This post will attempt to express why the God of the Christian Bible is incompatible with the existence of free will. “Free will” can be a moving target in terms of meaning, so let’s open with definitions. Free will is the capacity of agents to choose. A choice is an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities. Everything that comes next is in the context of these terms.
There are three key concepts in Christianity that I will show conflict with the notion of free will. More than that, they conflict with each other and can alone prove the Christian God cannot exist as he is believed to be.
- God is omniscient (all-knowing)
- God can make prophecies and, when made, they are infallible.
- God gave us free will.
Now let’s consider the below thought experiment. It might sound like an unlikely thought experiment, but please hang with it. I’ll address how likely it is, what precedent there is for it, and whether it matters if it is likely at all.
God makes a prophecy about Bob on Monday. It states: Bob will sit down and eat a Big Mac at McDonald’s at 1:12pm the following Friday.
The question to consider is: does Bob have a choice in what he does at 1:12pm on Friday? It’s a yes or no question, so let’s explore both answers.
Could the answer be “Yes, Bob does have a choice”? If yes, that means Bob can do something other than eat a Big Mac at 1:12pm Friday. Make no mistake, this does not mean that Bob merely believes he can do otherwise, it means he can actually do otherwise at that time. Let’s move the hypothetical forward to Bob actually doing something else. As a placeholder, let’s say he goes to Arby’s instead.
In the world in which Bob goes to Arby’s we look back at the prophecy about McDonald’s. Well, shit. It failed. This violates key concept #2 and degrades God’s “infallible prophecy” to an incorrect guess. Turns out “yes, Bob has a choice” is not a valid answer without fundamentally changing the question.
Let’s try “no, Bob does not have a choice.” This means Bob cannot do otherwise. He’s bound to eating that Big Mac. He may believe Arby’s is an option, but he lacks the ability to actualize that belief. Given that a choice is an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities, we know this is not a choice because the Big Mac is the only possibility. Once he has that Big Mac we can review the divine prophecy and safety say it was correct.
This thought experiment leaves us with two facts, one of which Christians tend to like and one they do not. God is infallible and we don’t have have free will. To be fair, I’m not crazy about the conclusion that we have no choice either, but it is inescapable given the possibility of prophecy.
The idea that we lack the ability to choose undermines aspects of the Christian faith. It’s actually a catch-22 of Biblical truth. If the Bible is true in that God can make prophecies, then we can not make choices. If the Bible is true in that we can make choices (which it, at least, implies), then God can not make prophecies. At best, the Bible cannot be totally true. So, understandably, there has been push back to the conclusion determined here. The first comes from looking at prophecy itself.
So let’s look. The prophecy made in the thought experiment, honestly, is of little consequence and not something God would likely make. Let’s look at one God would (and did) make, according to the Bible. Jesus said that Peter would deny him three times. This is God making a prophecy about a human’s actions. Just like with Bob, we could have asked at the time, “can Peter do otherwise?” Just like with Bob, the answer is no, Peter has no choice. Some Christians admit that, in the case of prophecy, there is no choice. They go on to believe that divine prophecy is rare and so the vast majority of human acts remain free. How? God’s knowledge is “outside time” and therefore not subject to temporal logic. This actually doesn’t help their cause as long as God’s knowledge can be brought in time. The Bob prophecy probably would not be made, but all that matters is that the prophecy could be made. If it is within God’s power to make a prophecy about anything, that means anything has a predetermined path–otherwise the prophecy could not be made. Given this power of God, no one has the ability to choose at any point in their life.
Christians also push back with terms like “middle knowledge” and “molinism,” the latter named after a Christian philosopher. It sees God’s knowledge not as a single script of all that will occur, but more like a complete map of every “what if” possible. Honestly, this objection largely ignores the thought experience above, but we can use it to address this further as follows. Bob goes to McDonald’s for that Big Mac, but another version of Bob goes to Arby’s and God knows about both of them. You can think of this in a multiverse scenario, but it need not be. Not every possible universe must be actualized, but God knows how each would play out. The power of the original thought experiment is that the prophecy locks us in to a specific version of Bob with a specific future. This Bob does not go to Arby’s. This Bob can not go to Arby’s. If there are multiple versions of Bob, God know which version this Bob is in order to make the prophecy and, as before, proves no alternative dining options are available to him. Bob has no choice.
The final push back is against something beyond the scope of this proof. The Christian asks, “how does the introduction of foreknowledge change a choice into a non-choice?” This question stems from an assumption that the prophecy has causal power in their lack of choice, which is a straw man that I like to think is unintentional. The prophecy is the evidence, not necessarily the reason, that we do not have free will. Why we are not offered choices is a question perhaps God can answer, if he exists. Personally, I don’t believe in God or prophecies so I am able to reasonably keep believing in free will…for now.