Omniscience: Does God Destroy Freedom by Seeing our Futures?

Omniscience: Does God Destroy Freedom by Seeing our Futures? November 23, 2019
Omniscience and Jazz
Photo by Janine Robinson on Unsplash

Omniscience—God knows everything, but our free future actions lack existence.

Omniscience is the knowledge attributed to God. But what does omniscience mean? What is the scope of omniscience? Can God know our free future acts? Does God really foresee the future? And if so, how? Wouldn’t doing so thereby destroy our freedom? These are some of the theological and philosophical questions grappled over by the late great Thomist, W. Norris Clarke.

In The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics, Clarke helps us to see the mystery of omniscience a little better. We Christians, together with Jews and Muslims, believe that God is omniscient. Omniscience means that God knows perfectly and exhaustively all that is and can be known. But how?

Omniscience VS Human Knowledge

Beware the limits of analogies. Everything we can know and say of God is analogy. That applies to inspired Scripture and all post-biblical theologies. All analogies are rooted in human experience. Therefore, in search of a fitting analogy, let’s consider how we humans know.

When human persons come to know things, it must be a very different kind of knowing than how God knows, omniscience. We human persons know real beings because the things we come to know are first there, independent of a real mind thinking them. That is to say, our human knowing of real beings is our passively receiving the action of this or that other real being in the world.

So we human beings come to know all that we know via passive reception. This cannot be divine knowing, omniscience. Instead, this passive, receptive knowing is our human way of knowing.

But when it comes to God knowing anything it must be radically different! God does not know anything—meaning any being—by passively receiving its action. Consider that if God knew things this way (passively and receptively), God would not be self-sufficient. Therefore, if God knew things as a spectator by passively receiving their actions, then God could not be God!

God’s Omniscience is Active

Put clearly, God does not know the world because it is there. Rather, the world is there because God creatively knows it and wills it into being. So God knows the world by giving being to it. Therefore, God’s knowledge must be active.

All of this means that God’s creating the world equals God’s knowing it. Thus, when God knows something, that means it is. Consequently, God’s act of giving being to things (creation) is IDENTICAL with God knowing it.

Omniscience and Human Freedom

But now, let’s consider human freedom. How is God’s active knowing—which makes other beings be—compatible with our human freedom, specifically our free future actions? With every created thing in all that it does, W. Norris Clarke explained that there is a concursus at work. God works with every creature in all that it does. God, constantly, feeds into them all the being they require both for their existence and their actions.

But Clarke explains that, in a risky and vulnerable way, God allows created beings to use and channel this power. God risks by giving the gift of existence, allowing us creatures to use it according to our own nature. Human nature is, ultimately, God’s own gift as well. This means that God allows free creatures (i.e., human persons) to channel and direct the power offered to them toward this or that particular goal determined by our free choice.

By this we can understand that God knows what all creatures are doing all the time, including us free created beings. How? Again, it is by how we allow God’s superabundant power to flow through us. It is by how we allow God to work with us. This is how God knows. God’s knowledge is active and never as a passive watcher. It is by actively doing with us all that we are doing—channeled through our own natures and free decisions—that God knows what we are doing, says Clarke.

How Omniscience Works

So how does God know? By actively doing, actively causing—that’s how God knows. God never knows things like we human creatures know things (i.e., by passively receiving the world). How mysterious! And yet, it must be!

And yet all of these observations bring us to a special problem, says Clarke. Consider our free future actions. Consider all the undecided mysterious things yet to be, all that will happen in the future. Does God know all that? If you say “Yes, God knows that!” we must reply, “But how? How does God know that without destroying human freedom?”

Scripture and Omniscience

Scripture, although held to be inspired and authoritative by Christians, was not written to be a metaphysical treatise explaining rigorously God’s relationship to time. Neither was it a philosophical opus on human freedom. The writers of Scripture were not speculative thinkers. So, when Paul and other Israelites do write of “predestination,” it needs to be carefully understood in context—

1 Thessalonians 1:2-4
We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father, knowing, brothers loved by God, how you were chosen.

1 Corinthians 2:5-8
Yet we do speak a wisdom to those who are mature, but not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away. Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory

Romans 8:28-30
We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.

After-the-fact Predestination

Scholars are wise to warn today’s Bible readers not to read into the ancient Scriptures any later ideas of predestination of individuals into eternal damnation or eternal happiness. Augustine was way off in his readings and his developed, later understandings of election don’t apply here. Also there is nothing Nostradamus-like about prophecy or predestinarian talk in the Bible. Prophecy is not prediction. Any talk in the Bible of predestination is always “after-the-fact” predestination.

Israelites commonly believed that because something has happened, it was supposed to happen. Also whenever something happens in the Bible, a who caused it. There is no Hebrew for “it rained.” The correct phrase is, “God sent the rains.” So when something happens in the Bible, someone caused it. If it wasn’t a human who, it had to be an other-than-human who—a spirit, a god, or the Most High God. Therefore, Israelites believed when something happened, God meant that to happen and caused it to happen, either directly or indirectly.

So biblically speaking, you can be sure of God’s will after something happens. Did you get married? Biblically speaking, you can be sure God wanted you married. The storm hit and killed half the town? Biblically speaking, rest assured God willed that to happen. Do you, a first century person, now belong to the Jesus group? Biblically speaking, know for certain that means God called you into it.

With this biblical after-the-fact predestination view in mind, Paul knows for certain that Thessalonian Jesus group members were chosen by God (1 Thessalonians 1:2-4; cf. Romans 8:28-30). Why? Because at the time of composing his letter, they remained in the Thessalonian Jesus group. Should one leave and Paul learn of it, then, after-the-fact, Paul would become just as certain that God foreordained that from all eternity also. Same is true for his description of the wisdom typical of committed believers (1 Corinthians 2:5-8).

Later Speculations of Omniscience

Eventually the Jesus groups began to think speculatively. How does God’s omniscience square with human freedom?

W. Norris Clarke says that St. Thomas Aquinas came to the rescue. Aquinas held that all true knowledge must be founded somehow on something real, meaning, something actually existent. If it is genuine knowledge then it must at least be established on the action of some real mind thinking it up. Genuine knowledge cannot merely float somewhere on its own, independent of any and all real existence.

The Classical Western metaphysical traditions sings out, “Truth is being known.” Ens et verum, convuntuntur (Latin for “being and truth are interchangeable“).

Here is where things get interesting. The future as future lacks any real existence in itself. This is because the future is not yet. Because of this, Aquinas claimed that since there is nothing yet to know, no mind, even God, can know the future as future. Apparently then God sees (i.e., creates), but never foresees.

How can Omniscience be Ignorant??

Saying that God cannot know the future beforehand and that God does not properly foresee anything seems heretical. Doesn’t that go against what all Christians, Jews, and Muslims claim about God’s knowledge? Don’t we believe that God knows all times—past, present, and future? Yes, we do!

And what about God knowing things like material chain-reactions? These get celebrated in games like pool (calculating where balls end up based on how they are struck) and Rubes Goldberg devises. Clarke explains that these situations involve the future actions of a non-free cause. Therefore God (and we humans, also) CAN know the future actions of such a non-free cause, because they are already determined as flowing necessarily from its own nature.

But is such the case with free agents, like ourselves? No way, and it should be evident as to why. Clarke explains that our free future actions are, well, free. This means that the action is not yet certainly determined and won’t be until it is actually decided on by a real agent. But whenever that happens, then it is no longer future, is it? Then it is PRESENT. All action happens now, in the present.

According to Clarke this is the reason why we free human person creatures, who are locked into the passage of time, cannot with any certainty know free future actions. But how then can God know free future actions, which sacred religious texts of all religious traditions, including Christianity, constantly assert?

God Knows the Future But Not as Future

Clarke says St. Thomas is uncompromising. Aquinas reminds us that God is timeless, entirely outside the flow of our time and all times. God is immutable and therefore cannot be affected by time which is based on some process of successive change. God exists in an eternal NOW.

In the eternal NOW that is God, God is present to every real event or being as it actually happens. Therefore God is present to every real event or being as Aquinas says, “in its presentiality.” Contrast that with us human creatures, stuck in the successive flow of earthly time. For us, things will happen in the future to us.

But omniscience is different. God does not see anything beforehand.  God does not (and cannot!) foresee anything, despite all our God-talk and Scriptures. Rather, God sees all as it actually takes place. There is no past or future for God, despite God knowing when things happen for us human creatures stuck in successive change. Clarke and Aquinas hold that God is never absent to anything. God is ever the Present One to all things, and especially to us free creatures.

Why Omniscience Must Be So

Clarke demands this must be so. He claims it should be obvious why. God cannot know something not yet existent at all. This is because nothing can actually be or become real unless God actually works with it to make it real and able to carry on its action. But God’s real action can only be in the real present. God cannot have real action on a non-existent future. And you can’t be ignorant of no thing, can you? So this doesn’t make God ignorant.

Clarke invites us to consider what it would be like for God to know all the future beforehand including our free future decisions. Clarke says that it would be terribly useless to know it because then things would be unalterably fixed. Our fates would be sealed and could not be changed—otherwise it would be false knowledge!

Clarke says that if God did know all the future now (via a passive spectator knowledge), then it would be impossible for God to exercise any providence whatsoever! This is because everything would already be unchangeable, fixed without God’s active cooperation with us that can only be in a real now. Clarke teaches that this amounts to absurdity. How could God see God’s self-working in the future when God is not actually do it?

God’s a jazz player, folks. God improvises, creatively adjusting things instantaneously without needing any time. God works with us in our present—that’s providence. History unfolds and our free undetermined choices play out in consequences. We co-author the music of our lives with God in our irreducible yeses and no’s. God takes up the notes, sour and sweet, and plays out God’s Jazz and Blues, improvising creatively. It’s all God’s work and being, but it happens in our yes or no.

Omniscience and the Divine Plan

Is there any plan then? Sure (analogy alert!). We free human persons can say God “plans out things” for us “ahead of time” by our perspective. Clarke says the great objectives and divine interventions in world history do play out. But he also says that the personal details depend on our free responses. These are not determined except by God cooperating with us in our present.

Think about that and you will understand the Catholic theology of vocation differently. You may have to change many ideas. The dance that is your life is not determined—it is not yet danced. The song that your life is not determined—it has not yet been sung. Nowhere ahead of time, before it happens, is there a complete script of our lives written! And that was true of Satan and Judas and Hitler before their choices, dances, and songs. The script is being written only as it actually happens, by God and ourselves working it out together in our ongoing now’s.

Clarke says disturbing false problems can be dumped by this rigorously existence-based Thomistic theory of divine foreknowledge. Have you ever thought: “If God foresaw Judas betraying Jesus, then, why did he bother creating him in the first place?” Or this: “If God foresaw me going to Hell, then why did he create me?” And W. Norris Clarke responds: “If God actually foresaw this happening, it would be too late not to create; then his foreknowledge would be false!”

According to Clarke, only if God first risks by creating you (or Satan, or Judas, etc.), can God know what will happen to you (or Satan, or Judas, etc.). God must do all the work in your yeses and no’s all the way through till the very end. God can nonviolently invite you into the right direction, and will. However, final outcome is determined only by your last free choices at the end. God, again, is always present, but as Clarke explains, “only in the immanent order in which they actually occur existentially.”

Omniscience Is Paschally Risky

Is it uncomfortable to realize that God is not the cosmic micromanager? Is it offensive to call God a “risk-taker”? Is it more comfortable to think of God like Bach, instead of like Coltrane, as did J. R. R. Tolkien in his opening to The Silmarillion? Yes true believers. The God of Lord of the Rings is a jazz  player.

But would it be going too far to also say that God is the “Ultimate Cosmic Gambler.” No, not if we understand it correctly, says Clarke. “…God also is an infinitely skilled player at the game!”

In a creative retrieval and development of Thomas Aquinas,  W. Norris Clarke has moved us forward in understanding God as “the Great Allower.” He has helped us to better appreciate the amazing dignity and profound implications of human freedom.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ame

    I have read somewhere a long time ago that the ancient Hebrew through First century Jew concept of God’s action in our time is that He is peering from the future and slowly drawing all things by the rope of His will to the final destination. Thus, prayer is all of us dangling from that rope to include our will to His own, and those who hold onto His will do not suffer from forever falling away.

    I find this analogy very helpful and still compatible with the God’s Kairos versus our chronos conception of time and God’s omniscience.

    And our scientific discoveries and theories give me another analogy to meditate on: like Lord Sphere in Edwin A. Abbot’s “Flatland,” God can peer into the dimensions of finite creature’s limited perspectives and see all past, present, and future as one eternal moment, but when acting on our linearly- or closed-expanding universe, we can only see His intervention in a series of little snippets in our now existence, sometimes such interventions cause such disturbances to the fabric of reality that are perceived as miracles. Maybe we find meaning in our memory of the past, sometimes using the past to predict the future. So there is just no way for us to see all that is happening in reality. Our perspective is literally myopic.

    Our observations of the natural world have us working with 4 dimensions in physics, and quantum physics has us folding two dimensions into spacetime to allow us to see how at least a fifth dimension operates. String theory can take us up to 10 dimensions, M-Theory takes us to 11. Any more than that is thought to be pure mathematics and as useful as a hobby. Negative intergers, invisible numbers, fractal geometry may be theoretical, but our increasing ability to find practical applications suggests to me that it’s all just a matter of perspective. And if that is so, then perhaps metaphysical and spiritual dimensions of reality do exist.

    I am sure that there is some atheist will scoff at me and call me delusional. Analogy is just fantasy in philosophical materialism. But the analogy is really not so farfetched when it was used in the Interstellar movie: our protagonist does not get infinitely stretched into a string of molecules as he jettisons into a black hole. Instead some “future humans” who managed to enter or at least perceive the fifth dimension intervene and spacetime is folded again into a tesseract. This allows the more primitive human to see and impinge upon at least the past so that he can communicate the invaluable information of the black hole that allows for galactic space travel. His daughter of the past perceived this action as a “ghost.” And the action of those future humans of causing the primitive human to be inserted back into the timeline, causing a bootstrap paradox effect.

    These musings quickly reach their limitations, so they are just analogies that help me better digest, if not comprehend, the infinite mystery of Yahweh.

  • 3vil5triker .

    *scoff*
    You’re delusional.

    But would I’ve said that if you didn’t say anything about it yourself?

  • DDRLSGC

    Many of us were brought up that God has a plan for us so I guess our future has already been predetermined so what is the point of bringing in babies into this world when many of them will die at stillbirth, seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months after they were born? What was God’s plan for them?

  • I think it’s important to acknowledge, when we discuss topics such as this, we are speculating and applying human logic to something that may defy human understanding. We should also question whether it is critical to understand this? Interesting, sure. Puzzling, even more sure.

    But we talk about these things because we think we can explain them, when we really cannot.

  • Tim Ellison

    Cool story bro. We don’t have a clue!!

  • ilr1950

    What laughble contorting, convulsive rationalization

  • bill wald

    Who can know the mind of God? I don’t. How could I detect is God was messing with me? Don’t have a clue.

    I have no complaints against God. The Devil didn’t make me do anything. “I did it my way.”
    40 years ago, I hated that song. Don’t know why. Probably guilt. My statute of limitation expired decades ago.

  • Richard Aahs

    Quote: “understanding God as “the Great Allower”.”

    The omini of knowledge. Omniscience.
    God does not waste. God’s “knowing” is that all that have been created and sent forth to experience will eventually return to their source.

  • Robert J Naumann

    Oh, the logical entanglements we get into when we start assigning attributes to God.

  • Ame

    Every person is a unique and unrepeatable being whose existence was loved into being by God. To exist at at all, for however brief, hidden or seemingly incompatible for “quality” of life, is gift enough. That we cannot bear that reality is not good enough reason to despair of another human being’s life.

  • DDRLSGC

    That doesn’t answer the questions I asks?

    “To exist at at all, for however brief, hidden or seemingly incompatible for “quality” of life, is gift enough.”

    That makes no logical sense and tell that to the love ones who lost their child.

  • Ame

    We who have lost a child each grieve in our own ways. There is no right or wrong to go about it, only steps that may be more conducive to healing.

    Life never provides you satisfying answers. What helps me is St. John of the Cross saying that we all have to cross the river of Suffering, and we cross it in a boat that is Love. This man so acquainted with grief and suffering since his birth also said that where there is no love, put in love, and you will draw out love.

  • DDRLSGC

    “Life never provides you satisfying answers.”

    God was suppose to supply us with satisfying answers, but he never does.

  • Ame

    Says who?

  • Newton Finn

    Nice, substantive, helpful discussion of what we can reasonably speculate about God through the dark glass that inherently clouds our vision. Grappling with the relationship between God and creation, such that the latter is seen in some sense as separate, even oppositional, to the former, is IMHO a key to whatever wisdom we can acquire about ultimate things. In other words, God may well have had to make non-God–randomness instead of order, multiplicity instead of unity, impersonality instead of personhood, etc.–in order to bring into being something apart from Himself. Dare we ask, following this line of thought, whether the ultimate source of goodness HAD to create evil? This would not mean that creation, as a whole, is not good, because who among us, given the power, would snap his or her finger and erase everything that was, is, and potentially will be?

  • DDRLSGC

    Says the religious authorities who are telling us to put faith in the Lord but many of us learn at an early age or at a later age, he doesn’t answer us.

  • Ame

    Do you want a God who is a jukebox or Someone who abides deep in your soul?

  • DDRLSGC

    Your question doesn’t make any sense and what is the point of your question?

  • Ame

    In Catholicism, God is not a jukebox that plays whatever you request as long as you put something good into the transaction. Such a god is for those who may or may not realize is a theology that is considered heretical in orthodox Christianity, a la Pelagianism or prosperity gospel. Non-Western Catholics and Orthodox Christians are far less likely to fall into such error as they tend to be less influenced by Reformed or Puritanical influences onto some European and U.S. cultures. No matter how much such persons that tell you God gives you what you want profess themselves as Christians in name or deed, their hearts are not truly converted. We don’t need to have contempt for them as long as they don’t profiteer from such a god, because they may be simply stuck from spiritual underdevelopment, like child that fears taking off the training wheels off her bike.

    In Teresina Catholic spirituality, the soul is likened to a jeweled mansion/castle with many rooms. As you interiorly journey through the practice of quiet prayer, virtue, self-examination, and dependence on God’s Providence, you will come to find Him residing in the center of your soul all along: loving you into existence and sustaining your being. No words or things are necessary there. Just the closest thing to Heaven we can reach while still on this earth.

  • DDRLSGC

    Again you are not making any sense.

  • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

    The article seems to be saying in its title that God had nothing to do with the creation of the universe. This God merely sees what is going to to happen with no control over all the attributes of the universe that would determine all future events.