On Open Theism, Part Two: Theological Fatalism

According to advocates for open theism, the strongest appeal to this worldview is based upon acceptance of the arguments for theological fatalism or the incompatibility of divine foreknowledge and libertarian free will. The most prominent appearance of this problem was presented by Nelson Pike. According to Pike, theological fatalism follows from a 9 premise argument and a conclusion (1):

  1. God existing at a time before Saturday means that if Jones mows his lawn on Saturday, God believed prior to Saturday that Jones would mow his lawn.
  2. God believing Jones will mow his lawn entails that Jones will mow his lawn.
  3. No one can make something logically contradictory true.
  4. No one can erase someone’s past beliefs.
  5. No one can erase someone’s past existence.
  6. So if God believed that Jones will mow his lawn on Saturday Jones could only do otherwise if:
    1. Jones could bring it about God held a false belief prior to Saturday.
    2. Jones could bring it about God did not hold the belief He did prior to Saturday.
    3. Jones could bring it about God did not exist in the past.
  7. Alternative 1 in the consequent of item 6 is false (from 2 and 3).
  8. Alternative 2 in the consequent of item 6 is false (from 4).
  9. Alternative 3 in the consequent of item 6 is false (from 5).
  10. Therefore, if God existed prior to Saturday and if God believed that Jones would mow his lawn on Saturday, then Jones cannot refrain from mowing his lawn on Saturday (2).

By extension, this argument demonstrates that no person’s actions are genuinely free because God has perfect foreknowledge of all actions. Many open theists have concluded this argument and its variants have proven there is unavoidable incompatibility between God possessing comprehensive foreknowledge and libertarian freedom, so in an attempt to safeguard libertarian free will, open theists sacrifice God’s knowledge of future contingents.

The typical molinist response to this question of theological fatalism has been to demonstrate that possible worlds differentiated by free human choices undermine the idea that everything necessarily happens due to God’s foreknowledge of it (3). As seen my previous post, the molinist contends God possesses perfect knowledge of the future as well as all possibilities logically prior to His knowledge of the actual world. Prior to Saturday, God knows the possible world in which Jones mows his lawn on Saturday and the possible world in which Jones does not mow his lawn on Saturday, so it seems a possible way to escape Pike’s argument is to submit a fourth alternative to the three he lists in premise 6): 4) it was within Jones’s power on Saturday to act in a different way than mowing his lawn, and if he were to act in that way on Saturday, God would have believed differently prior to Saturday (4).

Therefore, one can agree with Pike that Jones cannot make God’s belief false, erase God’s past belief, or erase God’s past existence, but Jones has the ability to act differently from what he will do on Saturday. For example, Jones could go hiking, grill a steak, or take his wife on a date instead of mowing the lawn; however, since God foreknew Jones will mow the lawn, all which follows is that Jones will mow the lawn. God’s foreknowledge does not mean Jones must mow the lawn or that Jones lacked the power to go hiking. He can go hiking, but he will not. If Jones had gone hiking, then God would have foreknown that action instead. If Jones could do differently, then while God’s foreknowledge of Jones’s doing X is chronologically prior to Jones’s performing X, Jones’s freely choosing X is logically prior to God’s foreknowledge. The content of God’s foreknowledge is determined by the free choice of Jones.

As seen the previous blog with the distinct logical moments of God’s types of knowledge according to molinism, chronological moments do not have to match logical moments; in fact, there is no good reason to think these distinct moments must both be prior to Jones doing X. As seen in the introductory post, premises in a deductive argument demonstrate how moments can logically precede a conclusion while having a different chronological order, so there is no reason to think the same cannot be true in regards to God’s foreknowledge and human freedom.

Part of the flaw in fatalist reasoning is the slight shift from the certainty of a proposition to the necessity of the proposition. Certainty is a property of persons and has nothing to do with truth. A person can be certain about a proposition yet the proposition turn out to be false. Necessity is a property of propositions which indicates that a proposition cannot possibly have a different truth value (5). Since fatalists contend God possesses infallible foreknowledge, they believe He knows every future event with absolute certainty, but the problem arises when they add that because God possesses certainty about a proposition, the proposition has the property of necessity. It seems intuitively conceivable that a true future contingent could be otherwise (i.e. become a false future contingent). To use Pike’s example, if Jones will mow his lawn, then the proposition, “Jones will mow his lawn,” is a true future contingent. If Jones does not mow his lawn, then that same proposition is a false future contingent. There exists nothing inherent in this statement which makes it necessary, and applying the certainty of God’s knowledge to it does not make it necessary. In this way, Pike’s fatalist argument errs because it conflates an epistemological aspect of God’s knowledge (certainty) with a statement about the ontology of a proposition (necessity). This flaw seems intuitive, because it is not obvious how God’s mere foreknowledge of an event causes its necessity or how foreknowledge as any causal power at all.

Therefore, it does not appear that theological fatalism poses a significant challenge to believing in both God’s comprehensive foreknowledge and libertarian free will. One can affirm both without having to encounter a logical incoherency; however, many open theists have not been willing to let go of the arguments for the incompatibility of comprehensive foreknowledge and libertarian free will and have presented arguments of their own. I will begin to engage with these arguments next post.

“I declare the end from the beginning, and from long ago what is not yet done, saying: My plan will take place and I will do all My will” (Isaiah 46:10).


1: This argument is modified from its original source for the sake of simplicity.

2: Nelson Pike, “Divine Omniscience and Voluntary Action,” Philosophical Review, vol. 74 (1965), 33-34.

3: William Lane Craig, The Problem of Divine Foreknowledge and Future Contingents from Aristotle to Suarez , 188.

4: William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God, 70.

5: J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 519.

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