This follows on from the last piece on whether God has a ‘perfect plan for our lives’. Part of how we answer that depends on another question – how much of the future does God know? How much has he indeed predetermined?
If you’re a religious determinist with a high view of God’s sovereignty (i.e. a Calvinist 🙂 ), the answer’s simple. He knows exactly what’s going to happen and what we’re going to do and say, and furthermore has predetermined all the paths and outcomes.
The following lines come from a Purpose Driven Life™ devotional email by US mega-pastor (and Calvinist) Rick Warren:
“The Bible says, even before you were born, God knew all of your future. This means God sees your tomorrow, today. He already sees the things you’ll face… God not only knows about the future, He’s there in the future.”
Of course, it’s not only Calvinists who believe this. The belief that God sees and knows the future is the mainstream theological position of most of the church. God is eternal and outside time, the argument goes, and therefore he sees all of time – past, present, and future. His eternal now encompasses all times, and so he is in the future and the past as well as the present.
So I realise I’m stepping incautiously out into major heresy here, but I really don’t see how it’s meaningfully possible for God to be in or even fully see the future.
I’m simply not convinced that the future has any fixed and objective reality of the kind that anyone – even the sovereign and eternal God – can possibly inhabit, visit or even view. And I’m therefore not fully convinced that God knows for certain exactly what we’re going to say or do or everything that’s going to happen to us.
I’m certainly not the first to come up with this idea. It’s apparently been around since the 4th century, and wasn’t particularly viewed then as heresy. More recently it’s been popularised under the term ‘Open Theism’, introduced in a 1980 book by Richard Rice.
Open Theism is still a minority report within evangelical theology, but its supporters include big hitters John Polkinghorne and Jürgen Moltmann, along with Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd and various others. It’s viewed with suspicion by many (particularly neo-Calvinists like John Piper), but I think it’s at least worth considering.
God knows at least some of the future…
Now before you all lynch me, I need to make some provisos and caveats. God certainly can and surely does know at least some of the future:
1. God can (if he chooses) predetermine certain future events. Having done so, he can of course know those parts of the future. If he has decided that certain things will happen then no-one can prevent them – unless he lets them.
So God could in theory decide that the world will end tomorrow and no-one would be able to stop him. However, he might well take our prayers into account, as he did with Moses.
Whether or not God does predetermine future events in this way I’m not so sure; but it’s certainly possible. But unless you believe that God has predetermined every single aspect of the future – which I strongly don’t – then this still leaves a huge amount of room for both random chance and free choice.
2. God has all knowledge and all wisdom; he can project and predict all the possible paths and trajectories of every past and present event, action or choice – indeed the course of every sub-atomic particle – as well as their relative probabilities. He can, I’m sure, also model the many possible interplays between all these myriad possible paths.
So, God does indeed know all the potential futures as far as they can be known. He even knows, I assume, the relative probabilities of all these near-infinite sets of possibilities, and which are most likely to occur. But that is not the same as knowing the whole future for definite, and nor does it mean that he has fully predetermined it.
3. Following from this, God can also steer, shape and influence events and their paths to achieve his purposes. God is, I believe, intimately involved in our lives and in the world; but that doesn’t mean he is controlling everything, nor controlling us.
I’m convinced that God allows random chance and free choice to play their parts – that indeed this is his good will. He is sovereign but he delegates; he chooses to set aside some of his power and his right to control paths and determine outcomes.
I believe that as a general rule God influences events in such as way as not to violate the free will and choice of his morally responsible creatures. He may perhaps occasionally intervene and overrule, but that seems to be the exception.
So God nudges and influences rather than coerces. He responds like an expert chess player to our free moves, and because of his skill he can perhaps still (mostly) lead things to the overall outcome he desires; but we still have genuine freedom.
4. Finally, much of the future is merely a continuation or repetition of the past.
We can all predict certain cyclical aspects of the future – day will follow night, spring will follow winter, adulthood will follow childhood. There are rhythms and patterns to the universe, to weather, to life, even to our relationships. Laws of nature follow set courses, and human nature is also fairly (but never entirely) predictable.
We can also use the law of cause and effect: past and current actions will have future consequences, at least some of which are largely predictable. Things we do have effects and choices we make have outcomes, which we can often (not always) predict based on past experience.
And other things simply remain fixed and unchanged for what we term the ‘foreseeable future’ – e.g. the summit of Everest will probably still be the highest point on the Earth’s surface for many years to come. We can make educated guesses about many particular aspects of the future.
Of course there are examples in the Bible where God does foretell future events – but these can usually be explained by one of the above provisos.
Even Jesus knowing that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed could be God fully knowing the characters, behaviours and habits of all the players in the story (point 2 above) – or it could be something that God determined to happen for some reason (point 1 or 3).
I do not see that an inability to dwell in or fully know the future diminishes God’s greatness or sovereignty, any more than it does that he cannot make a square circle or cannot make 1 = 0. If the future genuinely does not exist except in potential until it ceases to be the future by becoming the present, I would say that it is neither possible nor meaningful for God to be in it or fully know it.
I don’t reject the idea of God being ‘outside time’ (and he is also surely within time). But the time that God is outside (and in) is real, actual time, not merely potential time. God can be in and around all real, existing times and spaces, but I do not believe the future fits in this category. It is as yet non-existent, non-real; merely a set of unrealised possibilities.
To sum up
So I’m not convinced that God knows all the future, simply because I’m not sure that the future exists in any meaningful, knowable way.
But I believe that God knows the future as far as it is knowable, and that he is at work creating and directing it, redemptively weaving it out of the past and the present and out of our prayers, out of his good desires and will.
Finally, does it matter whether or not God knows the future? Perhaps not much. But I think it does have some important implications. Determinism robs both us and God of freedom, and I think diminishes God’s goodness and love. Open theism reverses this. It’s at least worth considering.