Omniscience is the doctrine that God is all-knowing. That nothing happens in his creation that he is not aware of. Omniscience could apply only to the current time as well as to the past. But the Christian doctrine of the omniscience of God also includes the future. And that that future was know before God kicked off the universe and the laws that shape it. An implication of this is that God is responsible for all that happens in the universe because he knew ahead of time what the results would be based on the initial starting conditions. And that he could have changed the future simply by choosing a different set of starting conditions.
Free will is another teaching that is common among Christians, some other religions, as well as some atheists. At its simplest form it says that the universe is not deterministic; that people have the ability to make real choices and that the future for me is not fixed. I can, within limits, change the future based on my choices. Other people and circumstances outside of my control can also change my future. In contrast to this is determinism, that our futures are fixed (or predetermined for us), that the apparent choices I make are based entirely upon factors beyond my control such as genetics and environment. Determinism goes so far as to say that if the universe rewound and started all over again, it would end up just exactly like it is now. There is no way to really know for sure if we have free will or not, but at the very least, it does appear that we do.
At first (and second and third) glance, this would seem to be a paradox. How can God know the future if it is not deterministic or fixed? Would not the ability to know the future imply that the future is fixed and unchangeable? I will be the first to admit that for me to know the future with certainty, it would have to be. But is this the case for God? This is a question that believers have wrestled with for a long time and atheists have now joined us in the discussion. This conflict is seen as an argument against the possibility of God as defined by the Bible and believed in by Christians. While I am under no illusion of being able to provide a perfect solution to this riddle, I would like to present a potential answer to the mystery. This argument, if successful, does not prove the existence of God. All that it can do is to remove an argument against the possibility of an omniscient God who grants free will to his creation.
The Time Traveler
Let me start with a much briefer discussion of time than that provided by Stephen Hawking in his book, ‘A Brief History of Time’. Time is a part of this universe and is believed to have started with it. There may be some kind of time dimension(s) outside of this universe but they are unknowable to us. Time is a very linear dimension that progresses along in a single direction at a generally uniform pace. I realize that light speed travel and math tests (among other things) can potentially affect the speed of time. But they do not affect this discussion. I am constrained by this dimension and can only see the specific moment that I am in. I can read about the past and I can project into the future with varying levels of clarity. But all I can really know is now.
But what if time travel were possible? What if I could move to another point in the future and observe events there without any interaction that would affect that time. That point in time, from my position, would no longer be in the future but would be now. Rather than looking into the future I would be in the future and seeing things as they were then. The question arises then; does that glimpse of the future cause the future to become fixed. I would argue that it does not. What I saw was the result of the choices and events that were made between now and that future point. If those choices had been different I would have seen a different future. I am not seeing that ‘future’ time from the perspective of my normal time. Instead I am seeing it as a part of the time that I am observing. I am not looking ahead; I am looking at my current ‘now’. If my watching someone make choices today does not force them into those choices, why would it if I watched them in a future time.
The Transcendence of God
So how does this address the paradox of omniscience and free will? Another of the doctrines of most theistic religions is the transcendence of God. This says that God is distinct from the universe and is not bound by it. In other words God is outside of time and space. The implication of this is that God’s knowledge of the future is not based on his being able to look into a crystal ball and see a fixed future. Instead he is actually in the future as well as in the present and past. God is able to see my future because it is his now. You might think of God as an endless string of time travelers who are in instant communication with each other and his knowledge of our future is based on his being able to see the results of the choices as we make them rather than looking ahead to the choices we will make.
For one who is limited by time, like myself, to be omniscient with regards to the future, it is indeed necessary that we live in a deterministic universe. If the universe is deterministic, and I had a big enough computer, and understood the workings of the universe well enough, I would indeed be able to forecast the future. And in that case there is no place for free will. But for the observer who is not constrained by time, and able to be at any desired time, or all time at once, there is no requirement for determinism and free will is not a problem.
Observer or Meddler
But assume that our transient observer is not simply an observer, but one who actually meddles in the workings of the universe and of humanity. Now we have one who is at least helping to shape the coming future, if not making it unfold entirely according to a specific plan. And furthermore, assume that this one is also omnipotent, able to do anything that he desired at any point in time. Note that we are actually talking about the Christian concept of a transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent God now. Would not this eliminate the possibility of free will? What chance would we have of doing something that was contrary to his plan or purpose?
The only difference we have between this scenario, with the addition of omnipotence, and the previous one, is the ability to set the future. But having that ability is not the same as actually using it. There is nothing that would prevent an omniscient omnipotent God from granting a certain amount of autonomy to his creation, allowing humanity to make choices that are indeed free of his interference.
God and Time
So the answer to the question here really comes down to the relationship of God with the time of this universe. If he is bound by it, then omniscience and human free will are not compatible. But if God transcends time, is not bound by it, then there is no reason he could not see the future unfolding long before we do; and see it without compromising our free will.