Free Choices, God’s Sovereignty, and Apparent Contradictions

I was talking with a group of high school students last year about making wise decisions as a Christian. As I planned what I would say, I kept wanting to discuss how our ability to make meaningful choices can coexist with God’s control over all things, but I suppressed the urge to wander off into philosophical weeds that the audience would find boring and abstract. The evening of the event, I spoke briefly and then opened things up for discussion. One of the first questions was about how our ability to make meaningful choices can coexist with God’s control over all things. As was the next question. And the next. Apparently, there are a lot of us poking around in this particular clump of philosophical weeds.

Thoughtful Christians throughout history have struggled to reconcile these two plain yet paradoxical teachings of Scripture. First, the Bible is quite clear that God controls all things. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” In Daniel 4:35b, Nebuchadnezzar confesses, “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?'” Or consider the many detailed prophecies that were fulfilled centuries later. Why do God’s “best laid schemes” enjoy somewhat greater certainty than those of mice and men? One hundred percent accuracy in predicting the future is only possible for One who controls all the variables necessary to ensure the outcome He promised.

Yet, on the other hand, the Bible is also quite clear that individual people really do make choices–not as programmed robots or manipulated puppets, but real moral choices in which the different options really are options. Probably the best proof of this is the simple fact that God holds us responsible for the choices we make. Any just legal system recognizes the importance of intent in assessing guilt. A tree that falls on a house, or a man who commits a crime while hypnotized, while tragic and regrettable, are not guilty because they did not choose. The whole great drama of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ were necessitated by God’s perfect justice, which made it impossible to ignore real guilt–and real guilt comes only from a corrupt and rebellious will.

Or consider the biblical language which assumes we can make real moral choices. How often did Jesus cry to His listeners, “Come to me”? What an absurd farce if His exhortation was the equivalent of a little child issuing instructions to his pet rocks. No, when the Lord tells us to do something we must assume, in the words of Immanuel Kant, “If I must, I can.”

So the Bible appears to teach that people make free decisions for which they are responsible, while simultaneously God has total and absolutely sovereign control of all things, including those free choices. Perhaps the best illustration of this paradoxical combination comes in the first chapters of Exodus, as we are alternately told that “Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go… [Pharaoh] hardened his heart and did not listen to them” and “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not listen to them… I [the Lord] have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may perform these signs of Mine among them.” Pharaoh hardened his heart, and God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. If we’re going to take the Scriptures seriously we have to accept the full weight of both statements.

But how can we fit them together? That’s the hard question. It is also the wrong question. It assumes that we should expect to be able to perfectly fit together all the pieces of reality in our own understanding, and, more importantly, it assumes that two pieces of reality which we cannot fit together cannot both be true.

Let’s be clear: This is not an exhortation to a “stupid faith” which simply closes its eyes to obvious problems in the word of God. If, like the scriptures of the old Manichaean religion, the Bible taught that specific stars and planets would appear in particular parts of the sky at particular times, and they didn’t, we would have to question the truth of the Bible. If, like the Watch Tower Society of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Bible clearly stated a year for Christ’s return, and then the year passed with no return, we would have to question the truth of the Bible. More generally, if the Bible offered two teachings that were contradictory then we would have to question both them and it.

But that’s not what is happening here. It would be a contradiction to teach that we are free and we are not free, in the same sense and at the same time. If the Bible taught that, we would have to admit one of those two teachings was false. Similarly, it would be a contradiction to teach that God is sovereign and God is not sovereign, in the same sense and at the same time. But the Bible just says that man is free and God is sovereign. That is not, logically speaking, a contradiction. It is an apparent contradiction: Not two facts which logically cannot both be true, but two facts which, based on our understanding of how the world works, look like they cannot both be true. While it may seem like I’m splitting hairs, in fact that distinction is an incredibly important one.

If you were an 18th century scientist and someone told you he had discovered a mammal which laid eggs, you would have said that was impossible. Either an animal is a mammal and gives birth to live young, or it is a bird, reptile, etc. and lays eggs. A mammal that lays eggs is a contradiction in terms. And you would have been correct, right up until Europeans discovered the first platypus in Australia in 1789. And suddenly “mammal” plus “lays eggs” were no longer mutually exclusive possibilities. The combination had never been logically impossible; it just looked like an impossible combination from where we were standing.

Or let’s jump forward to 20th century physics. In physics, a wave is a disturbance or oscillation that travels through a medium; think of an ocean wave, or a jump rope with one end being moved back and forth. A particle, on the other hand, is a minute bit of matter or energy. Waves transport energy, and they do it through the interaction of particles, as one atom of water moves against another, for example. Now try to imagine something that is both a wave and a particle. It doesn’t seem possible. It is apparently contradictory. It also happens to be how light works. Albert Einstein, who developed the theory of wave-particle duality, wrote, “But what is light really? Is it a wave or a shower of photons?… It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.”

I’m not a physicist, so I cannot even begin to explain to you what Einstein is saying in that quote, or how light could be two seemingly contradictory things. I’ve probably explained wave-particle duality poorly, and if I had an Einstein-level understanding of physics I might even realize that it’s not nearly as much of a contradiction as it appears. But that is actually precisely the point. Because you and I are not physicists and, from where we are standing, it is inconceivable that light could be both a wave and particle. No matter how we look at it, it just seems impossible.

And you and I are not divine and, from where we are standing, it is inconceivable that man could be both free and subject to God’s sovereign control. No matter how we look at it, it just seems impossible. But that does not mean it is impossible, unless we imagine we know much more about the supernatural than we do about physics.

Perhaps this feels like a retreat into irrationality to avoid an insoluble dilemma. Quite the contrary! Those of us who are not omniscient should anticipate that there will always be aspects of reality–in physics, theology, and elsewhere–which we do not entirely understand. Some of those bits may be figured out in time, and others won’t be. But as long as they remain uncertain, the most rational thing we can do is to acknowledge our own uncertainty. Don’t announce there’s no such thing as a platypus unless you really know.

Which brings us back to what we might call sovereignty-freedom duality. When you or I or anyone else is able to explain–or even imagine–what it really means for God to be sovereign over all reality (or, for that matter, what it really means for humans to have free will), then we can talk meaningfully about whether there might be a contradiction between the two. Until then, there just isn’t any rational basis for assuming there is a logical conflict between our ability to choose and God’s perfect sovereignty over our choices. And in fact, seeing as how we have testimony from One who does know about these things, we have every reason to believe they are as He tells us.

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