Theological fatalism

The post I did on the limits of human freedom attracted a good discussion, as I suppose one might expect. Much of it revolved around the “problem”, in one way or another, of God’s knowing the future. The useful online Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy describes the real underlying difficulty people have with this:

Theological fatalism is the thesis that infallible foreknowledge of a human act makes the act necessary and hence unfree. If there is a being who knows the entire future infallibly, then no human act is free.

It then goes, as you’d expect in an encyclopaedia, into a long discussion of the pros, cons and nuances of the issue. But it occurs to me that the only necessary answer to theological fatalism is, “What are you going to do about it?” Whatever side of the philosophy you come down on won’t change the reality of the situation.

One answer, of course, is to deny God’s foreknowledge, as the Open Theists have done. But what scrap of difference will that make if God actually does have foreknowledge? You can imagine God any way you like, but he’s not going to change his necessary nature just to comply with your beliefs about him.

“Well,” you might reply, “it would then be unjust of God to judge me, since my decisions were determined, not free.” But given that the question of divine judgement only comes up because the same religion that you say teaches free will also teaches God’s omniscience, and human accountability and judgement, it’s hardly likely to be a get-out defence that God got his philosophy wrong when he made you. In fact, he might just point out that though his word teaches accountability, libertarian free-will was your own idea, not his.

The same is true if you start murdering people and saying, “Look what God fated me to do!” He’ll just say, “How come you only got fated to do it once you worked out your free choices not to were an illusion? Looks to me like you chose evil.” And would you be able to argue with that?

“But I can’t respect a God like that!” someone will say. One might point out all sorts of other reasons to respect God, I guess, but in the end if God is like that, all the bleating is hot air – he’ll still be God, and you’ll still be a man. You might upset the weak or doubting by railing against your Maker, but you won’t change reality.

In fact, here’s a suggestion: rather than submitting meekly to your predetermined and robotic lack of respect for God’s omniscient nature, you could try and prove him wrong by choosing to love him freely – now that would be the ultimate defiant bid for liberty of the will, wouldn’t it?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Theological fatalism

  1. Cal says:

    Poor Nathan! The Lord’s knowledge of him sitting under the tree left him with no choice but to follow Him!

    Though it would be easy to get into a ‘wrasslin’ match over the “nature” of God and the heavily speculative problem solving involving time, space and matter, I’d rather fall on this. Given that neuroscience has given evidence that we’re not quite the heroic automatons we thought we were. There is also the fact that the unknown and circumstantial are a hair’s breadth between life and death many a time. Also given my own often futile will, knowing the Lord is on the Throne is a great comfort.

    That is to say: the Kingdom comes right behind her King, and He is worthy to have all dominion, power, authority, wisdom and honor!


  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Then Nathaniel declared, “Rabbi, I can’t believe in a Son of God or a King of Israel who knows the future infallibly. You just lost yourself a disciple.”
    Jesus said, “Rats – I knew I should have boned up on the kenotic theology. Now they’ll all see greater things than that and nobody will follow me!” (John 1.49-50, New Incarnational Version);

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