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Thursday, November 18, 2021

Does God Really Know Everything?

Introduction If God knows everything, do we really have the freedom to make our own choices?

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve been a pastor for 2 decades--thinking about the mysteries of God, the Bible, and the Christian faith.  So in this series, I’ll do my best to share something that will help you grow and be fruitful.  

Post your questions in the comments and I may answer them in future articles.

In this post, I want to answer the question:

If God knows everything, do we really have the freedom to make our own choices?

So let’s get into it.

This question deals with 2 Christian teachings that seem to contradict each other. One is God’s omniscience:  which is a fancy way to say God knows everything.

The other teaching is free willthe idea that God gives people the freedom to make their own choices.

But…  If God knows everything (is “omniscient”) how can people really have free will to make their own choices?

This is a question Christians have debated for thousands of years.  I’m not going to solve this mystery in one short blog. Sorry. I can, however, give you the major ways people deal with this delimah and share some of the ramifications of each school of thought. Finally, I will share the way I personally think about this problem.

The first school of thought is predestination.

Predestination says God knows everything that’s going to happen because

He has already planned it and predetermined it. This is the way someone is thinking when they say something like, “God gives everyone a certain number of days to live and when it’s your time to go, it’s just your time. You can’t do anything about it.”

Predestination is pretty straightforward and easy to understand, and it also preserves a view of God as all-knowing and all-powerful. However, it also creates quite a lot of problems.  For instance: What do you do with terrible tragedies like natural disasters, earthquakes, and tornadoes?  And even more troubling, what about school shootings and genocide? Did God purposefully plan and cause all these evils to occur? What kind of God causes a mass murderer to shoot up an elementary school?

People who reject predestination would say: "That’s not any kind of God who can truly be called “good” or “holy” or “loving”.  That’s more like an evil devil than a good God."

Now, there are indeed places in the Bible where God causes disasters. However, it is in response to people’s bad behavior.  People are being evil and God is punishing people’s evil behavior. So the people are the ones responsible for the disaster, not God.

There are even more problems with predestination. If a person can’t change their predetermined fate, then God has already decided if they will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell. There’s nothing people can do to change their eternal destination. That would mean God created some people to burn in hell for eternity knowing they can’t do anything to change their tortuous eternal fate.

People have no responsibility for their punishment.  Only God is responsible.

So why should Christians even try to evangelize? It doesn't do any good.

And if predestination is true, why should we worry about eating right, exercising, or wearing a seatbelt? Why should we go to the doctor? If God has already determined how long you will live and nothing you do can change it, why should we take any responsibility for our own personal health and  safety?  And why should we help others?

Predestination also cripples a person’s freedom to love God. You can’t force someone to love you. Coercion negates authentic love. Under a scheme of predestination, people are more like computers or robots that are pre-programed to either obey or disobey God.  There is no free choice or responsibility and thus no real love.

The opposite view of predestination is Free Will, which says, 

“God gives everyone the freedom to choose what they do”.  According to the Free Will viewpoint, our fate is not predetermined.  We determine our own future by our own choices. This view takes the ultimate responsibility for evil off the shoulders of God and puts it squarely on our shoulders.  If bad things happen, it’s because people do bad things. Either their personal bad behavior causes bad consequences orthe collective bad behavior of humanity corrupts God’s perfect world and leads to bad consequences God didn’t intend--like murder, school shootings, cancer, destructive tornadoes, etc.

Some will argue, “Yeah, but if God knows what choices we’re going to make, then isn’t it still predetermined? God can’t be surprised by our choices or else He isn’t omniscient.” So free will seems to weaken the notion of an all-knowing God even though the Bible clearly teaches God is all-knowing.

Is your head hurting yet?  Hang in there!

You can deal with problems caused by free will in a few ways.  The first idea is Self-Limiting Omniscience:  God limits His foreknowledge. This means God doesn’t allow Himself to know what choices you will make. (Or maybe He lets Himself know some of it but not all of it.) In this way, God limits His interference with people's free will. God may drop hints or impart grace to help people make the right choices--even nudge them right to the very edge of making the right choice--but ultimately, God let’s people make their own final decision.

In this way, God self-limits His sovereignty to allow space for free will.  This makes real love possible--since real love must be a free choice. This also means God does not plan or cause all things, but rather He uses all things for His purposes.  God did not necessarily cause a madman to shoot up a school. That kind of evil happens because we live in a broken world.  However, God can and does use bad things for His own good purposes.  This view doesn’t mean God can’t cause all things, but He chooses in some cases not to cause things and to leave them up to people’s free choices.

Another answer to problems brought on by a belief in free will is Molinism. Molinism says God can see what I will freely choose.  God doesn’t force me to choose, but He knows what I will choose given a certain set of circumstances.  

Therefore, God’s foreknowledge doesn’t cause our decision; He only knows what will happen and then when we make our choice, God uses it for His purpose. But maybe you say, “God thinks He knows me.  But I’m gonna change it up today just to surprise Him!”  But God knows you so well, He even knows if you tried to surprise Him.

None of these arguments is a perfect answer for the contradiction between omniscience and free will.  (This is why people haven’t solved this problem yet & probably never will.)

I think the truth of God’s omniscience is very complex and requires a combination of more than just one simple explanation.  All of these ideas have some truth that can be useful.

For me, Predestination is too simple--in addition to making God out to be an evil tyrant. God said in Isaiah 55:9, “For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”

I think we misunderstand God and do injustice to His character when we try to simplify Him into a one neat, tidy explanation that makes us feel comfortable. 

God is not simple and His Holy Presence should make us uncomfortable.

Thinking about the infinite, unknowable nature of God should make you stretch beyond your finite, little-minded ways of thinking.

Now, I want to add one more theory about the character of God that tries to address the apparent contradiction between God knowing everything beforehand and people having the freedom to make their own choices.

(Get ready to really cook your noodle!)

This theory helps me think about God and this issue. I call this view present timelessnessbut I’m not the first person to come up with this theory. In researching for this video, I found out this view was first proposed by a Christian philosopher named Boethius in the 6th century.

Present timelessness (or the Boethian solution) says: Only the present actually exists; (sorry Back to the Future movie fans & proponents of time travel…) If God created time, God is not bound by the laws of time. Remember, God created light and darkness and the sun and moon and stars and days and all the ways we mark time. God is sovereign--even over time!

Evidence from the Bible suggests God is timeless.  He is the Great “I Am”. When Moses asked God in the burning bush in Exodus 3, “What is your name?”  God replied, “I Am” or “I AM WHO I AM.” (The ancient Hebrew word is YHWH 

and is not fully translatable into human language.) God said, “This is my eternal name, my name to remember for all generations.”

God’s name seems to indicate God exists outside of time and is always in the present.  Such a view is mind-boggling for humans since we have always existed in a past, present, future reality.  However, if God exists outside of time, it wouldn’t make any sense to say God believed something yesterday that will turn out to be untrue tomorrow.  “Yesterday” and “tomorrow” do not exist in God’s timeless reality.  

Though this way of thinking may seem incredibly foreign to most people, I think it comes close to the truth.  If we can bring ourselves to suspend our dependence 

on human thinking of life in terms of past, present, and future, we might realize that it is really only the present that actually exists.  We cannot go back into the past.  It no longer exists. We cannot go forward into the future; the future doesn’t exist either.  Only “right now” truly exists.  What you’re doing right now this very moment is the only reality that is actually real.

By the way, think for a moment how this timelessness concept might relate to: forgiveness, healing from past trauma, and worries about future. Remember how Jesus commanded us to forgive what happened in the past and not worry about the future? It makes a lot of sense to me if the past and future are only human concepts and not true in God’s ultimate reality.

The only thing we are absolutely sure exists is right now. And God knows us right now.  He sees us completely and absolutely.  We cannot hide anything from God at this moment.  Therefore, He is absolutely omniscient in this present moment. And somehow, mysteriously, what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow is swallowed up in (or somehow incorporated into) what is actually happening right now at this very moment.

(Hey, I warned you this was going to bake your noodle!)

Now, I don’t claim this solves all our problems and apparent contradictions between God’s Omniscience and our Free Will either. But I do thing it’s a helpful concept to get us thinking and acting right.

So what’s the final answer?

Haven’t you been listening!  There is no answer!  

Well, there’s no final, conclusive answer anyway.

If you just want a simple answer, Predestination is the simplest answer, but it brings all kinds of serious problems along with it. And I believe predestination does injustice to our understanding of God.

On the other hand, Free Will arguments create problems too, problems that lead to all kinds of questions for which we only have partial answers.

But there’s something else really important and practical to consider in this debate. Consider the consequences of each school of thought because

what we think about God and human nature has serious ramifications on the way we choose to live.  For instance:

If God has already predestined everything to happen according to His predetermined plan, then we can’t do anything to change it. Why should we try to tell people about Jesus?  God has already willed some people to be saved and they will be saved.  And God has already predestined other people for hell 

and nothing we do can change it. So why waste our time trying?  In fact, if we do try, we might actually be fighting against God's predestined plan.

And if predestination is true, we can’t do anything to make the world any better or worse than it already is. God has already determined how it will all turn out.

That means, you can’t do anything to fight racism, end oppression, alleviate suffering, find a cure for cancer, stop domestic violence, help the poor, etc.

Under a scheme of predestination, people have no power and no choice whatsoever to do anything contrary to God’s predetermined plan. Not only does that paint a very dark picture of God, it also destroys people’s motivation to be the hands and feet of Jesus who said His purpose (and the purpose of His followers) is to bring Good News to the poor, release captives, make the blind see, end oppression (See Luke 4) and save souls for eternal life (see John 3:16).

As Jesus’ followers, Christians clearly are supposed to work to make the world a better place and save as many for eternal life as possible. Predestination excuses Christians from this responsibility and is contrary to God’s clearly stated mission for His people. On the other hand, if God has given people the free will 

to choose their own actions, then we have a serious responsibility to do our very best.

Yes, it might mean God has relinquished some of His power But in doing so He made it possible for a true relationship of love to exist between God and people.  We can freely choose to love God. This also means God is not sending anyone to hell. People get to choose their eternal destination based on whether or not they trust Jesus and follow Him as Lord. And it also means Christians must do everything in our power to spread the Good News about Jesus Christ so as many people as possible are saved from Hell into eternal life with God in the Kingdom of Heaven. Our effort matters and is essential.

Furthermore, our efforts to make the world around us a better place make a real difference.  And we have a serious responsibility to change our world in this life for the better.  It’s not all up to us--God is helping us, but--we can’t shrug off our responsibility either.

So which of these viewpoints do you think is more useful? Which one leads us to a better world and a more fruitful relationship with God and each other?

For me, the clear answer is Free Will.

Believing God gives people the freedom to make their own choices doesn’t necessarily mean God is not still all-knowing and all-powerful. However, I believe it is essential to emphasis Free Will over God’s omniscience. And I also believe clinging to an uncompromising belief in predestination is a fatalistic detriment to our relationship with God, eachother, and our Christian mission.

I could be wrong.

What are your thoughts?  Post them in the comments.

And also share any other questions you have about the Christian faith.

If you post a good question I can address I may answer it in a future post.

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