Do Christians have free will if their names are already in the Lamb's Book of Life?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Is there really such a thing as free will for Christians? The disciples were told in Luke 10:20 that their names are remembered in heaven. So, were the disciples saved before Jesus died? He told them their names were already written in heaven (Revelation 13:8; 17:8; 20:15) … not that they will be written there once I die for you. Already written. If this is true, how can we have free will?

Answer: Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries — and thank you for asking this very important question. If we don’t have free will, then creation is meaningless, the Gospel is moot, Christ died for nothing and the Bible makes no sense… so you’re really on to something here.

I see you’ve picked up on the imagery in Revelation about the Lamb’s Book of Life — that our names have been written in that book from before the foundations of the earth… and I see your point: it looks like our salvation was determined before we were born. If this is true, we cannot exercise enough free will to avoid being saved… if that’s what we wanted. And if that’s the case, free will doesn’t exist — no matter what it feels like… and it does feel like we progress through the day by exercising our free will continually.

This isn’t far from what people on the extreme end of Calvinism believe. But we (non-Reformed) Evangelicals tend to believe in free will in spite of what those scriptures seem to say. So, how is this possible — especially when the Bible uses terms like foreordain (1 Peter 1:20, KJV), election (2 Peter 1:10) and predestined (Romans 8:29)? It all has to do with how God deals with time.

The Bible doesn’t teach how God deals with time definitively… although it shows that God doesn’t experience the same restrictions in time as we do. So we have to step into Philosophy and Natural Theology to build a fuller picture of God’s capabilities… and who better to explore such things than philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig of Reasonable Faith Ministries.

Craig champions an idea of how God deals with time in an area of his omniscience called “God’s middle knowledge.” I agree with his view on this… although I take my own path through it. Middle knowledge shows how God can work his will… but through the collective free will of individuals… and in a non-deterministic way… thereby preserving both an individual’s free will and the integrity of those names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

This view presupposes that God is transcendent over creation, yet that he is also immanent in it. In fact, he is omniscient, omnipresent and omnitemporal — in or out of creation. It also presupposes that we humans have true (libertarian) free will. If that were not true, then God would not have the glory that comes from volitional creatures… arguably, the most precious commodity in the universe. So, God created a universe designed to redeem billions of people optimally… knowing that some will be lost in any process that upholds true volition.

Now, since God created the universe, he must also transcend it... that’s how the Creator/creation thing works… and this includes transcending time because time is part of the physical creation. But his transcendence over time and space does not prevent him from also being present in them. In fact, his omnipresence demands it. He’s just not stuck in time and space like we are. But since God is omnipresent and omnitemporal, he exists in all places and in all times at the same time — a state that some people call “the eternal now.”

God is also omniscient… and this means that he knows everything. But what does “everything” include? Every actual thing… past, present and future? Sure. But how about every possible thing… past, present and future? The answer again must be yes… or else, even I — a mere mortal — could identify some gaps in God’s knowledge.

But we need one more level: Does God know every possible thing under every possible contingency? For example, does God knows what my great-great-grandson will do if it snows on December 12, 2129? Certainly… but he also knows what he’d do if it rains instead… or if he wins the lottery…. These “what ifs” are called counterfactuals and the answer must again be yes — and for the same reasons.

God lives in the eternal now, and he knows every permutation of every possible life you’d live as you made your volitional choices in real time. It’s not so much that God knows the future; it’s that he knows your every possible future. So, he actualizes whichever of your freely crafted lives will best suit the needs of his kingdom. You live it in real time, and you live it making real choices. There is nothing predetermined about it. God, in the eternal now, saw what you would freely do, and he said, “Go ahead.” So, you are doing what it feels like you’re doing: steering your own ship to whatever ports you desire.

I realize that some things are beyond our control… like when we were born, where we were born, to whom we were born and the shape of our early lives. Those were predetermined for you… or were they? Remember, God can see you living out every possible life in every possible time and place… so you might not be without a voice in these choices. He placed you in the here and now for his reasons, and those reasons might include your performance in each possible life.

In a way, then, you have already lived this fully volitional life before the God who is not bound by time or logistics said, “I choose this one for him.” So, even though we are collectively traveling to where God wants us to go, it is under freedom, not determinism. Our freely lived lives do indeed affect the kingdom of God in real time. The fact that I chose to answer this question rather than grab coffee with some friends — and could well be at IHOP instead of at my desk right now — demonstrates that the ideas like fatalism and determinism have no place among Christians. We will advance or retard the kingdom of God as we apply or withhold our energies.

Now, God’s mode of existence in the eternal now is one thing, but his revelation to humankind is another. This he does in real time. So, although God “does everything at once” (if you will) and time doesn’t restrict him, it does restrict us… and he had to write things down in a linear fashion for our sakes. To do this he had to take the causal order of events and represent them as temporal… because that’s where we live. We really have no feeling for “the eternal now” … although God might fix that for us in the far future.

From God’s perspective, we have lived out every one of our possible full and volitional lives at the same moment he created the universe… and established redemption… and wrote our names in the book. There is no temporal “before or after” with God. There is only the temporal “now” … which is actually the transcendence of time, not its top limit. But his works still have a causal (or logical) “before and after,” and this is reflected in the Bible as a temporal order.

From God’s perspective then, the disciples were not saved before Jesus died because there is no “before” with God. There is just “now.” Every moment of their linear lives is in God’s “now” … and somewhere along the line, they were saved. So, in that eternal now, their names were also written in the book… but try to explain that to earth-bound creatures.

The disciples lived their lives in real time, and they made their decisions in real time. The fact that their names are in the book reflects the condition of their salvation at the end of their earthly journey; it did not cause the journey nor did it direct their steps. The book records the results of their lives, but this was not done ahead of time from a heavenly perspective… which is the Author’s perspective.

Admittedly, this takes some getting used to. But it’s worth the investment. Once you’re comfortable with the relationship between a transcendent God who is temporally unbound and earth-bound people who are stuck in linear time, then the tension you might feel with the words like elect or predestine dissolve. Those are mere labels that God places on the people who have chosen for themselves to be in the category of the saved.

I pray that this all helped more than it confused. God bless you.

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