The God Who Doesn’t Know The Future
Him being delivered by the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, having crucified, and put to death (Acts 2:23). Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father (1 Peter 1:2).
The world is filled with the sham gods of religion, science, and philosophy. Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), the son of an Anglican vicar, and a professor at both Cambridge and Harvard, was well-known for his work in the philosophy of science and mathematics. He eventually became the systematizer of a way of thinking that has come to be known as “Process philosophy.” This philosophy, also known as Panentheism, teaches that God, who is both relative and mutable, grows or develops along with His creation. This philosophy eventually evolved into what is today known as “Process theology” which, according to its proponents, is “the most important development in Christian thought since the first century.1 The reason this movement is so popular today is that it provides us sophisticated moderns with an intellectually and emotionally satisfying reinterpretation of Christianity that seems to be in complete agreement with so many of the ways of thinking that became acceptable in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Chief among Whitehead’s followers is Charles Hartshorne, who summarized his dissatisfaction with classical theism in a book entitled Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. In addition to the idea of omnipotence, he singled out the “mistakes” of God’s perfection, omniscience, love, and immutability. Hartshorne thinks Greek and Roman philosophy has had too much influence on classical theism. His desire, therefore, is to rid us of these encumbrances and replace them with a truly enlightened and modern view of biblical faith. As we observe the changes some of our own brethren are making in their reinterpretations of God’s characteristics and attributes, it is relevant to note that Hartshorne affirms divine omniscience, but then redefines it in a radically different way than we normally think of the word. Omniscience, according to Hartshorne, is the ability to “know all that exists.” But because future, contingent, free will choices have not happened yet, they do not exist, and if they do not exist, they cannot be known even by an omniscient God. Hartshorne calls this “temporal omniscience.” This is exactly the idea that some brethren are currently defending. I have suspected for some time that the various concepts some of my brethren are defending and teaching reflect a study of Process philosophy more than they do the Word of God. If I am right, this will become more obvious as time goes on.
Process theology, according to those who have critiqued it, is a total capitulation to paganism. “Take any essential Christian belief,” these critics say, “and one will find that the process theologians supplant it with an alien belief.”2 Is God the Sovereign of the universe? Is He the personal, omnipotent, and all-knowing Creator of the universe? Is Jesus Christ the eternal, divine Son of God whose incarnation, death, and resurrection were necessary in order to redeem fallen man? Is faith in Christ the only foundation for human forgiveness? To these, and many other questions, the official Process answer is “No.”
Just how many of our brethren have read after Whitehead and Hartshorne, I have no way of knowing. But this is what I do know. The books of those who have been influenced by Whitehead, Hartshorne, et al., have found their way into the libraries of our brethren. One example would be God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will. The author of this book, Richard Rice, believes that God’s knowledge is “constantly increasing.”3 According to Rice, God does not have actual foreknowledge of the future, contingent, free will choices of men and women. He teaches that God’s prophetic utterances are nothing more than predictions based upon His perfect knowledge of the past and infinite knowledge of the present, or His omnipotence, which He uses to make things happen, or a combination of both of these.4 It has not gone unnoticed that Rice’s book is being recommended by some brethren as the definitive answer to the question associated with the alleged “incompatibleness of God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will.” I’ll have more to say about this further along in this study, but now I want to address the idea of God’s all-knowingness.
Psalm 147:5 says that God’s knowledge is infinite. Infinite in this verse is the Hebrew micpar and means the same thing it does in English. Now, if God’s understanding is infinite (i.e., having no boundaries or limits), and understanding is predicated on knowledge, then it follows necessarily that God’s knowledge is also infinite. Of course, such infinite knowledge would, in fact, be “unsearchable” by finite creatures, and this is exactly what Romans 11:33 says. In other words, God “knows all things.”5 Notice that the Bible does not say God has the capacity to know all things, which He certainly does; instead, the argument is that God actually “knows all things.” Now, if God knows all things, what is it that He does not know? Remember, the Great Intelligence of the universe is writing to His intelligent creatures and expects us to be able to understand what He’s saying. Accordingly, not only does He teach us through direct statements and approved examples, but He also expects us to make necessary conclusions. So, by direct statement the Bible teaches that God “knows all things,” and the necessary conclusion is that there is not anything God does not know—and this includes the then, now, and not yet!
This seems plain enough. The Bible teaches in no uncertain terms that there is not anything God does not know. This includes even those things that modern science tells us cannot be known. For example, in quantum physics there is an axiom known as Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle which says that one cannot know the exact position and the exact speed of any atomic particle at the same time. This means that if we calculate the speed of an electron, we cannot know its position. On the other hand, if we calculate the electron’s position, then we cannot know its speed. To do both is a practical and theoretical impossibility. Even so, what is quite impossible for man to discern is clearly known by God. In fact, God does not just know the location and speed of a particular atomic particle, He actually knows the position and speed of all atomic particles that make up the universe.
Again, the Bible teaches in no uncertain terms that there is not anything God does not know. But some say that this is not true. As has been previously mentioned, there are those who believe there are some things God just cannot know, particularly the future, contingent, free will choices of men and women. On the other hand, there are those who believe that God has the capacity to know all things but, for reasons known only to Him, chooses not to know some of these things. This, I think, is pretty much the orthodox view within churches of Christ. Unlike those previously mentioned, who advocate their position primarily for philosophical reasons, those who advocate this position do so only because the Bible seems to be saying that there are things God did not know6 and, as they are accustomed to saying, the Bible does not contradict itself. I shall be answering the questions presented by both of these arguments, but I will answer the latter group first.
True, the Bible does not contradict itself. Therefore, if the Bible teaches that there is not anything God does not know, then passages like Genesis 18 and 22—which are the proof-texts of those who believe God does not know some things—must be interpreted in light of this truth. In fact, a fundamental rule of Bible interpretation says that we must understand Scripture in its normal sense unless a literal interpretation contradicts other clear teaching found in God’s Word. This is the error one makes in thinking Genesis 18 and 22 negate the all-knowingness of God. Nevertheless, it is argued by these brethren that just as God being all-powerful does not mean He has to be doing everything He has the capacity to do, neither does being all-knowing mean God must know everything He has the capacity to know. What to many sounds like incontestable logic is, in fact, a non sequitur, that is to say, an argument that does not logically follow its premise. True, being all-powerful, by definition, does not mean one has to be engaged in doing all things; but knowing all things, by definition, does mean “knowing all things.” Being all-powerful infers ability only, while being all-knowing infers not just ability, but the actual knowledge itself. In other words, the God of the Bible is not claiming that He could know all things; He’s claiming He does know all things.
Those who wrongly believe Genesis 18 and 22 to be teaching that God has chosen not to know some things ignore the plain teaching of these scriptures by their literal interpretation of these passages. Of course, fairness compels me to admit that it is equally possible for one to argue that I am doing the same thing. My task, therefore, is to demonstrate the actual accord that exists between two seemingly contradictory teachings—(1) God knows all things; (2) God does not know some things—and do it in a way that does no damage to the integrity of the Scriptures. What follows is my explanation of what appears, at first, to be a dilemma.
In Genesis 18:21, we are dealing with an unusual circumstance. God, who is omnipresent, which means His ontological being is present to all of space equally, has, on occasion, entered space at specific points and become present in it for a specific purpose. The theologians call these “theophanies.” This seems to be the case in Genesis 18:21. In verse 1 of the chapter, it says, “Then the LORD appeared to him [Abraham] by the terebinth trees of Mamre, as he was sitting in the tent door in the heat of the day.” In verse 2, it mentions “three men.” Whether these three men are manifestations of the triune nature of God, or whether the other two were angels, is not clear. What seems clear is that this is, in fact, a theophany. In entering the time-space continuum, God, who is infinite ontologically, willingly, and somehow, without ceasing to be who He is, allowed Himself to be subject to the finite. It’s mind-boggling, I know, but, nevertheless, this appears to be the clear import of Scripture. Now, let’s look at Genesis 18:21 with my interpretation of it in parentheses:
I, [who have somehow subjected Myself to the time-space continuum] will go down [not from heaven, but down the way geographically] now [not in eternity, but right now at this moment, subject to time and space] and see [i.e., learn experientially in time and space] whether they have done [and, more importantly, continue to do “now”] altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me [in eternity, not limited by time and space]; and if not [i.e., if they are no longer doing what I knew they were doing before I allowed Myself to be subject to time and space], I [God subject to time and space] will know [experientially].
Notice that I have emphasized the word “now” by putting it in bold letters. This is because I believe this word to be the key to understanding this passage. God, who ontologically knows the past, present, and future, contextualizes His knowing to the “now” of the time-space continuum. Are we really supposed to think that the self-existent, eternal, infinite Spirit who is God did not really know everything that had been happening in Sodom and Gomorrah? 1 John 3:20 makes it absolutely clear that God is greater than our heart (He knows our heart as well as every other heart) and knows all things. No, whatever Genesis 18:21 means must be understood by the context, and the context clearly indicates a theophany. Therefore, the theophany must be taken into consideration when trying to understand this passage. When I debated the brother in the Foreknowledge of God debate mentioned in chapter one, he did take the position that God cannot know the future. But even so, he at least admitted that God knew the past and present perfectly. His position was bad enough, I think, but now some are wanting me to believe that the all-knowing God does not even know the past and present perfectly. True, this is the only conclusion one may come to if this passage is to be understood literally and apart from its “now” context. Therefore, I know this conclusion is not, and cannot be, true!
I now ask you to turn your attention to what I consider the more difficult passage. In Genesis 22:12, the angel of the Lord says to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Although the “angel of the Lord” is involved in this episode, the unusual circumstances associated with a theophany are not a part of the context. Furthermore, as we have already observed, the Bible teaches us that the self-existent, eternal, and infinite Spirit who is God “knows all things.” So, again, citing a fundamental principle of hermeneutics, this passage cannot be interpreted in a way that would negate this truth.
Now, in connection with all this, it is interesting to note what the self-existent, eternal, infinite Spirit who is God knew about Abraham before He ever “tested” him. In Genesis 18:17-19, the Lord said:
Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.
In other words, God knew that Abraham would pass the “tests” of faith, which included the one mentioned in this passage. To disregard this information, as well as the truth about God’s “all-knowingness,” is to make a serious mistake when trying to understand this passage. Yes, taken literally, the passage does appear to be teaching that God learned something about Abraham that He had not previously known. But, if God really does know all things, and the Bible says He does, and if He knew Abraham would pass all “tests,” and the Bible says He did, then Genesis 22:12 cannot be teaching what it seems to be teaching.7
I think the answer to understanding Genesis 22:12 is found in places like Deuteronomy 29 and 30, where God promises to give life or death and blessings or cursings, depending upon one’s obedience to His Word. Do what is right and one is blessed; do what is wrong and one is cursed. This is, in fact, a principle taught many places in the Bible. Although we do not expect to hear the voice of the “angel of the Lord” today, nevertheless, this principle is still true: If we serve the Lord faithfully, He will bless us; if we disobey Him, He will curse us.
God is all-knowing. This is what the Bible clearly teaches. This means that He has infallible remembrance of the past, infinite consciousness of the present, and complete foreknowledge of the future. Even so, He has agreed to deal with us in the time-space continuum. In the passage cited, you will notice that I have once again emphasized the word “now.” This is because I believe the key to understanding this passage, like the key to understanding Genesis 18:21, is the “now” context. In the “now” of Abraham’s time and space, the voice of the angel of the Lord could be heard audibly, and God is acknowledging His blessing on, or appreciation of, Abraham at a very critical time and place in his “walk of faith.” It should not go unnoticed that the word “know” in this passage is sometimes translated “to recognize, admit, acknowledge, confess, declare, or tell.” So, in harmony with the rest of Scripture, and without doing any violence to the words of this passage, Genesis 22:12 is not teaching that the all-knowing God of the universe did not really know whether Abraham would pass this critical test. Instead, He is acknowledging His appreciation of Abraham’s faithfulness to Him. In other words, He is declaring, “Abraham, I have been testing you…and you have passed the test!”
This question seems to bother many Christians. How, they wonder, can God treat us like we are saved now, if He really knows we are going to be lost later? This kind of thinking, of course, projects onto God our own human incapabilities. Again, we need to be reminded that God is “not a man”8 and, as such, is not subject to human limitations. If we all really believed this, then this problem would never arise in the minds of some. Whether these folks are consciously aware of it or not, they have conceived in their minds a sham god who suffers from finite limitations while hypocritically verbalizing their faith in the omni-characteristics of Almighty God. Hence, the god these people worship is pagan, and the language they speak is orthotalksy.
The God of the Bible has agreed to deal with us exactly where we are in the time-space continuum—namely, if we do what is right, He blesses us; but if we do what is wrong, He curses us. As was pointed out in the previous section, this principle is taught many places in God’s Word. This means that God does repent and He does relent as He deals with His free moral agents.9 When one obeys the gospel and is added to the church by Christ Himself, he has been saved from his past sins10 and has access to the spiritual blessings available only “in Christ.”11 As such, he or she is adopted by God as His own child, with all the privileges associated with such status.12 Even if this individual will eventually fall from grace13 and have his or her name removed from the Book of Life,14 God can, and does, deal with this person in a perfectly righteous way. What one will eventually do, or not do, does not prohibit God from interacting with His creatures exactly the way He said He would. Surely, one ought to be willing to listen to God’s own testimony on this. In Jeremiah 42, God set forth two options for the people: (1) Do what is right and I will bless you (verses 10-12); (2) Do what is wrong and I will curse you (verses 13-18). In Ezekiel 33:11-19, the Lord said:
Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel? Therefore you, O son of man, say to the children of your people: The righteousness of the righteous man shall not deliver him in the day of his transgression; as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall because of it in the day that he turns from his wickedness; nor shall the righteous be able to live because of his righteousness in the day that he sins. When I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, but he trusts in his own righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous works shall be remembered; but because of the iniquity that he has committed, he shall die. Again, when I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ if he turns from his sin and does what is lawful and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has stolen, and walks in the statutes of life without committing iniquity, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of his sins which he has committed shall be remembered against him; he has done what is lawful and right; he shall surely live. Yet the children of your people say, ‘The way of the LORD is not fair.’ But it is their way which is not fair! When the righteous turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, he shall die because of it. But when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is lawful and right, he shall live because of it.
This, then, is what God has agreed to do, and through faith we can be sure He does it. Doubt this, and we doubt the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture.
Before leaving this section, we need to look at one more point. God knew that Judas would betray His Son.15 Jesus knew that Judas would betray Him.16 All this was before Judas acted to betray Jesus. Is there anything in Scripture that indicates this knowledge caused our Lord to treat Judas any differently than He would have if Judas was not going to be the one who would betray Him? In other words, did Jesus behave unfairly with Judas or mistreat him in any way? Of course not! Now, if God could deal fairly with Judas, who would betray His only begotten Son, then there should be no doubt that He can deal fairly with us in the time-space continuum. If we do what is right, we can be sure He will bless us. On the other hand, if we do evil, we can be certain He will curse us.
There are those among us who believe that God’s foreknowl- edge and man’s free will are incompatible. They believe this incompatibility is “axiomatic,” or self-evident, truth. Consequently, they feel compelled to make a choice between God’s foreknowl- edge or man’s free will. Wishing to preserve the biblical concept of man’s free moral agency, they conclude that God does not have foreknowledge of man’s future, contingent, free will acts. These brethren are making a serious mistake—a mistake that has caused them to erect a sham god who cannot know the future. When expounding their position, these brethren immerse themselves in the shibboleths of orthotalksy.
Contrary to what these brethren think, the Bible teaches that God has foreknowledge of man’s future, contingent, free will acts. For example, just before he died, Moses was told by God of the coming apostasy of the Israelites.17 God was not just declaring what He planned to do, but was making it clear what human beings would be doing in the future of their own free wills.18 In addition, the Bible teaches that man has free will. Therefore, the Bible teaches both God’s foreknowledge of the future, contingent, free will choices of His creatures and man’s free will.
Furthermore, it is not true that God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will are irreconcilable. This is the figment of some philosopher’s imagination. Unfortunately, John Calvin fell victim to this thinking and instead of opting for man’s free will, he chose to believe in God’s foreknowledge. According to Calvin, man just does not have free will. Today, Calvinism is one of the most prevalent false doctrines in Christendom. Calvin’s God knows all that is going to happen in the future because He is the one who has decreed everything that will happen. According to this false doctrine, man simply does what God has decided He will do. Some, we are told, have been predestined for heaven; others have been predestined for hell. All of this, according to Calvin, was completely independent of any decision on man’s part. This, in a nutshell, is the soul of Calvinism. The entire theological system, of course, is quite detailed and very complicated. It may surprise some to learn that it is also very logical. But this is true only if one accepts Calvin’s starting premise—namely, it is axiomatic that God’s foreknowl- edge and man’s free will are totally inconsistent.
Parenthetically, I have always considered it ironic, and perhaps even a little cynical, that brethren who disagree with me concerning my teaching that God’s omniscience includes the sum total of things past, present, and future have always felt the necessity to warn me about what they think are my Calvinistic predispositions, and all this while they, themselves, are advancing Calvin’s major premise. What am I talking about? Well, look at it. Brethren who believe God either chooses not to know some things or cannot know some things take these positions in order to preserve man’s free moral agency, which they conclude is in jeopardy if God truly has foreknowledge of the future, contingent, free will choices of men. In other words, accepting Calvin’s premise, they then argue the flip-side of the same theological coin. I, on the other hand, totally reject Calvinism, including his beginning premise, which is more than I can say for some of my brethren. Even so, I have never considered these brethren to be proto-, neo-, or crypto-Calvinists. Accordingly, it would be helpful if some would find out just what Calvinism is before haphazardly bandying about their uninformed recriminations. Brethren, it is nothing short of sinful to fling about accusations without a shred of evidence. If someone is teaching false doctrine, there must be proof. If we don’t have the proof, then we had better not make the charge. A charge without proof is, in essence, bearing false witness.19 It should be obvious that I am not against speaking out against false teaching or teachers. What I am against is the ungodly way it is sometimes done. In fact, I am absolutely dismayed at the shoddy and underhanded way some brethren conduct themselves in controversy. No one, not even a false teacher, must ever be charged with anything that cannot be proven. The fact that this sort of behavior is becoming all too commonplace in religious discussions and disagreements is a shame and disgrace!
Calvin was wrong, and so are my brethren who believe God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will are incompatible. Frankly, fairness and integrity demand that those who believe this alleged incompatibility to be self-evident are under obligation to prove it, not just assume it or assert it. In truth, this supposed incompatibility has never been proven, and it never will be. Even so, some persist in arguing that if God actually knows the future before it happens, then it is certain to happen; thus, the freedom and contingency of the future are totally shattered. They then advance the idea that the certainty of future events and actions make them fixed, and if they are “fixed,” then man can do nothing other than what has been certain or fixed from eternity. Now, if one accepts this line of reasoning, and I certainly don’t, then he has but two choices: (1) he becomes a Calvinist or some other kind of determinist or (2) he denies God’s foreknowledge of the future, contingent, free will acts of His creatures.
Many contemporary theologians have opted for the latter. Among these are Richard Rice, who we mentioned earlier, and Richard Swinburne, who wrote:
If God is omniscient then he foreknows all future human actions. If God foreknows anything, then it will necessarily come to pass. But if a human action will necessarily come to pass, then it cannot be free.20
Believing, though, that man is free, Swinburne proposes a “modified account of omniscience.”21 This is the same thing Rice has done. Together, they argue in favor of God’s all-knowingness, but excluding from this all-knowingness any and all “future, contingent, free will choices.” God’s omniscience, they insist, includes all there is to know, but this does not include future free will acts because these acts are simply not knowable. I mentioned this earlier, but have repeated it here for obvious reasons. Unfortunately, Rice and Swinburne, along with some of my brethren, have become so enamored with man-made philosophies that they have, as a result, created a sham god who is much different than the one true God of the Bible. Questioned about their obvious idolatry, they have tried to protect their theological creation by masquerading him behind the cover of orthotalksy.
If we accept their major premise, then man-made philosophies do, indeed, sound very logical and, therefore, correct. Yes, God does foreknow the future and, therefore, the future He foreknows is going to happen. Yes, one can argue that the future is, indeed, “fixed.” But the path these folks have chosen at this point leads away from scriptural truths. Yes, the future acts of men and women are “fixed” all right, but not in any causative sense. In other words, they are “fixed” not because of God’s foreknowledge, but because this is the way free moral agents, exercising their free will choices, will choose to act in the future, and God, simply because He is who He is, foreknows them. This view, contrary to those of Rice, Swinburne et al., is totally consistent with what the Bible says about the complete compatibility of God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will. Regrettably, some are more swayed by the think-sos of men than the truths taught in God’s Word.
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- Ronald Nash, ed., Process Theology, 1987, in the Introduction.
- 1985, pages 30, 39.
- Rice, pages 75ff.
- 1 John 3:20.
- See Genesis 18:21 and 22:12.
- I admit to feeling a little uncomfortable when making this kind of statement. Nevertheless, I am confident that this is the correct way to think about this passage. The apostle Paul was not the only inspired writer who wrote things difficult to understand, which, if we are not careful, can be twisted to teach something completely contrary to truth (cf. 2 Peter 3:16). Our responsibility is to be diligent to present ourselves approved to God, as workers who do not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). This is not always easy, but if we work hard at it, then we, like Abraham, will also pass the “test.”
- See Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29.
- It must be understood that this “repenting” and “relenting” on God’s part has nothing to do with His specific irrevocable decisions—decisions in which any amount of intercession on man’s part or repentance on God’s part will change (cf. Ezekiel 24:13-14).
- See Acts 2:47.
- Ephesians 1:3.
- See Romans 8:14-17.
- See Galatians 5:4.
- See Revelation 3:5;22:19.
- See Psalm 41:9; Acts 2:23.
- See John 6:70-71.
- See Deuteronomy 31:16-21.
- In places like Deuteronomy 30:19, et cetera.
- See Romans 13:9.
- Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism, 1977, page 167.
- Swinburne, pages 172ff.