Now, I don’t want to get into the whole issue of God’s sovereignty and free will here, except to say that to a significant extent I am sympathetic to the view of free will that open theists take. However, I believe firmly that they are completely mistaken about God’s limited knowledge of the future. I am convinced that belief in the genuine free will of people is entirely compatible with a belief in God’s knowledge of everything that will happen in the future.
There are a few things I would like to touch on here:
(1) If God’s knowledge of the future were limited, that would mean that God is bound by time. Now, it is impossible for God to be bound by anything outside Himself. He can only be bound (using the word ‘bound’ quite loosely) by something within Himself. If His knowledge of the future were limited, then, this means that time would have to be part of who God is.
I am not aware of any Biblical passages that explicitly challenge the view that time is part of who God is, but I have to say that to me this idea just feels all wrong. By contrast, the idea that time is a created thing feels right.
(2) One reason open theists give for believing in God’s limited foreknowledge is the passages in the Bible where God speaks about regretting that He has done something, changing His mind, or gaining new insight. For example, in Gen 6:5-6 we are told that when God saw how evil people were, He was sorry that He had made them. Similarly, in 1 Sam 15:10-11 God tells Samuel that He regrets ever making Saul king. In Gen 22:12, after Abraham has proved himself willing to sacrifice Isaac, God says: ‘. . . now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me’. And in Jonah 3:10 we learn that when God saw the repentance of the Ninevites He ‘relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them’. Certainly, at first glance these passages seem to suggest that there have been times in the past when God has learned something that He did not previously know.
However, we need to beware of taking texts more scientifically and technically than we should. The ancient Semitic way of expressing things involved a great deal of colourful, non-literal language, including 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 4:24), but it is impossible for us to conceptualise Him in that way. Hence 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, whereby God the Son joined Himself to a man to become 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 does not 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 I prefer to think of it as a type of anthropomorphism.) It is very easy to understand the four examples 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 pain that God literally feels, or the dislike or like that He literally has, if psychological anthropomorphisms are used. The alternative would be to talk in abstract terms, which usually do not impact on people as well.
To understand passages like the ones cited above literally is therefore in my firm view to fail to understand their symbolic nature. They do not suggest that God’s knowledge of future events is in any way limited.
There are also a number of Biblical passages that are a real difficulty for open theists. In Rev 13:8, 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 Jesus was 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 genuinely 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’: ‘. . . 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 does not yet know for certain who will or will not end up in heaven or hell. However, this simply does not square with names that have been written in the Lamb’s book of life from the foundation of the world. Plainly, however we understand Rev 13:8 grammatically, it contradicts open theism.
Similarly, in 1 Pet 1:19-20 we are told that Christ was foreknown [by God] before the foundation of the world. Given the context, in which Christians are said to have been redeemed by Christ’s blood, His crucifixion is surely included in what God’s foreknowledge involves. Again, this means that human sin must have been foreknown as a certainty, something that open theism denies.
There are a number of other passages that could be mentioned, but I will give just one more. Eph 1:4 tells us that we [Christians] were chosen in Him [Christ] before the foundation of the world. Some open theists attempt to get round the plain sense of these verses by theorising that God’s choice referred to here is just a choice that there would be a group of Christians, and that when God did His choosing He did not have particular individuals in mind. However, firstly, this is at the very least an unnatural interpretation of the text. Secondly, and even more importantly, it runs into the same difficulty that we have just seen in connection with Rev 13:8 and 1 Pet 1:19-20: 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.
(3) It seems to me that when most Christians think of the concept 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 (Rom 8:29; 11:2 etc.), and it is often a helpful way of looking at things. Nevertheless, if time is a created thing as I firmly believe it is, when specifically thinking about God and time, I think a better way of picturing God’s knowledge of the future is to think of a person looking at a straight line drawn on a piece of paper, where the person represents God, and the line represents the course of time. In other words, God is pictured outside time, looking at it all at once. He is, in this visualisation, ‘based’ in eternity, outside time, 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. He is no more present at any point of time than at another.
If someone were to object to this picture by saying that recent scientific theories have challenged the linear view of time, that would make no difference. Whether we see time as a straight line, a curved line, or even as a two- or three-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, looking at me using my will right now, in exactly the same way that He is looking at me using my will yesterday, and tomorrow, and so on.
(4) From what I can gather, the main reason why open theists believe that God’s knowledge of the future is limited is not because of certain Biblical passages, but simply because they think that if God knows everything that will happen in the future, then the future would be fixed and people could not have genuine 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 actually cause those actions. This, however, is to put the cart before the horse. God’s knowledge of the future is 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 tomorrow I meet someone who needs help and that I have the choice whether to help that person or not. God knows what I will do, but that knowledge will in no way cause my action. If I help the person, then God knows that I will make the choice to help them. If I do not help, God knows that I will make the choice not to help. God knows what I am going to do, but my will is unaffected by God’s knowledge of how I will use that will. How I will use my will affects what the future is that God knows, not vice versa.
To sum up, then, the belief that God has limited knowledge of the future in areas where the human will is involved is first of all unbiblical. His knowledge of what people’s future actions will be is found clearly in Scripture, and those passages that at first glance seem to imply that God has at times grown in knowledge can easily be understood as anthropomorphisms. Secondly, 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 is in part caused by human actions, not a knowledge that in any way causes human actions.
Open theism, although it might mean well, actually presents a picture of God that fails to do justice to His greatness. I would suggest that those Christians who think, for example, that God didn’t know that people would sin, or that Saul would turn out to be such a bad king, or that the Ninevites would repent when Jonah preached to them, 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.