Free Will, Determinism, and Foreknowledge (Philosophy Heavy Question)

Bear with me here.

A common question that comes when doing apologetics is how the following three coincide: human free will, God’s omniscience, and justified condemnation.

This question is asked of Ravi Zacharias here:

My question has to do with Ravi Zacharias’s response. He explains how a naturalist’s worldview leads to a world without free will; however, I have trouble with his argument.

Question: Does “what I will do tomorrow” exist as a well defined object?

In a determined world, it is certainly a well defined object. Moreover, does not God’s omniscience make it so that “what I will do tomorrow” is a well defined object.

Most commonly, this cumbersome dilemma about God knowing what we are going to do is answered by foreknowledge: that, although God knows what will we choose, we still are the ones who choose to do “what [we] will do tomorrow.” Hence, it is still deterministic – we just “chose” – if you will – “what [we] will do tomorrow.”

In the view of naturalism, is not the notion of free will equivalent? Although naturalism demands that we not transcend past our physical bodies, it allows us free will in the sense that the self still chooses “what [we] will do tomorrow,” since naturalism demands that all things including the self must be materialistic.

Ravi refers to how a materialistic self has no way of discerning truth since it is biological automaton and its thoughts are determined by the initial conditions of the beginning of universe (since naturalism demands that physical objects must obey laws). In naturalism, however, that is equivalent to saying that the materialistic self has no way of discerning truth since it is the result of the self – this is due to the fact that the self is a biological automaton.

Surely, then, one could argue that there is no difference in the ability to discern truth between the materialistic self of naturalism and the transcendent self of Christianity since the self – whether it is materialistic or transcendental – is (pre)determined.

What am I missing here?


This is such a fascinating question, @handres! I don’t have much to say initially, but I wanted to see if any of the @Interested_in_Philosophy folks have dealt with a question of this nature? :slight_smile:

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Thank you Handres for the question,

I can only imagine the frustration you must be feeling, and rightly so! I equally relate to the weighteness of this question in relationship to our personal lives.

What do you mean when you say “object”?

Hi @Johnathan_Melneek-James,

No worries, I’m mostly curious – not particularly stressed about this line of reasoning.

To be honest, I don’t think I have the proper philosophical vocabulary to specify exactly what I mean.

To me, if God knows “what I will do tomorrow.” Then “what I will do tomorrow” must be some philosophical object insofar as that I can tell whether or not some other possible future is equal to “what I will do tomorrow.”

If we can’t distinguish between other possible futures (objects) and “what I will do tomorrow,” then it isn’t a well-defined object. In other words, it cannot exist because it does not have an essence.

If it cannot exist, then it cannot be known, which contradicts God’s foreknowledge.

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Are you talking about platonic objects - like the idea that the color green has an abstract reality green of which the green we see is an instantiation? Or are you saying that a particular version of the future must already exist somewhere for God to know it?

We can think about tomorrow without tomorrow existing. You do that every time you plan to go the grocery store the next day and think about walking through the isle. Why can’t God, who is spirit, have a way of knowing the future that does not require a physical instantiation of it?

Platonism is the view that there exist such things as abstract objects — where an abstract object is an object that does not exist in space or time and which is therefore entirely non -physical and non-mental .


@SeanO, Perhaps in terms of platonic objects. That probably is the most useful.

While we can certainly plan on future possibilities, we cannot have complete foreknowledge of what we will do tomorrow, or even if we’ll wake up!

However, I would like to think that God’s forknowledge is exact, or else we might contradict His omniscience.

So while I might have a mental object of what will happen tomorrow, true forknowledge of the future requires that future is an instantiation – that it exists temporally and physically – or perhaps we can get away with saying that God’s mental objects (which are not physical - yet) are special. Regardless, they must be well defined. Even abstract objects have an essence.

If we don’t say that “what I will do tomorrow” has a well-defined essence, then God cannot truly know the future, just all of the possible ones, and I don’t think that is what is meant by foreknowledge.

@handres How come? You are begging the question. You are saying that God cannot truly know the future without tomorrow being an object because if tomorrow is not an object God cannot know the future. That is a circular argument.

Why does true foreknowledge require instantiation?

@SeanO, I think I may have miscommunicated. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be an instantiation – perhaps I like to think it so?

In order to know something requires that the something is something in the sense that it has an essence – i.e. it has traits that define it and with which you can distinguish it from other essences. For an example of what I mean by a well-defined essence, one could ask, “will I cough tomorrow” and then check to see if me coughing is in the essence of “what I will do tomorrow.”

If “what I will do tomorrow” has no essence, what use / what does it even mean to know it? How can God foreknow something which has no essence? Perhaps He can, but I don’t understand how it makes any sense.

The outline of my reasoning is as follows.

Assumption 1: God has foreknowledge of “what I will do tomorrow” (even though I still choose it)

Definition 1: I’m thinking of essence in the Aquinas sense I believe.

Proposition 1: In order for God to know “what I will do tomorrow,” whatever it is, “what I will do tomorrow” must have an essence.

Argument: If not, then how can it be known if it doesn’t have any defining characteristics?

Proposition 2: If “what I will do tomorrow” has a well-defined essence, then I am determined insofar as I have already chosen “what I will do tomorrow” – even though I may not know what I will choose to do tomorrow.

Argument: If God has foreknowledge of what I will do, then I cannot change what I will do in the future. If I could, then God did not have foreknowledge of the future.

Note: I am not saying that I lack free will, but rather that whatever I will choose, I have already chosen in the timeless sense, since the future has a well-defined essence.

Conclusion: The structure of free will in this scenario seems to coincide with that of free will in naturalism.

Question: If the structures are the same, then how can the naturalistic self not be able to make a truth claim like the Christian self can?

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When God views time (foreknowledge) is he ‘inside it’, or above it?

I think He is outside of time, having created it along with matter, and sees it from outside. Consider the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation - the pre-Incarnate eternal Son of God entered time and was born as a human. Try and get your mind around that little gem - who on earth can conceptualise such a thing??! It just reduces me to wonder and worship. Why on earth would God enter the mess that humans have made, enter our suffering, humble Himself to suffer at the hands of His creation!?

Also, to push back a little against complete theological determinism:

What would be the point of God creating autonotoms, who are incapable of a genuine response of love or not-love. Seems to remove all meaning to me, not to mention judgement (justice) being carried out would also be empty, holding people to account for their actions who are incapable of genuine moral choices.

Also, in the Lord’s prayer the line “your will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven” - does this imply that God’s will is not being done on earth?

Just a few thoughts - probably not at a deep philosophical level though. :slight_smile:


I see, ok it makes sense that this is simply a thought experiment for you, I enjoy those as well! I want to repost one of your sentences for just a moment, “To be honest, I don’t think I have the proper philosophical vocabulary to specify exactly what I mean.”

How did you decide to even use the term “object” then as you pondered on this thought experiment?



I completely agree with your comment. I definitely like to think that God is timeless, particularly since physicists have started to discover how time isn’t just some constant marching forward in motion – it bends in all sorts of funky ways. Reality is more beautiful than any fiction!

However, my wrestling resides in what it means to have foreknowledge in the first place. I believe it is possible for God to know what I’m going to do before I do it and for me to have free will at the same time. However, it isn’t clear to me how such implies that I have more access to truth claims than that of biological automata in naturalism, since in both, the future is more or less determined.

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@handres Why does tomorrow have to have an essence in order for God to know what will occur? I think your basic premise is flawed.


@SeanO I haven’t really thought about that – such is certainly possible, but it isn’t clear to me in the least how it might work if tomorrow has no essence in the sense that it has no comparable traits.


@handres And why does tomorrow have to have comparable traits for God to know about it? Isn’t that assuming that God is doing some type of algorithmic search of all of the possible realities in which He must run comparisons of one against the other until finding the right one? What is the rationale behind tomorrow needing comparable traits?

I don’t think we know the mechanism by which God knows the future, so I think perhaps the assumption about comparable traits is assuming something about how God knows that we do not know.


But what is a truth claim? You are appealing to something objective outside of yourself. There is nothing outside the physical universe with naturalism. Truth does not exist, things just are.

Does God appeal to a ‘higher truth claim’ outside of Himself for truth claims about morality? No, He is truth (as Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life).



I suppose that I came to the term object through reading some Aquinas, some philosophy (particularly divine conceptualism).

Most importantly, however, I am a mathematician by training; I always ponder things which are well defined – some sort of “object” that is well-defined so that one may talk about it rigorously. That certainly has a large bias on the way I think about things like this.

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@matthew.western How would you define a truth claim?

@handres Feel free to join our book discussion. Lennox’s book may address some of your questions.


YES! Tomorrow does exist. This must be true because God exists outside of time. He was there at the beginning, and he will be there at the end. He knows how both will work out because He planned it. He holds the entirety of space and time in His hands. How can this not be true if he created it? He can be at all locations at all times so yesterday today and tomorrow, therefore, must all exist. In His infinite wisdom, He still gave us free will to make choices. Also, He gave us the Holy Spirit to make good choices. Thanks, be to God! His grace and mercy pour forth on us that we may know Him in our time.

I think the analogy of a Chess game works well for this discussion. Before they had computers the Soviets were obsessed with being the best chess players in the world. Of course, the US was too, but the Soviets created “The Book” on chess. Every game that was ever played was in the book. It was more like a library. When a Soviet chess master was scheduled to play a match he would study his opponent’s games and know exactly how this opponent is likely to play the game. When a player made a previously unrecorded move he was said to be playing “outside the book”. With the advent of the computer, programs were created that could predict the outcome of a game within a few moves.

Now if we imagine playing a game of chess with God we can be certain God knows exactly what we are going to do. He doesn’t decide for us He just knows. Because of His knowledge, He can play in a way that extends grace to us so that we will move where He wants us to move. If His grace is withheld the outcome is not as good for us. Romans 9:15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” At the end of the game if we choose life He will say well done my good and faithful servant.

I am sure that some will think this a cruel God that He will withhold grace and mercy to some but it is His game. He created every minute of every day, and it is not that grace is beyond anyone’s reach, Jesus died once for ALL. It is just that some make bad choices and harden their hearts.


Good question, you have made me think more, which is good.

I guess we’d better stick to the dictionary definition. :slight_smile: :slight_smile:
A truth claim is a proposition or statement that a particular person or belief system holds to be true.

I would suggest that atheistic naturalism, being a completely physical only universe, doesn’t allow for beliefs or knowledge which are non-physical things.

The irony that Scott Smith points out is that it is the worldview of atheism, naturalism, that is incompatible with reason and knowledge. He explains it here. He argues that features of beliefs and knowledge are intrinsically non-physical, and naturalism cannot account for these. Knowledge requires mental states, but naturalism denies the existence of mental states and minds. Naturalism leaves us without knowledge, only interpretations. This is a fatal flaw for a worldview that claims to explain the world in purely physical terms and claim to be true and knowable. (excuse the source, the discussion is not new)

In terms of thinking about your original question; I think both man is 100% free, and God is 100% sovereign. Why could not an infinite God create a ‘completely free finite space’ in which man can make completely free moral choices for which they are held accountable.

Is it possible we are having this discussion, because we are inside this universe, not in an alternate physical only universe?

Anyway, I think you have thought about this a lot more deeply than me, and my brain is starting to hurt, and I’ve not done any formal philosophy education. Hehe. I’m also joining in the book discussion Sean’s mentioned about John Lennox ‘Determined to believe’… very interesting topic.