Dan Barker’s attack on God’s free will

Follow the argument through a commentary supported by links to relevant articles.


“There are no gods, no devils,

no angels, no heaven or hell.

There is only our natural world.”

– Dan Barker

First, consider the following.

Dan Barker’s criticism of God’s free will

Dan Barker’s version of the argument, as follows:

  1. God is defined as a personal being who knows everything.
  2. Personal beings have free will.
  3. In order to have free will, you must have more than one option, each of which is avoidable. This means that before you make a choice, there must be a state of uncertainty during a period of potential: you cannot know the future. Even if you think you can predict you decision, if you claim to have free will, you must admit the potential (if not the desire) to change your mind before the decision is final.
  4. A being that knows everything can have no “state of uncertainty”. It knows its choices in advance.
  5. A being that knows its choices in advance has no potential to avoid its choices, and therefore lacks free will.
  6. Since a being that lacks free will is not a personal being, a personal being who knows everything cannot exist.
  7. Therefore a personal God does not exist.

This criticism is saying that it is not logically possible for God to have free will.  God doesn’t have the option to make choices, as it is already determined by God’s omniscience; this questions God’s omnibenevolence as this means that God is not a personal being. God cannot choose to interact with us, so he cannot suffer with us, or feel any emotion towards humans. If God is a transcendent being, he cannot punish or reward us as he is outside of space and time, unless there is some form of afterlife.
What are the implications of a Boethian understanding of God’s omniscience? Can God slip Dan Barker’s noose and remain personal and omniscient?The argument challenges the logical problems with a personal God which is immutable or impassible.

Immutability or impassibility require that God is incapable of change or emotional responses respectively. This indicates that God cannot change His mind. Barker claims that in order to be personal a being must have free will. He states that free will is characterised by a “state of uncertainty” prior to any decision being made. A personal God who makes decisions would need to have the genuine choice to “do something else” if the deity were considered to have free will. If God were fully omniscient then God could not have any “state of uncertainty”, which is associated with the decision-making process found in genuine free will. Therefore an omniscient, immutable/impassible being cannot have free will. This means God could not be personal as He would fail the logical requirements of this particular concept.

The implications of Barker’s argument

If we accept Barker’s argument this leads to some interesting philosophical problems for a creator God. Monotheists would wish to maintain that creation was a choice that God made. If God is outside of space and time (transcendent, eternal and immutable) then God is not personal, and cannot “choose” to create, and cannot be omnibenevolent as love requires a reaction to events and a choice which God in this view is incapable of (we may still accept that God is the source of doodness in the universe, but are stuck with the problem of how we come to know this goodness. This takes us into the realm of meta-ethics and GE Moore’s intuitionism; if God is immanent we are forced to accept a God that is limited by space and time as the process theologians wish to maintain. For the process theologians God is limited, as it is too problematic to maintain full omnipotence or full omniscience. In fact God is seen as sempiternal or co-eternal with the universe (limiting God’s ability to create). But God’s personal nature can be maintained as God becomes capable of love through the ability to change, making God able to react to human suffering. This is seen as being important as God, for Christians, needs to be able to send Jesus Christ (a choice) demonstrating God’s love for creation. This is most clearly seen in the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff:

“Some of God’s actions must be understood as a response to the free actions of human beings-that what God does He sometimes does in response to what some human being does. I think this is in fact the case. And I think it follows, given that all human actions are temporal, that those actions of God which are “response” actions are temporal as well.” (Wolterstorff, 1975, 197)

Accepting the above limitations of God ensures that God is capable of loving or suffering (see this very useful article on Jurgen Moltmann’s suffering God), as God is capable of change and so can remain omnibenevolent.

Reward and punishment problems

If we accept Dan Barker’s criticism of God’s personal nature (having no free will) and God is outside of space and time, then this leaves God incapable of being able to reward the good or punish the wicked, as these things imply a choice that God must make. This is before we deal with the issues of where in space and time God’s reward or punishment may take place.






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