Search this site

powered by

This website is undergoing a redesign in 2015 that will last for several months.
Some links may not work and some pages may display badly. Apologies for any inconvenience.

All Rights Reserved
Text: Copyright GWBAA

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where known

Having problems viewing this page? It performs best in Mozilla Firefox.

Chapter Two: Problems with God

Section 8: Omniscience and free will

If God knows everything, human beings do not have free will. If God does not know everything, he is not God...


The monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) tell us that God is omniscient - he knows everything. They also tell us that we human beings have free will - we make our own decisions and chart our own lives. That means, believers say, that we choose whether to be good or bad, whether we obey God's laws and go to heaven or we sin and spend eternity in hell.

Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? But there's a problem: you can have either God's omniscience or human free will, but you can't have both.

2.8a God knows, we don't

The explanation is simple. Take the game of pool. If you know the speed at which a ball is traveling, the exact point it will hit another ball, the weight of each ball, air pressure, friction and all the other factors that affect both balls, you can predict exactly in which direction and how far the second ball will travel.

It's a fairly simple calculation for physicists and it's instinct for good pool players. The rest of us know in theory how it works but we don't have the knowledge or skills to play good pool every time.

The same principle applies in every situation in life. Given enough information, we can predict what will happen next, in nature and in people. We look at dark clouds and know it will rain soon. If the sun comes out it'll be warm and we'll maybe get a tan. A duck lays an egg and at some point a duckling will hatch.

It's the same for human beings. If we know them well enough, we can predict what they will do in most situations. Aunt Mildred is a grouch; when we visit, she's going to complain about her neighbour. Friend Mary is wealthy and good-hearted; we know that when we ask her for money for a good cause she will give it. We can tell how friends and family will vote, we have a good idea of the kind of life partner they will end

Problems with God

Chapter One showed us that if there is a God, we cannot be certain about his nature. So let's look at the question from another perspective: Is there a form of god that can exist?

We start by looking at the god described in the Bible and Quran; does the information there support or reject the idea of God? Then we look at general concepts of God and see if they make sense.

2.1: In the Bible
Do inconsistencies in the Bible make it irrelevant?

2.2: The Jesus myth
Biblical evidence suggests that the Son of God never lived

2.3: Other scriptures
What do other scriptures tell us about God?

2.4: Forgotten tongues
Why can God not speak modern languages?

2.5: Male order
God's fondness for men

2.6: Compassion and bloodlust
God claims to be compassionate but frequently causes pain and death

2.7: Disease and disaster
Why do they happen?

2.8: Omniscience and free will
One or the other, not both

2.09: Miracles and prayer
How does God make his presence known?

2.10: Eternal life
Do we really want to live forever?

2.11: Alien beliefs
Do they know God on Betelgeuse?

2.12: Summary

Finished this chapter? Move on to

Chapter 3
God the creator?

God does not have to be the creator of the universe; in some religions the world comes first and then the gods apprear.

In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, however, God is the creator of the universe. How does he do it?

Not sure what you're looking for?

If there's a word that you don't recognize, it might be defined here.

If there's a topic you're looking for, check one of the Search boxes at the top or bottom of this page.

If there's something you want to ask, send an e-mail. We can't guarantee an answer, but we'll do our best.
up with and we know whether they will be glued to the television watching the next World Series or Olympics.

2.8b The more we know . . .

Our predictions are sometimes wrong, but only because our knowledge is limited. We think we know someone's personality, but we only know what they show us, not the emotions they keep hidden. We think we know how the stock market will react, but we aren't aware of all the economic indicators in every company and in every nation. It doesn't look like rain, but there's a sudden depression moving in from the south. And so on.

If we did know everything, we would be able to predict the future. We could predict the girl our son is going to meet and fall in love with ten years from now if knew that on a certain date he will be downtown; it'll start to rain and he won't have an umbrella so he'll go into Starbucks and find himself sitting beside an attractive young woman who apologises for dripping water on him. We would know about the rain if we knew everything about global weather systems. We would know he will be downtown because we would know the job he is going to get. And we would know he would get that job because he will stay up late one night writing out the application and we would know that he would be offered the job because his interviewer will be in a good mood because she has put more sugar than usual in her coffee. And so on.

We would know all this because we would know the whole chain of circumstances underlying each event that preceded their meeting. And if we had total knowledge - omniscience - we would know exactly how their married life would proceed, how happy they would be, how many children they would have. And so on.

2.8c God knows

Prediction depends on omniscience - total knowledge. If you know everything, you can predict everything - the exact moment a dropped ball will hit the ground, the precise effect an espresso will have on busy executive's ability to think, whether a disaffected youth will put on a suicide belt and blow up a crowded market.

Of course we do not have total knowledge - and we never will have it. But, believers tell us, God knows; God knows everything. He knows every detail about us, from the chemical content of the air we breathe to our exact DNA model with phosphate structure
DNA, from every thought that we hide from ourselves to the slightest nuance of our every mood. He knows what we will do and say in every situation, whether we will lie or tell the truth, whether we will love our neighbor or hate her, whether we will worship God or spurn him.

2d We are not free

The fact that God knows everything means that human beings have no free will. In our minds we are free - but the freedom is illusory. We think we are free because we do not see or understand all the influences on our personalities and lives - our parents' attitudes towards us, the viruses lurking in the air, airline timetables, bank crashes, friends' emotions, a shop window display. And so on.

But for God, we have no free will. He knows already every influence, past, present and future on our lives. He knows how we behave - and will behave - in every situation. He knows whether we will worship or abandon him. It makes no difference what we do, whether we pray and worship or sin and blaspheme; God knows, even before we are born whether we will enter Heaven or Hell after we die. Our free will is an illusion; our lives are forever fixed in the amber of God's mind.

Some believers accept this principle, known as predestination. They accept that God knows who will be saved and who will not and nothing anybody can do will change that situation. Within that group, some believe that they have been saved, which means that it doesn't matter how badly they behave because God has reserved a place for them in heaven. You can work out for yourself the fault in their logic...

It's not only humans who have no free will - neither does God. Because he knows everything, he knows his own being and future. He cannot choose to act because he knows already what his choices and actions are. God is trapped in eternity in his own omniscience...

2e God or free will

If God exists, we can only come to one of two conclusions:

a. If God knows everything, we have no free will - and he lies when he tells us that we have it
b. If we have free will, God does not know everything - he is not God

The second conclusion is unacceptable to monotheists, who believe that God is all-powerful and all-knowing. (A God who is not omniscient is possible for Deists.) The logic of their own position means that Christians (and Jews and Muslims) have to accept that we have no free will; it doesn't matter what Church leaders tell you or whether you live your life as a sinner or saint, God knows already whether you are going to Heaven or Hell.

But we do not have to be pushed into either of these conclusions. There is a third possibility: that God does not exist at all. So, our final choice is between an omniscient God that makes a mockery of the idea of free will, a God that does not know everything (and that therefore may not be all-powerful), and no God at all. Whichever we choose, we cannot avoid the conclusion that we can have either free will or an omniscient God, but we cannot have both.


If God doesn't exist, does that mean we really do have free will? Yes and no. Much of our lives are determined by things over which we have no control - we don't decide whether our parents will copulate, as infants we cannot choose the food we eat that will determine our life-long health, as children we are subject to myriad influences that determine our personalities, and even as adults we are subject to events much more than we control them. From that perspective, our free will is limited.

In fact, following that argument to its conclusion - that every aspect of our lives, from our personality and our emotions and our health to our actions and the people around us and the day to day events that take place around us - we could argue that each individual's life is predestined by a near-infinite combination of physical and chemical reactions that began long before we were born. If we knew everything that had happened so far, we could predict everything that will happen, right down to the last crumb of bread we will eat and the amount of rain that will fall on our heads on any given day. From that perspective, we have nothing more than the illusion of free will.

Ultimate reality, therefore, is that we have no free will, but in our every day lives illusion is reality: if we have health and moderate wealth and live in a society where our movements and speech are not restricted, we are free to determine much of our lives - who to live with with, where to live, whether to have children, what to eat, how to spend our time and so on. We are even free, if we wish, to believe in the folly of a God who denies us free will . . .

Chapter Two: Section 9 Miracles and prayer

Custom Search

Do you have a question / comment about this page?
Email us, pasting the URL into your letter with the comment
This account is protected by Spamarrest.
You will receive a one-off request to verify your email before it is delivered.

If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

Supporting advertisers helps to provide an income for this site. Clicking on advertiser links on this site may allow these companies to gather and use information, via technology installed on the computer(s) you use, about you and your visit to this and other websites to provide you with advertisements about goods and services presumed to be of interest to you.