Responding to the Argument for the Possibility of Foreknowledge from Transcendence (By Brian Knapp, Founder/Contributor Emeritus)
If God foreknows person P will make choice C at time T, then it is not possible for this choice to not be made. After all, if P does not choose C at T, then God’s foreknowledge was incorrect, in which case God actually did not foreknow this choice would occur at all as truth is a necessary component of foreknowledge. Stated differently, if it is not true that P chooses C at T, then God could not have foreknown that they would. So, when we say that God foreknows that P will choose C at T, there is no doubt in our mind that they will do so. In other words, we can be certain that they will make this choice.
Given the fact that God knows that P will choose C at T, it seems difficult to see how one might believe that P is “free” in the Libertarian sense of the word. How can one believe that P could have chosen otherwise, given that God foreknew, with certainty, that they would choose C at T. There seems to be a real problem of God’s foreknowledge being compatible with the (Libertarian) free will of man.
In posing this question to one who believes in such a view of the will, a number of responses may be forthcoming, but typically with a common theme. Generally, an appeal to God’s transcendence is made. That is, the claim is made that God is “outside of time”. The response may be that God “sees down the corridors of time”, or that He sees all of time simultaneously, including our choices. The specific wording of this kind of response isn’t germane to this argument. What matters is the appeal to God’s transcendence as a solution to the problem outlined above.
By offering God’s transcendence as a solution to the problem, it is implied that if God were not transcendent (that is, if he were not “outside of time”), then the problem would persist. In other words, if God were in time, and God foreknew that P would choose C at T, then P’s choice of C would not be free in a Libertarian sense. After all, if person P was free to choose C (or the opposite of C) at T, even if God were inside time, then there would be no reason to appeal to God being outside of time as a way out of the problem.
While it would be interesting to bring the incarnation into this discussion, as Jesus most definitely existed inside of time in his human body, it isn’t necessary to do so. Rather, all that is necessary is to look at God’s revelation to man – specifically, the many prophecies he made.
Let’s look at a well-known example to see how this plays out.
And the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your
brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your
brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will
harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of
Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my
hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of
judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand
against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.” – Exodus 1:1-5 (ESV)
Note what God tells Moses here. He states that “though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you.” While the word foreknow is not used here, God is clearly revealing something to Moses – that Pharaoh is not going to simply let the Israelites go on the command of Moses. Rather, they will go free only after God forces Pharaoh’s hand “by great acts of judgment”.
What is the result of this revelation? There has been a transfer of knowledge from God to Moses. Moses now knows that Pharaoh is going to make certain choices at a future point in time. In short, Moses now foreknows certain choices of Pharaoh before Pharaoh makes those choices. Let’s be abundantly clear here – Moses knows this only because God himself has revealed it to him, but Moses now possesses knowledge of certain future choices of Pharaoh. And here is what is most relevant to this discussion – Moses holds this knowledge inside of time.
Moses is not transcendent. He does not exist outside of time. Rather, he continues to exist and interact in time just as any other human being does. Moses goes and does what God has commanded him, and Pharaoh responds over and over again just as God says he will. God multiplies his signs and wonders through plague after plague, and each time Pharaoh responds in a manner that is consistent with the knowledge Moses already has.
Once God has finished with Pharaoh, he comes to Moses again.
The Lord said to Moses, “Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt.
Afterward he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will drive you away
completely. – Exodus 11:1 (ESV)
At this point Moses knows exactly how Pharaoh is going to respond.
The incident between Moses and Pharaoh is only one example of a prophecy from God (or from one of his prophets) as to future events. The Bible is replete with such examples. In each case, God provides knowledge to his creation that they would not otherwise have access to. In each case, those who heard and accepted God’s revelation possessed foreknowledge – many times of specific choices others would make in the future.
The problem for the one holding to the could have done otherwise view of the will should be obvious at this point. There is no “outside of time” escape hatch available when talking about the foreknowledge that human beings had of other human’s choices before those choices were made. In short, the problem of compatibility between God’s foreknowledge and a Libertarian view of free will has not been overcome.
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