On Prophecy and the Existence of Free Will
By John Ambrose
How is it that the prophets of old could predict world events in spite of the uncertainty of man's free will? How can things be certain to happen, events determined far in advance when man's freedom of choice can change things in an instant? Is free will an illusion? Are we all treading the paths predetermined for us without recourse to change? When we get up in morning must we put on the clothes already decided for us? Is that choice of a dress or a tie not really our choice at all?
To begin, some have claimed that God is outside of time; that he operates in a timeless zone where he sees past, present and future all at once in a kind of super kaleidoscopic view of time and space. But even for God, time would seem an essential component of existence.
Time is needed to separate one event from another, one word from another; even one thought from another. It is a necessary element in distinguishing all things from one another in the continuum of existence. Without time everything gets jumbled together in an incoherent, unintelligible mass like stirring the paints on a portrait till they become just a cloud of grey. If God has coherent thoughts, as we know he does, then he must be operating in time. If time were to stop there could be no activity; not even a word or a thought would have separation; and in this distinctly indistinct state I believe consciousness itself would cease.
When Moses was wandering in the desert with the tribe of Israel we see God telling him, "Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way." (Ex 33:3). On several occasions we see Moses interceding for the people and God changes his mind and does not destroy them. In this we see God moving along in time with Israel, guiding them by the pillar of fire at night and the column of smoke by day.
So if God is with us in time how is it then that he sees the future?
In weather prediction we have models that are spun up with data of everything we know at present: wind, temperature, humidity, pressure gradients, ocean temperatures, times of sunlight, air transparency, ground heating, etc. etc.; and once all current data is entered, the computer puts things in motion predicting what conditions will be like at a future time and place.
We know only too well how fallible our weather models are. Three day predictions are mostly accurate but much beyond that and we begin to raise an eyebrow. But what if we could build a weather model that was perfect. So that when all pertinent data is entered and the model spun up it accurately predicted the weather not only tomorrow but a month from now, a year from now, even into the next century.
Could God's vision of the future be something like our perfect weather model? Only in His case it would show the interaction of all events - past, present and future - from the beginning to the end of the history of mankind. It would include the activity of not just man but also our planet, our solar system and even the universe as a whole. In this magnificent God-World-View He could see how all events taking place in the present would play out in the future.
We can think of this as a giant tapestry showing the history of mankind from beginning to end. He would be able to see all the events of history going back to the very beginning and also the events that will play out in the future. And He would see the effects of any changes He makes in the present ripple through the tapestry changing events to come. In this context perhaps that is why God does not always grant healing when we ask, because He can see how the effects of His intervention will play out through time, and our healing in the now may not produce a good result in the future.
The only problem we find with this scheme of things is the interaction of man's free will. How can a God-World-View allow for the random choices of man and still be accurate?
At this point I see it either of two ways: either man's actions are predetermined and we are little more than robots playing out on a world stage; or we really do determine our course of action and make free will decisions. If the latter be true then God does not choose for us but must simply knows how we will choose - what decision we will make at every step of the way. This may not be as impossible as it seems. We can begin to grasp this from personal experience, especially in marriage. We know from long experience living with a person that if we say or do a certain thing, our spouse will react in a certain way - we know the "hot buttons" and what will happen if we push them.
So if this God-World-View be correct, he must know how we will react to each and every event that enters our lives. And He would also be able to affect our choices - place a finger in the tapestry so to speak, to bring about a desired result. We see this happening at certain points in the Bible as when he sent an angel to entice Ahab to attack Ramoth Gilead so he would go to his death (1Ki 22:19). And in a similar way we see God hardening Pharaoh's heart by perhaps inspiring his advisors to give him wrong advice (Ex 10:27), even as Ahithephel's advice was thwarted by David's friend Hushai (2Sa 17:7).
And so we see how it may be possible for God to interact with events in history in order to produce a desired result without usurping the free will of man. He could influence it in such a way as to bring about the desired result - stimulating our free will choice in order to bring about his own predesigned end.
Does this suggest then that we really do not have free will for who can resist his will as Paul states? But through it all I believe we do, for he never usurps our right to choose (Jos 24: 15, 24; Lk 13:34; Ro 1:25), but just adds the appropriate stimuli for us to choose the way he wants (1Ki 22:19).
What then of salvation, why can't he stimulate everyone in such a way that all will come and none be lost? In this vein I believe he does give common grace to all mankind.
The apostle Paul says that when unbelieving Gentiles "who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, . . . They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them" (Ro 2:14-15). By God's common grace mankind is given a conscience discerning the difference between right and wrong. God said of Adam and Eve after the fall, they have become like us knowing the difference between good and evil (Ge 3:22).
We are all made with unique personalities, physical attributes and gifts. And within each God has placed a sense of his moral law, a spark within that speaks to us of the correct course of action, the right thing to do, the proper way of thinking. And as we go through life's circumstances, the heart of man - the center of mind, will and emotions - is moved toward good or evil according to how we respond to these circumstances. If we try to abide by the requirements of the unwritten law in our hearts we gravitate towards righteousness; otherwise not. Thus we see God call Noah a righteous man in the midst of an evil generation, as also with Job, Abraham, Lot, Enoch and others all before the written law was given.
So we see in all of life's circumstances how what we choose determines whether we are moving toward God or away from him; gravitating toward the good or away from it; and eventually, even affecting our response to the Lord himself (1 Jo 4:6). Whether we receive Christ or not is then dependent on the heart of the individual and the grace given by God in drawing him. If he has a heart for God he will come; otherwise not (Jo 17:6, 8:47, 6:44).
As Paul states all are without excuse...
"Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." (Ro 1:19-20)
In salvation all are given the same stimuli leading us to God and Christ. But in specific situations where God wants to bring about certain events in history, the stimuli is such that it does not affect the eternal destiny of the recipient but does cause the recipient to choose or act in a way that brings about the desired event in history. Joseph's brothers' not killing him but selling him to the caravan of Ishmaelites is an example of this (Ge 37:26...). It was God's will that he be brought to Egypt to save his people from famine. But here we must also acknowledge the interplay of the enemy of our souls, the devil, who presents stimuli designed to bring about decisions for his purposes. For Joseph said to his brothers, "You intended to harm me but God intended it for good." (Ge 50:20)
We see in the battle for our souls, God drawing us by the display of His mighty works and the spark of His moral law working within our hearts; and opposing Him, Satan, stimulating our pride to reject His wonders as the result of natural processes, as evolution and natural selection which has nothing to do with a God.
Understanding the full depths and breaths of this eternal dual and how the interplay of all world events are monitored and channeled by God to bring about His divine will is something we can never hope to understand this side of heaven and probably not even then. But at the bottom of it all I believe man has the ability to choose, and based on the disposition of the heart he will either respond to God's drawing power or not.
God knows our final outcome, our destiny, so in a sense we are predestined, but predestined based on God's knowledge of our choices, predestined by the foreknowledge of God (Ro 8:29), which may not be in line with His desires for us. Even though God knows our final outcome I believe this is hidden from His angels who operate in day to day interaction with man stimulating us toward good as also with the enemies of our soul inciting us to evil. (Mk 13:32)
So, going back to the original question, what are we to conclude? How does a sovereign God set in motion events that will play out with certainty and thus prophetically and at the same time not usurp the free will of man? To understand this in its entirety is just too complex for us to come to grips with, we simply don't know. Perhaps the best we can do is to gain a small inkling into the processes involved and be satisfied with that.
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