Can God and Free Will Coexist? Examining the Augustinian Solution

The existence of human free will has generated tremendous interest beyond the ivory towers of philosophical academia. This is not surprising, because the status of human free will has implications for moral responsibility, personal identity, and epistemology. Most people, however, do not fully understand the implications of the free will question for theology. Take, for example, Christian notions of salvation. A complete understanding of the nature of salvation within the Christian faith must contain sin, generally defined as any deed that is contrary to God’s eternal law.[i] Christianity holds that humanity chose to break these eternal laws, therefore separating humanity from God. Nevertheless, the Christian narrative also emphasizes Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in spite of our transgressions, an act of divine love on our behalf that saves us from spiritual death.

Given that the nature of sin implicitly involves a choice, the question of free will’s existence has tremendous power to either affirm or compromise the integrity of the Christian soteriological narrative. [ii] If humans do not have free will, then it seems unfair to hold them accountable for their predetermined actions. More disturbingly, if the lack of human freedom prevents us from expressing any moral agency, then God is the only being left that has any real agency over his actions. This unsettling fact seems to divert all the responsibility for what happens in the world to God, including “immoral” actions. It seems unjust for God to cause human beings to act immorally, and it seems even more unjust that these actions necessarily bring about the spiritual deaths of these poor creatures. If humans do not have free will, the Christian narrative changes significantly. Far from a story of rebellion against God, the human narrative turns into a story of victimhood – a race of beings forced to undergo a morbid game conducted by a sociopathic deity. If there were any room for Christ’s “sacrifice” in this new story, it would not be seen as an act of divine love, but rather as compensation for humanity’s nihilistic existence.

Christians can avoid confronting this horrifying scenario by accepting the existence of free will, as most Christian denominations already do. But some critics argue that free will is incompatible with God’s omniscience and omnipotence. Since God is omniscient, God has complete knowledge of all events past, present, and future. And since God is omnipotent, all events that God foreknows he necessarily brings into being. If God knows what is going to happen in the future, and his power necessarily brings this event into being, then it seems like all events occur independently of human agency. If this is true, then it seems to commit one to determinism and forces Christians to reject free will, regardless of its theological consequences.

Obviously, some Christians can “bite the bullet” of this argument and deny that free will exists. But there are also Christians who deny the existence of free will for scriptural reasons. The consequences of determinism pose a significant conundrum for those Christians due to the theological and moral implications mentioned previously, but it is beyond the scope of this article to address the merits of their scriptural arguments. Thus, there will be no attempt to address arguments that use scriptural passages to disprove human free will.

Instead, this article attempts to address one question: is the existence of an omniscient and omnipotent God compatible with human free will? The problem of reconciling free will with these two divine traits is a genuine one that has resurfaced periodically throughout the history of Christian thought, and thus has been addressed by a variety of different thinkers. What this article aims to examine, in particular, is a defense of free will offered by Saint Augustine, one of the first Christians who addressed this issue directly. While his initial response is inadequate, Augustine can sidestep many of the issues of his original solution by emphasizing God’s atemporality instead of man’s power.

When Augustine first addressed the problem of free will, he was responding to an early formulation of the problem that focused on sinful actions. In Augustine’s treatise On Free Will, the author details a conversation with Saint Evodius where Augustine is asked whether man is free to commit sinful actions if God foreknows all events. Saint Evodius argued that if God foreknows man sinning, then man must necessarily sin. If man necessarily sins, then his sinning is not voluntary. This argument can be expanded into something that applies to free will as a whole, since sin is not the only human action that God foreknows. Because God foreknows every human action, it raises the question as to whether any human action is voluntary.[iii]

Accordingly, Evodius’ original argument can be reconstructed and refined into the following syllogism:

(1) If God is omniscient, God foreknows all events.

(2) Hence, if a man is going to sin, God foreknows that he will sin.

(3) Because God is omnipotent, whatever God foreknows must necessarily happen.

(4) Hence, if God foreknows that a man will sin, he must necessarily sin.

(5) But if such a man must necessarily sin, there is no voluntary choice in his sinning.

(6) The logic expressed by (2)-(5) applies to any action that the man commits.

(7) Therefore, such a man does not have free will.[iv]

Augustine’s solution to this problem is to draw a distinction between something that occurs necessarily and something that occurs voluntarily. He essentially denies premise (5) by claiming that necessity does not preclude freedom. He does this by distinguishing between the sufficient conditions for necessity versus the sufficient conditions for freedom. While necessity follows from God’s foreknowledge, freedom follows from man’s power. In other words, Augustine tries to maintain free will by equating freedom with power. Augustine believed that humans have power over their will, and since power implies freedom, our will must accordingly be free.[v] Since necessity and freedom follow from different independent sources, a person necessarily willing something does not entail a lack of freedom.

Noting this vague account of power, philosopher William Rowe attempted to clarify the meaning of this term by proposing a more systematic definition of power on behalf of Augustine. He argued that a man does not have the power to do X if the situation fulfills one of two criteria:

(8) X fails to occur even though the man wills to do X.

(9) X occurs even though the man does not will to do X.[vi]

It follows that one has the power to do X if his will does affect the occurrence of X. Since Augustine equates power and freedom, this definition is essential if we want to understand Augustine’s conception of freedom.

One way to understand Augustinian freedom is to imagine a scenario that illustrates power. If a man had the power to quit smoking, he could choose to quit smoking and he will actually stop because of this choice, and vice versa. Replacing “power” with “freedom,” Augustine would therefore say that the man was free to quit smoking, since he clearly changed his smoking habit after he chose to quit. He therefore defines freedom as having the ability to affect a certain outcome after one decides to act towards that outcome. This interesting definition of freedom seems dubious at first, since many people consider the ability to make a choice as the only prerequisite for freedom, rather than the ability to affect outcomes that come from choices. But Augustine’s definition seems plausible if one considers freedom in the context of a prison. In a prison, a person can desire anything, but the confines of the prison restrict him from actually achieving desires that require him to leave the prison. Because his desires do not actually lead to their intended outcome, it is reasonable to say that the prisoner is not free.

If the prison scenario aptly illustrates Augustinian freedom, then it makes sense why power entails freedom – both power and freedom presuppose the ability to affect an outcome that stems from a corresponding desire. Subsequently, Augustine argues that this causal relationship is unaffected by God’s foreknowledge. Even if this event happened by necessity, somebody’s present decision could still affect some future event. For instance, a man’s decision to go to the supermarket will result in the future event “Man goes to the supermarket.” So long as the causal link between the event and the person performing the action exists (assuming that the action proceeds from the man’s desire), the man maintains his freedom.

The question still remains as to why we have power over our will. By positing a thought experiment, Augustine argued that the will (e.g. will to sin) must fall under man’s power. Recall the above definition of power where a man does not have the power to do X if X occurs despite the man’s lack of will to do it. Accordingly, Augustine reasoned, if we imagine that the man’s will to sin is not in his power, the following statement can be constructed:

(10) The man wills to sin despite the man’s lack of will to sin.[vii]

Obviously, this is absurd because these desires are contradictory. Therefore, saying that the man does not have the power to will to sin implies a contradiction.

Even if we accept Augustine’s definition of freedom, it seems that Augustine made a subtle logical error in his argumentation. If Augustine truly follows the criteria for power given in (8) and (9), then it is clear that he misappropriated what X actually referred to when he tried to establish (10). To illustrate, we need to divide (10) into two parts:

(11) Man wills to sin.

(12) Man does not will to sin.

If (11) were to properly parallel the first half of (9) (i.e. X occurs), then it means that (11) defines X as “wills to sin.” But if (12) were to properly parallel the second half of (9) (i.e. even though the man does not will to do X), then it means that (12) defines X as “to sin.” Hence, (11) and (12) presuppose two different definitions of X. And it is clear that the definition of X implicit in (11) is more in line with Augustine’s original intention for the term when he described his dilemma. The dilemma starts by considering that “the man’s willing to sin is not in his power.”viii If Augustine intended for X to be “to sin,” then the dilemma would start by considering that “the man’s sinning is not in his power.”

If the definition of X implicit in (12) is not the intended meaning of X, then we have to change Augustine’s argument so that X’s referent is consistent. If we define X as “wills to sin,” then we can construct the “dilemma” as the following:

(13) If the man’s will to sin (X) is not in his power, the man wills to sin (X occurs) even though he does not will to will to sin (to do X).ix

This new construction is not inherently absurd. To “will to sin” is a first order desire while to “will to will to sin” is a second order desire – he wishes that he does not want to sin. But second order desires can conflict with first order desires. For example, a drug addict may express a second order regret for desiring drugs (he wishes he did not want drugs), even though his first order desire for drugs (he wants drugs) ends up motivating him to take the drugs. Augustine mistakenly inferred that “the man’s will to sin is not in his power” results in a conflict between two first order desires, whereas it actually is a conflict between different ordered desires. Therefore, Augustine does not establish that we necessarily have power over our will.

Luckily, there is a better solution for Augustine that modifies premise (1) instead of denying premise (5). Augustine in his Confessions describes God as a timeless being who created the temporal world through an act of “speaking.”[x] This act of speaking, however, has a divine twist. Human speech is successive – one word follows another in a temporal sequence (e.g. “Joe eats sandwiches” is a sequential set of Joe, eats, and sandwiches). But Augustine believed that God’s “speech” (i.e. creative act) is non-successive. This reveals two insights about God’s creative act. First, because God’s speech is non-successive, it must be a single act. There is no point where one word “follows” another. Because there is no sequence, there is no point where God’s speech changes or comes out of existence to “make way” for different words. Therefore, if God’s creative act is a single act that encompasses all of creation past, present, and future, it must be non-sequential, changeless, and eternal.[xi] Second, because God created everything, including time itself, it means that God’s “speech” is atemporal, coming from a source outside of time. In other words, not only does his creative act encompass all of time, it also transcends time itself.

Assuming that God is the source of creation, we can infer a further insight about God’s nature. God, like his speech, is both omnitemporal and atemporal – his omnitemporality extends from God’s existing eternally in the past, present, and future, but his atemporality extends from God’s being the source of creation, which requires that he exist independently from time itself. Of course, it appears as if God’s speech is temporal, since our understanding of speech is influenced by our temporal perspective. But it does not mean that God’s speech is actually temporal. This insight can be applied to God’s other actions. If God acts from an atemporal perspective, then many of the terms that people use to describe God’s actions are temporal analogies of what really are atemporal actions.

Just as our act of speaking is related, but not identical, to God’s act of speaking, our understanding of foreknowledge is related, but not identical, to God’s foreknowledge. God’s “foreknowledge” is analogous to our common understanding of foreknowledge because God has knowledge of all future events. It is substantively different, however, because his foreknowledge is both omnitemporal and atemporal. This understanding of foreknowledge is admittedly difficult to comprehend, since the term foreknowledge itself implies temporality. But a move from human foreknowledge to divine foreknowledge is analogous to a shift from a 2D plane to a 3D plane. The 2D plane is limited as a description of the 3D plane because it lacks a third dimension. Similarly, human foreknowledge is limited as a description of divine foreknowledge because humans are constrained by time in a way that God is not. When a human, at time t1, foresees a future event at time t2, he only exists at t1, and does not yet exist at t2. But God, being omnitemporal, exists at t1 and t2 simultaneously. So clearly God’s foreknowledge cannot work in the same way as human foreknowledge, since God’s knowledge of every event is simultaneous with his existence at every temporal moment. Hence, because God is both omnitemporal and atemporal, God cannot exhibit a successive knowledge of events in time.

Thus, premise (1) should be modified to include the notion of atemporality. If God is both omniscient and atemporal, then it is not necessarily true that God has “foreknowledge” of future events, if we define foreknowledge in the temporal sense of the term. Rather, it is more apt to say that God knows what the man is doing as he is doing it. His knowledge tracks events in a perspective that transcends time. Accordingly, God’s atemporal knowledge is fully compatible with the existence of free will. The original problem assumed that God’s foreknowledge is a single event that later determines a future event. Consider again the first two premises of the problem:

(1) If God is omniscient, God foreknows all events.

(2) Hence, if a man is going to sin, God foreknows that he will sin.

But God does not know events at a single moment in advance, because to God, there is no “advance.” God exists at every point in time simultaneously. Thus, to say that God knows an event in advance means that there is some event in the future that is temporally independent from God, which contradicts God’s temporal transcendence. Consider then, the following reconstruction of (1) and (2) that takes into account the impossibility of temporal foreknowledge: (1*) If God is omniscient, God knows all events instantaneously.

(2*) Hence, if a man is going to sin, God apprehends the act as the man is sinning.

God’s “foreknowledge” is a single act that apprehends all events instantaneously from a perspective that is atemporal. And there is no doubt that this knowledge, radically different from a temporal understanding of knowledge, is difficult to fully comprehend. But this knowledge, unrestrained by temporal boundaries, denies the assumption that underlies the problem of free will – that a future event can be determined by the prior knowledge of such event. Once Augustine removes this assumption, he can gracefully sidestep the problem by further denying that a prima facie problem even exists.

One could argue that a single, eternal act is also deterministic in an “ultimate” sense. If we combine God’s atemporal foreknowledge with his atemporal “speech,” then it follows that God plans timelessly for events that appear successively for us in time. This would mean that God planned, from an atemporal perspective, that all temporally successive events be actualized. Insofar as our will allows us to pursue actions freely in the temporal sense, we would lack ultimate freedom because the existence of a divine plan seems to entail determinism.

It is plausible, however, to consider this argument problematic for two reasons. First, people generally do not equate free will with the ability to do anything they want. Just as the inevitability of death constrains a woman’s freedom to be immortal but does not compromise her freedom to perform actions while alive, God’s divine plan constrains but does not eliminate humanity’s free will. It is more accurate to say that human free will exists, but only within the boundaries of God’s divine plan. But more importantly, the objection misunderstands the qualitative difference between atemporal determinism and temporal determinism. Temporal determinism is problematic because it entails that a past event commits us to future actions, but it is unclear if atemporal determinism has this same problem. After all, if God “tracks” our events as they occur, then God’s “tracking” is eternally present, and thus cannot be said to affect future actions in any relevant sense. Rather, God’s tracking eliminates the distinction between past, present, and future, which at the very least means that the traditional problems of determinism do not apply.

In practice, it is almost impossible to fully conceptualize the notion of atemporality, let alone apply that property to God and understand its implications. After all, humans are intrinsically temporal creatures and lack any sort of experiential knowledge of atemporality. Nevertheless, the inability to fully comprehend atemporality does not preclude it from being an elegant solution to the problem of free will. Rather than trying to conceive atemporality for what it is, one should try to understand atemporality for what it is not. If the problem of free will presupposes a temporal understanding of foreknowledge, and God transcends temporality, then God cannot exhibit this type of foreknowledge. But if God cannot exhibit this foreknowledge, then a prima facie conflict between foreknowledge and free will does not exist, even though human comprehension fails to grasp God’s knowledge completely. What humans can understand, however, is a God who not only coexists with free will, but who also considers free will a necessary component in the process of salvation.


i. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 1849.
ii. Soteriological: related to theology dealing with salvation
iii. William L. Rowe, “Augustine on Foreknowledge and Free Will,” The Review of Metaphysics 18, no. 2 (Dec., 1964): 356.
iv. Rowe, 357.
v. Rowe, 357.
vi. Rowe, 358.
vii. Rowe, 359.
viii. Rowe, 359.
ix. Rowe, 360. Note: made slight modifications
x. Saint Augustine, The Confessions (401), Project Gutenberg, trans. E. B. Pusey, May 16, 2013, h/3296-h.htm#link2H_4_0011 (accessed December 3, 2015) bk. 11, para. 8-10.
xi. Augustine, bk. 11, para. 9.


Joshua Tseng-Tham ’17 is from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a double major in Economics and Philosophy.

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