Free Will & Divine Action

By Michael Schwartz

Abstract: While there is significant variation in the theist’s description of God, there are nonetheless a set of attributes upon which there is general (but certainly not universal) agreement. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and is capable of interacting in the lives of humans. My purpose in this paper is to provide an account of God’s relation to time given an assumption of these three divine attributes. I will show that the task is unsuccessful for an eternal God (one that exists outside of time), and succeeds in a modified version of an everlasting God that exists with an open future.

To the believing theist, God has many attributes. Most will agree (although with considerable variation in the details) that God is omnipotent (it is in his power to do anything that can be done) and God is omniscient (he knows everything that can be known). Additionally, many believe that God is a being that acts in the lives of humans. He is not an impassive observer, but rather an active agent who listens to prayer and doles out reward and punishment. Despite God’s considerable strengths, many believe that he is nonetheless limited by human free will. God has given humans the freedom to determine their actions, and therefore for free decisions he cannot cause humans to act in one manner rather than another. These properties of God and man, although all certainly debatable, I will assume as true. This assumption is acceptable in that I believe it is a set that is held by many believers in God.

Given these assumptions, I wish to consider how to formulate a consistent theory of the relationship between God and time. Throughout the history of philosophy, various theories have developed. One school of thought, espoused by thinkers such as Boethius, Augustine and Aquinas argues that God must be eternal. A being that is eternal exists apart from or outside of time. I will begin the paper with a description of the motivation for defining God in this perhaps unnatural manner. Many contemporary philosophers have argued against an eternal God in favor of one that is everlasting – one that is within time, but without beginning or end. I will consider the implications of both conceptions, and ultimately argue for a strain of the everlasting theory as the only consistent theory of God’s relationship to time that allows for all of the divine attributes described above.

The Problem of God’s Omniscience and Human Free Will

For my entire existence, I cannot escape the effects of time. All around me I am struck by the products of temporality – what once was the future soon passes into the present and then rapidly becomes the past. While I have control over my place in space, I am helpless in my passage through time. Indeed, I struggle to imagine myself or anything else existing in a world without time. Therefore, it might seem at first natural to conclude that God too exists in a world defined by the rules of time, and is therefore everlasting.

Nelson Pike argues that if God is everlasting and he is omniscient (as was assumed for this paper), then human free will is impossible.1 He provides the following example:

Last Saturday afternoon, Jones mowed his lawn. Assuming that God exists and is (essentially) omniscient, it follows that (let us say) eighty years prior to last Saturday afternoon, God knew (and thus believed) that Jones would mow his lawn at that time. But from this it follows, I think, that at the time of action (last Saturday afternoon) Jones was not able – that is, it was not within Jones’s power – to refrain from mowing his lawn.”2

Before I analyze this example, first I will provide some comments on Pike’s definitions of divine omniscience and human freedom. As stated in the introduction, omniscience is the ability to know anything that can be known. For Pike, God’s knowledge includes complete true belief regarding events of the past, present, and future. He states this in two premises. First: “God existed at t1” entails “If Jones did X at t2, God believed at t1 that Jones would do X at t2.” Second: “God believes X” entails “‘X’ is true”.

Pike’s notion of human freedom is one of complete spontaneity of action. For all of my conscious actions that I take, I could choose to act differently. I always have the ability or power to do other than that which I actually do. Certainly, many of my behaviors are highly predictable, but nonetheless there is no fundamental restriction (such as God’s omniscience) that prevents me from doing otherwise. I am inclined to agree with this definition, and will argue in favor of it against an alternative later in this section.

Give these two definitions, the contradiction in Pike’s example is readily apparent. God knows eighty years ago that Jones will mow his lawn on Saturday. However, Jones has the freedom to not mow the lawn on Saturday. If he exercises this freedom then God was wrong eighty years ago. This contradicts God’s omniscience as stated above because God’s belief in Jones mowing his lawn on Saturday entails the truth of the proposition. Jones could not have chosen to do other than to mow the lawn on Saturday because God is everlasting (he existed without beginning) and so always believed that Jones would mow the lawn on Saturday. The same limitation on free will would develop if God believed eighty years ago that Jones does not mow the lawn on Saturday, in which case it would not be within Jones’ power to mow the lawn on Saturday.

It can be objected that it was not God’s knowledge that caused (and forced) Jones to mow the lawn, but rather it was Jones’ mowing of the lawn that caused God to know. In other words, God’s knowledge is contingent on Jones’ free will decision. However, this account is unacceptable given the assumption of an everlasting God. This God exists with the rest of the world in the present and progresses with it from the past to the present to the future. For this account to succeed, Jones’ actions in the present must determine beliefs in the past. Pike writes that this is an a priori impossibility – no action performed at a given time can alter the fact that a given person held a certain belief at a time prior to the time in question. Such an occurrence would be an example of retrocausation, and Alan Padgett gives a more thorough argument of why it is impossible, as it results in an arbitrariness of time and a breakdown of the definitions of the past, present and future.3

To resolve the contradiction, we might therefore reconsider the three assumed propositions: humans are free, God is omniscient, and God is everlasting. First, perhaps Pike’s definition of free will is too broad. As stated earlier, many of the decisions one makes are highly predictable. Research in psychology and neuroscience has enabled us to predict many human actions and explain many seemingly free, conscious decisions in terms of subconscious inclinations. Given the success of limited human knowledge to predict with high accuracy many free decisions, certainly God in his complete knowledge can predict with complete accuracy all free will decisions. Free will then is not the ability to act with complete indifference in a given situation, but rather the ability to act according to one’s predominant desire in a given situation.

However, this is not at all in line with the intuitive feel of free will. It is true that human behavior is highly predictable, but this is because of expected goals for human actions, such as survival or positive social interaction. If I choose not to adhere to these goals and take up others, my choice of actions may change entirely. It is entirely within my ability to alter these goals, and furthermore entirely within my ability to alter my actions. Pike’s description of free will survives the objection.

Let us consider his definition of omniscience. This too seems to hold because God ought to have full knowledge of all events. This knowledge would be infringed if it is possible for God to hold false beliefs (false beliefs are by definition not knowledge). The main difficulty arises regarding God’s knowledge of the human future. Later in the paper I will revisit this point, and argue that it is a premise that the future is unknowable that ultimately resolves the contradiction. More must be developed before that conclusion can be reached.

Finally, could it be that God is not temporal in nature? If God is not within time, then perhaps we can escape the difficulty of an action in the present determining a belief in the past by removing the belief from the past entirely. This is the direction taken by many classical philosophers, and will be further considered in the next section.

Boethius, Augustine and an Eternal God

Boethius argues that God must be eternal, where eternality is “the complete possession of an endless life enjoyed as one simultaneous whole.”4 God is removed from the passage of time, and therefore observes all events occurring in an “eternal Now”. In this sense, God lives all moments simultaneously, and thereby transcends the temporal life, which is nothing more than a fleeting, transitory moment: “whatever is living in time proceeds in the present from times past to times future; and nothing existing in time is so constituted as to embrace the whole span of its life at once, but it has not yet grasped tomorrow, while it has already lost yesterday.”

Augustine similarly argues that God must be eternal, that a God that is everlasting is limited in his divine fullness. He writes of God:

Thy years neither go nor come; but ours both go and come in order that all separate moments may come to pass. All thy years stand together as one, since they are abiding. Nor do thy years past exclude the years to come because thy years do not pass away. All these years of ours shall be with thee, when all of them shall have ceased to be. Thy years are but a day, and thy day is not recurrent, but always today. Thy “today” yields not to tomorrow and does not follow yesterday. Thy “today” is eternity.”5

An eternal God solves Pike’s problem of omniscience and free will. No longer does God know in the past what I will choose to do in the future. Rather, God knows both simultaneously and so there is no case of backwards causation. This simultaneity renders it impossible for me to ‘change my mind’ after God has formed a belief on my action, because the belief and action occur as one from the perspective of God. Boethius writes, “God is the ever prescient spectator of all things, and the eternity of His vision, which is ever present, runs in unison with the future nature of our acts, dispensing rewards to the good, punishments to the evil.”6

While the Boethian eternal God solves one problem, it creates another. How exactly does an eternal God view the events that occur in my temporal life and the temporal life of the universe? For Boethius, the answer is that all parts of the life of the universe are grasped simultaneously. This, I believe, is problematic. An essential part of knowledge of the universe is the ability to grasp the order in which events occur. To understand an object is to know what caused it – to understand what came before the object that led to its existence. A viewpoint of the world that presents cause and effect simultaneously eliminates this important element of knowledge, and this would be an odd limitation on God’s omniscience. If an eternal God is to be viable, the description must be changed, or at least refined. To do this, I will use J. Ellis McTaggart’s two conceptions of time.

McTaggart and the B-Series Conception of Divine Eternality

McTaggart writes that there are two ways in which we distinguish between positions in time.7 The first class describes events as past, present or future (where events are equivalent to positions in time). This class is called the A-series and describes time as “the series of positions running from the far past through the near past to the present, and then from the present to the near future and the far future”. The B-series, on the other hand, is the description of events as occurring earlier than, simultaneous with, or later than other events. Distinctions in the B-series are permanent because an event that is earlier than another event will always be earlier, and an event that is later than another event will always be later. Distinctions in the A-series are never permanent because all events are at one time the past, at another time the present, and at another time the future.

McTaggart argues that real time requires an A-series ordering.8 Real time requires change, and even when things do not change they are only perceived in relation to other things that are changing. Because the B-series of events is permanent and thus unchanging it is insufficient to explain time, and so time as change necessitates an A-series. That which is temporal has an A-series ordering of time. An eternal God, however, is atemporal and thus could not be part of an A-series conception of time. This agrees with the Boethian view that God does not perceive events occurring in the past, present and future. The B-series, because it does not involve change, is insufficient for an account of time, and can therefore be attributed to an eternal God.9 In doing so, the objection to Boethius presented above can be resolved.

An eternal God who perceives a B-series but not an A-series does not experience events occurring as tensed events in the past, present and future. Rather, events are perceived in a static ordering, observed all at once. While the A-series elevates the present because it is the only point of direct experience (while the past and future are perceived only through memory and prediction, respectively), the B-series views all events equally without a temporal reference point. Events in a B-series nonetheless have a definite order and so, as McTaggart observes, if events are in the order M, N, O, P then they are not in the order M, O, N, P or O, N, M, P or any other possible order.

Given that God observes events in a B-series, it must be refined what is meant when it is said that he observes all events simultaneously. In one sense, it is simultaneous because God can see all of the events at once, just as I see at once all the books lined up on a bookshelf. However, and more importantly, the events are not simultaneous (stretching somewhat the definition of simultaneity) because the events have a defined order. There is a definite order to the books lined up on a shelf. This account allows an eternal God to view the causal chain between events because he views them in their temporal order, but not occurring in their temporal order. In doing so, God’s omniscience is not limited as it was in the Boethian theory. Furthermore, human freedom is still maintained because God views the entire bookshelf of events at once, and included on this shelf are books of choices on human freedom. Omniscience, free will and eternality are reconciled.

The Problem of God’s Eternality and Divine Action

I stated at the outset of this paper that my goal was to provide a consistent account of human free will with divine omniscience and divine action. To this point I have done this with the first two, but can divine action be included in this account of an eternal God? By divine action, I mean a God who serves as an agent of change in the lives of humans. This conception of God explains the primary function of prayer. One prays to God because he believes that God is capable of hearing his prayer and, based on the act of prayer, God will take action. There is not a guarantee of divine action based on prayer, but there is certainly a belief that prayer encourages divine action.

I will consider two examples of divine action. These events need not have actually occurred, only that they might possibly have occurred. First, Moses prays to God as he is leading the Israelites out of Egypt. God hears Moses’ prayer and acts in the form of parting the Red Sea and the Israelites cross to safety. Second, a boy afflicted with cancer prays a month ago to be cured. God hears the boy’s prayer, acts to ensure a successful chemotherapy treatment, and a week later it is found that the cancer is in remission.

Let us assume that for both examples God’s action was what I will call a true divine action, which has two characteristics. First, in a true divine action God does not act unless he receives the proper prayer. If Moses had not prayed to God, then God would not have parted the Red Sea. Second, a true divine action is one in which the actual outcome would not have occurred if God had not acted. If God had not intervened in the chemotherapy treatment, then the boy would not have been cured.

From a human perspective, there is a definite temporal ordering of the two events. Moses’ prayer occurred thousands of years before the boy’s prayer. God’s action in response to Moses’ prayer likewise occurred thousands of years before God’s action in response to the boy’s prayer. Does this require God’s action, from the divine perspective, to be temporal as well?

The working description of God is a being that is eternal but views the events of the world in a B-series ordering as though looking at the books arranged on a bookshelf. One such book is Moses praying to God, followed by a book on God parting the Red Sea. Another book further along the shelf is a book on the boy praying to be cured, followed by a book on the successful chemotherapy treatment. However, the acts of prayer were free will decisions by Moses and the boy. Certainly, it was in their interest to pray given the dire circumstances they faced, but it was entirely within their power to opt not to pray if they so chose. To deny this is to deny their meaningful freedom as defined earlier. Additionally, because God’s actions in the two examples were true divine actions, God acted only because the two people prayed.

Because the actions of Moses and the boy were free will actions, God could not have acted until they prayed. His action was contingent on the act of prayer. In other words, God had to wait until Moses prayed before he chose to part the Red Sea. God’s decision could not have been predetermined because he would not have chosen to part the sea if Moses had not chosen freely to pray. But the act of waiting requires temporality because one action cannot occur until a time following another action. Therefore, God’s action in answering prayer is necessarily temporal.

Nicholas Wolterstorff argues this same point in a slightly different fashion.10 In order to act in the temporal world, God must have a certain kind of knowledge that goes beyond that which would be afforded from a B-series ordering of time. God must be able to know of some temporal events that they are occurring (that they are present), of other temporal events that they were occurring (that they are past), and of still other temporal events that they will be occurring (that they are future). The B-series ordering gives God knowledge only of the order in which events occur, but no knowledge of tenses – those events that have occurred, are occurring, or will occur. A God that acts according to free will decisions learns what happens when they happen, and thus must act according to knowledge of the time in which events occur. In order to allow for divine action, God must exist in an A-series ordering (one that includes tenses of past, present and future) in addition to a B-series ordering. As a result, God cannot be eternal.

God Acting According to Divine Action Conditionals

It can be objected that it is not the case that God waits for humans to make free decisions, and only then does he determine the proper divine action. God, given his omniscience, can surely grasp the full range of all possible free will decisions in all possible situations. Therefore, perhaps God has established a set of conditionals defining his actions given all free decisions. For example, when the wheels of the universe and time were put in motion, God established the conditional “If Moses prays to me while fleeing from the Egyptians, then I will part the Red Sea”. Additionally, he established the conditional “If Moses does not pray to me while fleeing from the Egyptians, then I will not part the Red Sea”.

Given these conditionals, God no longer needs to locate the moment in time when Moses chooses freely to pray for the Red Sea to be parted. He does not wait for prayer and then chooses to act, but rather there is a rule that is automatically applied if a sufficient condition is met. God can remain outside of time as he inspects the many books of time (which now includes some of his actions), but he is still capable of answering prayers in the sense that prayers bring about divine response, while the absence of prayer brings about an absence of response.

I believe that this conception would limit God in a critical way, and for this reason is not acceptable. Throughout this paper, I have assumed that humans posses free will. When presented with a conscious decision, it is within human power to choose the response. The decision is not predetermined and there is never a necessary result given a set of conditions. If humans possess this amount of freedom, surely God should possess it as well. But if he acts according to conditionals, then his actions are predetermined – it is not within his power to act other than how a conditional dictates. It is true that God himself determined the conditionals, and is free in the sense that he determined the rules of his actions. However, I find the existence of rules at all to be fundamentally limiting, and therefore result in a type of freedom less than that of human freedom. Accordingly, the objection fails and we are left with the problem that a God that exhibits divine action cannot be eternal and must be temporal.

Open Theism and a Revised Conception of an Everlasting God

I wrote earlier in the paper that I would consider a possible revision on God’s omniscience to reconcile divine omniscience and free will. Given that the attempt to revise God’s relationship to time (by making him eternal) was unsuccessful, I will now consider this alternate option. In doing so I will preserve the definition of omniscience as knowing everything that can be known, but with a significant limitation on what can be known.

An open theist holds that because the future has not yet occurred, it is entirely open and therefore completely unknowable. In fact, this move is entirely rational. The present as we experience it, and only the present, is completely real, and therefore we can have knowledge of it. The past, because it was once the present, is also real and so we can have knowledge of it as well. The future, however, cannot make this claim to reality. An open future is a future in which no one, including God, can have any knowledge of because there is nothing to be known of that which is not real. Knowledge of the future is akin to knowledge of square circles; both are logical impossibilities that cannot be known. Therefore, a claim that God does not know the future is completely consistent with his omniscience – he knows only that which can be known. Additionally, an open future requires that God be temporal because the future fundamentally differs from the past and present in that the latter two are known completely by God, while God cannot know the former. God can readily distinguish between the past, present and future and so exists in an A-series order of time.

God’s relationship to time for an open theist is better understood by way of analogy, as described by J.R. Lucas11: “Instead of thinking of God’s providence as a sort of blue-print, we should liken it to the Persian rug-maker, who lets his children work at one end while he does the other.” Rather than being predetermined as a blueprint and unknown only to the extent that it cannot be properly read, the future ought to be conceived as an unwoven rug. As the rug is woven the future becomes known as the present and past, in a limited capacity to humans and in its completeness to an everlasting and omniscient God.

An open future also allows for full human free will. Choices are made in the present and determine the future. God does not know what choice I will make until I make it because there is no knowledge of my future. Upon my making a free choice, God, as a temporal being, acts according to what he deems to be proper reward or punishment. Open theism allows for the desired reconciliation of omniscience, free will and divine action.

It might be objected that open theism poses too severe a limitation on God’s omniscience and therefore departs too radically from the general theist’s understanding of omniscience. However, on closer inspection the limitation is not nearly as significant as might first be thought. While God cannot know the future, there are many elements of it that he can be very well justified in believing. For example, given humanity’s finite but extensive scientific knowledge of the past, we have been able to make fantastically accurate predictions about future events. God, as possessor of complete knowledge of the past, will be remarkably better at predicting the future than any human theory. To the extent that physical laws of the past hold in the future, God’s ability to predict the future is limited only by free will decisions, and so his ability to predict the future is quite extensive and successful. A God who possesses complete knowledge of the past is still one that ought to be revered because this knowledge is readily extended into a future that has yet to be realized.

In sum, it should be noted that while I believe I have shown that a temporal description of God under open theism reconciles several commonly held divine attributes, I do not claim that it reconciles all of the commonly held divine attributes. For example, many believe that God is a necessary being. If time is contingent and God is a part of time, then it would seem that God too is contingent. This question will require considerably more exploration, with one possible route being Garrett DeWeese’s argument for God existing necessarily in metaphysical time rather than contingently in physical time.12 Nonetheless, the task accomplished in this paper is considerable and demonstrates how, in addition to considering the challenges of describing any single divine attribute, it is equally if not more challenging to describe how many attributes can coexist in a single being.


1 Nelson Pike, “Divine Omniscience and Voluntary Action” in Philosophy of Religion, 3rd Edition (2007), 149 – 154.

2 Pike 150

3 Alan Padgett, “Divine Foreknowledge and the Arrow of Time” in God and Time. Edited by Gregory Ganssle and David Woodruff, (Oxford University Press: 2002), 65 – 74.

4 Boethius, “God is Timeless” in Philosophy of Religion, 3rd Edition (2007), 155 – 158.

5 Augustine: Confessions, Translated and edited by Albert C. Outler, Book 11, Chapter XIII

6 Boethius 158

7 J. Ellis McTaggart, “The Unreality of Time”, Mind, New Series, Vol. 17, No. 68 (Oct 1908), 457 – 474.

8 He further argues that the existence of an A-series implies a contradiction and that therefore time is unreal, but this is beyond the purpose of this paper.

9 More precisely, McTaggart reclassifies the B-series without time as the C-series. The difference is raised only for a minor point, and so for the purpose of this paper I will continue to use the B-series description as I define it.

10 Nicholas Wolterstorff, “God is Everlasting” in Philosophy of Religion, 3rd Edition (2007), 159 – 167.

11 JR Lucas, “The Vulnerability of God” in Philosophy of Religion, 3rd Edition (2007), 407 – 415. Quote on p 413

12 Garrett DeWeese, “Atemporal, Sempiternal, or Omnitemporal” in God and Time, Edited by Gregory Ganssle and David Woodruff, (Oxford University Press: 2002), 49 – 61

Michael Schwartz (’09) is a Philosophy major at the University of Pennsylvania.

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