What Does God Know and How Does He Know It?

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Currently, a debate is raging among some evangelicals regarding the omniscience of God. That is why I am spending an entire article on this subject, particularly focusing on God’s knowledge of the future.

What Does God Know?

He knows all possible happenings.
He knows what will actually happen.

He knows the decisions that I could make.
He knows what decisions I will actually make.

He knew that I could have decided not to write this article.
He knew that I would decide to write it.

He knew all the possible girls that I could have dated and married.
He knew which one I would date and marry.

He knows that I could witness to my neighbor across the street or decide not to.
He knows whether or not I actually will.

He knows that I could persevere in my faith or fail to persevere in my faith.
He knows whether I will persevere in my faith or not.

God knows everything.

Many people would challenge a few of the statements I just made. They’ll say that there are reasons to believe that God doesn’t know everything about the future.

Is the Future Unknowable?

Some say that God does not know the future because the future is unknowable – it is not something that can be known. Why can’t it be known? Because it doesn’t exist yet. However, this kind of thinking really comes out of our own mind’s limitations. We don’t understand how God could know something that “doesn’t exist yet.” We certainly know that we can’t see into the future. But God is not finite like we are. Knowing the future is not impossible (or contradictory) for the Creator of time. As the Creator of time, God knows the “end from the beginning.”1 We will refer later to scriptural data that demonstrates that God knows this “unknowable” future. Of course, if God knows it, then it is not unknowable.2

Would Foreknowledge Limit God’s Ability to Interact Meaningfully with Us?

Some say that foreknowledge limits God’s ability to interact meaningfully with his creatures – they’ll say, “How could God have meaningful relationships with people if He knows precisely the choices they will make?” The answer to this is that since God is infinite, He is big enough and wise enough to interact meaningfully with people whose futures He already knows.3 Even those whom He knows will ultimately reject Him can have an intimate personal relationship with God before they do reject Him. You and I would have a hard time accepting someone we know will later reject us, but this is no problem with our infinite God.

Evidence that God Knows the Future

Those who say that God doesn’t know the future have a big problem: the scriptural proof that God can look ahead into the future and see things that would happen apart from His manipulation. One example is the fact that Jesus knew Judas would freely betray him. It is clear that Jesus knew who would betray him (see Matthew 26:21-25). It is also clear that God did not force Judas to betray Jesus. When Jesus said, “Offenses must indeed come, but woe to that person by whom they come” (Matthew 18:7), He was indicating that the one who would betray Him would be someone who freely chose to do so (otherwise how could the betrayer be accountable for his actions, and bring woe upon himself?). Jesus implied that the one betraying Jesus could have been someone different than the one who actually did. Jesus knew who would betray Him (Matthew 26:21-25), and the betrayer freely did so (Matthew 18:7). This example shows that God knows what free choices will be made in the future, without God causing those choices to occur.

We can also infer God’s foreknowledge from Scriptures that speak of God’s limitless knowledge or understanding. John 3:20 says that God “knows all things.” If God knows all things, then He knows the future. Psalm 147:5 says that God’s “understanding is infinite.” If God’s understanding is infinite, He must have infinite knowledge of the future. God would not understand everything to the greatest degree if He did not know what would happen in the future.

What if God Did Not Know the Future?

Why is this issue important? Why should it matter whether or not God knows the future? Think about it. Could you trust God completely with your life if you did not have the confidence that He had infinite wisdom? God would have to have infinite wisdom in order to infallibly guide me. But how could God be all-wise if He did not know the future? How could He guide my life accurately if he didn’t know the future choices I will make or the future choices of the people that I will meet, especially since He wouldn’t even know what people I will choose to meet?

Think about a decision you need to make. Maybe you would like to find a wife. Surely you want God to help you find the right person. Let’s say there are 3 girls that you could ask out, equally pretty, equally talented, equally spiritual, equally attractive to you. You are confused. You are not sure who to ask out. So you go to God for guidance. “Lord, I need wisdom. I need you to help me to decide who is the best girl for me.” Question: On what basis does God give you direction? If God doesn’t know the decisions that those girls will make in the future, how can you be sure He will help you pick the right person? He would know absolutely everything that is presently true about the girls, knowing their desires and the direction that they would tend to go, but He would not know their future decisions. If they truly have free will, then they could reverse their present inclinations and be very different a few years from now. If God does not know what they will decide in the future, then you may end up with the worst of the three, rather than the best. God will be shown to be lacking in wisdom. He would have less than infinite wisdom.

Do you see why it is important to believe that God knows everything, including the future? If God does not know the future, then He is limited. He is finite. He isn’t an infinite God.4

Does God Know the Future because He Observes It or because He Causes It?

How does God know the future? Does He know the future predictively (because He causes the future)? Or does He know from observation (because He observes the future from above time)?

Some would say that God knows the future because He causes it (John Calvin). This predictive model of foreknowledge says that God knows what will happen ahead of time because He has predetermined everything. But for God to know the future does not mean that He causes it. Knowledge does not imply causation. Just because we know the sun will rise tomorrow doesn’t mean that we will make it rise.

If God knows the future because He decreed that everything will be a certain way, then we do not have true freedom. God would be manipulating everybody and everything. We would not have (grace-enabled) free will and thus we would not be accountable for our actions. Anything bad we did would really be God’s fault.

Instead of accepting this predictive model of foreknowledge, we should rather accept the observational model, which teaches that God knows the future because He observes it from outside of time.5 According to this view, God sees the free actions of his creatures before they perform the actions. He sees my future actions but doesn’t force me to perform them. For instance, though God infallibly knew that I would eat spaghetti for supper tonight, that doesn’t mean that He made me eat spaghetti.6 God also knows how He will in the future intervene in the world. This intervention will not override our freedom, but it will allow God to accomplish His general purposes for His creation.

Openness Theology vs. Arminian Theology vs. Calvinistic Theology

There is a debate going on between Calvinists, classical Arminians (we will call them Arminians here), and Openness theologians (a newer kind of Arminian) on the issues we have just discussed. In this Calvinist-Arminian-Openness debate, there are some interesting intersections. In one way, the Arminians are teaming up with the Calvinists. They concur that God knows all the future, whereas Openness theologians believe that the future is “open” – that most future events are not certain to happen just the way that God foresees that they will– because God can’t foresee them.

In another way the Openness theologians are teaming up with the Arminians. They concur that man has significant freedom to choose. They oppose the Calvinists, who emphasize God’s sovereignty to the detriment of man’s freedom (though the Calvinists would deny that that is the effect). Arminians and Openness theologians both are concerned that the Calvinist’s view destroys the meaningfulness of God’s relationships with humans.

And in one important way, the Calvinists and Openness Theologians are teaming up against the Arminians. Though it is true that Calvinism and Openness theology are substantially on opposite ends of the spectrum (Openness theology emphasizes man’s freedom, whereas Calvinism emphasizes God’s sovereignty), it is interesting to see that Calvinism and Openness theology both agree on one thing that Arminianism rejects: Both the Openness theologians and the Calvinists believe that God can only know the future that He has decreed. They both accept the predictive view of God’s foreknowledge. Remember, John Calvin said that God only knows the future because He causes it. According to this view, the only reason God knows the tiniest details that ever will occur in the universe is because God has planned everything out. Though the Openness theologians don’t accept the idea that God has everything preplanned, they do believe that God has pre-planned a few things.7 However, both Calvinists and Openness theologians do not believe that God knows for certain anything in the future that He has not predetermined.

This creates a problem for the Openness theologians because (since they believe that God doesn’t know everything about the future) they end up teaching that God learns new things as His free creatures make new decisions. If God learns, then He doesn’t have all knowledge. He is not omniscient. Openness theologians are in trouble because they make God finite by teaching that God grows in His knowledge. Having made free creatures who will make future decisions that He doesn’t know, God would have to learn about those decisions as He goes along, inevitably finding out He should have made decisions earlier that He did not.

This takes us back to our discussion on the wisdom of God. Do you see the implications of the Openness position for God’s wisdom, His ability to apply knowledge to make proper decisions? God could not have all wisdom if He doesn’t have knowledge of His free creatures’ future decisions. To put it another way, God could not always make right choices in how He deals with people if His certain knowledge of the future is limited to the relatively few future things he determines.8 God could not have all wisdom because the best decisions many times are contingent upon other decisions people will make in the future.

Openness theologians say that God can guide us accurately because He knows, based on all His present knowledge and His knowledge of the necessary future, the infinite possibilities that exist in the indeterminate future. He knows exactly what to do if this occurs, or what He will do differently if that occurs instead. But this implies that God finds out information long after He could have used that information to guide me in my decision-making. Even if God knows the best decision to make right now based on all the past and present information and the likelihood of future decisions people will make, He may need to resort to Plan B and Plan C soon after, because He wasn’t able to predict with 100% certainty the future decisions that people would make. If he had known for sure that somebody would do a particular thing to me, He may have advised me to do something differently that He told me to do before. God could still give a lot better advice than anyone else – since He knows everything intimately – but He would not be able to guide me perfectly. (We understand that God has to use Plan B and Plan C with us sometimes, but that is after we have made bad decisions that God has to deal with, not because He wasn’t able to anticipate exactly what was going to actually happen.)

Surely God would make mistakes in guiding us if He can’t anticipate every action of His free creatures. Fortunately, we can reject this thinking when we realize that God, as the Alpha and Omega, knows the end from the beginning. Having infinite knowledge, God can observe all of time from the vantage point of eternity. God stands above time, yet interacts within it. God understands the progression of time, and He relates to us in time, yet also is big enough to see all the future without predetermining it.

The problem with the Calvinists in relation to foreknowledge is that they end up denying free will. Even those Calvinists with a “soft determinism” view (that somehow man’s freedom is compatible with God’s predetermining that they would act a certain way) really end up denying man’s freedom.9 But if man does not have freedom, he is not made in the image of the triune God, whose Persons lovingly and freely commit themselves to each other.

The Openness Theologians make a good point when they note that the Calvinists have a God that does not respond. How could He sincerely respond if He has determined every action?

But the classical Arminian does not have this Calvinist problem. According to the Arminian, God does respond to the free actions of His creatures. He simply knows ahead of time what free actions His creatures will commit. God is so big that He can respond in time and in the appropriate way to decisions that he knows we will make in the future, even when He also knows when we will make an opposite decision later in the future.

The following chart compares and contrasts Arminian, Calvinist and Openness perspectives on this issue.

Calvinism Classical Arminianism Openness Theology
God knows all the future because He has predetermined it. God knows all the future– the parts that He has predetermined and the parts that are based on the free decisions of His creatures. God knows some of the future– the part that He has predetermined.
God can’t know anything in the future that He hasn’t predetermined. God knows even the “un-determined” future because He can simply observe the future from His perspective above time. God can’t know anything in the future that He hasn’t predetermined– because the future doesn’t exist yet.
Calvinists use this logic:

 

If God has perfect knowledge of the future, then the future is certain to happen the way God knows it.

 

If it is certain, then we couldn’t change it even if we wanted to.

 

Therefore we have been predetermined to behave a certain way.

Arminians use this logic:

 

If God has perfect knowledge of the future, then the future is certain to happen the way God knows it.

 

But the certainty is in the mind of God, not in the decisions of God’s creatures. God’s free creatures could have decided differently. If they had, God would have known their decisions differently.

Openness Theo. use this logic:

 

If God has perfect knowledge of the future, then the future is certain to happen the way God knows it.

 

If it is certain, then we couldn’t change it even if we wanted to.

 

Therefore God doesn’t know all the future because otherwise we would have been predetermined to behave a certain way.

Calvinism preserves the infinite wisdom of God, but ultimately denies the true freedom of man. Arminianism preserves the infinite wisdom of God, as well as the freedom of man. Preserves the freedom of man, but undermines the infinite wisdom of God.

 

Does God’s Knowledge of the Future Affect Our Freedom?

Have you ever wondered how God could know the future without taking away our freedom to decide what our future will be? I mean, if God knows what I am going to do tomorrow, then I will do tomorrow exactly what God knows I am going to do. This must mean that I can’t do anything to change the events in my life tomorrow, right? Actually, we can change our mind. We must remember that our decisions are not determined by God’s knowledge; rather, God’s knowledge is determined by our decisions. God simply knows the free decisions that I will make. This is not to say that God doesn’t bring influences into my life, for He does, but we do have real freedom, and I can change my mind. However, if I decided tonight to completely change my plans for tomorrow (maybe to try to “fake out” God), God would have known that instead of knowing that I was going to do what I had previously planned. We can’t fool God; nor can we blame Him for our bad choices.

Because God’s foreknowledge is based on His observation of the future, rather than strictly on His decrees, God preserves our freedom. Because God knows the future, He is able to accurately predict it, and is never caught off-guard.

Conclusion

God knows all things, including all possibilities and everything about the future. He knows all the future through observing it, not causing it. That way, He preserves our freedom while at the same time He is able to use His infinite wisdom to infallibly guide our footsteps.

 


 

  1. Isaiah 46:9-10, “Remember the former things of old, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, “My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure.”
  2. One of the big differences between an infinite being and a finite being is that a finite being cannot make accurate prophecies. Being omniscient, God knows the future. That is why He is able to make prophecies. That is why so much of the Bible (25%) was prophetic when it was written. If God didn’t know the future, why would so much of the Bible be predictive?
  3. This answer is only adequate because we understand that God knows the future through observing it rather than causing it to happen. If God caused the future to happen, then I don’t believe His relationships with His creatures would be very meaningful.
  4. Of course, if there is a God, He must be infinite, for only an infinite being could forever exist and bring everything created into existence.
  5. Not all Arminians accept the observational model. For example, some accept Molinism, an attempt to reconcile a strong view of sovereignty with libertarian free will, but seems to end up in the same place Calvinism does in some important respects. For more information on Molinism, go to http://www.theopedia.com/Molinism.
  6. Now, it might look like God had predetermined that I would eat spaghetti tonight if He had told me a week ago that He knew what I would do. I might feel like I was being forced to eat spaghetti – that my freedom was taken away. To use another example, if God told me a week ago that He knew I would get into a car accident tomorrow, I would no doubt try to disprove His foreknowledge of this inevitable event. Fortunately, God doesn’t usually let us know exactly what He knows we will do. God does make many prophecies about the end times and gives conditional promises in His Word, but we realize that we have the freedom to decide what we will do with our life, even as we know that God knows already what we will freely do.
  7. Actually, every prophecy in the Bible, according to the Openness theologians, will be fulfilled, not because God could look into the future and see what was going to happen, but because God decreed that these predicted events would occur. This means that God, not being able to observe the future free actions of man, has had to superintend some events in such a way as to potentially override the free will of man. For instance, if the Openness theologians are right, for Jesus to be infallibly correct concerning Judas’ betrayal, God would have to make sure that Judas did indeed betray him.
  8. The openness theologians will say that since God knows our past and present intimately, He has a very good idea of how we will behave in the future, but if we have true freedom – which openness theologians say we have, then God can’t know for a certainty what we will do.
  9. The soft determinism view says that God influences the mind, will, and emotions of each person (and works in circumstances) so that everyone freely chooses what God wants him to choose. However, we wouldn’t have true freedom in that case, because having true freedom means that we could have done otherwise than we have done.
    Determinists do not allow for the freedom of individuals to do other than what they have been programmed to do. We certainly acknowledge that man’s ability to do right comes only by the grace of God enabling him, but we would assert that man can freely reject the grace to do what is right, and many times they do!
Mark Bird
Mark Bird is Professor of Theology and Apologetics at God's Bible School and College.