Christians and other people of faith often struggle to reconcile divine sovereignty with human free will. This predicament has been a key focus for me ever since I started writing about philosophical theology around two decades ago. I have discussed extensively (both on this blog and in my books) the very high view of the sovereignty of God that I hold. This can be a difficult idea for some to grasp, but I believe God’s attribute of omnipresence leaves no room for human freedom at all.
To deny God’s omnipresence would be to limit God in certain ways. One would have to posit that God has a limited reach in existence, perhaps being embodied somehow, or operating on a separate plain to human beings. But this is not the God I believe in. I believe God is everywhere and unbounded. It makes sense to me that there are no limits or restrictions to the being of God; He is boundless and therefore there is not a single atom anywhere in existence that is not part of the being of God. When a tree grows, God is growing the tree; when my heart beats, God is beating my heart. When I pray, I do so knowing that God is fully in control of all my life circumstances.
We can see creation, from this perspective, as contained within the being of God. There is no physical barrier where the being of God ends and freedom from God begins, because God’s presence is unbounded. It logically follows from this understanding that everything in existence is under God’s control and that there is no free will. Instead, all creatures are rather like puppets that are animated by God.
In the major Abrahamic religions we find the idea of human sin. How are we to make sense of the idea of sin if what I have argued in the preceding paragraphs is true and God is omnipresent and in control of everything that happens? Well, we would have to view sin as part of God’s plan. Indeed, everything that happens, including all sin and suffering, is part of the way God unfolds the grand story of His creation.
Does this mean that we aren’t responsible for our sins? We can answer this question on two different levels. In the God dimension of reality, He is in control of all our thoughts, words, and deeds, so God is the author and cause of all sin. This is the ultimate truth. But as part of the game of life, God gives us certain modes of mind which cause us to believe that we are acting freely, and within this game, God does hold us accountable for our actions, if the Abrahamic religions are to be believed.
Within the framework of God’s sovereignty over all events, divine judgement is a curious thing. This is because God both causes our sinful actions, and subsequently punishes them. Christianity and Islam both present a view of a future resurrection from the dead and a day of judgement when our deeds will be accounted for by God and we will be rewarded with either paradise or hell.
A natural question that follows from this is why would God send people to hell when they have not freely sinned and God has caused all their sin? I believe the answer to this question is that it is not necessary for there to be free will in order for God to administer justice. He can punish or reward human beings for the sins or good deeds that He has caused them to participate in by His sovereign power.
According to the Qur’an, our good and bad deeds will be weighed up by God on judgement day, and no one will be wronged in the slightest. Those people who God has caused to do very wicked things will suffer punishment, and those who God has caused to do an abundance of good deeds will have the reward of paradise. There is no injustice in this, despite our lack of free will.
Of course, whether we are admitted into paradise or hell is no objective matter — divine judgement depends on the subjectivity and free will of God. It’s possible that we might strive to do good deeds for our entire life, but that God will (for whatever reason) feel that hell is a more appropriate destination for us. God’s freedom means that He can do whatever He pleases, and the administration of justice is entirely within His control. God is not limited by any external moral constraints.
God may well choose to ultimately be merciful to all sentient beings. As He is a being who is perfectly self-sufficient, this would make sense to me. But there is no guarantee of this; God can punish or reward in any way He chooses, for as long as He chooses, and for whatever reason He chooses. The absolute sovereignty of God is both a wonderful and a frightening thing.
The above article is an extract from my book titled Christianity, Islam, and the One True God. The book is available now in a range of formats from these retailers.