. He already knows what our decisions will be, which makes it a little awkward because the questions arises of "free will". Although our will is considered to be free, it really is not. Our will is already predetermined. Kind of sad for us! But my truth is that He is all-knowing! He gives us a choice, but that choice is already known by Him, whether it is a bad choice or a good choice.

Our yesterdays, todays and tomorrows are already known by Him!