An Answer From Father William G. Menzel


Some Christians and non-Christians alike contend that God knows the actions and choices they will make through what is termed “Free Will”.  But because He knows what will influence these choices, He is really in control of whatever we do.  And so, the problem of “Free Will” continues to prevail.

The Catholic Encyclopedia states “The question of “Free Will” and moral liberty, ranks amongst the three or four most important philosophical problems of all time.   The view adopted in response to it will determine a man's position in regard to the most momentous issues that present themselves to the human mind.  On the one hand, does man possess genuine moral freedom, power of real choice and true ability to determine the course of his thoughts and volitions?  Or, on the other, are man's thoughts and choices, his character and external actions, all merely the inevitable outcome of his circumstances?  Are they predetermined in every detail along rigid lines by events of the past, over which he himself has had no sort of control?  This is the real import of the Free-Will problem.”

Father William G. Menzel, a Roman Catholic priest fondly called “Father Bill” by all, addresses the “Free Will” issue in answer to a question sent to the Ask A Priest category of CatholicView.




Proudly proclaiming “the Catholic faith gave its richness and nourishment to me and eventually called me to the priesthood”, Father Bill was ordained in 1967, and has had the privilege of ministering among the people of Wisconsin in Marshfield, La Crosse, and Eau Claire.  His current assignment is as pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Wisconsin Rapids.   


Dear Father Bill:

Is the scripture, "God created all, God knows all" true?  If this is found to be true it offers confusion in my Christian life.  I feel that this statement would negate the foundation of my belief in God regarding free will.  Please help me to understand. - Patrick

Dear Patrick:

I had to chuckle to myself when I read your question because it brought back a childhood memory.  I must have been around eight years old, and my second grade teacher, Sister Benjamin, must have just taught us that God knows everything.  While walking home after school I pondered this, and daring child that I was, I decided that I was going to try to fool God.  When I stopped at a neighborhood grocery store on the way, I thought that I had figured out a way to do that.

It was a clever scheme.  Instead of turning to the right toward home, as I left the store, I would fool God by turning left.  So I did that.  I had taken no more that two or three steps the wrong way when it occurred to me that God knew I was going to do that too, so the real way to fool God was to turn around and head for home.  So I did.  Again, I took a couple of steps and…well, I am sure you can see where this is going.  After going back and forth a couple of times, I decided to give up trying to fool God.  I’ve always wondered whether anyone in the store or in the nearby houses saw that little boy going back and forth on the sidewalk, and if they did, what they might have speculated was going through his head.

Your question about God’s omniscience and human free will is one that has been asked over and over again for many centuries.   Just do an Internet search on the topic and you will see what I mean.  The Scriptures are quite clear in affirming that God knows everything.  Psalm 139 goes about it rather gently, while 1 John 3:20 states it directly.  Human free will is never stated directly, but is certainly implied in passages like Deuteronomy 30:19.

Those who try to answer this apparent dilemma or contradiction often use analogies from human experience. For example, does a parent’s knowledge of a child’s behavior cause that behavior?  To be more specific, if a parent puts a chocolate chip cookie and a piece of cauliflower on the table and tells the child to get something to eat from the table, does the fact that the parent knows that the child will choose the cookie in some way diminish the child’s freedom to choose the cauliflower?  I think that just about everyone would agree that the child would be free to choose the cauliflower – that the parental foreknowledge of the child’s choice didn’t take away the choice.

However, I think that this approach has a serious deficiency.  I don’t want to get into this too deeply, but suffice it to say that human knowledge doesn’t imply that something actually exists, while God’s knowledge does.   What God knows, is.  What God does not know does not exist.  This seems to doom free will once and for all, but we’ll see in a moment that that’s not the case.

I really think that the solution to this apparent dilemma demands that we at least try to come to grips with one significant difference between our existence and God’s.  I’ve pondered this a lot over the years, and I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around it, so forgive me if my attempt at clarity is anything but clear.

The huge difference between our existence and God’s is that we live in “time” and God lives in “eternity”.  “Time” is nothing more than a measure of change.  If nothing changed, we would have no need of time- in fact, we’d never even think to invent it.  Since everything we know does change, we have conceived of time as a way to measure our changing surroundings.

Here’s the hard part. God lives outside of time, in an eternal, changeless “now”. For God, everything just “is”. And this includes the choices we humans freely make, as well as all the evolving details of the changing universe we inhabit.  I firmly believe that God does not micromanage the universe, so what He knows "is”, but His knowledge does not cause it to be.

Taking all this another step, God knows that we have free will.  If God knows it, then we must have it.

Finally, if none of this makes any sense to you, and I would not blame you if it doesn’t, just do what I do when my brain gets tired; ask a few simple questions.  For example, do you feel you are free to make choices?  Do you feel that you could choose to answer an email or not answer it?  Do you feel that when you sit down to dinner you can choose to put salt on your meat or not?   Do you feel that the TV remote in your hand gives you the freedom to surf at will or to stop wherever you want?  To believe that all this might somehow be determined by God’s knowledge always seems to me to be a greater stretch than to believe that we actually are free.  But you can choose to agree with me.  Or not.  God bless you, Patrick.

Father Bill

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