One of the more challenging aspects of Christian theology is reconciling the relationship between God’s omniscience and human choices. This topic provides us with many “unhelpful” answers that we could examine but I would like to focus on one in particular that seems to be very popular. Although I have heard it many times I am still a bit surprised every time I hear it because I wonder if the people who use the argument have ever really thought about it. I am referring to the “God is outside of time” answer.
When faced with the question of how people can be making legitimate free choices even though God knows exactly what is going to happen before it actually does, many people respond by saying that unlike human beings God is outside of time and so the logical problem is overcome. This, like most of the answers that will be included under this category, sounds on the surface like an insightful and reasonable answer. In fact, this view isn’t only popular with the average Christian on the street. Many popular Christian apologists and writers have also appealed to this type of logic. In his book Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis explains the position in this way:
“Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow. But if He knows I am going to do so-and-so, how can I be free to do otherwise? Well, here once again, the difficulty comes from thinking that God is progressing along the Time-line like us: the only difference being that He can see ahead and we cannot. Well, if that were true, if God foresaw our acts, it would be very hard to understand how we could be free not to do them. But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call "tomorrow" is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call "today." All the days are "Now" for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday; He simply sees you doing them, because, though you have lost yesterday. He has not. He does not "foresee" you doing things tomorrow; He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow's actions in just the same way—because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already "Now" for Him.”
-Mere Christianity Book 4, chapter 3
-Mere Christianity Book 4, chapter 3
If, however, we think carefully about this argument we will notice that there are a couple of difficulties with it. First, I do not think that it is wise for people to confidently advance an argument that they do not understand. I do not believe that I have ever met a person who has made this claim who was able to adequately explain even the most basic elements of the argument. I am not saying this to be arrogant, rather the opposite. I have studied and thought about the nature of time over the years and it is among the most challenging and complex subjects that can be tackled. When someone makes this argument to me (and many have) I tell them that rather than start by arguing about something as difficult as the nature of God we should start with the easy part first and then I ask them to explain to me what they mean by “time”. After about 10 minutes of failed attempts they usually recognize that they need to think about it some more. I don’t say that to be critical, the concept of time is a very difficult thing to define. In fact, the greatest minds in human history have not been able to do it convincingly with any consensus or agreement. Even those who have spent many years studying the issue confess the difficulty of the task. Augustine, who made important contributions to at least one major theory of time, said:
“For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”
Confessions Book 11
It seems philosophers cannot agree on what exactly time is. Some see it as a real “thing” others see it simply as a property or extension of a mind. The scientists are not much more help. Some claim that time consists of discontinuous packages, others claim that it doesn’t even apply to certain non-material objects such as photons that are time-null and virtually all scientists accept that it is relative. Einstein famously remarked in a letter that ”the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one." It seems that even when they try and give an answer, those who study time usually do not think of it in the same way as the average person does. For those interested in getting more information about the philosophical and scientific definitions of time a good place to start is here.
Given all this confusion it is difficult to see how one could confidently make an argument that relies so heavily on an understanding of the relation of the divine nature to the nature of time without a lot of consideration of the problems involved just in defining the basic terms.
Perhaps more important than the difficulty of defining important elements of the argument is the fact that even if the most simple definition of time is accepted the answer still does not solve the difficulty. Let us assume for the sake of argument that time is simply “a sequence of events, some prior to and or subsequent to one another”. There are weaknesses to this definition but I think it is probably a simple summary of what most people essentially mean when they use the term. Second, let us assume that our actions and choices take place in time… that is that some things are prior and some are subsequent to the moment of our choice in our experience. Finally, let’s assume that God is outside of this sequence and either knows, observes, or experiences all of these not in sequence but in the present as Lewis and others claim. The question must now be raised as to how this bears upon the relation of our sequenced choices to God’s un-sequential knowledge, observation, or experience.
It might be helpful to focus on a particular choice that we make. If God has a knowledge, observation, or experience, that we will have a sandwich for lunch and it is eternally present for Him then long before we made the choice within our time sequence it was certain that we would have chosen the way we did. To conclude otherwise is to assert that God could be incorrect in what He perceives or knows in His eternally present state. It doesn’t matter if God is inside of or outside of time because His knowledge of our time-bound choice is not constrained by the same time sequence as we are. As long as He is omniscient the difficulty remains because before we make any choices, indeed before we were born, God already knows perfectly what choices we will make. This doesn’t imply a necessary determination on His part but it does imply that there is a certainty about the choices that will be made which is fixed with regard to our sequence of events. Regardless of how God knows this (eternal present, perfect future knowledge, causal decree, etc) the fact that He knows it renders it certain prior to our voluntary choice being made.
What bothers people about the problem of free will and God’s omniscience isn’t how God comes to know things but rather the realization that if God knows perfectly what we are going to do before we do it then it is certain we will not logically choose to do anything other than what He knows we will do. The “God out of time” explanation does nothing to change that. As long as humans exist in time and God’s knowledge of our future is perfect at a point prior to our moment of decision the complexity remains.
It is quite possible that God does in fact exist outside of time. There are many scholars with different opinions on this issue. In fact, it seems to be becoming a more relevant topic of discussion since some people like William Hasker and others have rejected traditional Christian theological views and embraced an “open” view of God, teaching that God doesn’t know the future perfectly but only as a set of probabilities. Others like William Lane Craig teach that God was outside of time but chose through creation to experience relational time. There are various other views as well each of which must be culled from other teachings in the scriptures since this issue isn’t directly addressed. Whatever the relationship between God and time is it is complex and requires thoughtful consideration and much study before coming to any conclusions. Many embrace the “God out of time” view because they think it provides some solution to certain free will questions but unfortunately it does not.