Can God Know the Future?

Similar to the discussion of sovereignty vs. free will, many people believe that if the future can be known in any sense – even by God – then we can’t possibly do anything other than what we actually do in reality, and therefore we have no real free will – no choice in our actions.

But think about the past for a moment. If we look at some action we performed yesterday (which used to be in our future), we don’t look back at it and say, “well, I guess since that’s the particular action I happened to perform, I must have had no choice in doing it and didn’t have any real ability or option of doing otherwise.” No one argues that way, so why do they have such a huge problem with God’s knowledge of the future, simply because something is in our future, even though it may not be in God’s “future” in the same sense (God being outside of space-time).

0925-spacetime_full_600God knowing the future does not necessitate God determining the future. If you think of time as starting at creation, and thus we – and the universe – are within time (crudely defined as a succession of moments within the space-time dimension), then I think everything may make more sense. God, being outside of time, does not experience time (as a progression of moments) in the same way we do (note the “day = 1000 years” concept). That is, instead of being subject to that succession of moments acting upon Him, He is rather observing that succession from the outside.

The objection many people raise then, is that this would then mean that the future is fixed and that we have no choice in the matter. But I believe we only think that way because we ourselves exist only within time; so for us to look into the future is impossible because it is not in fact determined, and we, as beings within time, cannot thus see what happens because it has not happened yet (remember that God has a decretive will – a divine plan for the universe – and thus does intervene in human history and cause certain things to happen, but in general does not meticulously cause every event to happen in all its minutia).

But if God is outside of time, then He has no issue with knowing the future, because in a sense, it is not future to Him – not that it has already happened in actuality, but rather that He sees it simply because He can see the entire timeline of history – so He sees what happens, not always because He makes it that way and thus it is the only option, but rather because it is what in fact happens in the future.

God, a being completely separate from and outside of time, is not bound by the same laws that we are, and there would be no inconsistency in saying that God knows the future – not because we have no free will in the choices we make in the future, but rather simply because God sees what choice we make.

In other words, if God knew I was going to put on a blue shirt today, His knowledge of that did not necessarily cause me to be at the mercy of the trajectory of history in such a way that I had no alternative option and no ability to choose any other color of shirt to wear. Rather, God knew yesterday, that I would put on a blue shirt today, because in fact a blue shirt is what I actually decided to wear today.

the-futureI know I’ve gone in some circles tying to articulate my thoughts on this, but I hope you see the main idea, and remember that this is an important issue in many regards. I don’t know about you, but for me this is a helpful way of understanding the amazing omniscience of God.

One particular way this affects our every-day lives is in shaping our understanding of and approach to prayer. What does prayer do? Does prayer actually affect human history? Does it affect how God acts? If not, what is the purpose of prayer? These are some of the issues I’ll try to think through in my next post.

Advertisements

About Tweed Tavern

We exist to exhort passionate followers of Christ to think more deeply about their faith, and to challenge deep thinkers to become more passionate followers of Christ. Throughout history, taverns have provided a venue for theological and political debate. Hoping to honor that tradition, welcome to the Tavern!
This entry was posted in Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Can God Know the Future?

  1. “a divine plan for the universe – and thus does intervene in human history and cause certain things to happen, but in general does not meticulously cause every event to happen in all its minutia).”

    Good post
    and I agree with your assessment here for the most part. But I’m not so sure we can say the Bible affirms God’s timelessness. Rather it affirms the God exists from eternity past to eternity future. God obviously entered time as Christ and does not the Holy Spirit work in us moment by moment? God sent the Holy Spirit, IMO, to operate inside of time. Also, according to Revelations, there is time in heaven. Another way to look at this whole issue is: perhaps the future is partly settled by God and partly unsettled. In other words, to some degree or other God sees all possible futures, instead of seeing the one that will be. So, God still has a plan of reacting to every possible move people could make, but he chooses to allow them to truly have free will, at least in the things he has not already stated will come to pass.

    Like

  2. Well, I won’t continue the whole open theism debate here, although it’s plain that Mohler really misunderstands it to think Boyd is saying God doesn’t know the future.
    I look forward to reading your post about prayer. IMO, prayer really does move the hand of God and is not just for our benefit, but, hey I’m a Weslyan at heart, and practically grew up in prayer meeting.
    Blessings.

    Like

    • Cross-Current says:

      Well, I’d be careful saying Mohler misunderstands the issue… I disagree with Mohler’s calvinistic foundation, but his assessment of Boyd is based on things Boyd himself has said, such as:
      “God is seeking to find out whether or not the people he calls will lovingly choose him above all else.”
      “God’s mind is not permanently fixed… some of what God knows regarding the future consists of things that may go one way or another.”
      “I became convinced that the customary view — that the future is exhaustively settled and that God knows it as such — was mistaken.”
      “Future free decisions do not exist (except as possibilities) for God to know until free agents make them.”

      Have you read “God of the Possible” by Boyd? (That’s where those quotes are from.)

      I agree with your opinion on prayer (though possibly from a slightly different standpoint;) We’ll see how in depth I feel like going with that post… should be up in the next couple days.

      Like

  3. I’m reading Boyds’ “Is God to blame?” which covers a lot of the same issues, and I’ve watched one of his seminars.
    Time really isn’t the issue, from what I can see. He’s saying that to have creatures with free will, capable of loving him, God created the world in such a way that the future could not be pre-planned in every detail. Everyone lives as if this were true. We don’t go through our lives thinking that everything we do is pre-programmed.
    So, God knows every possible future and has a plan for everything that can happen. If it’s a question of power, in this view, God has to be more powerful, but yes, more flexible too.
    Personally, I’m not sure it matters whether God knows the future as in “normal” armenianism, or a billion possible futures. He is not caught off guard, either way.
    To have a exhaustively settled future equals Calvinism, with all it’s problems of the non-existence of any way to freely love God.
    I’m not settled, ( lol) on either of the two Armenian views, just trying to completely understand them.
    thanks for putting up with my ramblings…

    Like

    • Yea, time is often made out to not be the issue, but it is still very relevant to the discussion, because it is a possible solution… because if God is outside of time, then that avoids the issues you brought up. God knowing the future does NOT necessitate a pre-planned or pre-programmed future – that’s the point I was trying to get across in my post. IF God can be outside of time, then He may be able to see the decision I happen to freely make, without really having anything to do with me making that decision.
      Also, if God only knows all possible futures, then yes, He is not “caught off guard” in the sense of being unprepared, but even Boyd says that God can be surprised in the sense that He doesn’t know what will take place until it really does. This is not how the Bible presents God… for example, all throughout the Bible we see prophecies foretelling specific, precise details about the future, oftentimes events which depend entirely on small, seemingly-inconsequential decisions (free decisions) made by men – Esther 6; Gen. 3:15; Daniel 9:25-26; Micah 5:2; Gen. 15:13; Zech. 11:12; Ps. 22; Ps. 34:20; Jer. 25:11; 1 Kings 13:2; etc.

      Like

  4. Well, that’s the problem, the Bible presents a God that knows the future (at least in some instances) but it also presents a God who changes his mind frequently. How does God decide to change a future that he already foreknows? (Under open theology, the passages you mentioned would be seen as events God has pre-planned, hence the future is partly open and partly planned)

    For example in 1 Samuel 15, It says twice that God is now sorry that he made Saul king, yet in the same chapter, Samuel says that God doesn’t change his mind. Hello? God just told Samuel that he changed his mind about Saul and Samuel is saying that God doesn’t change his mind? You either have to conclude (as many do) that God didn’t really change his mind or Samuel was just using hyperbole to make a point.

    No, I don’t think God relates to time (in general) in the same way we do, but again, how can he regret something (and there are many such verses) if he sees it all at once or foresees it and already knows about it?

    10 The Lord told Samuel, 11 “Saul has stopped obeying me, and I’m sorry that I made him king.”

    29 Besides, the eternal God of Israel isn’t a human being. He doesn’t tell lies or change his mind.”

    34The Lord was sorry he had made Saul the king of Israel.

    or take Jonah 3:10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

    Now, I know, I know, most commentators will say: Well that’s just figurative language. He didn’t really change his mind.
    But anyone who read the Bible without a pre-supposed idea of God’s immunity is not going to come to that conclusion.
    Ezekiel 18 makes it quite clear that God can and does have different reactions to different human actions.

    Now, like I said, I don’t know who is right, but it’s not as simple as “Scriptures always says this.”

    Like

  5. Brian Coburn says:

    This is always an interesting topic. I appreciate what both of you have said here, as well as your gracious comments to each other. You both have put some extensive thought into your comments, as well as some relevant research.

    The one thing I’ve learned in theology, and am constantly reminded of, is that there is so much about God that is a mystery. The Western mindset is such that we have to figure everything out, no matter how complex and complicated it may be. Now there are some, particularly in the eastern Churches, that would say that our efforts to try to figure things like this out is futile and a waste of time (no pun intended) because God is so far above our understanding that we could never understand anything beyond the very basics of His revelation to us. I don’t totally agree with that, but there is an element of truth in it that we would all probably agree with; Since God is infinite and we are finite creatures created by Him, there will always be a limit to our understanding of Him. Our constant attempt to figure Him out will, in some sense, be inexhaustible.

    That being said, we always have to explore these questions to the best of our abilities; i.e. the study of the scriptures, the use of our minds through philosophy and reason, etc. (not in anyway neglecting the essential role of God the Holy Spirit in illuminating us to a correct understanding), But there are certain issues that I believe will never be solved. The sovereignty vs free will debate is at the top of my list. A greater question emerges in my mind; “does it need to be solved”?

    I know, I’m not saying anything new here, and I’m certainly not saying that these discussions are not important; they are, but in the end, we must acknowledge the paradox that has been unsolvable for nearly 2,000 years: “God is in control, yet man is in control (volition/free will)”.

    Now in regards to this issue of time; “is God bound by time”? “has He bound Himself within time”? “does He really know the future”? I think I understand where the open theist are coming from. Folks like Gregory Boyd are reading their bibles and seeing a God that seems to change His mind sometimes and sometimes changes His plan, based on human decisions. They are trying to solve that mystery by explaining that God must somehow be bound by time or not know the future (if that is truly is what they are saying, it is as I understand it), but I see it all as God explaining Himself through human language and human understanding. We are creature of time and will always be. At no time will we be outside of time. To try to comprehend a timeless being is incomprehensible to a time bound creature.

    I did see one of you elude to “middle knowledge”, which I think is also helpful in this discussion, but also falls short in explanation.

    In my assessment of things, we need to acknowledge certain truths we know that the bible clearly teaches and except them, even though they are paradoxical in nature. If we dwell too much on the paradox, we may neglect simple instruction from the scriptures. For example, we know that the bible commands us to pray, and that prayer makes a difference, but if we dwell too much on the fact that God is sovereign and are convinced that His sovereignty is meticulous, we may consciously or subconsciously decide that prayer is not important and doesn’t make a difference and therefore stop praying. This is the danger of the “either-or” way of thinking as compared to the “both-and” thought process.

    Anyway, I probably haven’t added anything helpful to your debate, but as I read both of your posts, I didn’t notice anything I really disagreed with from either of you. And I guess that’s my point.

    Thank you both for your thoughtful insights.

    Like

  6. Pingback: The Power and Effect of Prayer | Cross-Current

  7. Pingback: Composing a Doctrinal Statement [section 2 — on God] | The Tavern

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s