Does God's Sovereignty Undermine Freewill?

In this video, someone who claims to be an atheist and a scientist asks a fascinating question after making a somewhat audacious claim.

Points from the talk

• He first claims that science has disproven the Bible.

• Ravi responds by pointing out that one of the leading Quantum Physicists and former Dean of Queen’s College Cambridge come to this opposite conclusion. One must then conclude that he stupid for coming to that conclusion, a bit of a stretch, or that science has not, to borrow a phrase from John Lennox, “buried God.”

• Then we are given one of my favorite quotes from David Berlinski, who has a Ph.D. in Philosophy in philosophy from Princeton and taught philosophy, mathematics, and literature at Stanford University. He also worked in the Biology Department at Columbia University. I include that quote here because it is worth reading a few times:

Has anyone provided proof of God’s inexistence? Not even close.

Has quantum cosmology explained the emergence of the universe or why it is here? Not even close.

Have our sciences explained why our universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life? Not even close.

Are physicists and biologists willing to believe in anything so long as it is not religious thought? Close enough.

Has rationalism and moral thought provided us with an understanding of what is good, what is right, and what is moral? Not close enough.

Has secularism in the terrible 20th century been a force for good? Not even close to being close.

Is there a narrow and oppressive orthodoxy in the sciences? Close enough.

Does anything in the sciences or their philosophy justify the claim that religious belief is irrational? Not even in the ballpark.

Is scientific atheism a frivolous exercise in intellectual contempt?

Dead on.
David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions

• Ravi points out that he has misplaced his concern between determinism and free will.

• He quotes Stephen Hawking as saying that the problem with scientific materialism is that we do not have free will; we are completely determined. So what the questioner has complained about as a conclusion of Christianity is actually a conclusion of his own stated worldview.

• Ravi Zacharias lets the pin drop by asking the question, “Were you free to ask this question?”

• He then makes an even more poignant point by asking if the questioner (Ian, I believe is his name) if he is making a truth claim. This is a fantastic question, because, as he points out, as soon as you make a truth claim, you are rising above subjectivity and, therefore, violating determinism.


  1. Do you think we can hold people morally responsible for their actions if determinism is true?

  2. Do you believe belief in God takes away our free will?

  3. How would you explain to someone the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will?

Personal Reflection

I find, when I am having an evangelistic conversation with someone, they will not want to admit that there is no such thing as free will. If they do, they will try to point to their reasoning as proof that we are determined. As Ravi pointed out, if you are trying to make a truth claim through reasoning, you are claiming that you can rise above the subjectivity of the deterministic system to arrive at an objective truth.

As C. S. Lewis says in his book Miracles, “you cannot use reason to undermine reason,” which is what this position tries to do.

Regarding the claim that, because God knows what is going to happen, we, therefore, have no free will: I find it helpful to point out that foreknowledge does not necessarily entail causation. I foreknow that I am going to drink coffee tomorrow morning. However, I still have to make the coffee when I wake up. My foreknowledge does not have a causal relationship with the action of making or drinking the coffee.

Likewise, it is not necessary that, because God has knowledge of what is going to happen, that somehow means he is the cause of those events about which he has foreknowledge. I understand there is a bit of theological controversy around that last sentence. I am, however, pointing out that foreknowledge doesn’t necessarily entail causation, which is a different discussion from whether or not God causes all events to happen.



This makes me think of a conversation I had with my sons as they were struggling with this. To provide a context connection, I took them to a video game. In the game, there was an overarching storyline that the game would channel through. Everyone started in the same place after they chose their character and everyone would end up at the same place in a knock-down, drag-out fight with the ultimate bad guy. But, along the way each character had to make many, many choices. Good or bad character, which kind of player (knight, mage, thief, etc), which friends to make, which quests to go on, who to fight and when, which abilities to spend time strengthening, etc. But, no player could affect the code that determined the system - they could not force choices or options into the system that the game designer had not allowed into the system. So, although they had free will to play the game and make myriad choices, they could only make choices that the game allowed - their options weren’t open ended. And, regardless of which ones they made, the game would have every player end at the same place facing the ultimate bad guy.

So, to me, I see much similarity in the game design and the lives we lead. We are not absolutely free - we can’t choose a choice that the Designer has not made part of our option set - and He structured the system, so that everyone ends at the same place regardless of choices - before a holy, righteous judge to be either allowed to be rewarded and go to the next level or to go to punishment based off of choices made. But, we are free to use our will within the designed system to pursue our desires within the unique choice set we each have been supplied.

For some, referencing the Smashing Pumpkins “despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage”, there is anger/frustration that they cannot affect the system design and choice set but only respond within the system’s parameters. There is no way out of the system - no hack that allows one to move into the Designer’s place or supersede His framework. Instead, they have to deal with choices they don’t like and outcomes they don’t like. For others, there is an awareness of the goal of the system’s design and a conformance to it, so that the path chosen towards the endgame aligns with the ultimate purpose of the Designer’s system.

Some want to assert that by simply designing and implementing a system one becomes complicit in causality. But, such is true only if the system forces all or some “players” towards certain end choices. A cry about the immorality of God in that He designed a framework in which he “made people for hell” is a common one. In that instance, by designing any system in which even one player didn’t get to heaven, there is an immoral, godly causality that makes Him sadistic or evil. But, if a choice path is open to everyone by which they can make it into heaven, then this argument breaks down. The strongest argument I have heard by unbelievers in this vein is against those that claim that only those who verbally claim Jesus atoning work, thereby excluding of the unborn, infants, children and those who never heard Jesus name, are saved. If this is the case, then the system is designed for many to “fail” and causality by the Designer is impossible, as I understand it, to explain away.

My sons said this made sense to them. Thoughts? Adjustments?



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I agree with what you have laid out here, mostly. The world has been designed and certain decisions are left to the occupants of it. Those decisions have consequences. It is those consequences which makes life what it is.

It reminds me of an episode of The Office (the good version, the American version) where they are playing a board game none of them know how to play without the rulebook. They are just making up the rules as they go, the game is meaningless. The person who wins simply steals all of the money and it isn’t against the rules. It is the rules, that which gives consequences to our actions that gives meaning to the game.

The objection you mentioned is a strong one. It is hard to answer. I may have to circle back to have a go at an answer. I have a few thoughts but not much time to type them out!

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Evening Joshua,

In Ravi Zacharias book ‘Beyond Opinion’ Ravi states “*true love is the freedom to love”. Also we need to remember God is outside of time, so he knows the future.

An analogy was given to me ‘when I make myself a coffee I know my wife will want a cup of tea, so I will make her one. But will still ask her if she wants a brew.’ I know she will want one, but will still ask her if she wants it.