What Does God Know?

Does God know future events?

The questions in my title and sub-title might seem to most Christians to be rather silly questions. ‘Well of course he does!’ they would say to both. He is omniscient and he knows all things. And that is indeed what Scripture seems to clearly teach.

With some exceptions, divine omniscience has long been considered to be one of the key attributes of God. That certainly has included his knowledge of the future, as well as his knowledge of possible or contingent events. But not all have agreed with this, and in the 1970s and 80s especially a new challenge to the traditional understanding arose in the form of free-will theism, or open theism.

These folks argue that God does not know the future exhaustively, that he may have mistaken knowledge, and that he in fact grows in knowledge. I penned an introductory piece on this movement some years ago, which includes a helpful bibliography. See that piece here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/12/13/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-free-will-theism/

As can be seen in that article, a sizeable library of volumes – both pro and con – exists on this movement. As with all theological and philosophical discussions, matters can get quite complex and detailed. Not wishing to oversimplify things here, I just want to look at three passages often appealed to by the openness of God theologians in terms of divine foreknowledge.

It will be my view that these three texts – and others like them – can all fit in with the traditional understanding of God and his knowledge, and often texts like these involve the use of rhetorical language and the like. If these passages do appear to be problematic on their own, the old hermeneutical rule of comparing Scripture with Scripture must come to our aid here. That is, we always should assess those passages that might be somewhat less clear in the light of those passages that are much clearer.

So let me look at each passage in turn. In Genesis 3:9 we find God asking Adam this: “Where are you?” I recall some decades ago a friend who was did not believe in divine foreknowledge asking me about this text. I replied instantly (as I would hope most believers would have) that this was obviously a rhetorical question. Of course God knew where he was!

God clearly did not lack knowledge about Adam’s geographical whereabouts. This was more a question for the sake of Adam, asking him about his moral and spiritual condition, having just sinned big time, disobeying God’s clear instructions.

Recall what the previous verse said: “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” They foolishly thought they could hide from God, revealing their seared consciences. As John Frame remarks:

Typically, passages in which God “finds out” something occur in judicial contexts. In Genesis 3:9, God asks Adam, “where are you?” This is not a request for information. In this verse God begins his judicial cross-examination. Adam’s responses will confirm God’s indictment, and God will respond in judgment and grace. But the same judicial context exists in other texts where God “comes down” to “find out” something.” See Genesis 11:5, 18:20-21, 22:12, Deuteronomy 13:3, Psalms 44:21, 139:1, 23-34. When God draws near, He draws near as a judge. He conducts a “finding of fact” by personal observation and interrogation, then renders His verdict and sentence (often, of course, mitigated by His mercy). So none of these passages entail divine ignorance.

And similar passages in Genesis could be raised here, such as:

“Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ (Genesis 3:13)

“Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” (Genesis 4:9)

Did God really not know these things? Obviously figurative language was being used for the sake of those God was speaking to. As John Peckham puts it in his 2021 volume, Divine Attributes: Knowing the Covenantal God of Scripture:

Do such passages portray God as lacking knowledge, as some suppose? If God knows everything, why would he ask questions? Notably, questions may be posed for many reasons other than to gain information. When I ask my students what the word “omniscience” means, I ask in order to teach. When I see cookie crumbs on my son’s mouth and ask whether he got into the cookies, I already know the answer. In depositions and trials, lawyers often ask questions to which they already know the answers to get a person’s testimony on record. God’s questions seem to function likewise.

While these sorts of passages seem easy enough to address, two others might be a bit more difficult – at least for some Christians. The next one comes from a chapter of Scripture I just dealt with a few days ago on the Akedah, the binding of Isaac: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2024/03/22/difficult-bible-passages-genesis-22/

The verse so often appealed to involves the words of the angel of the Lord to Abraham: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22;12). The claim is made that God basically had no idea how Abraham might have responded before this test was carried out.

While that is a possible way to look at this, a better view – one in line with the rest of Scripture – would be that this was in fact something God wanted Abraham to know for himself. Indeed, given that most free-will theists do admit that God knows all present realities, then to take their spin on this text would mean he not only does not know the future, but he does not know the present – at least fully. As Bruce Ware writes:

Consider that 1 Chronicles 28:9 (“for the Lord searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts”) and 1 Samuel 16:7 (“God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”) teach us that God knows fully the thoughts and intentions of the heart and inner lives of people. So, doesn’t God know Abraham fully? In fact, doesn’t God know the state of Abraham’s heart better than Abraham himself does? Is there any facet of Abraham’s inner thoughts, feelings, doubts, fears, hopes, dreams, reasonings, musings, inclinations, predispositions, habits, tendencies, reflexes, and patterns, that God does not know absolutely, fully, and certainly? Does not God understand Abraham perfectly? Cannot God read Abraham exactly? Because the openness interpretation of Genesis 22:12 claims that only when Abraham raises the knife to kill his son does God know Abraham’s heart, this open view interpretation cannot avoid denying of God at least some knowledge of the present. As such, this straightforward interpretation ends up conflicting with Scripture’s affirmation that God knows all that is, and it contradicts open theism’s own commitment to God’s exhaustive knowledge of the past and present.

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God's Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism by Ware, Bruce A. (Author) Amazon logo

Or as Norman Geisler has put it:

The passage begins by stating that “God tested Abraham” (v. 1). There is nothing here about God’s desire to learn anything. Rather, God wanted to prove something (cf. 2 Chron. 32:31). What God knew by cognition, he desired to show by demonstration. By passing the test, Abraham demonstrated what God always knew: namely, that he feared God. For example, a math teacher might say to her class, “Let’s see if we can find the square root of 49,” and then, after demonstrating it, declare, “Now we know that the square root of 49 is 7,” even though she knew from the beginning what the answer was. Even so, God, who knows all things cognitively from the beginning, could appropriately say after Abraham had proved his faith, “Now I know [demonstratively] that you fear God.

The third passage is Jeremiah 7:31 which says: “They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.” Very similar things are also stated in Jer. 19:5 and 32:35.

But it seems that these passages also should be seen as being rhetorical in nature. A literary device is being used to express how repulsed God is at the very thought of child sacrifice. Again, because God fully knows the human heart – and the fallen, sinful human heart at that – he full-well knows what evil people are capable of, including slaughtering their own children to false gods.

Even if God himself is part of time, instead of outside of time (a discussion for another article), it is clear that God knew perfectly well about child sacrifice. He had warned about it previously. See for example 2 Kings 16:3. Deuteronomy 12:31, 18:9-10 and Leviticus 18:21). As Millard Erickson writes:

These passages, if taken at face value, indicate that God had indeed anticipated that the people might do these things and had warned them against it. In fact, the Leviticus passage seems to relate explicitly to the statement in Jer. 32:35. It could, of course, be responded that these were simply general warnings against doing what the nations about them were doing, that they are found in lists of such activities, and that they do indicate that Jehovah thought that the people of Israel might do them. Then, however, we must ask just what was the point of these warnings. It appears that, contrary to [Gregory] Boyd, these things did enter God’s mind, at least enough to evoke such a response. Here is a case, then, where other portions of Scripture cannot really be reconciled with the open theist interpretation of those “did not enter my mind” texts. A better solution, one that enables us to retain the concept of the unity of the Bible, would be to seek for other interpretations of these three texts.

A concluding thought by Stephen C. Roy on divine foreknowledge will suffice here:

But it is the glory of Yahweh that he can know and predict the future. So he argues once again in Isaiah 42:8-9:

 

I am the LORD; that is my name!
I will not give my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
See the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you.

 

Two elements of this text are of special importance for our discussion. First of all, God declares that he can and will announce the “new things” well in advance – “before they spring into being.” In this verse, God likens future events (which include events like those decided upon and carried out by Cyrus) to seeds planted in the ground. Even before they sprout and become visible, God can know them and declare them through his prophet. This understanding of God’s knowledge of future events is different than that promoted by open theism. Open theists claim that before future events “spring into being,” they do not exist and so cannot be known, even by God. But according to Isaiah 42:9, before they spring into being, they are known by God and can be declared by him.

 

Secondly, it is important to note the explicit link that Yahweh makes between his ability to know and to announce future events (before they spring into being) and his glory. God’s sovereign determination to not give his glory to idols is linked to his determination to declare and even to boast in his ability to know and to foretell the future (again including free human decisions). This is indeed a distinguishing mark of Yahweh’s divine glory.

That final quote comes from an important book which I have reviewed some years ago: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/12/12/a-review-of-how-much-does-god-foreknow-by-steven-roy/

As stated, this is indeed – as with all theological discussions – a quite massive and complex matter, and I offer here only the slightest of introductory thoughts. Much more needs to be said on this, so further articles on these matters may well be forthcoming.

[2013 words]

8 Replies to “What Does God Know?”

  1. Another aspect on the first reference you used is that their sin immediately seperated them from Him and He, along with rhetorical expression, is drawing attention to the stark change to their relationship and the loss of intimacy that they once enjoyed. It is almost an expression of grief.

  2. Of course, the flipside is the prophetic nature of God throughout scripture and the breadcrumbs that point to the cross. It is almost as though at the one time He both does and doesn’t know the outcome of things.
    I cannot point to any specific reference but I am sure there have been instances where He has expressed disappointment (even after stating it prophetically in earlier passages). One cannot be disappointed if one already knows the outcome of a thing.

  3. Thanks Peter. The verses are easy enough to come by, eg., Genesis 6:6 for God grieving that he made man, and most of the major prophets being told by God ahead of time that the people will not listen and will be stiff-necked and rebellious, etc. He DID know the outcome in advance! So your final point does not follow. Because God is a personal God, he does hurt and grieve when his creatures disobey him and turn from him. Jesus fully knew that his people would mostly reject him, but he still grieved over that. Any parent of wayward children knows this: while they do not have perfect knowledge like God does, they know their rebellious kids well enough to know that they will fail to do this, or refuse to do that – and that is greatly disappointing and hurtful, even though the outcome is nearly certain.

  4. Very helpful discussion. I have often thought about the purpose of God’s instruction to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and have come to agree with what you write, that its purpose was not to prove something to God but “was in fact something God wanted Abraham to know for himself.” It was — as are the many trials and problems we face in life — an opportunity for self understanding and spiritual growth. A painful opportunity, as they often are. Jesus told us we must forsake (or the even stronger “hate” in Luke 14:26) our own father, mother, children etc to follow Him. I still struggle with that.

    I have a question I’d like to ask you, that I’ve been thinking about this Holy Week — what about Judas? Jesus clearly knew Judas would betray him, presumably due to his love of money which Satan used to take control of him. But could Judas be forgiven? Did Judas repent when he went to the chief priests and said he had sinned and gave them back the money? Was he responsible for betraying Jesus if Satan had entered his heart and was controlling what he did? I don’t like to think of God eternally condemning a sinner who has come to his senses and repented. Any insight you can give would be appreciated.

  5. Thanks Marla. Scripture does not give us any reason to believe that Judas really ever repented. There is a difference between remorse and repentance. A lot of people might feel bad about something they have done (especially if they are caught) but that is not the same as biblical repentance. Committing suicide is another indication of his unsaved state. And as Jesus said, “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:24). But even more telling is what we read in John 17:12: “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.”

  6. God’s omniscience can also be perceived in His acts of love and compassion for those who follow Him as our Lord and Saviour. I’m sorry if I’m harping on again about the possible Calvinist theology of predestination and marriage which implies omniscience, but I just find it such a beautiful symbol of our Lord and Saviour’s intimate bond with us. Before we were even thought of, God chose our prospective husbands and wives so that we might live happy and fulfilled lives alongside us until death do us part. And even then, as those who are widowed know, one day we will see the people we loved and still love and who were chosen for us due to His beneficence again, and this time we will never be parted from one another.

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