In the last few decades, a serious error has arisen in the church that has come to be known as ‘open theism’.
Proponents of this view believe that God’s knowledge of the future is limited, and they argue in this way:
God has given human beings the ability to have real relationships with Himself. This means that He gives us genuine free will (often referred to as libertarian free will or contra-causal free will). If God knew all the future, then the future would be fixed, and a fixed future is incompatible with humans having free will. Therefore God cannot know everything that will happen in the future.
The main concern of open theists is to uphold a belief in the free will of people. They are opposed to the idea that all actions of people are determined by causes that are ultimately outside themselves. The belief that God’s knowledge of the future is limited is not their main interest. But it is a belief they feel it is necessary to hold if they are to retain their belief in free will.
I don’t want to get into the whole issue of God’s sovereignty and people’s free will here, except to say that I am fairly sure that open theists’ view of free will is a good one. However, I am certain that they are completely mistaken about God’s limited knowledge of the future. In fact, the free will of people is entirely compatible with God knowing everything that will happen in the future.
There are a few points I would like to make:
Open theists often point to passages in the Bible where God speaks about regretting that He has done something, changing His mind, or gaining new insight. They claim that these passages show that God’s knowledge of the future is limited.
For example, in Genesis 6:5-6 we are told:
‘The LORD saw that the evil of man on the earth was great, and that the inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. Then the LORD regretted that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.’
Similarly, in 1 Samuel -11 we read:
‘Then the word of the LORD came to Samuel: “I regret that I made Saul king, because he has turned away from following Me . . .”’
Again, in Genesis , after Abraham has proved himself willing to sacrifice Isaac, God says:
‘. . . now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.’
And in Jonah we are told:
‘When God saw what they [the Ninevites] did and that they turned from their evil ways, He relented and did not bring on them the disaster He had threatened.’
Many other texts could be added to this list.
It is true that at first glance these passages do seem to suggest that there have been times when God has learned something that He didn’t previously know.
However, we need to be careful not to interpret biblical texts more scientifically and technically than we should. Ancient Jews often expressed things using colourful, non-literal figures of speech. And one example of this is the figure of speech known as anthropomorphism.
Anthropomorphism involves speaking about someone or something as if he/she/it is a human being, although literally that is not the case. In the Bible it is used frequently to describe God. God is invisible spirit (John ), but it is impossible for us to conceptualise Him in that way. So the Bible often anthropomorphises Him.
For example, the Psalms frequently speak about God stretching out His hand, baring His arm, and about His voice, His footsteps etc. God is pictured as if He is a human being, so that we are able to conceptualise Him better. (The incarnation, in which God the Son took upon Himself a human nature in order to become the God-Man Jesus Christ, is very different from anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is simply about picturing the invisible God as if He were a human.)
When used to describe God, anthropomorphism doesn’t just involve physical features, however. Human psychological reactions are sometimes attributed to God that He does not literally experience. (Often this use of human reactions to describe God is called anthropopathism, but we can think of it as a type of anthropomorphism.)
It is very easy to understand the four passages I cited above, and many others, in this way. There is no reason for us to suppose that God literally grew in knowledge or that He literally realised He had made some bad decisions. Instead, God is being visualised as if He were a human who has grown in knowledge or come to realise something. As humans we are more able to grasp the distress that God literally feels, or the dislike or like that He literally has, if psychological anthropomorphisms are used. The alternative would be to talk about Him in abstract terms. But these usually don’t impact on us so well.
To understand passages like the ones cited above literally is therefore to fail to understand their symbolic nature. Properly understood, they don’t suggest that God’s knowledge of future events is limited in any way.
Biblical passages that contradict open theism
There are also a number of biblical passages that contradict open theism.
Revelation 13:8 is one example. In this verse, grammatically the most natural way of reading the text in Greek is:
‘. . . whose name has not been written in the book of life of the Lamb slaughtered from the foundation of the world.’
If this is the correct interpretation, this verse would be telling us that at the time the world was created, the crucifixion of Christ was a definite part of God’s plan. This is a big problem for open theists, because, in their theory, at the time God made the world He didn’t know whether people would sin or not.
It is grammatically possible to take the Greek of this verse differently and connect ‘from the foundation of the world’ with ‘whose name has not been written’. It would then mean:
‘. . . whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slaughtered.’
Under this interpretation, although the Lamb is no longer explicitly said to have been slaughtered from the foundation of the world, a new problem arises for open theists. According to open theism, God doesn’t yet know which people will in the future come to faith in Christ for salvation. However, this doesn’t square with names that have been written in the Lamb’s book of life from the foundation of the world.
Plainly, however we understand Revelation 13:8 grammatically, it contradicts open theism.
Similarly, in 1 Peter -20 Peter says:
‘. . . you were not redeemed with perishable things . . . but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or defect. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world . . .’
Note how this passage states that Christ was foreknown by God before the foundation of the world. Because there is also a reference to Christians being redeemed by Christ’s blood, God’s foreknowledge of Christ here surely includes His crucifixion. Again, this means that God must have foreknown human sin as a certainty, something that open theism denies.
Another relevant passage is Ephesians 1:4. Here Paul states:
‘. . . He [God] chose us in Him [Christ] before the foundation of the world . . .’
This runs into the same difficulty for open theism that we have just seen in connection with Revelation 13:8 and 1 Peter 1:18-20. If God chose people in Christ before He made the world, then He is surely envisaged knowing for certain at that time that the human race would sin, something that open theists deny.
Other passages could also be added to the ones I have just listed, such as Jesus’ prophecies of the sins of Judas Iscariot and Peter. Quite simply, there are biblical texts that seem clearly to contradict open theism.
God existing outside time
Something else we must consider is the relationship of God to time. If God’s knowledge of the future were limited, that would have to mean that He exists in time. In other words, He would have to experience the progression of time as humans experience it, or at least in a similar way.
Open theists are clear that they do indeed believe that God exists in time. And some other Christians also take this view.
Those Christians who claim that God exists in time fall into two camps. Some believe that God has always existed in time. And others believe that God created time and then chose to enter into it.
Let’s think about each of these groups in turn.
Firstly, then, there are those who claim that God has always existed in time. They argue that time is not something God created, but that it has always existed back into the infinite past.
This, however, is an extremely dubious idea. The concept of a God who has always existed in time is a long way from the unchanging God of traditional Christian faith.
It is worth noting too that in physics time is widely understood as something that is bound up with space, and there seems to be no good reason for thinking that physicists have got this wrong. Importantly, all Christians agree that God created space. So if time is indeed bound up with space, it would make sense if time were also a created thing.
As far as the Bible is concerned, it is true that there don’t seem to be passages which plainly teach that God created time. However, importantly, no passages teach that He did not create it. And in fact, Jude 25 fits very well with the idea that time was created.
The Greek of the best attested text of this verse includes the phrase pro pantos tou aionos. In close English translation this means ‘before all the age’, where the age in question is apparently the entire course of time. Many English translations appropriately translate these words as ‘before all time’.
It is true that ‘before all time’ in this verse cannot be taken strictly literally. ‘Before’ is a temporal idea, so ‘before all time’ cannot be a technical statement. Nevertheless, this verse does seem to suggest that time had a beginning.
When all these points are taken into consideration, we should not hesitate to say that God created time. And in that case, He couldn’t have always existed in time.
As I have noted, there is a second group of Christians who believe that God exists in time. Those in this group accept that God created time when He created the universe. But they argue that, having created time, God then entered into it, and that ever since He has existed in time.
This, however, is also an extremely dubious theory. The idea of a God who would change in this way is in stark contrast to the unchanging God of traditional Christian faith. And it also seems very implausible that God could or would allow Himself to be bound by something He created.
The positions of both groups of Christians who think that God exists in time therefore fail to convince. And if He is outside time, there would be nothing to stop Him knowing the future exhaustively.
How we picture God knowing the future
It seems that when most Christians think of God knowing the future, they picture a God in the present who is peering into the future. In other words, they picture God thinking about the future in the same way that they would picture a human thinking about the future. Similarly, with the past, they picture God looking back into the past in the same way that we remember things.
It is true that the Bible visualises God in this way (e.g., in Romans ; 11:2; 1 Peter ). Nevertheless, we can easily see this simply as an anthropomorphism that helps us to conceptualise Him better.
If we want to think more precisely about God knowing the future, I would suggest that there is a better picture we can use. We can think of God looking at time in the same way that a human being looks at a straight line drawn on a piece of paper.
The human is outside the line drawn on the paper and can see the whole line at once. Similarly, God is outside time and can see it all at once.
In this visualisation God is ‘based’ in His timeless state. But He sees all points of time as if they are present, and He can stoop down to our level and act at any point on the time line. However, He is literally no more present at any point of time than at another.
Someone might want to object to this picture by saying that recent scientific theories have challenged the linear view of time. However, that would make no difference. Whether we see time as a straight line, a curved line, or even as a multi-dimensional object, God can still be visualised outside it, looking at it all, and ‘present’ at each point. From outside time, in this picture, He is therefore looking at what a human would call ‘tomorrow’ or ‘yesterday’ in exactly the same way that He is looking at what a human would call ‘now’.
Personally, if I use this way of visualising God’s relationship to time, I find it easy to understand His ability to know what is future from a human perspective. God is, I believe, from His timeless standpoint, looking at what I am doing right now, in exactly the same way that He is looking at what I did yesterday, and what I will do tomorrow, and so on.
I should point out that when I say God ‘sees’ or ‘is looking’ at me or the time line of human history, I am necessarily being imprecise. This is because I am using an English present tense to describe what is really timeless observation by God. But it is impossible to use a verb in the English language without giving that verb a tense. Hence the imprecision.
I should also point out that when I speak about God looking in exactly the same way at what we regard as past, present or future, I am not saying that within the universe the past, present and future are all equally objective realities. Rather, I am adhering to what philosophers refer to as the A-theory of time. According to this theory, the past has ceased to be objectively real and the future is not yet objectively real. However, crucially, the past ceasing to be real and the future not yet being real are truths that apply to what goes on inside the universe. But God is outside the universe.
Our actions and God’s knowledge
As I have noted, the main reason why open theists believe that God’s knowledge of the future is limited is because they want to uphold belief in the genuine free will of people. They think that if God knows everything that will happen in the future, then the future would be fixed in such a way that people could not have free will.
There is confused thinking taking place here. The assumption, whether it is recognised or not, is that God’s knowledge of future human actions would somehow cause those actions. This, however, is to put the cart before the horse. God’s knowledge of the future is actually knowledge that has taken all human actions into account. In other words, it is human actions that lead (in part) to God’s knowledge of the future being what it is, not God’s knowledge of the future that leads to human actions being what they will be.
For example, suppose that at some point tomorrow I have the choice whether to go out or stay at home. God knows what I will do, but that knowledge will in no way cause my action. If I go out, then God knows that I will choose to do that. If I stay at home, God knows that I will choose to do that. God knows what I am going to do, but my will is unaffected by God’s knowledge of how I will use that will. Instead, how I will use my will affects what the future is that God knows.
That ends our discussion, so let’s sum up the key things we have found.
First, the idea that God has limited knowledge of the future in areas where the human will is involved is clearly unbiblical. Some passages show His knowledge of people’s future actions. And those passages which might at first sight seem to imply that He has sometimes grown in knowledge can easily be understood as anthropomorphisms.
Second, the belief that God knows all the future in no way conflicts with a belief in the genuine free will of people. God’s knowledge is a knowledge that has taken all human actions into account. It is not a knowledge that in any way causes human actions.
Open theism, although it might mean well, actually presents a picture of God that seriously fails to do justice to His greatness. It should therefore be regarded as a serious error.
I would suggest that those Christians who think, for example, that God didn’t know that human beings would sin, or that Saul would turn out to be such a bad king, are a long way from understanding the greatness of God. Quite simply, God knows absolutely everything, including everything that is future from a human perspective.