There is another philosophical proposition that seeks to explain the role of human free will in light of God’s sovereignty that is also worth addressing. It is called Molinism, and is named after the 16th century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, who first promoted it. In modern times, it has been advocated by famous philosophers such as Alvin Platinga and William Lane Craig, both of whom are respected Christian apologists. And it seems to be growing in popularity. In an interview with William Lane Craig on Molinism, he says the following:
“Dean Zimmerman, a fine Christian philosopher at Rutgers University and not himself a Molinist, has said that Molinism is probably the most popular view of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human choices. That doesn't mean it is a majority view. It might be, say, 35% but every other view is 20% or 15% or less. So it is the most popular view out there, he says, among philosophers” (Craig & Harris 2017).
So, what is Molinism? It can get fairly complicated but I will give a short summary of the basic concept. Molinism proposes that God has a type of knowledge known as “middle knowledge.” This middle knowledge is the knowledge of what free individuals would choose in any given context or situation. So far, so good. This seems reasonable and possible to find some support for biblically.
But the next part is where the idea gets very speculative and biblically tenuous at best. The concept goes that since God knows all possible choices of humans in any circumstance, He therefore surveyed all possible worlds, and actualized the one in which his free creatures would freely choose to accomplish His will and purposes. Therefore, God is still sovereign because He determines the outcome, but people still have free will.
There are several philosophical problems with this view. One significant problem is that it does not adequately explain the role of free will such that our choices are actually our own. If God knows what you will choose in any circumstance, and He chooses to place you in a particular circumstance, are you really making an authentic choice? Isn’t He choosing which choice you will make by placing you in that particular situation? What if you would have chosen to become a Christian if you were born in Indianapolis, but God decided for you to be born in Calcutta where you never heard the gospel? Why did He actualize that world instead of the one in which you would have freely chosen Christ?
Because the Molinist assumes eternal hell to be a reality, the position is really no different than the Calvinist position that God chooses who He will save and who He will condemn to eternal suffering and/or separation from Him. The only difference is the method He uses to choose. The Calvinist has the idea that He chooses between individuals, but the Molinist says He chooses between worlds, thereby resulting in the choice of particular individuals.
Not only does Molinism fail to adequately explain free agency, it also fails to accept God’s sovereignty. The following excerpt from an interview of William Lane Craig by Kevin Harris illustrates this quite well. In it, Dr. Craig is responding to criticisms by a Calvinist.
KEVIN HARRIS: He cites four or five scriptures here that seem to mitigate against Molinism and give a little hard predestinarian view.
DR. CRAIG: Right. He quotes a number of scriptures that affirm that God accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will. The difficulty in interpreting these passages to mean that God unilaterally determines everything that happens or could happen is that the Scripture also affirms things like God is not willing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Here Peter affirms that it is God's will that no one be lost, or in other words that everyone be saved. And yet we know that that will is not accomplished. It is these passages that teach the universal salvific will of God for all persons to be saved that persuades me that Matt is wrong in quoting these passages to say that everything that happens is God's will. (Craig & Harris 2017).
I agree with Dr. Craig that God does not unilaterally determine everything that happens. People are not puppets who simply do exactly as they are commanded. Asserting that we are is not only counterintuitive, but also makes God solely responsible for every evil ever committed. If Hitler was simply God’s pawn with no free will of his own, then he wasn’t responsible for the holocaust; God was. This is, of course, not a scriptural view of God’s character, or of God’s relationship to human beings.
But when the Bible says that God works out all things according to the counsel of His will, it is not claiming that God unilaterally determines everything that happens. Instead it is clarifying that God works out whatever happens so that His will is ultimately fulfilled, regardless of human choices. Let’s revisit one of the verses that states that God works out all things according the counsel of His will, and we will see this to be the case.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.
We have already looked at this passage, but it is worth revisiting because it is so often misunderstood. Notice that God has revealed that His will and purpose are to unite all things in Christ. So when He works out all things according to His will, there is no sense in which he must micromanage every aspect of human behavior. We choose to lie. We choose to steal. We choose to hate. God takes all of this brokenness and redeems all of us anyway. That is how He works all things according to the counsel of His will. No matter what we choose, He ultimately accomplishes his clearly stated purpose: unity in Christ for all.
It is fallacious to say that the fulfillment of God’s will means that He unilaterally determines everything that happens. His will is clearly stated to be ultimate reconciliation and unity in Christ. There is no good biblical reason to assume that His will is to micromanage every aspect of human behavior. Instead, when 2 Peter 3:9 says that “ God is not willing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance, ” the text means exactly what it says. God’s will that He purposed in Christ is for all to reach repentance.
It is a misunderstanding of God’s will as micromanagement that leads Dr. Craig to be persuaded that God’s will is not accomplished. Let’s look at what he says again:
Here Peter affirms that it is God's will that no one be lost, or in other words that everyone be saved. And yet we know that that will is not accomplished. It is these passages that teach the universal salvific will of God for all persons to be saved that persuades me that Matt is wrong in quoting these passages to say that everything that happens is God's will.
Dr. Craig rightly acknowledges that Peter is teaching that God wills to save all people. That is unmistakably exactly what Peter is teaching. But then he says something for which there is no scriptural support: “And yet we know that that will is not accomplished.” What? How do we know that God’s will is not accomplished? The Bible clearly disagrees with this notion. Here is a short list of just a few verses that contradict the notion that God is unable to accomplish His will.
"In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory."
“'I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted '"
Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.
"The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths."
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
It is undeniable that God accomplishes his will and succeeds in what He purposes to do. He has very clearly stated His purpose to be unity of all in Christ (Ephesians 1), reconciliation of all people to God through Christ (Colossians 1 and 2 Corinthians 5), and ultimate repentance for all people (2 Peter 3).
People claim that this does not occur because we don’t see it in our lifetimes for every person on earth. But God is not restricted to our lifetimes. Just because we don’t see every person on earth come to faith in Christ doesn’t mean that God is unable to reach them beyond our lifetimes. He has the keys to death and Hades (Revelation 1:18). That means that He is able to unlock the gates and free those held captive there. Indeed, we are specifically told that is what He has done.
1 Peter 3:18-20 (NIV)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built…
1 Peter 4:6 (NASB)
For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.
Our limited vantage point as human beings does not restrict God. He is sovereign and has the ability to save whenever he chooses, even after death and postmortem judgment. There is no good scriptural reason to assume otherwise. Therefore, we do not know that God fails to accomplish his will. If we take the scriptures as our guide, we should know the opposite. But the doctrine of eternal hell has forced some rather bizarre reasoning to dominate, even among brilliant philosophers. Let’s examine an example of this now from the interview with Dr. Craig.
KEVIN HARRIS: I heard a theologian quote that verse the other day about God's not willing that any of us should perish. He said God is an aspiring universalist. God would be a universalist but God knows that sadly it's not going to happen.
DR. CRAIG: Right. So the Calvinist needs to reinterpret these passages to say it really means that God wants all types of persons to be saved but it's not really his will that everyone be saved otherwise everyone would be saved. I think that it is a much more plausible interpretation of these passages to take them at face value (Craig & Harris 2017).
First, notice that Dr. Craig does not contradict the notion that God is an “aspiring universalist.” Instead, he agrees. This is, to say the least, a bizarre notion of God. How could God aspire to anything? Doesn’t He have the power to do what He wants? Didn’t He create the universe and all of us? God is the ultimate Being. There is nothing to aspire to beyond Himself. Is our free will really capable of overriding God’s will, such that “God would be a universalist, but God knows that sadly it’s not going to happen”? This notion gives human beings too much credit. It places our will above God’s. He isn’t sovereign in this view; we are. As someone I greatly respect pointed out in a discussion, this is akin to idolatry of man’s will since we are placing our will above God, indeed, in His place. It asserts that we have the power, so God is sadly powerless to accomplish his purpose.
But this is nonsense. God is not an aspiring universalist; He is a universalist. And it would be wise for us to aspire to be like Him and earnestly desire what He desires, the salvation and reconciliation of all people to Himself. As Dr. Craig rightly points out in his discussion of 2 Peter 3:9 and other passages that proclaim God’s universal salvific will, “it is a much more plausible interpretation of these passages to take them at face value.” Once we understand this and have a right understanding of God’s sovereignty, we can come to the rational, biblically consistent view that God succeeds in accomplishing his purpose to unite all in Christ in his timing. The Bible is clear about God’s will and clear about His ability to accomplish it. Taking these passages at face value for what they actually say leads to one inescapable conclusion: the ultimate reconciliation of all to God as we are united in Christ.
The concept of eternal damnation (which has little to no actual Scriptural support in the original languages of the Bible), muddies our understanding of God’s character and power. It leads to convoluted philosophical propositions that deny either God’s goodness and love, or His sovereignty. Let’s not do this.
Instead we should embrace the clear meaning of the Scriptures by faith even if we don’t see everyone come to Christ in our lifetimes “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). We must remember that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Therefore, if God desires for all people to be saved, we should hope for the same thing. And we should be assured that what we hope for will come to pass even if we do not see it now, because our hope is in the “living God who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10).Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Craig, William Lane, and Kevin Harris. “Is Molinism Biblical?” Reasonable Faith, 14 Oct. 2017, www.reasonablefaith.org/media/ reasonable-faith-podcast/ is-molinism-biblical/#_ftn4.