03 Jan 2016

God’s Sovereignty and Free Will

Religious 23 Comments

One of the most difficult things about the God of the Bible is that He’s sovereign (meaning everything happens according to His will and indeed His design) yet we humans have free will and deserve any punishments meted out to us.

During my Bible study session today we covered Genesis 15, and there was a passage that I think sheds light on this tricky issue:

12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.

I added the bold above. It sure sounds like God is saying something like, “I’m not going to tell my chosen people to wipe out the existing inhabitants and take the Promised Land just yet, for the existing inhabitants should be given more time to turn back from their wickedness–which they won’t do.”

For an analogy, at least this passage suggests that God is like a police officer who just knows the guy is guilty, but waits for him to officially commit a crime before arresting him, in order to satisfy all legal niceties.

P.S. Check out this commentary if you want to see someone else (presumably with much greater training than I have) discuss the same text and reach similar conclusions. An excerpt:

In other words, the promised land had been dominated by an exceptionally cruel and bestial culture for hundreds of years. The Amorites who dominated that land practiced such abominations as the slaughter of virgins and first born children in sacrifice to appease their gods. They were a people who callously tortured and destroyed with long lingering deaths both men and women whom they considered their enemies. They were a nation whose morals and scruples were paper thin. They lived like that for centuries and we have proof of that from archaeology. They were a blot on human history. They were a stench in the nostrils of God, and yet we are told that he did nothing about this for a long time. Why was that? How could the
righteous Lord sit back and do nothing? Surely it matters to him how creatures made in his own image behave? Don’t they live and move and have their being in him, sustained by him? Isn’t their breath in God’s hands? Then how can he supply the energy to hurt others so unspeakably? Surely he should smite them down at once? That is the issue before us, and here we find the divine explanation.


Remember it is God who is speaking, not Abram. We may not escape from this question with the answer that God is simply helpless, wringing his hands in horror but unable to intervene. There is no doctrine of the so-called ‘openness of God’ taught in the Bible. It is quite clear from his words to Abram that God knows all that is going on. Nothing escapes the one who hates sin, yet God is waiting patiently for a certain moment in their history, a time when the wickedness of these Amorites has reached its full measure. That is, a time comes both for individuals and for civilizations when God says, “That’s it! Enough!” Until that moment sinners are spared judgment. They are benefiting from the longsuffering and patience of God.


23 Responses to “God’s Sovereignty and Free Will”

  1. Major.Freedom says:

    “For an analogy, at least this passage suggests that God is like a police officer who just knows the guy is guilty, but waits for him to officially commit a crime before arresting him, in order to satisfy all legal niceties.”

    Serious question:

    Given that the cop here did not “design” the criminal, wouldn’t a more apt analogy be a robot engineer who designs and builds a robot to engage in theft, as well as believe it has free will, and then before letting the robot loose, the engineer thinks to him or herself, “I am going to wait for you to commit theft first before I pronounce a judgment on you.”

    Imagine building a computer program, with many lines of code. Imagine you know exactly what the program will do.

    Is there a way for you to COMPREHEND the scenario of building a program with you knowing exactly what the program will do, AND you knowing the program has free will?

    I confess that I cannot comprehend ever coherently knowing such a scenario. I can say it, I can say I believe it, and I can even say it is what is happening. But I cannot actually understand how it could be true. Sure, I can just say the program has free will and say I know what it will do anyway. I can say that. But I do not understand how I or anything else could actually know such a thing. It doesn’t work for me to say “God is omnipotent, and beyond your comprehension.” Well, if God is beyond anyone’s comprehension, how can anyone claim to understand the above scenario as God’s plan? It is one thing to merely say it, it is another to claim to understand it.

  2. Gene Callahan says:

    “as well as believe it has free will”

    No, it would have to actually have free will for your analogy to go through.

    • Major.Freedom says:

      I have to suspend that assumption because it is the very thing in consideration.

      What I am saying is that I cannot comprehend building a robot with me knowing it has free will AND me knowing what it will do.

      • Harold says:

        Say you made the robot with free will, and you didn’t know what it would do. You set it off on its journey, and observe what it does. So far there is no contradiction.

        Then you re-set the initial conditions exactly and set it off again. It still has free will, but now you know what it will do.

        Now, there is a strong argument that you cannot re-set conditions exactly. It is not possible to store sufficient information in the universe to re-set the universe. However, IF you could do so, then there would be no contradiction betweeen the robot having free will and you knowing what it would do.

        If God (or you) were outside the universe, and could re-set it, then the contradiction disappears. Alternatively, you could argue that the robot never had free will. If re-setting the intial conditions always results in the same outcome, then free will is not possible.

        • Guest says:

          Harold, there is no point resetting conditions if you know exactly what it will do. This is the contradiction.

          • Harold says:

            Guest, I do not follow you. Whether there is any point is not the point, but I can see lots of reasons why I might want to do this. I may want to show you what a robot with free will does in a certain situation, for example.

            The contradiction as I see it is that IF you can re-set the conditions, then perhaps the robot never actually had free will in the first place. However, it is quite possible that the creator of the robot believes it has free will until he re-sets the conditions.

            The two choices are that the robot has free will, but the outcome of that free will is determined by the starting conditions, or that free will cannot exist if the outcome is determined by the starting conditions.

            God is perhaps in a postion where he does not re-set the starting position, but can view the entire time. He can see that the robot takes a particular course of action. Is that different from re-setting and looking again?

            • Craw says:

              You say that now you know what it will do, because the initial conditions are unchanged. That implies that given those conditions, the robot will always exhibit the same behavior. That seems like a form of determinism, no? (You seem to oppose free will and determinism, as do most here, wrongly I think but that’s a different debate).
              The only thing you have added is predictability. Well it’s well known that there are computer programs that cannot be ‘predicted’ except by simulating them to see what they would do. You cannot know ahead of doing that. Does that mean they have free will? You seem to be arguing it does, and Guest disagrees.

              • Harold says:

                Craw, you are right – this is an exploration of determinism, just looking at it from a slightly different angle.

                Suppose we could make this robot, and we thought it had free will, and the robot thought it had free will, yet it would still act the same if conditions were re-set.

                Guest and MF seem to be saying that in this case the robot never had free will. I am saying we could never tell the difference because re-setting is impossible, so it is un-testable. There is no practical difference between free will and the illusion of free will.

            • Guest says:

              Well we are getting of point here but to be honest, the only reset ever performed by God was when He sent His Son , Jesus.

              The robot thingy, Major Freedom was struggling with. If you already know the outcome, then there never was any free will. Of it could be a simple issue of time travel. I create a free will being, then I go forward and see how it turned out, then I come back and watch it all unfold. Boring but possible.

              • Harold says:

                My view of God’s position is that he can do the time travel thing – he can look at all time at the same time, which is equivalent of going forward to see what happens, then coming back and predicting what happens.

                My question is what is the difference between going forward to look, then coming back to predict what will happen, and re-setting to predict what will happen? They seem pretty much the same. So if free will disappears in th ere-setting case, it also does in the time travel case.

      • Guest says:

        Major you are exactly correct. “What I am saying is that I cannot comprehend building a robot with me knowing it has free will AND me knowing what it will do” This makes no sense what so ever. You would get a kick out of the supposed trinity as well.

        Don’t hate the Bible though, it may be wrong interpretation that displeases you. There is a small but growing band of us who do not read into or ignore certain passages of Holy Scripture. The story we receive is starkly different than mainstream.

        Keep seeking truth, you will find it.

  3. Khodge says:

    Challenging post.

    Free will is the strongest explanation for evil in the world. Applying a lesson here is somewhat dicey, though. One event in Jewish history that we have to recall is that David’s personal sin (sleeping with his general’s wife) was atoned for by punishing the nation with a civil war, the option that David chose, which the bible writers seem to approve.

    An interesting question, though, is how, exactly, are the Amorites who lived in the first 450 of the 500 years punished?

    • E. Harding says:

      Famines, plagues, floods, etc.?

      Free will can’t exist, therefore, it can’t be a good explanation for evil.

  4. knoxharrington says:

    “In other words, the promised land had been dominated by an exceptionally cruel and bestial culture for hundreds of years. The Amorites who dominated that land practiced such abominations as the slaughter of virgins and first born children in sacrifice to appease their gods. They were a people who callously tortured and destroyed with long lingering deaths both men and women whom they considered their enemies. They were a nation whose morals and scruples were paper thin. They lived like that for centuries and we have proof of that from archaeology.”

    I’m going to need some evidence for this claim. I don’t mean that Bob must marshal the evidence for this claim but if such evidence exists “from archaeology” Geoff Thomas (writer of the commentary) doesn’t cite to it. Let me be clear, I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, or that a writer of Geoff Thomas’ sort must include extensive footnotes, just that I am unaware of it, have never heard this claim made before and it is a frequent tactic to cite to “proof of that from archaeology” when no such proof exists.

    • Craw says:

      I have seen the claim that funerary jars containing the bones of children “prove” they were buried alive and suffocated. How do prove that from bones I wonder. Also that clay tablets with “false” gods have been found. That proves their depravity, right?

  5. guest says:

    So, even though I’m using my own free will, if I remind you to post to the latest Contra Krugman, you’re going to say God made me do it?


  6. Innocent says:

    okay, so if you tell you child to do well in school when they are 12 years old and that if they listen to you and work hard they will be able to enter into a University and become whatever they wish to be does that mean you are being the architect of their life?

    God ‘knows’ what will happen in the broad sense of the word because he can see it… There is a question as to whether He is a fourth dimensional being. Now pretend that God is not simply a 4th dimensional being but that He also has rules by which He will not deviate from. Call them, oh I do not know, ‘Natural laws’ that so long as you do the things predicated for the blessing He will give them to you.

    Now as far as free will goes. A child can ‘choose’ whatever they want. When they do so the consequence of those actions can be seen well in advance of when the consequence actually arrives. For instance. Do not hang out with those boys or you will get into trouble. When trouble finally occurs did the Parents ’cause’ it to happen?

    These are limited thought experiments, the truth is much broader, much deeper, and much richer than this of course.

    God is. How He conducts his business is between Him and those that serve Him.

    I will note that MOST of the time God gives advice. Very rarely does God actually ‘do’ anything. When He does it is usually catastrophic for one group of people or another. But again it is VERY rare. In the several thousand years there are only a couple handful of times He has taken a direct role other than adviser.

    As to an additional thing look at when God tells Jeremiah and Ezekiel about the coming catastrophe for the lands of Israel. He tells them to turn from Egypt or face destruction. Do they do it, well perhaps some of them. But the majority no, and so the catastrophe predicted comes to bear.

    What does it mean to be omnipotent. Does it mean you CAN do anything or does it mean you DO do everything? ( Yes I said Do Do )

    Omnipotent is a Latin based word, the actual Hebrew, in my opinion is closer to Sufficient or Nourishment. So I am not even sure that the word and thought process for God is 100% correct. I would suggest that God rather than ‘knowing’ all things that are to come ( which He may ) instead knows about all things. If you look at the word Omniscient it is again Latin ( not the language that the Hebrews used )… If you really look at it the Hebrew is closer to All Science or Knowledge…

    • knoxharrington says:

      This is the best case for atheism. What a load of gibberish.

      • Guest says:

        The problem I have with atheist is simple. They have misplaced mans inherent desire to have faith, onto worldly systems such as government and fiat banking. If you are gonna be an atheist, stop with the faith stuff already. Stop your new religion of statism which requires as much faith as a Christian.

        • knoxharrington says:

          You’ve actually raised a good point. Many atheists reflexively fall into a “secular humanist” stance which is really just statist modern liberalism which suffers Hayek’s fatal conceit.

          The problem with your formulation is that you think this applies to all atheists because you didn’t modify your statement with “many” or “some” or “a lot” – you just made a blanket statement. I’m an atheist and an anarchist – I have no faith in the state – none. So at least one atheist and anarchist doesn’t live under a faith delusion of the sort you describe.

  7. Gary Anderson says:

    Even without free will, God is just in meting out punishment. After all, if we had been in Adam’s place, we would have disobeyed as well.

    • Guest says:

      Yes Gary and we are also the ones who killed Christ.
      Christ has changed “God is just meting out punishment.” We have been reconciled by the blood of Christ.

  8. Guest says:

    Is it not possible that God used His sovereignty to give us free will? Meaning God does not control everything, per his choice to give us some input, as to out own destiny? Obviously, God, at any moment, could reign in some of his gift of free will. I guess I am debating the definition of Gods *sovereignty*. To be sovereignty does not mean he micro manages every detail. The hairs on my head are numbered and we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. However nowhere does this say God micro manages the confluence of good and evil.

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