Theological Fatalism – Part Two: The implications

This is the second post of a three part series concerning the problem of theological fatalism – the seeming incompatibility between an omniscient being, God, and free will. This series was started to expand on one of the arguments I presented in my “Does God Exist?” debate with Catholic philosopher Dr. Ronda Chervin (PhD, Fordham) which can be streamed via Livestream or watched on Youtube. Listening to the debate before reading this post would be helpful. Reading the first post in this series is essential for understanding of this post and the third in the series. Past three, answering objections, is now available here.

The implications

The problem of theological fatalism poses an interesting dilemma for believers in an omniscient being, God, and free will. If an omniscient being exists, there can be no free will. If there is free will, there can be no omniscient being. An omniscient being would know all truths about the future and could not possibly be incorrect; if any of the being’s beliefs were falsified, it would not be omniscient…and none of these true beliefs, of course, could be falsified.

All of these truths were known by God before humans were born (theists typically believe God is eternal; God existed forever). If all of these truths are known by this being, there is only one set of logically possible outcomes that can occur in the future – persons have no choice in any matters whatsoever because the future necessarily must happen according to this being’s knowledge. Our characters and all of our actions, then, would not be determined by us, but rather must be in exact accord with what this being knows about the future.

Faced with the incompatibility between free will and an omniscient being, God, the theist is forced to relinquish belief in one of these items – likely both cherished beliefs for many. Some theists, realizing the problem of theological fatalism, have either redefined omniscience or have relinquished belief in God’s omniscience. Some theists — for example — have endorsed ideas of presentism (God only knows the present), outright denied that God knows the future or that the future exists, or have argued that God knows all of the possibilities of human action but not what the eventual action would be.

One particular possible response to theological fatalism is open theism. Adherents to openness theology such as Dr. John Sanders, professor of religious studies at Hendrix College, hold a view of dynamic omniscience – differing from classical theism – in which God does not have divine foreknowledge which consigns humans to fatalism. On this view, God, as Sanders writes on opentheism.info, “chose to create a universe in which the future is not entirely knowable, even for God. For many open theists the future is not a present reality, it does not exist, and God knows reality as it is.”

Arguing that God only knows the present or that does not know the future seems to run contrary to ideas of omniscience, for if God is omniscient he holds all possible true beliefs that can be held. Arguing that the future does not exist, in a world with an omniscient being, seems most bizarre because an omniscient being would, one would think, know answers to questions such as “What will John eat for lunch tomorrow?” Would a being not knowing an answer to this question be called omniscient?

If theists want to admit that God is not omniscient, they obviously escape the problem of theological fatalism (barring problems of fatalism which may arise from other ways)…but will this be a ‘move’ many theists will take? God, at least today, is usually thought of as a perfect being which is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. God lacking omniscience or not knowing the future would seem to be quite a flaw and not something theists may easily admit.

Relinquishing belief in free will would be a grievous blow to Christian theology which typically maintains that people are freely acting agents. Appeals to free will are quite common in discussions of Hell, moral evil, divine hiddenness, sin, and many other topics. Some theologians even go as far as saying that without free will persons would be nothing more than automatons and God would not want this to be the case.

It is rarely the case, at least from my experience, that theists believe in God and do not believe in free will. Steve Drain and members of the Westboro Baptist Church are quite the rare exception. See this image from Steve’s Twitter feed.

My next post, and the final post in this series, will address many common objections to theological fatalism. Stay tuned!

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia.

He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events.

Vacula received bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County’s Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher’s assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.