What Determines the Future?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/22/2013

If God is omniscient, He knows the future—so the future is fixed. Therefore we have no free will. True or False? Read further to find out.

I just came down from the mountains. I was in Idyllwild—what a beautiful little community up there. It’s like one mountain sticking up out of Southern California. It’s the mountain that backs up to Palm Springs and it just jumps into the sky off the desert floor. However, if you come in off the backside, you can meander up the hills through Hemet and come into this little village that is cradled in the crown of this mountain. Think of it like a tooth and the jagged edges of the tooth are the mountain and down in between, in the crevices, is the beautiful little town of Idyllwild. I like this town. There is a beautiful climbing area there. The first time I ever went rock climbing was many years ago at that location.

I went there last night after the show and met with some Christians on retreat this weekend. This morning I did some teaching and had Q & A afterwards. A question came up that I frequently encounter and I think it needs to be addressed because it relates to some confusion.

A woman asked a question that had to do with the notion of God’s foreknowledge. She was referring to God knowing things beforehand, which would technically be His omniscience. The term foreknowledge relates to something different. But her question was asking about God’s omniscience, the fact that He knows every act in the future and everything about the future. Doesn’t this, in a sense, set the future in concrete and make the future determined? If the future is determined, how is it that we can have a genuine give-and-take relationship with God in which we are freely responding to Him in relationship?

I think the confusion that prompted the question is one that a lot of people have. It is based on the understanding that God is omniscient. In other words, He knows everything that is going to happen, which includes everything that is going to happen in the future. The best way to state or define the nature of God’s omniscience is that God knows and believes every true proposition. In other words, God already knows all true propositions about the future. So He knows every single thing that will happen in the future. But if He knows every single thing that will happen in the future, that means the future is already set. It is already determined. If it is set in concrete, then we don’t make any choices that could alter the future and we are fatally predestined to fulfill the future that God already knows.

To people who raise this question, it seems like God has predestined every act in the future and there is no freedom. The heart of the question here is, if there is no freedom, then there can be no relationship because it seems that the notion of relationship is predicated on two people freely interacting and giving and receiving love. If there is no freedom in the future, there is no relationship. Therefore we have no relationship with God. We are merely acting out those things that God already knows are going to take place. Do you see the problem?

I’m going to answer it this way: There is a difference between God knowing the future and God decreeing every future event by fiat such that it will then take place. I will clarify that distinction in just a moment. Let me say this: I believe that the future is set. I believe there will be a particular future. Particular things are going to happen, and I will give you an illustration on how I know that to be the case. But I don’t think that has anything whatsoever to do with free will. Or a better way of saying it, I don’t think that obviates free will. It doesn’t remove the necessity of free will. It is precisely because of human free will that the future is set the way it is. The real question isn’t whether the future is set or not, but what it is that sets the events of the future.

My argument is this: The future is set. It is going to be something in particular. How do I know that? Because God, being omniscient, knows and believes all true propositions. Some of those propositions are tensed. In other words, God knows not only the present facts, but the future facts as well. If God knows future facts, then that means the future facts are particular things. They aren’t things in flux. He knows what the future will be. So, one could say the future is fixed, then conclude from that fact that the future is determined and there is no free will. The second does not follow from the first. Or I should say, to be more accurate, the third doesn’t follow from the second. The first being the future is fixed, the second that it is determined, and the third that free will choices makes no difference.

The fact that the future is determined does not remove the significance of free will choices. I can prove it to you by simply asking you to reflect on the past. The past is a particular thing. There are not all kinds of pasts that are possible. The past is a past fact. However, the past facts have been established by free choices. Even though the details of the past are fixed without any possibility of them being moved, they are fixed because people chose particular things and those particular things expressed themselves in time and are now past history.

You see, the critical question about determinism with regards to free will is not whether the future is set, but what sets the future. If the future is set by God’s fiat sovereign decree—and when I say the future I am talking about every single detail of the future—then I think it is true that there is no genuine free will. If that is the case, it seems to me that you can’t avoid the charge that God is now responsible for evil.

But I don’t think that is what sets the future entirely. I think there are things that are certain in the future and we know those things are certain because God told us about them. We know the ultimate fate of the wicked. We know the ultimate fate of the righteous. We know particular details, at least some broad outlines, about the second coming of Christ. God will accomplish those things because He decides to do it. Therefore, some facts of the future are going to occur in time simply because God has decided it to be so.

However, I don’t think most of the facts about the future are going to be set in that way. I think most of the facts of the future are set, not because God decides, but because you and I decide sometime in the future that certain things will be such. If you and I are making decisions that set the future into a particular mold, then we have free will, don’t we? One could ask, “Well, could I change the future?” All it takes to change the future is for you to make different decisions in the future. Those different decisions are the decisions that set the future as it will be.

In other words, “Yeah, the future is set, but what sets it?” You set it. Your decisions determine what the future will be to a great degree. What that means is that your individual choices, by and large, make the difference in the future. I am speaking in general terms here about God’s knowing the future as a function of His omniscience. However, knowing the future does not remove the possibility of your freedom in some measure in the future, because what He knows in the future are your free choices. This is a very important point.

I think people sometimes confuse this issue with the salvation issue, and I think that is a different category. This issue is talking about all acts in the future. The salvation issue has to do with acts that lead to salvation in the future, which is a smaller category. What role does God play in that? Are those decisions of God determinative? At this particular point, I think they are. In other words, as I mentioned earlier, there are certain things that God fixes about the future, though He doesn’t fix everything. That means we operate with a certain significant freedom in the events of the future. But there are some things that God has a say-so in and He has His way. I think one of those is in whether you will be allowed to continue in rebellion or whether you will turn to Him for salvation. I realize this raises a lot of questions and I’m not really interested at this point in pursuing that line of thinking or questions. That is a hybrid issue of this broader question of God’s omniscience.

I am simply making the point that because God knows the future entirely that isn’t the factor that sets the future and therefore robs you of any semblance of personal freedom. No, your freedom is what sets the future to a great degree; therefore, your free will actions are meaningful and your willful interaction with God in relationship is meaningful as well. In the broadest sense, God controls the future and nothing happens that He doesn’t see, doesn’t allow, and doesn’t somehow work in with His larger plan. This is why we can fall back on the significant promise in the book of Romans that God will “cause all things to work together for good for those who love him and for those who are called according to his purpose.” God can use everything, even man’s free choices.

Once again, let me clarify here. My comments are not about the issue of salvation, per se. That is a separate issue. What is the role of man’s will and God’s actions? Separate issue.

What I’m saying with regards to the future in general is that the future is fixed only in this regard: We are going to make particular decisions in the future that are acts of our own personal will, and that is what secures the future such that God can know particular things or facts about the future. Therefore we can call God omniscient because He knows all things.