Does God Know the Future?

William C. Davis
Monday, July 16th 2007
Sep/Oct 1999

Does God know the future? As a child in Sunday School, I was taught the answer to this question. My teachers comforted me with the certainty that God knows the future just as well as he knows the past and the present: in its entirety, down to the minutest detail. Moreover, I learned that God knows the whole of history because he is the Lord of history, not just in the weak sense that he can cause good to come out of evil, but because he determined it all. History-past and future-is the outworking in time of his extra-temporal sovereign decree. This decree extends not only to every natural event (earthquakes, eclipses, electron orbits), but also to his own free actions and even to the morally culpable actions of moral agents.

My Sunday School teachers led me to trust in God's sovereign knowledge of the future because they were teaching me the Bible. (1) Repeatedly God claims to know the future, not only in general (Matt. 6:8, Is. 46:10, Job 14:5), but also in detail (Is. 45:1, Jer. 25:12, Luke 22:34 Matt. 24:36). Scripture teaches that some of the most important events (Jesus' crucifixion, the proclamation of the Gospel, and our own particular justification) happen precisely as-and when-God planned for them to happen (John 19:11, Acts 2:23, 1 Cor. 2:7, Rom. 8:29-30).

The Bible consistently presents God as the sovereign Lord of all things, the one who accomplishes every last detail of his plan and does it without needing our help and without ever being thwarted by our resistance. His knowledge of the future is just one implication of his providential control of all things. (2) The God who knew all my days when I was in my mother's womb superintends all those days in their every detail. The God of the Bible is not dependent upon his creatures or anything outside of his own nature and free will. And although independent, he graciously chooses to act in time on our behalf and even at times to announce future events in advance. The most obvious reading of the Bible's many prophecies is that God knew the future while it was still future and made it known through his prophets. Any attempt to deny that God knows every detail of the future has vast stretches of biblical data to overcome.

It shouldn't be surprising that those not greatly concerned with biblical data have found it easy to deny God's knowledge of the future. (3) Much more surprising, though, have been the recent objections to God's sovereign knowledge of the future which have arisen from evangelicals claiming to offer an account that is faithful to the Bible. (4) Their objections are numerous, and in many cases subtle and challenging, but they all spring from a common assumption about human freedom. This assumption about human freedom is seen in two popular current alternatives to the Sovereign Knowledge position. The "Openness of God" alternative proposes to replace classical conceptions of God, bringing God into time to face the indeterminate future along with us. The "Simple Foreknowledge" alternative preserves God's knowledge of a determinate future by making that knowledge dependent upon persons or things outside of himself. I will explain and answer both of these alternatives to God's sovereign knowledge of the future after considering the assumption that drives them.

The Root of the Alternatives

Recent objections to God's sovereign knowledge of the future all depend upon an old concern, the desire to establish human responsibility securely. Calvinists have long known that God's sovereign knowledge of the future raises questions about how we can be held morally responsible for our actions. Since the Enlightenment, most philosophers have thought that unless we are the absolute masters of our fate, we can't be held morally responsible for what we do. From this conviction has followed the conclusion that a determinate divine decree and human freedom (responsibility) are incompatible. Accounts of human freedom that insist on our complete autonomy from God's decree are called "libertarian" or "incompatibilist" accounts. Theologians and philosophers who embrace libertarian accounts of human freedom contend that there is no way to reconcile human responsibility and God's sovereign knowledge of the future. And since they can see no way to preserve moral responsibility without libertarian freedom, they have found it necessary to adjust their expectations about God's knowledge. (5)

But the Bible does not teach that libertarian freedom is necessary for responsibility. Consider first the most obvious instance of evil in history: the crucifixion of Christ. The Bible's account of that event presupposes that human responsibility and God's determinate decree are compatible. Three separate times in the first four chapters of Acts, Peter argues that the men of Israel who delivered up Jesus to death were responsible for their action. He also says, "They did what God's power and will had decided beforehand should happen" (Acts 4:28; similar claims in Acts 2:23, 3:13-20). Peter calls them to repent for actions that God had determined according to his own set purposes. In calling people to repent for acts God had determined beforehand, Peter affirms the compatibility of the divine decree and human responsibility. And Peter's pattern of reasoning in this specific case is repeated throughout Scripture: God announces through his prophets what he has determined to bring about (Pharaoh hardening his heart, Assyrians despoiling Israel, Cyrus restoring the Babylonian exiles), and then holds those very agents responsible for bringing it about. Human responsibility and God's determinate decree (and determinate knowledge of the future outcome) are clearly compatible in the Bible. It isn't necessary to abandon God's sovereign knowledge of the future in order to maintain human responsibility.

The biblical data is so clear on this point that it is hard to see how preserving libertarian human freedom (to safeguard human responsibility) can provide a sufficient motive for overturning my Sunday School understanding of God's knowledge of the future. (6) Unfortunately, the desire to safeguard human responsibility does not appear to be the only goal in defending the libertarian account. At work is also a desire to understand human freedom in a way consistent with how our freedom seems to us, and in a way adequate to preserve our dignity. If we aren't autonomously free, then we must be mere puppets, and what seems like the genuine ability to do otherwise is a cruel illusion. Here hard choices need to be made, but if our notion of dignity can be preserved only at the expense of God's independence and majesty, then the price is simply too high. Some claim that God is so great that he can make independent creatures upon which he must ultimately wait, but this suggestion rests on an unbiblical account both of our freedom and of God's majesty. (7)

The "Openness of God" Alternative

The libertarian account of human freedom raises serious questions about thinking that God's knowledge of the future is based in his eternal decree, and these questions have led many in this century to reexamine the assumption that God is outside of time. For some this review of God's nature has led to the conclusion that a superior understanding of God results if we accept that God is moving through time with us. Although process theologians haven't typically been committed to the authority of the Bible, their analysis of the classical doctrine of God has influenced others who have professed a high view of Scripture. Process theology contends that "classical" conceptions of God as immutable (unchangeable) and impassible (without passions) depend more upon Greek thought than the Bible. The God of classical theology, in their reconstruction, ends up a Parmenidean abstraction, (8) eternal and absolutely independent, but nothing like the active, responsive, repenting God of the Bible. Then, as an alternative to this "straw God" they have created as the classical model, process theologians propose a God who is thoroughly in time, suffering with his people in their pain, and laboring through persuasion (with varying success) to minimize the effects of human sin. According to this view, God doesn't know the future; he needs to wait to see how things will turn out.

Recent proponents of the "openness of God" such as William Hasker and Clark Pinnock reject process theology's limitation of God's power to mere persuasion, (9) but they retain the conviction that God is moving through time with us. They argue that in order for God to be truly loving, he must enter into genuinely mutual relationships with autonomous creatures. Sustaining these relationships means facing an indeterminate future together with us, committed to using coercive power only sparingly. Advocates of this view of God insist that this is the picture of God that "emerges" from the Bible. They contend that the God of the Scriptures is preeminently loving, (10) and that real love requires both lovers to take risks. (11) Many argue that although God has the power to determine future events (and thus know them), out of love for his free creatures he chooses not to. He limits his knowledge of the future to an intimate knowledge of his creatures' tendencies and dispositions, enabling him to predict with great accuracy what they will do, and to revise his plans accordingly. Openness of God proponents are comfortable with the idea that God waits to see what his free creatures will do, and that all prophecy can be explained even though the future is "open" to God. Even though many prophecies appear to depend on knowledge of a determinate future, in fact, all prophecies are either promises about what the perfectly faithful God will bring about directly, or they are conditional claims about what God will do when his creatures do what their tendencies make exceedingly likely. (12)

Both the process and Openness alternatives to classical conceptions of God make generous use of the thesis that "future contingents" (propositions about future events that could happen more than one way) can't be true. "Al Gore will be elected President in 2000" is an example of a future contingent, and these theologians join with many philosophers in asserting that it is neither true nor false: until the election, this proposition doesn't have a truth value. (13) God knows everything that can be known, because God knows all truths. But there are no truths about the future to know, so simultaneously God doesn't know the future and God is omniscient. While this may seem like a peculiarly postmodern thesis (since it holds that some propositions are neither true nor false), the view is actually Aristotle's. (14) Defenders of God's knowledge of the future have been contending with this concept for millennia. (15)

The Inadequacy of the Openness of God Alternative

This family of objections to God's sovereign knowledge of the future would be profoundly troubling if the choice really were between a static deity outside of time and a dynamic deity hurtling through time with us. Fortunately, there is no compelling reason to link dynamic activity and temporality. Even if some Scholastics use Parmenidean terminology to emphasize God's im-mutability, the orthodox majority (from Augustine through Calvin) explicitly reject static accounts of God. The Reformed position is that God is the Lord of time, providentially active in every detail of history according to an extra-temporal decree. (16) Paul Helm's recent work on The Providence of God develops this Calvinist understanding of God, dealing specifically with difficulties surrounding God's knowledge of the future and finding no sufficient reason to sacrifice God's sovereign knowledge of the future in order to save God's ability to act in time. (17) The issues here regarding God's immutability and impassibility are complex, but for my purposes the upshot is certain: God's sovereign knowledge of the future, his biblical immutability, and his activity in time are logically compatible. (18)

Admittedly, it is not merely the threat of an inactive God that renders God's sovereign knowledge of the future unacceptable in theologies of process and Openness. In fact, it is not even the primary motivation. Their principal worry is that determinate knowledge of the future would make it impossible for God to be actively involved in a loving relationship with his creatures. Unless God faces the future with us, then his responses are not to our actions; they are instead responses to his own decisions. His comfort in times of difficulty is hollow (he planned it), his admonitions concerning sin are perverse (he has ordained our response), and his pleasure over our repentance and worship is pathetic (he programmed those actions as well).

The challenge here is intuitively compelling. A robot master who comforted, admonished, and praised his robot creations in these ways would be sadly confused. And the suggestion that his relationship to his robots was one of mutual love would be pathetic. So if God has programmed everything by a determinate decree, then why wouldn't it be equally sad and pathetic for him to claim (as the Bible clearly does) that his relationship to us is loving? Process and Openness theologians conclude that the only way to rescue God's genuine love for us is to abandon belief in God's foreknowledge and determinate decree. (19) But the problem is not with the decree. Rather it lies in allowing what is intuitively obvious about human relationships to control our thinking about God's relationships. The conclusion that genuinely loving relationships require openness to an indeterminate (and therefore unknowable) future follows only if a loving relationship is defined as requiring risk; but why think that? It may be true of human love relationships, but why think that divine love must be modeled after human love? Shouldn't our thinking run the other way? Doesn't the Bible call us to conform our love to his, rather than his love to ours?

Of course, if the future really is indeterminate (as Aristotle argues), then it would be necessary to revise the Sunday School understanding of God's knowledge accordingly, along with all the other matters implicated by the revisions. But the Bible doesn't directly teach that the future is indeterminate. Aristotle does, but that's not the same thing. The Bible teaches a vast amount about God, his lordship over all things, and our responsibility for what we do. The question of whether the future is indeterminate must not be approached in abstraction from the totality of the biblical account. Taking God's loving regard for his creatures as the sum of the relevant biblical data is inadequate, as is focusing exclusively on any restricted part of the Bible. Many passages involve prophecies about a determinate future more than a generation away (beyond what a temporal God might know just by knowing current individuals' tendencies), but it would also be wrong to consider only those. Our method must endeavor to understand God's attributes in a way that takes seriously the truth of absolutely all that the Bible says. I am convinced that the Sunday School answer sketched above meets that demand, and that the process and Openness accounts do not. (20)

The Simple Foreknowledge Alternative

Proponents of the Openness of God object to God's knowledge of the future because they believe it makes human freedom and divine love impossible. But the desire to preserve libertarian human freedom need not lead to a rejection of God's knowledge of the future. Many theologians and philosophers hold that freedom and foreknowledge are compatible provided that the source of God's knowledge is not his decree. Two accounts of this kind are currently popular. One account contends that the source of God's knowledge of the future is his sight but not his decree (simple foreknowledge), and the other account maintains that the source is an inference based on what God knows free creatures will do in every possible circumstance. This second position, exploiting God's supposed "middle knowledge" of free actions, (21) is extremely popular among evangelical philosophers (see the sidebar), but its complexity has limited its appeal outside academia.

The appeal of the simple foreknowledge account of God's knowledge of the future is easy to understand, since the position is easy to state: God knows the future because he looks ahead and sees what his free creatures will do. The source of God's knowledge of future free actions is not his decree; rather it is the free decisions of his creatures that God sees ahead of time. (22) Since merely seeing what happens seems far short of causing what happens, God is thought to see what the future holds without causing it. If God determines what the future will be by means of his decree, then human freedom is threatened. However, if God knows the future simply because he sees what it will be beforehand, then human freedom and responsibility can be maintained along with his knowledge of the future. God's perfect omniscience is secured, prophecies even regarding free human actions can be taken at face value, and human responsibility can rest on real (libertarian) freedom.

The Inadequacy of the Simple Foreknowledge Alternative

The Simple Foreknowledge account promises to deliver determinate knowledge of the future and libertarian human freedom, but ultimately it costs more than Christians should be willing to pay. For one thing, the view may not be coherent. It is hard to see how God could know that something will happen in the future without also removing the real possibility that it could happen any other way. The hallmark of libertarian freedom is the "power to do otherwise." (23) If it isn't possible for me to will to do other than what God saw that I would do, then I don't have real (libertarian) freedom: I don't have the power to do otherwise. Whether God knows by sight or by decree, the future can only be the way he knows it will be. No one, not even God, can know something that is false; and if I really could will to do otherwise, then I could cause him to "know" something that was false. I would have the power to destroy God's omniscience! This is, of course, an unacceptable conclusion; and the source of the difficulty is the suggestion that God can have infallible knowledge (by sight) of something that could turn out other than God (by sight) knew that it would. Simple foreknowledge of free actions of the libertarian kind depends upon the possibility of knowledge that is both fallible and infallible. Something must give: either God really knows what will happen, or humans have the power to do otherwise. It can't be both. (24)

An even greater cost of the Simple Foreknowledge position is that it requires God's foresight to be just like simple human sight. The position gains its plausibility by reducing God's foresight to the passive reception of information about completely independent events. When we know by sight, we are dependent upon the independent objective truth of what we know. If I see a friend freely sin, my knowledge of the sin depends upon my friend's independent choice. Moreover, our knowledge by sight involves learning, passing from ignorance to knowledge. Because of these features of our knowledge by sight-dependence and learning-it poses no threat to the freedom of those whose actions we know. If God's foreknowledge (or foresight) were just like our knowledge by sight, then freedom and foreknowledge would not conflict.

But while dependence and learning can be features of human knowledge, they can't be features of God's knowledge. God is not dependent upon anyone or anything else, even in his knowledge. The suggestion that God needs us, or that he learns from our choices, necessarily detracts from his independence and lordship. The God of the Bible doesn't submit to the choices of his creatures. Simple foreknowledge is not a biblical alternative to sovereign foreknowledge.

Practical Implications

My focus has been on the biblical and theoretical inadequacy of rejecting God's sovereign knowledge of the future, but much more than theory is at stake. If God is not the sovereign Lord of time, the one who holds the future in his hands because he has established it by decree, then our Christian faith and practice has been built on a serious error. And once we admit this error, we will need to make serious changes. If we adopt the Simple Foreknowledge alternative, we will need to remove from our worship all praise to God as the absolutely independent, sovereign Lord of all things. And if we embrace either the Process or Openness alternatives, we will have to correct even more. Along with the worship of God as independent, we will need to revise our worship to remove false or misleading references to God's lordship over history and over our lives, including our redemption. Instead of worshipping God as the sovereign Lord, we will need to worship the Grand Manipulator of Events, the one most amazingly (but not infinitely) able to get his way despite capable opposition. We will need to revise our doctrine of Scripture, translating more carefully the passages that inaccurately suggest that God announces what his morally responsible creatures will do in the future while it is still future. We will need to curb our confidence that God's eschatological pronouncements are sure, at least insofar as they depend upon the free actions of his creatures. And most significantly, we must abandon the "myth" that we were known in Christ before the foundation of the world, since at the foundation of the world our salvation was unambiguously a future event involving a morally significant action by us.

Thankfully, these changes are not necessary. God knows the end from the beginning, not just because he saw it, or because he can deduce it, or because he's really sure he can find a way to bring it about. No, he knows it because he has decreed it. Based on this decree we can rest confidently in his promises that we have been predestined to be called, justified, conformed to the image of his Son, that he has prepared good works for us to walk in, and that he will complete his work in us (Rom. 8:29-30, Eph. 2:19, Phil. 1:6). These are not the promises of a God who waits upon anyone or anything else. This is the word of the God of the Bible, the all-knowing, sovereign Lord of time. (25)

1 [ Back ] I will use "God's sovereign knowledge of the future" to refer to God's comprehensive knowledge of the future based on his determinate decree. The Westminster Confession of Faith includes God's decree as part of his sovereignty in III.1.
2 [ Back ] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.16-1.17, as well as Paul Helm, The Providence of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994).
3 [ Back ] For example, A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, ed. by David R. Griffen and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1976); Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984); and John B. Cobb, Jr. and David R. Griffen, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1977).
4 [ Back ] David Basinger's "Can an Evangelical Christian Justifiably Deny God's Exhaustive Knowledge of the Future?", Christian Scholars' Review, vol. 25, no. 2 (1995), 135-145 discusses the possibility of denying God's exhaustive knowledge of the future. But see also his "Divine Control and Human Freedom: Is Middle Knowledge the Answer?" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 36, no. 1 (1993), 55-64.
5 [ Back ] Typically, they buttress this claim with the suggestion that the problem of evil is insoluble unless humans have libertarian freedom. See William Hasker in The Openness of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994), 143. "Free will" solutions to the problem of evil also depend upon this view of human freedom. See Al Plantinga's The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), his God, Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), and Kelly Clark's Return to Reason (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990).
6 [ Back ] "Sunday School" does not mean philosophically simplistic. This is the position defended by both Leibniz and Thomas Aquinas. See Jack D. Davidson, "Untying the Knot: Leibniz on God's Knowledge of Future Free Contingents," History of Philosophy Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 1, Jan. 1996, 89-116.
7 [ Back ] This suggestion that God's power extends to overturning his own independence is found very clearly in Soren Kierkegaard; see his Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton: Princeton, 1974), 232, as well as his Journals and Papers, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Bloomington: Indiana, 1970), citation number 1251.
8 [ Back ] Parmenides of Elea (c. 500 bc) concluded that all that is must be an immutable and eternal One.
9 [ Back ] William Hasker, The Openness of God, 138, as well as Clark Pinnock, The Openness of God, 113-117. (See also the interview with Pinnock in MR, Nov./Dec. 1998.)
10 [ Back ] Richard Rice, The Openness of God, 18-22.
11 [ Back ] John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998).
12 [ Back ] William Hasker, The Openness of God, 153; but see also Rice, 50-53, and Pinnock, 122-23.
13 [ Back ] This is the standard version of the thesis. Some (like Lequyer) argue that all propositions about the future are false; see Donald Wayne Viney, "Jules Lequyer and the Openness of God," Faith & Philosophy, vol. 14, no. 2 (1997), 212-235.
14 [ Back ] Aristotle, De Interpretationes, chapter ix.
15 [ Back ] Both Boethius (c. 500 ad) and Thomas Aquinas (c. 1250 ad) wrote commentaries on Aristotle's De Interpretationes, rejecting Aristotle's thesis.
16 [ Back ] Calvin explicitly rejects static accounts of God's immutability; see his Institutes, 1.16.3, as well as Gary B. Deason's "Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Conception of Nature," in God & Nature, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Berkeley: California, 1986), 167-191.
17 [ Back ] Paul Helm, The Providence of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994). See especially Chapter 2: "Providence: Risky or Risk-free?"
18 [ Back ] For more on God's atemporality and action in time, see David Braine, "God, Eternity and Time-An Essay in Review of Alan Padgett, 'God, Eternity and the Nature of Time,'" Evangelical Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 4 (1994), 337-344.
19 [ Back ] Clark Pinnock, The Openness of God, 122.
20 [ Back ] See also Timothy George in "Has God Been Held Hostage by Philosophy?", Christianity Today, vol. 39, no. 1 (1995), 33-34.
21 [ Back ] The first to offer this account of God's foreknowledge was Luis de Molina in the sixteenth century. See his Liberi Arbitri cum Gratiae Donis, Divina Praescientia, Providentia, Praedestinatione et Reprobatione Concordia (The Harmony of Free Will with Divine Grace, Divine Foreknowledge, Providence, Predestination and Reprobation), 1588. The English translation is by Alfred J. Freddoso: Luis de Molina, On Divine Foreknowledge (Ithaca: Cornell, 1988). A good introduction to this issue can be found in Thomas Flint, "Two Accounts of Providence," in Divine and Human Action: Essays in the Metaphysics of Theism, ed. by Thomas V. Morris (Ithaca: Cornell, 1988), 147-181.
22 [ Back ] For one statement of the simple foreknowledge position, see David P. Hunt, "Divine Providence and Simple Foreknowledge," Faith & Philosophy, vol. 10, no. 3 (1993), 394ff.
23 [ Back ] See, for example, Roderick Chisholm, "Human Freedom and the Self," 360-366.
24 [ Back ] William Hasker, The Openness of God, 148. See also John Sanders, "Why Simple Foreknowledge Offers No More Providential Control than the Openness of God," Faith & Philosophy, vol. 14, no. 1 (1997), 26-40.
25 [ Back ] For their patient help with earlier drafts of this article I am indebted to my wife, Lynda, to R. S. Clark, and to my Ancient to Renaissance Philosophy class at Covenant College.
Monday, July 16th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology