Sunday, August 10, 2014

Does God Know the Future?

Does God have knowledge of future contingents? Traditionally, Christian philosophers and theologians have answered, yes to this question. Since God is omniscient and the greatest of all possible beings, God must know the future. But then doesn't that conflict with my free will?

After all, if God knows the future, and knows it perfectly, and can never be wrong, then if God knows that I will drink a glass of water in five minutes then I must drink a glass of water in five minutes. I have no choice in the matter. Or consider another example: if God knows that Judas Iscariot will betray Jesus, how could Judas do anything but betray Jesus? How can Judas have free will in any real sense if God has absolute knowledge of the future? To make matters more difficult, according to the A-theory of time, the future does not even exist. It's not real. So then how could God know something that is not real or doesn't exist. Does God know how many unicorns are on the planet Zophar? No, because God knowledge encompasses reality, and if the future does not exist, then it seems impossible for God to know it. This is essentially the view known as open theism which has been increasingly popular among Christian philosophers and theologians. Open theists simply assert that God does not know the future, and this is no limitation on God. Open theists defend their position with the Bible as well as philosophical arguments.

The Biblical Argument for Open Theism:

According to open theists, it is clear that God is a personal being through Scripture. God acts, creates, and feels. As a personal being who has relationships with human beings, God affects them, and they affect God.Throughout Scripture, we see how people frustrate God's plans, and the Bible talks about God feeling regret or changing his mind. Greg Boyd writes, “God sometimes expresses in Scriptures disappointment with results of decisions he himself made. This is difficult to square with the view that God knows the future as exhaustively settled for an eternity prior to any decision he makes.” Boyd interprets God’s decision to destroy the earth by suggesting that God genuinely regretted making human beings. 

Additionally, God tests people to know their character. For example, in Genesis 22, God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. After Abraham displays his willingness, and his faith in God, God says, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Boyd points out that the purpose of the test is specifically for God to know how these free agents will act. He writes, “If we accept that the future is partly open, and free agents resolve their hearts only when they decide on a course of action, then these verses make perfect sense.” There are several other verses open theists point to in the Bible that describe God changing his mind, regretting, relenting, and so forth and all these seem to suggest that God did not know exactly how things were going to turn out. And as a personal being, human beings can ruin God's plans and frustrate God, so these verses would seem to make sense.

The Philosophical Argument for Open Theism:

I personally find the philosophical argument for open theism the most compelling. Of all the different arguments given, I think Dean Zimmerman presents it best. Dean Zimmerman defines divine omniscience as “God knowing everything there is to be known, knowing every truth.” Therefore, if a proposition is true then God knows it to be true, and if a proposition is false then God knows it to be false; however, Zimmerman suggests a third possibility: there is no fact of the matter. He says, “If there isn’t a fact of the matter about it, then God better not have a belief about it. So, on the openness model, the future literally does not exist, and thus propositions about the future are neither true nor false. And finally, of course, we confront problem of not having (libertarian) free will problem if God knows the future. Open theists are convinced that if God exhaustively knows the future, then libertarian free will is illusory. God’s absolute knowledge of future events implies that future events are fully settled or determined, thus stripping away human freedom.

There is a lot I appreciate about open theism, and I find many of its qualities attractive and convincing. Open theists rightly affirm that God is not a distant, aloof Aristotelian deity, but a God who is near to His people and loves them. Secondly, defenders of the openness view rightly call to attention passages which speak of God’s remorse, regret, and grief with humans, and urge readers to take those verses seriously. In the person of Jesus Christ, especially God reveals Godself in an extremely intimate and vulnerable way. All of these personal and immanent qualities of God are undeniable. Third, open theists are right to affirm the importance of free will. Free will is necessary for moral responsibility and genuine love. God does not want automatons, rather God clearly treats humans as though they are able to freely choose. However I think the openness model has some serious flaws worth noting.

Objections to the Biblical Argument:

While there are some passages in Scripture which describe God repenting, it makes sense to understand these descriptions anthropomorphically. God is not like a person who stumbles upon newly discovered information and feels regret, rather God is like a person who knows what is coming but still feels a genuine pain or remorse over the situation. For example, parents may know exactly what will happen when they take their child to the dentist, but they will still feel a sense of anguish or frustration as they watch their frightened child. As Numbers 23:19 says “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?”

Boyd also references stories of God’s testing people to gain knowledge as evidence for open theism. However, this argument is flawed. In Genesis 22:12, God says, “For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” On a straight-forward reading, this story indicates God does not even have present knowledge, as God needs to test Abraham to find out what is in Abraham’s heart. Apparently, God does not know Abraham’s inner state.
The open theist, however, believes God has absolute present knowledge, so this passage contradicts the open theist’s own affirmation of divine omniscience. Furthermore, since open theists affirm libertarian freedom, and deny God’s foreknowledge, what is the point of God’s testing Abraham to know something God could never know. If human actions are indeterminate then God has no assurance that Abraham will remain faithful. So the open theist’s interpretation of these passages is simply misunderstood. 

Finally, there are just too many passages in Scripture that boldly declare God’s complete providence and knowledge in the world. One of the fascinating narratives in the Old Testament is the story of Joseph.  As a young boy, Joseph has dreams of being a ruler. Unfortunately, he is sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused, and ends up in prison for several years. However, he finds favor with the king, rises to the second highest in command in Egypt. Ultimately, through his rule, he helps feed the people of the world, and reconciles with his brothers. At the end of the story, Joseph tells his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” This story fits best within a framework in which God sovereignly and perfectly governs the world according to his perfect knowledge and good will.

As Isaiah 46:9-11 says,
"Remember the former things long past, 
For I am God, and there is no other; 
I am God, and there is no one like Me,  
Declaring the end from the beginning, 
And from ancient times things which have not been done, 
Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, 
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’;  
Calling a bird of prey from the east, 
The man of My purpose from a far country. 
Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. 
I have planned it, surely I will do it."

Objections to the Philosophical Argument:

While it is common to simply assume we have total free will, I want to ask, "How do we know we have this absolute free will exactly?" The problem with libertarian free will is that it is paradoxical. For example, in civil court, if the guilty person claims he or she simply chose to act unjustly with no motive, character, influence, or cause then how much can they be said to be morally responsible? 

Finally, and most importantly, libertarian freedom is simply not taught in Scripture. Ron Highfield says, “Scripture does not talk (as doe Boyd) about created free agents. Nor does it speak of a natural power to love or not love God. It speaks, rather, of our ‘powerlessness’ and of our settled enmity toward God (Rom5:6-10).” Over and over again in the Bible, one sees God at work in human beings, whether they are aware of it or not. Therefore, the freedom men and women exercise is not an autonomous and self-sufficient freedom. Highfield rightly says, “We were indeed created for freedom and love as Boyd contends, but only in Christ and by the grace of the Holy Spirit are we gifted with the power freely to love him with our whole being.”

So does open theism provide a good answer to the question of God's knowledge of the future? I don't think so, and I think other models of divine omniscience/providence should be favored over the openness model.

{I owe much of these ideas to the works of Bruce Ware and John Frame}

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