Monday, 2 April 2012

Does God know the future?

Mainstream Christian doctrine says that God is omniscient. Or in less fancy words, He knows everything. I'm beginning to have some doubts about this though. Let me explain.

Part of the idea about God's omniscience is that He knows the future; for example where you'll be living in ten years' time, who'll win Wimbledon this summer, what word I'll type next. There's plenty of material in the Bible that, on first reading, points to this view. Jesus predicts the future several times, for a start, and in the Old Testament God is recorded as saying things like this:
You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. (Psalm 139:16)
Remember the things I have done in the past. For I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me. Only I can tell you the future before it even happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish. (Isaiah 46:9-10)
This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:10-11)

Don't all these passages tell of a God who sees everything still to happen in the same way as we experience the present? As if the whole of time is stretched out before God like a sheet, so to Him all is in the present tense.

Well... I don't think it's this simple any more. What do you make of these passages which talk about God regretting His own actions, being surprised by the actions of others, and apparently changing His mind?
Then the Lord said to Samuel, “I am sorry that I ever made Saul king, for he has not been loyal to me and has refused to obey my command.” (1 Samuel 15:10-11)
Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah, you judge between me and my vineyard. What more could I have done for my vineyard that I have not already done? When I expected sweet grapes, why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes? (Isaiah 5:3-4)
Set your affairs in order, for you are going to die. You will not recover from this illness... I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will heal you, and three days from now you will get out of bed and go to the Temple of the Lord. I will add fifteen years to your life. (2 Kings 20:1-6)
He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” (Matthew 26:39)

What should we do with all these passages that speak of a God who is within time, much as we are? God is sorry that he made Saul king, He's surprised at His people's disobedience, He changes His mind about when king Hezekiah will die. And finally we have Jesus, in the agonies of knowing what is surely to come, pleading with the Father for another option. How does this make sense if the future is fully settled and foreknown by God?

Two points in closing, and first a request.

Please post a comment if you can think of other Bible passages that seem to indicate God knows all that will happen in the future.

I'll see if there might be another explanation that harmonises with God being surprised, changing His mind, being disappointed and so on, and I'll look again at those passages I quoted at the start of this post.

So that's point one – I'll put a follow-up post up in a few days' time that will, I hope, make the case that perhaps God doesn't know the future in full.

Secondly, this train of thought has all come from reading a book called 'God of the Possible' by an American Baptist pastor called Greg Boyd. (The link is to the church where Boyd is the senior pastor; his personal website is being updated at the moment.) He puts what I think is a compelling case, going through several arguments for the traditional God-outside-of-time view and putting forward his own interpretation for many of the Bible passages that people use to justify that traditional view. Let me know if you're interested in borrowing the book as I'd be glad to lend it to you if you're local to me.


  1. Interesting stuff! How about these verses from Jeremiah 29? 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. 12 In those days when you pray, I will listen. 13 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. 14 I will be found by you,” says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land”.

  2. That passage was in my post! (Third quotation down.) Which means I'll definitely come back to it in 'Does God know the future? Part 2', probably on Thursday or Friday.

  3. There's a name for this doctrine where God doesn't know the future. A coworker used to discuss it with me in the late 80s, early 90s. Tip of the tongue....arrgghhhh.....

    One verse he quoted was something along the lines of "It didn't enter my heart that you would do this". I looked at that verse and it seems a more accurate translation was "It wasn't my intent that you would do this", not that He didn't see it coming. I find it an interesting debate/discussion, but really it doesn't change anything in my view.

  4. D.J. Andrews - I'm guessing you are trying to remember 'open theism' or 'process theology'. The former is what I've been reading about; the latter is (as far as I can make out) rather stronger in its implications and says that God *cannot* control or set the future.

    As for the discussion not changing anything, I'll get to that in my next post...