Q: According to Psalm 139:4, “Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.” If God knows what I am going to say before I say it, does God also know what I am going to do before I do it? How does all this stand up to the concept of free will?
— T, via email
A: Thank you for bringing up again one of the most important and difficult issues in theology — the nature of human free will and fate. As you know, theology is the place where faith and philosophy touch, so let me try to trace that touching in the question of free will.
The first question we must answer is whether the Bible teaches that God knows everything. We are all taught that this is a biblical belief and verses like the verse in Psalms you quote seem to support the idea that God knows what we will say or do before we say or do it. There are two problems with this interpretation of what the Bible teaches us.
The first is the problem of fate and moral accountability. If God knows what we are about to do, this means that we could not do anything else and we are compelled by God’s foreknowledge to do what God knows we will do. However, if we are compelled to do something, we are not morally accountable for our actions. We must be free to act one way or another in order to be held morally accountable for what we do. If a person forces you at gun point to rob a bank, you are not morally responsible for your actions in the same way as you would be if you just decided of your own free will to rob the bank. So if God wants to hold us accountable for our sins, we must be free to commit them or atone for them and if we are free in this way, then God cannot know what we will choose or when.
Some say that there is no contradiction between God’s foreknowledge and our free will. According to this view, God always knows what we will freely choose to do, but being free, if it means anything, means that we must be unpredictable in our actions. God can have a general idea of what we will do but nothing beyond that. Of course God could have made a world without freedom of the will but that would not be as good a world as one that included free will as a gift to every human being. That would be a world ruled by fate. That is not our world and that is not our God. In fact, the Bible is really a story of the ways God learned to adjust to a world that includes these unique creatures — free-willed human beings. No other living thing in the world has free will, and hence, none is a morally accountable being.
The second problem is that the Bible is filled with stories about God not knowing or understanding what will happen next. The most famous is the verse in Genesis 6:5-6:
“And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.”
If God knows everything even before it happens, why was God filled with regrets over creating people? Couldn’t God know and didn’t God know that we would be nasty and brutish beings?
The result of these two problems is that if God does not know what we will choose, and if God can be filled with regret, then God is not omniscient — not all knowing. I believe that is the truth the Bible intends to teach us. By God’s own plan for the world, God’s knowledge and power, is limited by human free will. To the Greeks who first wrote philosophy, lack of knowledge was an imperfection, and if God is perfect, God must know everything. This led them to believe in fate, but the Bible is a pre-philosophical work and to the biblical mind, God’s lack of knowledge is not an imperfection but rather a proof that God loves us and wants us to make free choices to do good. I believe in the God of the Bible not the god of the philosophers because I believe in a world that makes room for freedom, love, and God.