In the last few months, and in more than one context, I have heard it mentioned that the existence of free will is paradoxically opposed to the concept of an omnipotent God. The argument goes something like this:
IF God can do anything
AND God is in control of all things
THEN human free will cannot exist.
In this article, I intend to prove that no such contradiction exists, and that it is, in fact, quite possible for God to be in control of the events surrounding us while still preserving our free will to choose how we respond to those events.
One paradox at a time
Before I begin, I want to make it clear that I am only going to address the perceived disparity between an omnipotent God and free will. I am intentionally avoiding other similar problems, such as the classic omnipotence paradox (Can God create a stone He can’t lift) and the omnipotence vs. loving God paradox (Why do bad things happen to good people). I may circle back to discuss these topics in future articles.
God’s influences on world events
People of many faiths petition God to intervene in both their own personal lives, and in the lives of others. I will attempt to create a list of ways in which God can manipulate the events of our world without usurping the decisions of the people inhabiting the world.
I have grouped God’s influences into the following broad (and frequently overlapping) categories:
- Control of nature
- Control of random (or uncertain) events
- Control of unforeseen events
- Control of our health
- Control of our personality
- Control of our subconscious
- Control of societal trends
- Control of supernatural events
Control of nature
God is in control of the elements. Will today be sunny or rainy? Will this winter be harsh or mild? He can cause or prevent earthquakes. He can control precisely where and when lightning will strike.
God is also in control of the Earth’s flora. Which plants will thrive where, and when? I may plant, fertilize, and water a seed, but God is in control of how well a tree grows and when it ultimately dies.
God is even in control of the animal kingdom. This point may be a bit contentious, but I don’t believe that animals, regardless of intelligence, have free will. God can influence whether or not a fly gets into my house when I open the door. He determines the success of my fishing trip. He influences how long it takes for my dog to learn to sit.
Control of random events
Are there even any truly random events, or is what we perceive as randomness actually deterministic in a way that is beyond our current understanding? Either way, I believe that God can orchestrate events that we are currently unable to predict. How long till my car needs a new transmission? Who will win the lottery? How much traffic will I encounter this morning?
Control of unforeseen events
While obviously related, I have decided to call out “unforeseen events” as a separate category from random events, with a random event being defined as an event whose outcome is selected from a known pool of possibilities. Unforeseen events, then, are events that are completely unexpected. This includes calamities, such as a fire or a meteor strike, and windfalls, such as an anonymous gift.
Control of our health
We can somewhat influence our health through the choices that we make, but these decisions (diet, exercise, toxins, treatments, etc.) only effect likelihoods and percentages. Nothing about health is certain. My health and my very life is in God’s hands.
Control of our personality
Any parent of multiple children can tell you that there are some personality traits that are identifiable from a very young age. I do believe that I am free to somewhat mold my personality through conscious mental disciplines, but God has stacked the deck in order to push me toward certain ways of thinking and behaving.
Control of our subconscious
My mind is a multifaceted, complex apparatus. I am in complete control of my conscious decisions and behaviors. But there is a good portion of my mental processes that happen without conscious effort. This includes such things as recalling long-forgotten memories, continuously replaying annoying songs in my mind, or driving to work on “autopilot” in the morning.
It’s my belief that God’s influence on my subconscious thoughts is actually one of His primary means of communicating with me.
Control of societal trends
While God doesn’t control the actions of individuals, I’m confident He is able to shape populations to His will by exercising all of His means of influence in conjunction. In a Hari Seldon-like manner, God can direct events and circumstances in such a way that large populations of people, as a whole, will head down a certain, determined path.
Control of supernatural events
I have not witnessed anything supernatural, in the sense that it is unexplainable by known natural laws. I do believe that such events occur, though. I suspect that God rarely exercises his ability to instigate supernatural events, and reserves that option only for instances where it is not possible to enact his will through one of the more natural avenues that I have already enumerated.
Putting it all together
God can mold my natural habitat to influence me. He can instigate events that will direct me down certain paths. He has already pre-tuned my emotions and personalities to predispose me to certain ways of thinking and behaving. He can inject thoughts directly into my subconscious. All of these techniques can be used to influence not only me, but the people around me, thus further intensifying his control of my circumstances. And if this all isn’t enough, He can exercise His trump card of the supernatural.
I have free will to make my own decisions. God is in control of my circumstances. There is no contradiction.