Dear Fr. Joe: Does God know what we are going to do before we do it?
In the last issue, we looked at free will and how God’s knowing everything doesn’t mean we have no freedom to choose. A classroom at Flint Powers High School sent me a dynamite follow-up question when I worked through this with them. Here’s what they asked:
Q: Jesus told Peter he would deny him three times, so didn’t he know already what Peter would choose? Was Peter free to not deny Jesus? Does God know which options we are going to pick before we do?
Such a good question deserves an absolutely crazy answer. To that end, I’m starting right off with the crazy: Peter didn’t deny Jesus because God said he would; God said Peter would deny Jesus because he already had. OUCH! I know, I know…here’s how I explain that. As we discussed in the last issue, you and I are in linear time, but God is not: God sees all of time and history as one moment. But, in that moment, God doesn’t just see “what happens,” He sees every possibility that could happen. In the words of C.S. Lewis, God sees eternity as an everlasting “now.” So, Peter was free to not deny Jesus in the future, but Jesus, who was already in the future, saw that he wouldn’t! Wow – it’s mind-blowing, isn’t it? It happens numerous times in Scripture that God prophesies something that doesn’t happen: Heck, the whole book of Jonah is predicated on a prophesy that never comes to fruition – Nineveh didn’t get destroyed and Jonah, of all things, knew that that is what would happen. One of the best examples of this idea can be found in looking at Our Blessed Mother (never a bad idea, right?). Check out this passage from the catechism:
The “splendor of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: She is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son.” The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love”. (CCC 492)
The emphasis in bold is mine. The key is this: God kept Mary from any stain of sin from the very moment of her conception in order to prepare her to give birth to Christ. How did God do this? Through the merits of Christ! Our God sees and acts in linear time, but is never enslaved to it. Finally, the last example I’ll use is Christ’s death on the cross. Look at Hebrews 6:4-6:
For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift and shared in the holy…and then have fallen away, to bring them to repentance again, since they are recrucifying the Son of God for themselves and holding him up to contempt.
This one may be the easiest to understand as we embrace it every day. You and I are saved by an act that happened 2,000 years ago. Not only that, but our sins, committed today, drive the nails that killed him 2,000 years ago. This is why we should never choose to sin “knowing God will forgive us”: Each sin drives the nails again. So, hopefully, I’m helping us see that when God “predicts the future,” he is seeing all possibilities for our future. He sees them, but never “enslaves” himself or us to those choices because that would violate free will. So does God see the specific options we choose? A few months ago, a former teacher of mine died. His funeral was the same day that I was supposed to say Mass for the seniors at our high school. I called my teacher’s brother and told him why I’d be late to the funeral, but that I’d be there. When he realized I was not going to teach that day because of the funeral, he convinced me to miss the funeral and teach – that would be the best way I could honor his brother. I wasn’t convinced, but I went into the senior philosophy class. One of my students, who has really struggled with believing God loves him, decided that he believed that day – based on something I taught. Now, what if I hadn’t called my friend’s brother? What if I did call him and he didn’t answer the phone? What if he did answer the phone and told me to come? We could do this all day, right? And, the morning that I made the call, did God see which one I would choose? Here’s the yes: Yes, because God was already in what we call the future. He had already seen the day I taught. Here’s the no: No, because that is not all he saw: he saw each possibility and saw it to its logical conclusion. Frankly, brothers and sisters, this is just one of the reasons we are in awe of God. What a mighty, awesome Lord we serve! In the words of the psalmist:
LORD, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar. My travels and my rest you mark; with all my ways you are familiar. Even before a word is on my tongue, LORD, you know it all. Behind and before you encircle me and rest your hand upon me. Such knowledge is beyond me, far too lofty for me to reach