God’s Omniscience and Foreknowledge

Below is an unedited comment from an anonymous writer who asked some very good questions about the Western church’s traditional teaching on God’s omniscience. I ask readers to hear what this person is saying and feel the real tension between the biblical concept of legitimate free-will and the idea that there is only one possible future, from which there is (allegedly) no deviation. The anonymous author of this post has a great point, and we would do well to consider its implications. It is my hope that this post will lend itself to healthy (and helpful) dialogue on the subject. Read on!

-Corbin Lambeth

There are many arguments I struggle to comprehend, particularly with a God who knows everything. This is known as omniscience. If God knows everything then He knows the answer to all of our questions and the choices we make. In this respect, we are living a senseless life simply because everything is predetermined. From my understanding, God does not want obedient robots to worship and love him. In reality, we are preprogrammed. From God’s perspective, He has all the necessary knowledge of who we are. God knows exactly what we will think and do. His creation is the universal map. Do we have the freedom to choose?

If God is omniscience we may conclude the following: 1) Everything is predetermined, 2) There is no purpose attached to our life; perhaps we are here for God’s entertainment, 3) God allows us to make choices, regardless of Him knowing the outcome(s) 4) God is not testing us because He already knows the outcome. 5) There is no judgment at the end of life; why judge someone if you already know the outcome. The outcome of any judgment is for our understanding and purpose only.

Hopefully, my analogy will not lead anyone to assume we should act without thought or moral code. What I meant by “senseless life” is that there is no relevance in life from a God that knows everything (past, present, and future). I question what relevance are we to God if he knows everything? Perhaps, we only have relevance to each other.

Note: I really want to stress the point about so called “tests” from God. The only reason to test something is to understand or acknowledge an UNKNOWN outcome. Simply put, there are no tests for God; If we are being tested then from what perspective or purpose?

-Anonymous

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About C_Lambeth

I currently live in the Pacific Northwest. I graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelor's of Science and from George Fox Seminary (now Portland Seminary) with a Master's of Divinity. In addition to knowing Christ and helping others know him, I am passionate about peace, the environment, Christian feminism, justice for all (not just the wealthy) and being a lifelong learner. Please feel free to comment on any of the posts here or to suggest new posts altogether. Thank you for reading me! -CL
This entry was posted in My Core Beliefs, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to God’s Omniscience and Foreknowledge

  1. C_Lambeth says:

    Anonymous,

    I cannot tell you how deeply I appreciate your honest questions. These are extremely valid, and I am thankful for the opportunity to discuss the issue(s) with you.

    First of all, I think it is important for me to say that I agree with your understanding and the tension created by the traditional concept of omniscience. IF there is only one possible future (allowing for no deviation from that course), and God knows it all (“the beginning from the end”), it would seem that everything is indeed predetermined. And IF history is “predetermined” then we would also certainly seem to be pre-programmed like robots, and our idle notion of “free-will” is merely an illusion. Some Christians express this theme all the time, even if unwittingly, when they glibly offer that “God is in control” in the aftermath of some disaster or difficulty. It seems that this conclusion is unavoidable given the premise that there is only one future (or past or present).

    But there are two things to consider: 1) Knowing how events will unfold is not the same thing as programming those events in the first place, and 2) The popular Western concept of God’s omniscience is not the only one afoot.

    Regarding the first point, omniscience and causality are not the same. Consider our decision to watch a movie. After we have seen the film in its entirety, we know exactly how the plot unfolds as well as the respective characters’ lines and actions. We know how the conflicts and related issues have been resolved (or not resolved) etc., but this knowledge does not make us responsible for that plot, dialogue or action in any sense of the word. We “know”, but we did not “cause”.

    I think this is a helpful analogy, but of course it is not complete, for even a movie has a writer or writers, a director, a producer, acting coaches etc. If we conceive of God as the writer, then the movie analogy merely reinforces the traditional Western notion of God’s omniscience. However, I would like to suggest that we conceive of God as one writer in the narrative of the screenplay of our lives, but not the only one. I believe he shares this responsibility with the actors themselves (us). In that sense, the “script” is shaped by God and by us, as well as other forces like the natural/ physical world and forces of good and evil. All of these things and the sentient characters’ free-wills get thrown into the mix so that the stories we weave together are not at the beck and call or “direction” of any single entity, be it God, humanity or any other force. We are the partial co-authors of our lives.

    But to clarify, I suggest that it is only through God’s permissiveness that he allows other actors and forces to have a hand in the production, even when it goes FUBAR. In that sense, God IS in “control” of the big picture, but he is not a micro-manager whereby he “causes” everything to happen. God has no rival. Satan is not the opposite of God, but he (Satan) is a particularly strong and evil actor who also has free-will. Ultimately, he will be written out of the story, but for now he has been given the ability to meddle. We also have the ability to write some of our own lines and action.

    I would like to write more on this first idea and to develop the second point as well, but I do not want to blather on without providing space for you to reply. What do you think of the movie analogy?

    -Corbin

    • Tony says:

      Hi C.L.,
      I really appreciate the opportunity to write and share my thoughts on your blog. My background is not in any religion and I have just recently begun reading the bible. Your movie analogy was great and helped me better understand the topic we are discussing. I particularly liked where you followed up in paragraph 5, “…I think this is a helpful analogy”. I realized the programming analogy was an error after I submitted the post. To solidify, that would mean God wanted us to sin, et cetera. I thought the topic of omniscience is a good starting point for me. Btw, I am more interested in learning,rather than debating (don’t have the credentials) and I am def. not interested in trying to outsmart anyone. The reason I bringing this stuff up is because I comment on a lot of blogs and I think some folks don’t really understand my objective, which is to gain more knowledge and become closer to God/Jesus…:)

  2. C_Lambeth says:

    Tony,
    Thanks for the follow up. I am always thankful for legitimate questions and discussion, even when (or especially when) friends disagree with me. Sadly, some of the characters on my blogs do like to stomp around a bit and insult, but those types of “discussions” interest me far less than peaceable discourse. The way I see it, there’s no need for cunning attempts to “outsmart anyone” if we all realize that we have something to learn from one another.

    Ultimately, I suppose I don’t mind a friendly debate, but I prefer to be co-travelers with others in the pursuit of truth. We are all on a journey, and I don’t have all the answers, so don’t be shy when it comes to disagreeing or offering a different perspective.

    The challenge offered by traditional concepts of God’s foreknowledge is one area of my faith in Christ that I have studied a fair amount, and I’d love to talk more about it.

    If you haven’t ever heard of Open Theism, you may find it interesting or even refreshing when it comes to this topic. The contemporary pastor and theologian Gregory Boyd has written a couple of very helpful books on the subject, and I am not exaggerating when I say that his 2001 book, Satan and the Problem of Evil changed my entire understanding of divine omniscience. That one is a bigger read at about 400 pages, but if you would like a potent and truncated preview of Open Theism, I’d also recommend his year 2000 book, God of the Possible, (about 150 pages). I may also write a preview here if I get the time.

    Thanks again, friend.
    -CL

  3. C_Lambeth says:

    Problems with the Movie/ Play of Life Analogy:
    Free will is preserved under the multiple-writer conception of the Play of Life. However, that only seems to work in the construction phase of the play. If God’s omniscience means that he already knows exactly how that play will unfold, it begs the question: “Could the Play have been written any other way?” And if the answer is “No,” then “free-will” including God’s alleged ability to help construct the script as it goes once again seems to disappear in a mysterious enigma and we are back to questioning the apparent illusion of free-will. At the very least, this situation would seem to render God as a rather boring bloke who always knew what he would always do, and thus effectively eliminated any chance of his authorship “changing” the script in any meaningful way. It all appears dynamic and open to the other writers, but God’s “creativity” and engagement is a non-issue in practical terms.

    So while I maintain that divine foreknowledge is not the same thing as divine causality, there is no doubt that this presents a complicated conundrum. On that point, I think it is smart for us to realize that our knowledge as finite humans is inherently limited, and God simply does not feel obligated to explain everything to us. Given such limitations, I would like to qualify everything else I say as merely a possibility but not THE definitive answer to questions posed about God’s omniscience. That is my cop-out/ disclaimer. Nevertheless, God has created us as intelligent and curious beings, and he oftentimes gives us the resources, the permission (and even the invitation) to learn as much as we can about him, ourselves and the creation. There are no questions that are off-limits. In that sense, we should not just throw our hands in the air and default to a God of the Gaps approach to theology, science or philosophy etc.

    Given that Christians almost universally affirm God’s omniscience, I think we should consider alternative possibilities regarding what this means. So let’s talk about the “everything” in the traditional understanding of God’s omniscience. As Tony stated, “If God knows everything then He knows the answer to all of our questions and the choices we make.” Tony then went on to explain some of the implications that he felt are unavoidable given this set of circumstances. It is the “everything” part of this syllogism (If/Then statement) that I think deserves our attention. I do not subscribe to the traditional Western concept of God’s omnipotence, but neither do I deny that God knows everything. Quite to the contrary, I affirm that God knows everything there is to know, but how we define “everything” is the point of departure with my traditional brethren.

    When I say “everything,” I mean that God knows every possible future with intricate and perfect precision, but that which one of those futures will come to pass remains little more than a possibility (rather than a fact) for the simple truth that the future does not yet exist. Even as infinite possibilities exist, and God knows each one of them perfectly, those future chapters of the play have simply not been written yet. One might argue that I am suggesting that God is not in fact omniscient, but this is a misunderstanding of what I am saying, for there is nothing that God could encounter that he did not already know as a legitimate possibility. In that sense, God can say that he was “sorry” about the actors’ decisions or “thought” they might behave differently in the story, but not that he “never saw a situation coming.” In fact, these are exactly the kinds of statements we hear God saying in Genesis 6:6 “The Lord was sorry…”, Jeremiah 3:6-7 “I thought she would return to me…”, 1 Samuel 13:13 “…the Lord would have… .” Similarly in the New Testament we see texts indicating legitimate possibilities like in 1st Timothy 2:4 and 2nd Peter 3:9, whereby God is depicted as wanting EVERYONE to be saved. This latter possibility also calls Calvinistic theology into question where everyone is said to be “predestined” (pre-programmed) by God for heaven or hell before the creation of the world. Could God have legitimately wanted everyone to be saved if he already and irrevocably “predestined” some for hell before the creation of the universe? What if we really does want everyone to be saved and left that as a legitimate possibility? Each of these are questions worthy of the asking.

    This can all make the head spin, so let me offer another pass at this brand of open theism and what has come to be called “middle knowledge.” Beyond what choices are dictated by present circumstances, it is impossible to “know” which future choice will occur because the decision does not yet exist. What God knows is that the actor’s decision is unknown, even as all the possibilities are fully known. This is not a limitation of God’s knowledge in the least, but an expanse of it, for in this model, there is not merely one timeline for him to know, but literally an infinite number of possible futures for him to know. This solves an entire host of issues not the least of which is that the future is not preprogrammed, that we have legitimate free-will to write parts of our own stories, that our actions (or lack thereof) can make a tremendous difference, that life is full of purpose and meaning, that difficulties can legitimately “test” and shape us, and that God can indeed shake things up a bit here and there, readjust the game plan and, when this is followed to its logical conclusion, he is just when he allows us to be judged.

    I find this nuanced brand of open theism to be refreshing, and I hope that I have done a reasonable job of presenting it here. As always, I invite questions and (friendly) challenges.

    Thanks for reading me.
    -Corbin Lambeth

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