Time Travel, Arminianism and Libertarian Free Will

Just a few minutes ago I hung up the phone, having had a rousing theological discussion with my best friend and discipler. He called to ask me my thoughts on Open Theism, as he’s currently researching for a paper he has to write on the topic, and at one point I made the provocative statement that, although I find Open Theism absurd on multiple levels, I think it is more consistent than Arminianism. By the time the call was over, I had add a new an interesting time travel analogy on my hands, which further convinces me of Calvinism, and which I thought I’d share with you.

When my friend asked me why I felt Open Theism is more consistent than Arminianism, I explained that my understanding is that proponents of both systems have a desire to maintain man’s libertarian free will, whereas we Calvinists hold to compatibilistic free will (we can argue another time over whether or not compatibilistic free will is free at all; that’s not the point of this post). But only Open Theism denies what must be denied in order to truly hold to libertarian free will: God’s infallible foreknowledge of the future.

I told him that libertarianists insist that when one has chosen to do x, one could have chosen to do y. As this article puts it, “Responsibility, in this view, always means that one could have done otherwise.” Yet, if God infallibly knew from eternity past that one would choose x, then one most certainly could not have chosen y, for had that been possible, God would not have infallibly known what choice would be made.

My friend loves playing the proverbial devil’s advocate, and so he tried to play the role of the Arminian. He asked how God’s foreknowledge of the future challenges libertarian free will, and he offered the following analogy. Imagine you have a video recording of a person making a choice in the past. Having that recording doesn’t change the fact that at the time the choice was made, that person could have chosen differently. Now, imagine that the video recording was sent back in time, prior to the choice being made. Why, he asked, would the mere existence of the recording, at a time prior to the choice being made, mean it was (will be) impossible to choose contrarily? Especially if that recoring’s existence after the choice was made did not do so?

It immediately struck me that this is, in fact, a great analogy for demonstrating the inconsistency of Arminianism. The answer, of course, is quite simple, particularly for us science fiction fans (ridiculous theories of multiple universes and timelines notwithstanding): Were the person in the recording to choose differently, the video recording would already have recorded it. So the mere fact that it records a choice being made in the future renders it impossible to choose otherwise.

Now, when I’ve heard Arminians challenged with this dilemma, the dilemma of God infallibly knowing the future, they’ve typically said something like, God sees the end from the beginning, or looks down the corridors of time, or sees the whole book in front of him at once. Or whatever. And we Calvinists could object to these kinds of explanations on other grounds. In each of them, however, God’s infallible knowledge of future events is not unlike a video recording of a choice being made, but which exists in the past, prior to the choice being made. At any given point in time when a choice is made, the video recording of its being made–God’s infallible foreknowledge–already exists; existed, in fact, long beforehand. And were a different choice made, the video–God’s infallible foreknowledge–would have already recorded it. So the mere fact that it records a choice being made in the future renders it impossible to choose otherwise.

Thus, as absurd as I find Open Theism, at least its proponents can be consistent and hold to libertarian free will. It doesn’t seem to me that Arminians can do the same.

21 thoughts on “Time Travel, Arminianism and Libertarian Free Will

  1. I’ve done quite a bit of debate on this topic, on the Calvinist side. There is, I believe, a good argument to be made on this point, but this is not that argument.

    The problem is that without a concept of the eternal decree, God’s knowledge of the future is posterior to our choices. Picture having a sent-back-in-time copy of that videotape on the day before the choice was made; then wait a day and watch it again. By the Arminian view of time, on the first day you’ll watch the video and plan your day accordingly; but after the actual choice is made, your actions over the previous day will retroactively change; you will have no more memory of seeing the never-happened choice. (By the open theist view of time, you’ll never be able to see the video the first time; they don’t believe that discovering the future is possible.)

    What this means, though, is that first, your argument doesn’t work; but more importantly, it means that God has no way of knowing what He’s about to create until after He’s created it, and no way of controlling it other than direct intervention. Pure Arminianism — without Molinism added on — reduces to open theism prior to the creation moment.


  2. I definitely agree that in Arminianism, God’s knowledge of the future is posterior to our choices, and that that’s a problem. I’m not sure I follow the rest of that paragraph, though. Are you saying that the logical consequence of trying to affirm both libertarian free will and God’s foreknowledge of future events (as Arminians attempt to do) is that, in the analogy, the events recorded on the sent-back-in-time tape could change if a different choice is made at the time of recording? And because what was previously on the tape never happened, God may have once foreknown what was going to happen, but when the different choice was made, God “forgot” the events that were going to happen because, in essence, the tape was changed?

  3. I’m a bit new to theology, and I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this one. This might have been an easy grasp for those ‘in the know’, but I’m failing to get the big picture. I’ve read through this several times, but it’s still a no-go for me. Perhaps you can simplify or unpack it a bit more?

    How exactly does it mean, from the arminian standpoint, that there was never truly a freewill choice (as arminians see freewill)? I guess I’m not really seeing the connection on how God can see in the future what my choice was going to be, and thus that means it wasn’t truly a freewill choice.

    Maybe this has more to do with how I’m imagining time works? It just seems that the arminian view point is that God sees in the future what will happen (foreknowledge?). And that there were all kinds of choices one could make every second of every day, and God just knows how it’s going to go. But how does that mean it truly wasn’t a choice?

  4. Hi Noah,

    I’m not saying it’s not a choice; the question is whether or not it’s a libertarian free choice, which means, as explained in this article, “that one could have done otherwise.” Now, consider the time-traveling tape analogy I gave. If the video tape which recorded the choice being made is now present in time before the choice has been made, is it possible for a different choice to be made? Can the person presented with that choice do other than that which is recorded on the tape?

  5. Chris, thanks for the careful reading and question.

    My point is that God’s knowledge is not in any way causal of my actions; rather, my actions cause God’s knowledge (this is a valid point even for us Calvinists). Keep in mind that God’s knowledge is NOT chronological in the sense that our knowledge is, so it’s not an obvious physical impossibility for Him to know what we do before we do it.

    Thus, yes; the videotape actually changes once the decision is made, because what appears on the tape depends on what happened in front of the camera, which depends on my allegedly libertarian free choices. That, however, doesn’t actually mean that God passively forgets or actively rewrites history once the choice happens (although it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that someone’s suggested that), because God, unlike that video tape, is not by nature chronological; rather, it means that God simply never knew what wasn’t going to happen. The philosopher would say that God’s knowledge is infallibly grounded in reality (remember Koukl teaching us about the “correspondence theory of truth” — God’s knowledge is true because it corresponds with reality); but reality is not grounded in God’s knowledge.

    But a reality must exist in order for God’s knowledge to be grounded in it; and there is no reality outside of God prior to God’s creation (unless you accept Molinism’s claim that by Christ “[most] things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, [but NOT the things we call the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom]”. (Obviously, they’ve found a different text for Colossians than the one I have, but I digress.) Therefore I made the philosophical claim that in pure Arminianism as held by people who have actually rejected Molinism, God cannot know the consequences of human action until He’s actually created the world.

    Now, philosophically the Arminian belief leads to some apparent absurdities (not saying they’re actual, only apparent). But because the needed philosophical arguments are complex and it’s very likely that I’ve made a mistake along some step of the process (including the philosophical conclusion I mentioned in my previous post), my personally preferred response to this is not philosophical, but primarily scriptural. The Bible makes it clear that God wills and intends many seemingly irrelevant and even humanly evil things, as for example Jacob’s brothers selling him into slavery, the fall of a sparrow, and the loss of a hair from our head. It’s one thing to argue that God “works all things together” means that He actively redesigns so that the consequences will eventually be good; it’s another thing entirely when God tells us He not only made good out of bad, but actually INTENDED good at the same time and in the same way as you intended bad. To will something is not merely to accept and incorporate it in your designs, but actually to purpose beforehand that it happen as a necessary element in your design — as I might will that you capture my knight as part of a sequence of moves leading to your checkmate.

    I mean, as I might IF I were any good at chess.


  6. Of course I agree with you; my preferred argument against Arminianism is not philosophical, but biblical. I would never use this video tape analogy to argue against Arminianism, or even libertarianism more generally. I just think it does seem impossible to be consistently Arminian and libertarian at the same time. I will admit that I’m still struggling to follow what you’re saying, however; but perhaps that’s because it seems so ridiculously absurd. Is that ultimately your point? That in a consistent, libertarian Arminianism, God’s foreknowledge is reduced to the absurdity of a preexistent video recording of a future choice, constantly changing until the point that choice is actually made?

  7. Well, no; I was using the video example because it was in your friend’s example, and your objection was based on the example.

    I was explaining how the video would have to behave in order to be consistent with the Arminian view; my purpose was not to say “that’s absurd”, but rather to point out that your objection could be worked around. Whether the workaround is more or less absurd for God than it is for a videotape is a different question.

    My conclusion: Arminians are ready for your argument. Their answer may not be satisfying, but it’s there. When I’m deploying this particular philosophical argument, I use a variation that I discussed above — using the correspondence theory of truth to show that God’s foreknowledge of libertarian events cannot logically extend prior to the creation of time itself, because there is no factual state of affairs to which the knowledge corresponds.

    It gets more complicated if you allow Theory-A time, but that’s something that only Molinists, Calvinists, and Open Theists can afford to do; God’s foreknowledge “breaks” immediately if future events have neither real existence (Theory-B), single-choice freedom (Molinism), nor first-cause ordination (Calvinism). But looking at theories of time is brainbreaking and philosophically not proven, anyhow.


  8. I think the Shroedinger paradox applies here. Before an action is taken, all possible future states are smeared together and only God knows the probability distribution (he sees the end from the beginning). In a sense, God both knows and does not know the future. By constraining the environment in which the action is taken, which I think all views would grant is something God can do, God is able to narrow the range of possibilities and associated probabilities, to get the desired outcomes. God’s direct intervention in our world determines the outcome. There is still a chance that man could make a decision contrary to God’s desires, but that probability is negligible. So, man does not have complete free choice, neither does God directly determine what a man will do.
    Having a recording of what happened is irrelevant since that has nothing to do with the actual choice made.

  9. Tim, that’s some creative thinking, but you’re presuming that man’s choices are determined entirely by their environment. That’s hard determinism, and is incompatible with Arminianism. There are some other details in there that make me say that your model doesn’t work well with Calvinism, either, since it seems to indicate that God uses force mediated from the external environment to force our decisions without actually changing us.

    OTOH, it’s vaguely close to Molinism, in which the choices you make are entirely a function of the environment you find yourself in.


  10. We are probably not on the same page regarding what environment means. I am suggesting that God’s intervention is part of our environment. Also, because there is a probability distribution over the possible actions and outcomes of a given choice, this is, by definition, not deterministic. God’s renewing of our minds is part of his activity, does change us and is not forced.

    I think my response above addresses your suggestion that my model is not entirely a function of our environment.


  11. Tim, I’m not sure how any of that helps. If the divinely narrowed macroscopic probability distribution includes events that cause two very different actions, it might be a libertarian choice (or a random choice); but then God has no control over which of the actions occur. If the divinely narrowed probability distribution includes only very similar actions, God has control, but the person doesn’t have libertarian choice.

    And making the contrary choice very improbable doesn’t really help; none of the philosophical debates depend on probabilities.

    However, there is a well-fleshed-out model of libertarian free will which does incorporate quantum theory; as someone who’s studied quantum theory (in my chemical engineering classes) I’d say that it’s mildly plausible.


    The problem with all this stuff is that our debate is theological, not physical. God can use even truly random things; “the lot is cast into the lap, but every decision is from the LORD.” If the Calvinist reading of that is true, it really doesn’t matter whether man’s freedom is rooted in a completely deterministic physcial brain, a compatibilist soul, a semicompatibilist quantum emergent mind, or a libertarian spirit. (Or any transposition of those.)


  12. Interesting, but my point is that some future states are unknowable (neither true not false). Those that are knowable, God knows; those that are not knowable, he does not know.

    I’m intrigued by your statement “… the problem with all this stuff is that our debate is theological, not physical …” In other words, the debate is only of some curiosity and has no practical implication 😉

  13. Interesting, but my point is that some future states are unknowable (neither true not false). Those that are knowable, God knows; those that are not knowable, he does not know.

    First, that’s not your point, because it’s entirely contradicted by everything else you’ve said. You actually specified that God knows and can manipulate the probability distribution, which means that God knows the wavefunction, which is all there is to know about the physics. There is nothing else to be “neither true nor false” about physics, according to quantum theory.

    Second, IF your claim were true in totality, then it’s also true of present and past states — if there are future states that even God cannot know, then either there are also present and past states God cannot know OR God’s knowledge is not apart from time. I’m not saying that’s absurd — but I am saying it makes everything else you’ve been saying absurd unless you’re willing to just come out and say that you’re an open theist.

    I’m intrigued by your statement “… the problem with all this stuff is that our debate is theological, not physical …” In other words, the debate is only of some curiosity and has no practical implication 😉

    I’m disappointed that the word “theological” implies “of no practical implication” to you. It doesn’t mean that to me, as a brief glance at the rest of my paragraph will reveal — in which I point out that the seemingly chaotic physics of dice-throwing have no impact on the certainty of God’s plan. If anything, I’m pointing out that physics has no practical implication to the questions of theology. (Well, not exactly that; but close enough.)


  14. Wm, I’m not dogmatically asserting any position. I am not a theologian, so I could be wrong. I am just trying to discuss some alternate theories regarding what you have posted. I lean towards to Open Theism view, but I am willing to change my mind (again, not a theologian).

    Let’s assume that I am an Open Theist or Arminian. How would I be a more faithful follower Jesus by changing my view? How would I be more consistent in following the commands of Jesus if I changed my view? It seems like that is the most important thing to keep in mind when we are considering our theology.


  15. Wm, I’m not dogmatically asserting any position. I am not a theologian, so I could be wrong.

    Grin… Ditto. I didn’t accuse you of that, although I do assume that you think what you’re saying is true, or you wouldn’t say it.

    I am just trying to discuss some alternate theories regarding what you have posted. I lean towards to Open Theism view, but I am willing to change my mind (again, not a theologian).

    When William Lane Craig uses the phrase “I’m not a theologian”, he’s distinguishing between philosophers and Biblical theologians; when you use the phrase I think you’re distinguishing between paid professionals and amateurs (such as myself). Am I right? I have no problem with your nomenclature, I just don’t know what it adds to the discussion at this point.

    I’d be more than happy to debate Open Theism if you’d like to; but in the meantime I’m glad to hear that your logic is coherent 🙂 and my guess about your theology is correct (since my previous guesses were wrong). With that said, it must be pointed out that many of the premises you have stated are purely speculative. It might be that there are truly unknowable things; but then, it might not be true. It might be that God provides some control over the future by directly manipulating quantum wave functions; but it might not be so. We have no basis to believe any of those things in the Bible, in common sense, or in physics.

    Let’s assume that I am an Open Theist or Arminian. How would I be a more faithful follower Jesus by changing my view?

    Let’s stick to one at a time — I can’t discuss two contradictory hypotheses. Let’s stick with the one toward which you just said you’re leaning: open theism.

    You can be a more faithful follower of Christ if you do the work of God. What is the work of God? “To believe in the one he has sent.” If you believe that Christ’s completed work is sufficient to save you, then Christ’s work has saved you, and is saving you, and will save you. If you do not believe that Christ’s work then is sufficient to save you, then God’s past work of salvation (faith) is missing in you, and His future work of salvation (hope of resurrection) is also missing.

    Can you believe in the sufficiency of the work of Christ while being an open theist? I think it’s possible — you’d merely have to believe that although there are many things God doesn’t know, you are assured that he DOES know and guarantee your own salvation. Even a hypercalvinist can possibly believe THAT, although it’s hard for them; I would expect it to be easier for an open theist than for a hypercalvinist.

    How would I be more consistent in following the commands of Jesus if I changed my view? It seems like that is the most important thing to keep in mind when we are considering our theology.

    Did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now perfected by flesh? When you strive to follow the commands of Christ by effort, you place yourself under the law, and because you do not do it perfectly, you place yourself under the curse of the Law.

    But if you believe that God has saved and will complete your salvation, then you are free to love and serve your neighbor and God from love rather than from fear. If you actually believe that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was what saved you, then you will be grateful and your gratitude will overflow into action.

    That action might not be to perform miracles in Jesus’ name; it might just be to bring your own son or daughter a cup of cold water. But there are many who performed miracles in Jesus’ name to whom He will say “depart from me, I never knew you.”


  16. By the way, if you guys both feel up to debating Open Theism, I’d love to offer my show as a venue 🙂

  17. Chris,

    I appeciate the offer, but I fear I would come across as disrespectful. You’ve got an interesting show and I would not want to disrupt that!


    It may take a couple days to respond.

  18. Chris, I’m afraid I could measure up to the debates you’ve hosted… I’m far happier when I have time to research before responding. I’m also not an expert on open theism, as will become apparent as we go back and forth.

    It would be interesting to hear something about open theism on your show, though. And of course I’m looking forward to Tim’s reply, and no rush; waiting for replies is what RSS feeds are for!


  19. Look at that… I meant to say that I could NOT measure up to your other hosted debates. Didn’t mean to omit that “not”.



  20. I’ve been thinking something through for a number of years that I’d be interested in your feedback on. I think maybe the best way to understand how God knows the future is to understand how modern computers work, then realize how much more complex our brains are in comparison, then finally try to realize the infinite complexity of God’s abilities. Or at least admit we can’t understand it. But here goes anyway.

    At the basics of computer functions and language is something called the “IF/THEN Loop”. Bear with me here. The processor scans the keyboard (and various other inputs like the mouse, etc.) and once it sees that a key has been pressed, the program reacts to it’s written instructions. For example, “IF the key for M is pressed, THEN place an M on the screen”. The processor scans all of the potential key inputs individually, one at a time, then starts over and scans them all again in the same order. It does this over and over awaiting an input, thus creating the “Loop” part of the process, and why processor speed is so critical. Basically, the computer’s software is constantly anticipating any potential key input and has a plan for any of them. Any or all of the keys can be pressed at any time, and the software executes the plan for each potential key press. It also has a plan for when nothing is pressed. You can imagine how complex written code needs top be to anticipate how to react to all potential inputs or combinations of inputs, which is why the “debugging” process is so important and time consuming.

    Our brains do the IF/THEN Loop all day everyday to an amazing level of complexity. We anticipate multiple outcomes in a fraction of a second, and have the ability to have a plan for each possible scenario. God’s “written code” for us is indescribably more complex than any computer. In a sense, we can “know” that one of many possible outcomes WILL happen, and have a plan for each one.

    Now apply that to God’s “IF/THEN” abilities (which is infinite and impossible to understand). God knows the future in that He knows every potential outcome for any situation/choice, and has a plan for each possibility. Even in the most minute detail, and the most minute variance. A far more complex version of the Butterfly Effect than we could ever wrap our heads around. He knows and understands EVERY future that could ever possibly be, no matter what choices we make or directions we go. That IS all knowing. It’s interesting that the word “plans” is plural in Jeremiah 29:11.

    How this might relate to Calvinism is this: God predestines everyone, every human being to ever exist, to be his child. Everyone is his elect. Now, based on our choices, he puts His plan in place that corresponds with our choices to accept Christ or not. To an amazing degree of complexity and variance throughout history. He also knows the final outcome, because he can extrapolate where all roads lead. How it gets there may vary somewhat as far as who the players are, when it happens, etc., which may be why he uses symbolism with prophecy instead of direct information.

    I’d be very interested in your feedback on this.

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