God and Time V: Foreknowledge from Scripture

Continuing from where we left off from last time...

3. God knows the future

Another set of biblical passages indicate that God knows the future, not just the past or present.  Leaving aside the passages which teach the general doctrine that God knows everything, there are many which explicitly refer to his knowledge of things to come.

The most obvious examples are all the Messianic prophecies which predicted the coming of Jesus, but there are many other examples such as the prediction in the Torah and almost all the pre-exilic prophets that Israel would sin, go into exile, and then be restored.

Sometimes individuals are predicted by name, hundreds of years in advance.  For example, the prediction in 1 Kings 13:2 that Jeroboam's idolatrous altar would be destroyed by King Josiah, hundreds of years later (2 Kings 23:15).  Or the prediction by Isaiah concerning the rule of King Cyrus, the Persion monarch who brought Israel back from exile.  The context of the surrounding passage compares God to idols and false gods, and in many passages describes God's ability to predict the future as a key divine attribute which distinguishes him:

I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.   (Isaiah 46:9-10)

Another striking example is Daniel chapter 11, which gives a blow-by-blow account of the diplomatic relationships between the Ptolomies in Egypt and the Selucids in Syria (poor Israel being wedged right in between, geographically), for hundreds of years up to the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the evil king who outlawed Judaism and desecrated the Temple, whose defeat is celebrated by the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

(These prophecies are so clear, that atheists have no choice but to postulate that these books were actually written after the events in question.  So scholars decide that Daniel wasn't written by Daniel in the 6th century BC, but actually by some anonymous person in the Greek dominated period of the 2nd century.  Even though, oddly, there are no Greek loan words in the book besides the musical instruments.  And the second half of Isaiah was written by somebody else (Deutero-Isaiah) after the return from captivity, notwithstanding the significant literary similiarities between the first and second halves of the book.  And the Torah was patched together by several sources during the Babylonian captivity, and somehow the Jews forced their bitter enemies, the Samaritans, to accept this document as the legitimate Torah.

I can understand why an unbeliever would bite these bullets; what I don't understand is why educated Jews and Christians have a tendency to automatically defer to the results of scholarship, even those based on explictly anti-religious assumptions.  Just because you're not a fundamentalist, doesn't mean you have to unquestioningly swallow everything the other side throws at you!)

In the New Testament, Jesus makes many prophecies about the future.  Humanly speaking, his knowledge of the future was limited in comparison with his Father's unlimited knowledge (Mark 13:32).  Nevertheless, he had sufficient access to the divine foreknowledge, that he predicted the circumstances of his Crucifixion and Resurrection, the destruction of the Temple, that Judas would deny him, and that St. Peter would deny him, among other things.

There are also various statements in which God asserts that he knows somebody in their mother's womb, including perhaps details of their future calling in life.  The most striking is David's statement, in a song on the theme of God's omniscience, who writes that

Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.  (139:4)

No wait, that may be relevant but I actually meant to quote this one:

Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be. 
(Psalm 139:16 NIV; some translations differ)

See also Jeremiah 1:5Isaiah 49:1, and Galatians 1:15.  Oh, and also Romans 9:10-13.

This brings us to the ever-so-slightly controversial topic of predestination.  I'd actually like to sidestep the usual debate about this.  Regardless of whether St. Calvin and his followers' terrible assertions are in fact correct, it is pretty clear that there is a word (προορίζω) in the New Testament which is translated by the English word "predestination".  So all biblical theologies agree that there is such a thing as predestination, which presumably must involve God knowing in advance something about what is going to happen.  Indeed, St. Paul bases God's predestination quite explicitly in his ability to have foreknowledge about what is going to happen:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.  (Romans 8:28-30)

And he is not afraid to talk about all those in the Church were predestined by God, chosen in Jesus Christ:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonshipthrough Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.  (Ephesians 1:3-5)

Note that the "time" during which this predestination occurs is before creation.  It did not happen in time, but in eternity, which is outside of time.

Once you accept that God knows the future, a lot of the reasoning about how God somehow has to "be in time to be in relationship to us" and be "responsive to our choices" and "learn what we will do" or whatever is undermined.  God was already in relationship to us, knowing all about us and calling us, before the first star began to shine!  I don't see why God would need to "change" in response to our actions, if he already knew in advance what we were going to do.

At the level of practical theology, it is comforting to know that God already knows the future and that he isn't just guessing what he needs to do to accomplish his purposes in our lives.  Also, if God knows the future, then it follows that it is reasonable to pray for a favorable outcome concerning events which took place in the past, since when that event was occuring, God already knew that we would pray.  (Here I am assuming there is no weird time travel paradox where we would pray for X to happen only if X did not occur; if so we may be out of luck!  Also, I don't think it's reasonable to pray for things not to happen that we know did happen.  We are not asking God to change the past like a time traveller, but rather to take into account our present-day preferences back when he first created it.)

4. Supposed counterexamples

Now open theists deny that God has the power to predict the future, at least whenever it involves the free choices of human beings.  This is partly based on a philosophical belief, not derived from the Bible, that God foreknowing the future is inconsistent with free will.  (I think this reasoning involves a logical fallacy, but the important thing for now is that it is not an argument spelled out Scripture.  There are passages which may apprently seem to minimize or deny our free will in the light of God's sovereignty, and there are passages which teach the truth of human free will, but there are none which say that we can be free only if God is ignorant of what we will do.)

Many of the prophecies of the future in part 3 seem to involve events that would normally be considered free choices of human beings, assuming we have free will at all.  And, it is easy to see that any small free-will decision I make, by the "butterfly effect", will eventually have a major (usally accidental) impact on the course of the whole world.  In fact, none of us would exist if our parents and ancestors had made even slightly different free will choices.  Hence, if God cannot predict what people will do, it seems unlikely that he would have any ability to foreknow individual human beings in advance.

Some open theists say that God overrides human free will just in these special cases of prophecy, in order to get the outcome he wants.  Leaving aside the unparsimoniousness of this theory—once we admit that God knows some things in the future, it is much simpler to say that he knows them all—it's extremely ironic that this theory, which is supposed to preserve free will, only works by denying the existence of free will in salvation history whenever the rubber hits the road!

For those of us who are not Calvinists, this would also raise very difficult questions about e.g. Judas' betrayal.  St. John's Gospel tells us that "Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him" (6:64).  He predicted Judas' betrayal in advance, and claims it was forshadowed one thousand years earlier by David in Psalms 41 and 55, presumably based on his own experience of being betrayed by a close friend.  (I take very seriously the ability of Jesus to find typological meanings in the Old Testament Scriptures which are not necessarily clear to the rest of us.)  Since being Judas was worse for him than not being born, this would raise serious questions about God's justice, had Judas not chosen freely to be the kind of person he was.  (Presumably Jesus would not have picked him, if he had not had the potential to become a Holy Apostle!)

Back when I was arguing about open theism with St. Dennis Jensen in this thread, he brought up the scene where God (or rather the "angel of the Lord", but in the Torah this usually refers to a manifestation or vision which speaks directly on behalf of God) says

Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.  (Genesis 22:12)

Supposedly, this implies God did not know it before.  That might be a valid Gricean implication if this were the only verse we were working with, but I think it's pretty weak sauce as a counter-argument to the enormous wealth of texts explictly talking about God's foreknowledge of future events.  It seems reasonable to me that the function of the "now" modifier is simply to anchor God's knowledge to the actual event that he knew.   In other words, I read this as saying: As a result of you doing this, I know (and knew, but that is besides the point so I won't mention it) that you are the kind of person who would choose to do this.  God knows that Abraham would sacrifice Isaac because he actually (almost) did.  Had God not tested Abraham, there would have been no fact of the matter about what he would have done.  God knows X because X is true, and "now" is when X occurs, so it is natural to associate God's knowledge with "now" even if in fact it is eternal.

Also, I can't help but notice that the book of Genesis uses quite a lot of anthropomorphisms in general, including when speaking of God's omnisicence.  Remember, this is the same text that says things like

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.  (11:5)

and

“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me.  If not, I will know.”  (18:20-21)

What these passages lack in theological sophistication, they more than make up for in vividness of language.  Indeed, they may be taken to teach an important truth, that God's knowledge is not passive observation-from-afar, but rather a living and active presence, keen to work justice and mercy in the earth.  But since open theists still believe that God fully knows the present, it seems that they too will have to take these passages nonliterally, just as much as the classical theist.  So why can't 22:12 be the same way?

In the Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views book, the Openness guy (St. Gregory Boyd) highlights the passage in Jeremiah where God 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.  (Jer 7:31 + parallel passages)

This could just mean that it didn't ever enter God's mind to command that the Israelites sacrifice their children.  (I know we just did the story of Abraham and Isaac, but that was a test of faith and a sign, not to be imitated by future generations.  And, since God called it off, part of the function of the story is to indicate that he doesn't need child sacrifice!)  But even if we interpret this phrase "enter my mind" more broadly, it could just be a vivid way to refer to God's shock and horror that the Israelites would do such a thing.  A similar thing can be said about this more obviously problematic passage:

Have you seen what faithless Israel did?  She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there.  "I thought, 'After she has done all these things she will return to me'; but she did not return.  (Jer 3:7)

Here we have God indicating that he had certain expectations, phrased as if they were beliefs, which were not fulfilled.  But this can be taken as a poetic way to describe God's frustration.  In the same book, St. David Hunt (the guy I agree with), draws this analogy:

Learning that my best philosophy student has plagiarized his term paper, I exclaim, "I can't believe it!"  This "can't believe" must be distinguished from the ignorance I was in before the facts came out; it's a disbelief that's possible even when I know the truth.  I'm simply dumbfounded that someone with such ability, who did not need to plagiarize in order to write an "A" paper, would stoop to cheating.  God must be similarly frustrated that his chosen people, on whom he lavished so much attention, would betray him.  "It would never cross my mind that someone with all your advantages would do such a thing," he might say; and he might say it even though he knew from all eternity what they would do.  (p. 51 in my paperback edition)

I've mentioned before that I agree with the title of St. John Sander's Openness book The God who Risks, but I don't agree with most of the contents.  Sanders claims that passages where God speaks in conditional language, like when he says "if you do A, then B will happen, but if you do A', something else will happen", suggests that God doesn't know the future.  I can't agree with this argument.  God can have plenty of reasons to make conditional statements to us human beings, even if he knows perfectly well what will happen.

Indeed, in Deuteronomy, God lays out conditional blessings for keeping the Torah, and conditional curses for disobeying, shortly before predicting which of the two outcomes would in fact occur!  This does not mean that there was no point in telling them what would happen in the event that they obeyed.  As it was indeed in their power to do.  (Or was it?)  In any case the blessings were not in vain, given that some generations heeded the Lord more than others, and received part of the blessing during that time, before the inevitable happened.

None of us temporal creatures wish to be punished for something we did before we have had the fun of doing it.  So if God wants to warn us off doing something, he had better phrase it conditionally, as "IF you sin, THEN bad consequences will happen."  Even if he knows we will, as a matter of fact, disobey, a flat prediction to that effect isn't always the right way to motivate us to not do it.  Indeed, in the absence of a warning, the nature of the decision itself becomes psychologically different.  In some cases, people will do what is right only because they were warned about being punished if they didn't.

So it makes sense for God to state his relationship to us in conditional terms, and to wait until we actually sin in order to punish us.  (Or he may wait even longer, since he is slow to anger, patient and longsuffering.)  Similarly, it makes sense for him to display his wrath towards sin until such time as we repent, and then afterwards restore us to favor.  Even if he knows we will eventually repent, it does us no good to receive his blessings until we are ready for them.

Even though God knows what will happen, he also knows what could have happened.  So when, in certain biblical texts God says that "perhaps" the Israelites will repent (even though they didn't) this need not mean that he was caught short.  Instead it could refer to the fact that the intervention might have been capable, given the situation, of causing them to repent.

I think also explains all the passages in point 1 about God repenting and changing his mind.  Even if God is eternal and knows the future, we are finite creatures.  I agree that God must adapt some effectively temporal game-theoretic strategies in order to relate to temporal creatures.  I deny that he has to somehow strip himself of his eternal existence or foreknowledge in order to do this!

No matter what we say about God and Time, there are going to be some passages which post theological challenges.  Some of them may require some creative interpretation, to harmonize with the rest of the Bible.  But it seems to me much easier to explain the passages involving God repenting or coming to know things, in terms of the eternal view, then to explain why a God limited to the present would be spoken of as changeless and knowing the future.

And we haven't yet gotten to the best proof-texts yet!  To be continued...

About Aron Wall

In 2019, I will be studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics as a Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford.
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7 Responses to God and Time V: Foreknowledge from Scripture

  1. Hi Aron, very interesting as usual - even though I don't fully agree. Not wishing to start a major discussion, but I hold a few alternative views.

    1. I agree that God knows our future, but our language is often inadequate. If God is eternal, he doesn't have a future, just a present. He knows (present tense) us before he creates the universe, as he knows every fact in his eternal present. If we carry this too far, we limit God to never changing (according to our logic) because all things are eternally present for him, but I presume the reality of eternity is way more different from our understanding then the real world would be to a baby in the womb.

    2. You assume the historicity of more of the Old Testament than scholars do. Your arguments about Daniel and Isaiah are fair enough, but there are pretty good (archaeological) reasons to believe the accounts of the "conquest" of Canaan by Joshua includes exaggeration at the very least. Likewise there is limited archaeological evidence for much that comes before. We could pass that off as a limitation in what evidence survives except that the conquest information is so telling, it must throw the earlier stuff into some doubt. It is also true that much of Genesis and the Law appear to be copied from or at least similar to other ancient near east legends and law codes that were probably earlier.

    I make theses point because if the history and the laws are not as literal as we might think, then we seem forced to a "progressive revelation" theology that means some of the evidence you quote (e.g. Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac) may represent an early and less true stage in progressive theology. This is a scary thought in some ways, but as soon as we accept evolution, there has to be some form of progressive revelation, and deciding when provisional truth becomes eternal truth is a moot point.

    3. Many prophecies claimed as true prophecies are doubtful at best - e.g. Ezekiel 26 & 29 on Tyre and Isaiah 13 & Jeremiah 51 on Babylon get the broad facts right but the details often wrong. Many of the so-caled prophecies of Jesus were not original prophecies of a future Messiah, but something else that was re-interpreted in the NT - doubtless God planned all this, but it means we have to be a little more circumspect in interpreting prophecy as prediction.

    So I agree with you overall, but I think some of the arguments are problematic. Thanks.

  2. Aron Wall says:

    Eric,
    Thanks for the comments, but I'm not sure I see how these points are relevant to my argument.

    1. God is indeed far beyond our understanding. But if the argument is, that therefore we shouldn't expect to be able to say anything reliable about him, then that might be an argument against my position, but it is also an argument against any other position about God and Time...

    However, there is a long tradition of apophatic or negative theology, in which one tries to define God by saying what he is not. In other words, normally denying that he has some limitation inherent in the material world. It seems to me that the statement that God is outside of Time is of this nature.

    2. Yes, and I still feel reasonably comfortable taking most (not all) of the OT narrative to be historical. I do agree that the archaeological evidence for the Conquest is not compelling, and I wouldn't at all be surprised if certain aspects were distorted or legendary, but I still think the Exodus probably happened in some form. We've discussed this issue before. As I said, even though I'm not a fundamentalist, and I'm open to seeing certain parts of the Hebrew scriptures as being mythological, I feel that the kind of "scholars" you mention (who are not a homogenous group, of course) frequently are basing their views off of assumptions I don't share.

    "Progressive revelation" is the idea that God gradually revealed more things to Israel as time went on, as they became ready for new truths. This seems to me to be obviously true, regardless of whether or not the early parts of Hebrew Scripture happened literally. But that doesn't mean that the original revelation was plain false, just that it was incomplete and/or symbolic.

    In any case, the New Testament teaches that the Torah was divinely inspired, and to me this is a lot more important than knowing which parts are historical---if the text is divinely inspired then I need to treat it with respect as a potential source of doctrine regardless of whether the events literally happened. For example, the geological record makes it quite clear that there was no global Flood, yet I still discussed the Noah story in my last post, because I do think that the story has a moral, that it is supposed to tell us something important about God and humanity.

    So I don't actually think that the historicity of these parts of Scripture is relevant to my argument. But even if I were to grant for the sake of argument that it is relevant, I think it only makes my argument stronger. You'll notice that the stuff about Abraham fell into the section labelled "apparent counterexamples" [to my thesis that God knows the future]. So if you impeach those portions of Scripture, it makes my argument stronger, not weaker!

    The only other part of the Torah which was particularly relevant to my argument, was the discussion of the Moses' prophecy in Dueteronomy that the Israelites would be exiled into captivity. Whatever the origin of the book of Deuteronomy, so long as it was written before the Exile, it still counts as a successful prediction. And the same prediction was made by many other prophets.

    3. A lot of the Old Testament prophecies about what would happen to various nations do seem to have been literally fulfilled. But in some cases, there are difficulties reconciling it with other (after-the-fact) historical sources. This is a complicated topic and I'm by no means an expert, but it seems to me that one would expect some amount of difficulties and apparent contradictions, from the perspective of 2500 years later, even if in reality the prophecies were totally accurate. There may also be potential theological excuses such as literary genre, God relenting, and so on. The "errors" are only relevant if the reason they arose is that God didn't know what was going to happen but was just guessing. As should be obvious, I think this is the least plausible explanation for the apparent failures.

    With respect to the Messianic prophecies, I think it is a serious mistake to think that if a prophecy refers to something in its immediate historical context, it can't also have a Messianic meaning. Jesus and the Apostles were well within the mainstream of Jewish interpetation in this respect. Nevertheless, there are also many Old Testament prophecies which are clearly messianic even in their original context. And it only takes one example of a successful, non-coincidental prediction of somebody's free decision to prove that God has divine foreknowledge.

  3. TY says:

    Hi Dr. Wall,

    Interesting and thought-provoking posts as usual. I have a question that bears some resemblance to the Eric's point #2 and it's about the Book of Revelation, which is expressed in figurative language. Some commentators, atheists and anti-Christians, go so far as to say (mockingly) the writer of the Book was under the strong influence of some hallucinogenic substance. How should a thoughtful Christian interpret the prophesies in the Book so that it harmonises with the rest of scripture? The moon turning into blood, for example. I'm afraid we might find our "creative interpretation" of no help.

    Thanks.

  4. Hi Aron,

    I wasn't seeking to oppose your conclusions - I generally agree with them - but to soften the definiteness of some of them a little, and particularly to reduce a little the theological value we put on some events such as Abraham and Isaac. If God started with the Hebrews where they were at (i.e. as ancient near east peoples with similar beliefs to those around them) and gradually taught them new things, some of the first things would be provisional at best. For example, we may not think the punishments of stoning to be appropriate for some of the crimes of the day, even if we believe they are still crimes.

    So it may also be true that some of the views of God, including his relationship to time, or anthropomorphisms, may reflect more of the beliefs God was taking them out of than the beliefs he is taking us all towards. And therefore less relevant to us today.

    So I agree that God has foreknowledge, but just think some of the OT arguments for this and against this need to be taken circumspectly. Thanks again.

  5. Sarah says:

    I've been reading about Middle Knowledge (mostly from William Lane Craig)

    Do you have thoughts/post on this theory of free will?

  6. Daniel says:

    Eric and Aron,
    It is interesting that God Himself tells us in Jeremiah 9:23 to "boast in this, that he understands (adequately apprehends?) and knows me, that I am the LORD ( I am that I am that I am that I am), so that while He whose "understanding is infinite" (Psalm 145:7) and so is incomprehensible, is nevertheless understandable, knowable as He reveals Himself.

    Eric notes that "If we carry this too far, we limit God to never changing (according to our logic) because all things are eternally present for him". In Malachi 3:6 Yahweh points out, "I am the I am that I am that I am that I am; I do not change." I really appreciate your sharing your thoughts and pondering about what can and cannot be known about the God who is there. Thanks.
    Grateful,
    Daniel

  7. Aron Wall says:

    Sarah,
    I said something about why I don't believe in Middle knowledge in the second half of this comment, and also later in the same thread.

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