There is a newly popular[i] branch of Christian theology (1980’s), called “Open Theism” (OT) that asserts that God does not “know” the future because the future isn’t a reality that can be, therefore, known. It is merely a range of possible realities. (A brief article outlining OT beliefs, and encouraging this response, can be found here.) Their motivation for this view seems to be heavily driven more by philosophy than theology. They seem to find it quite untenable that God would have foreknowledge of what they are about to do. This means to them that their future decisions are not really decisions they freely make because God already knows what those decisions will be. They conclude that in this scenario their will is not free; that their fates are sealed (“closed”) since God knows them.
More traditional theologies believe that when we say that God is all-knowing, omniscient, this capability includes knowledge of the future. Many in this camp come to this belief because they believe that God has known which people will be “saved” since before ‘the foundation of the world’. People who believe this characteristic of God are typically found in the Reformed denominations, but not exclusively. Typically they reject the idea of man’s free will, accepting instead the idea known as “meticulous providence”, the notion that God is really the one directing individual, specific outcomes no matter how much it may feel to us as if we’re the ones making the decisions.
So which one of these beliefs is right? Or is possibly neither correct?
Unfortunately, we’re not going to find a conclusive resolution to this disagreement in the Bible. Both groups cite verses supporting their positions. Some of these favored verses describe God as: perfect, inhabiting eternity, perfect in knowledge, knows everything, infinite in understanding and power and, crucially, knowing the future. On this last point, OT advocates make the argument that indeed God knows those things that He purposes to do in the future (and that will, therefore, be done), but that this is specific knowledge, not comprehensive knowledge of all details of the future.
So if God knows everything – has perfect knowledge of the knowable, then He knows how to create a Creation in which its inhabitants can both exercise free will in deciding their future course, while at the same time insuring that His will, ultimately, is done and that He is glorified. And not only does He know how to do this, He has the ability, if we are to understand His “omnipotent” characteristic as meaning all-powerful, to perform whatever action one could conceive of. To disbelieve that this is within God’s capability is to implicitly demean Him and disclaim the statements of scripture.
Free actions do not take place because they are foreseen, but they are foreseen because they may possibly take place. Foreknowledge is not foreordination.
As R. C. Cook observes in his “God, Time and Freedom”[ii]:
a timeless God does not strictly foreknow anything, he just knows, and knowledge of something occurring by no means entails that that which occurs cannot be contingent and autonomous. What God timelessly knows would depend, in part, on what I freely choose. He would infallibly know all my choices without determining them.
Mr. Cook gets it. But how would God have designed Creation if this was to be His goal? This is what we need to understand.
The Process of Creating Creation
When you or I set about to make something, we usually start out by making some kind of plan. If the task isn’t complicated, the plan need not be complicated. We may not even need to write it down. But we have formulated in our minds how we intend to accomplish the work so that it meets our needs and requirements when it’s completed.
There is no reason to assume that God didn’t similarly conceive of His plan for Creation before actually creating. He had several requirements in mind that He had to meet. He had to create a physical environment where the elements comprising the physical creation included those needed to make and sustain organic life – ultimately us. He needed a set of physical forces (e.g. gravity, weak and strong nuclear force, electromagnetic force, etc.) that were set at precise values so that, e.g., the mass of a planet wasn’t instantly drawn into its sun (depriving organic life of the time to develop), that the nuclei of atoms cohered and had the necessary charge to attract and capture into their orbit the right number of electrons, and so forth.
More germane to our subject, He needed to create humans who had the capacity to make decisions for themselves. Why? Well, if we didn’t have the ability to make decisions, one would have to ask “why create in the first place?” What would be the purpose of a Creation if its inhabitants were simply controlled directly by their Creator, like so many marionettes? How would such a thing glorify its Creator?
Further, why would He create in us the impression that we were, indeed, making our own decisions? Why the deception? What would the purpose of such deception be? And, why compound the deception by inspiring the Biblical authors to relate God’s pleas to his creatures to change their behavior and come to faithfulness in Him if they had no ability to do so?
Now the other key design requirement for Creation was that God would be glorified by it (Psalm 19:1), and by us, its inhabitants (Isaiah 43:7). So in planning His Creation, God must decide how to be glorified by a humanity despite giving it its own free will to either follow Him, or not. How could He do this?
The Plan – Free and Fixed
Of course, we’re told plainly by the Bible that we don’t and can’t know the mind of God. So, of course, in thinking about how God designed His Creation, we’re firmly in the realm of speculation. However, we can think about how it could have been done in a way that God achieved His “design requirements”.
The first thing we need to consider is the certainty of the final outcome. God’s redemption of the world to Himself, enabled by the sacrifice of Christ, is not an “open” possibility. It is a certainty in the plan. This means that Christ’s incarnation among us was firmly fixed in the plan. Which means, by extension, that some or all of the Old Testament prophets who prophesied of the coming Messiah were fixed in the plan.
This tells us something very important. The Creation plan has to accommodate man’s free will, but at the same time must contain some events and their outcomes on which God insists.
But if God insists on an outcome, might that not proscribe, to some extent, the individual’s range of free will? That appears to be the case. For example, did God restrict the range of choices Nebuchadnezzar had available to him from which he chose to attack Judah and exile its inhabitants? This seems likely, as God had earlier foretold that Israel would be exiled – for 70 years – for their pattern of apostate living. Certainly God later “intervened” directly with Nebuchadnezzar, forcing him to live like an animal in the wilderness for seven years, and then restored him. This episode was certainly not played out exclusively as a result of Nebuchadnezzar’s unrestricted choice.
There are hundreds of other examples of God insisting on a particular outcome from his free-willed people: Moses was called (against his will) to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, Pharaoh resisted their release to Moses (to demonstrate God’s power), Cyrus was led to defeat the Babylonians and release its Israelite captives (to fulfill the prophecy), Pilot condemned Jesus to “hang on a tree”, etc. So the Bible testifies that free will for some, at least, can be and is proscribed by God in His plan to achieve the purpose of the plan[iii][iii].
But this fact hardly makes the case that God determines and directs every outcome. After all, if every decision were directed by God we would have to explain why it is that God would continue to plead with His people to NOT DO what they were doing – the idolatry and immorality that fills the Old Testament. Again, what a monstrous charade on God’s part if He had directed them to behave in that way while at the same time exhorting them to change and repent.
God’s plan for Creation necessarily, then, contained both fixed and potential outcomes[iv]. Let’s imagine how He could form such a thing.
Possibility and Certainty
What I am proposing is that God’s plan can be thought of as taking the form of an immense decision tree. In a decision tree, decisions are represented as nodes in the tree, whereas the specific choices that can be made in that decision, leading to different outcomes, are represented by the branches emanating from that node, as in Figure 1.
|Figure 1: Decision Tree Structure|
This structure looks simple, and it is. But it is a vastly oversimplified representation of many nuances. First, the context of each decision is ignored. Is the person making the decision under stress at the point in time of making the decision?; does s/he have sufficient information informing the decision?, etc. And, it depicts no interaction with other decision-makers who are simultaneously taking decisions that may have profound effects on the particular decision our primary decision-maker takes. (An attempt to show this type of interaction is more of a network-type diagram, shown in Figure 2.)
Take, as a hypothetical example, your decision to propose marriage. If your potential spouse agrees, then the set of future decisions you (and your spouse) will confront are starkly different than if s/he says no. The likely result of agreement is children, whose decisions will then interact not only with you and your spouse but hundreds of other decision-makers. Disagreement would likely preclude the entire branches/networks of the potential children. But, of course, the plan needs to provisionally include their branches/networks nonetheless. It gets complicated.
|Figure 2: Interacting Decision Trees|
In trying to understand God’s plan using these simple representations, it is important to keep in mind the basic fact that some choices in the past for some people in the past were fixed (i.e. only one branch was available from a decision node in Figure 1) by God.
And leading up to that single decision path, there were similarly antecedents that had some restrictions placed on them. For example, it wasn’t necessary that the man Moses was the one who was plucked from the Nile and raised in Pharaoh’s household, only to return later to retrieve his people — Israel. If it wasn’t him, there had to be another in God’s plan who could accomplish the same job. Similarly, it wasn’t necessary that the man Pontius Pilot was the Prefect of Rome for Israel who condemned Jesus. But for whoever it was that filled that role at that time, it was necessary that he render the same judgement.
Using these examples we see that the roles played by these specific individuals, and their actions, were what was specified. But the role players, themselves, were provisional, which is to say that they were not uniquely necessary to accomplish the plan, but whose existence was provided for in the plan as ones who could accomplish the specified jobs.
The same could be said of you and me. We were provisionally included in God’s plan. If our ancestors made all of the necessary decisions at all of the necessary branches in their decision trees, then we would result. (You can catch a glimpse of the miraculousness of your actually being here by having a look at, say, the last 8 or 10 generations in your family tree while considering all the other people your ancestors knew and might have married, but didn’t.) On branches of the plan that didn’t include one of our ancestors, there were others who were provisionally specified in the plan who would have come to be, while we wouldn’t.
So in formulating His plan, God had to provisionally provide for countless billions of people who, through the circumstances and decisions of their potential ancestors, did not result, while we did.
Now it’s worth reminding ourselves that we’re still talking about God’s plan. So far no Creation. What He has done is lay out a plan that accommodates all of the people who might result from all of the decisions their ancestors might take under all the potential circumstances with which they might be faced.
Some people will recoil at the sheer size and complexity of such a plan and conclude that it is absurd. But why? As we’ve already seen, God is infinitely knowledgeable and capable. Such a plan is, while extremely complex, finite – if we had enough time we could literally count all of its potential decisions and their potential outcomes. There are only a finite number of possible actions a finite number of living humans can take over the course of their finite existence. So what is it about a finite plan that is challenging to an infinite God?
Immanence Vs Design
This proposal says that in God’s plan of Creation He has perfectly integrated His intended outcomes with our free will decisions. Due to its majestic perfection, it’s quite possible that once He initiated it, God could have just stepped back – hands-off – and simply observed how each of His creatures played the hands they were dealt.
But the Bible describes that God took a different approach. The entire story of the Old Testament is one of God inserting Himself into history to either extend His knowledge and mercy, or His judgment. This act of interacting with His creation is referred to as God’s Immanence. Through all of these episodes, it becomes clear that just having a plan, by itself, would have been inadequate to His purpose.
Most of the Old Testament’s saga revolves around peoples’ decisions as to who they would serve – YHWH, or idols and themselves. Would they live in moral consonance with God, or abandon Him to their self-interest? Obviously, without God making Himself and His will known to His people, they wouldn’t even be aware that a choice was available – or necessary for them to make.
Now some of the Bible’s stories are told in such a way as to portray God making real-time decisions in response to actions His creatures take, e.g. the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, banishing Israel to 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Assyrian dispersion of the Northern tribes, the Babylonian exile and return, etc. So do these events truly represent real-time decisions and actions by an immanent God? Or, are they simply God’s plan being played out?
The Open Theist interprets these stories as describing an interactive, perhaps reactive, God, deciding as He goes how to handle each new situation. They refer to this character of God as “relational”. But did God create, only to figure it out as He goes?
I would make the case that God was not making “real-time” decisions, but was interacting with His people in real-time to inform them as to why the events were happening. In this way, each of these teaches humanity who He is and what He desires of and for them.
In reading the stories, it is completely understandable that readers might infer that God was spontaneously reacting to His creatures since that’s how He’s presented. But perhaps you would agree that portraying God as a disappointed grandfather figure who can be pushed to disciplinary action by His unruly children is, at the very least, hardly consistent with the transcendent perfection we are told elsewhere that He is.
For me, it is quite clear that the Old Testament’s stories that describe God anthropomorphically are simply literary devices used to explain God’s character and will in a format His people could plainly understand. We should not insist on taking literary form and style literally (especially in the Bible’s Old Testament). If we do, we will miss God’s transcendent majesty.
For His Glory
Now, there is one other crucial characteristic of God’s plan that we only touched on briefly above, and that is His assertion that humanity was created for His glory (Isaiah 43:7). How is He glorified by His Creation? Must each element of His plan be glorifying, or is glory only an attribute of the plan in its totality?
We know, for example, that God was angry with many paths taken through Israel’s part of the tree (e.g. whoring with its neighbors and ignoring God – Ezekiel 16:1-58). Was He in some way glorified by these paths in ways we just don’t understand? Perhaps those or similar paths were simply necessary antecedents to future paths and events by which He was glorified. We just don’t know nearly enough about the nature or sources of God’s glory, nor is it likely that we have the ability to know.
Whether He is glorified by each individual path, or only in consideration of the whole, is left up to the reader’s speculation. Whichever way it works, we are assured by God of its efficacy. He is glorified.
There are two incredibly humbling conclusions from this stark realization. First, whether or not we ever came to exist, God was going to be glorified, and second, since we did come to exist, in some way God has achieved his glory (perhaps in spite of us) by something we have done or will do; or something our progeny will do or cause to be done. Nobody in the plan isn’t used in some way to participate in glorifying God.
One of the principal arguments against this model of Creation is that it is “unscriptural”. That is, that it is not attested in the Bible. Well, that’s true. The Bible doesn’t speak of decision trees or causal chains just as it doesn’t speak of dark matter or quantum uncertainty or a whole host of other academic subjects. That’s not what its purpose is. The Bible does tell us that if we exist and love God, He works all things together for our good (Romans 8:28), which seems to imply a quite complex web of events and outcomes not unlike this proposal. But is what I have proposed anti-biblical? I don’t think so.
Ephesians 1:4-5 says:
“even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will”,
I read the verbs in this statement (chose, predestined) as interpretations of the verb “planned”, as there were indeed paths through the decision tree whose results were Paul and the Ephesian Church coming to faith in Christ. Now, whether you believe in individual choosing or corporate choosing (“even as he chose us-in-him, before…) I don’t think there is any discontinuity between what I have proposed and Paul’s statement here. Hopefully, you would agree that there is similarly no conflict with Ephesians 1:11 or 2 Timothy 1:9. Where some might find discontinuity is in Romans 8:29-30 because it seems to be restricting God’s “foreknowledge” to just those he subsequently destines for “conformance to the image of His Son”. So if His plan includes everybody (as it must), they might argue that the Bible doesn’t say that He foreknew everybody in the plan – only those He would conform, etc., etc.
This is the subject for another entire essay, but for here and now, I would just say that what Paul is describing in Romans 8 as “foreknowledge” involves “relationship with”, not simple awareness of, as in the requirement to have an individual appear in God’s plan. Notice that Paul is speaking of those that “love God” (v28). These are the ones who, he says, “have been called according to His purpose”. So the way I read it Paul is saying these people, who are in relationship with God (not simply foreseen), are those who chose to seek Him in response to His call, to their affirmative answer and love, and to what Paul describes as God’s “foreknowledge” of them. I see no inconsistency.
A Short Digression on Omniscience
I mentioned above that foreknowledge is not foreordination. This is crucially underscored by this proposal. God formulated His plan, stipulating free will for humanity. He provided for that free will by providing for every possible set of paths through the network of decisions that they might make. So before Creation, did God “know” which of those paths would be taken, thereby “ordaining” them? No, He did not (other than those that He stipulated — e.g. Jesus) — at least in its sense of comprehensive factual knowledge. He didn’t have to. He had seen to the achievement of His goal of being glorified by Creation within the plan itself.
So was God not omniscient of His plan? No. He foreknew everything and everyone that could result from it. Which specific things and specific people would result was not knowable prior to the Creation event, since they were dependent on His humanity’s exercise of their will. However, at the instant of Creation, He did “foreknow” our future for reasons of physics, which we’ll look at briefly, below.
In the Beginning, God Created the Heavens and the Earth
After formulating His plan, God implemented His plan. Creation happened. Scientists tell us about the “Big Bang” event that resulted in all we see around us. They also tell us that the dimensions of that Creation are three spatial dimensions (up/down, forward/backward, left/right) and time, its fourth dimension.
Returning to the Open Theist arguments for a limited God, their assertion is that God cannot see/know the future because it is only a range of possibilities (as in His plan), not a tangible reality that can be known.
There are two huge problems with this view to my way of thinking. The first is that it ignores the fact that Creation – the Universe – is a reality that now exists and has certain properties and characteristics God created. One of those is its time dimension.
Since God is the Creator of our time dimension, it is impossible for Him to be constrained by this feature of that which He has created. A creator is never constrained by that which he creates. God Himself calls this principle to our attention in the metaphor of the potter and the clay (Jeremiah 18:6). To protest that the range of time visible to God extends to what we perceive as “now”, and no further, is just prideful, and perhaps wishful, thinking. Figure 3 is a depiction of how God might view His Creation that conveys His transcendence of time.
|Figure 3: A God’s-eye View of Creation|
For the OT readers, perhaps this thought experiment will be helpful. Consider your own history. Pick out some decision you were presented with and then made: perhaps what school to attend, the choice of your spouse, whether to take this job or that one – anything. Now consider your position presently, sitting there looking back on that event which was for you at that time very, very real. Did the fact that you would someday (today) look back on that decision and the choice that you made from the future constrain your choice in any way? Of course, it did not. The fact that you now know which choice you made in no way constrained your range of choices or your selection of that choice at the time. I would submit that God’s knowledge of the future is analogous to your review of your own history.
The second problem with the OT view seeing the future as not-yet-real and therefore unknowable, is that the future is exclusively comprised of that which God Himself designed into it – before there was time. So even if He decided to restrict Himself from peaking into our future, He surely knows intimately each of the potential actions each of us can make. What’s unclear is why this should make any significant difference to us.
One of the properties of God that we all seem to accept (including OT folks) is His eternality. What do we mean when we say God is eternal? Some think of it as His ability to always be, meaning, to them, that He will exist long after the earth and perhaps the entire Universe no longer exists. Certainly, that’s true. But, since we’re incapable of fully grasping this idea of “existent” in our finite minds, we force God into our timeframe, to become something like one of us, though immortal.
That’s not at all the God the Bible describes. God is existent. His famous declaration “I am” encapsulates this idea. Not: “I was and am and will be”. Just, “I am”. This is His declaration of His tense-less transcendence of space-time. Unfortunately, we, being subject to our time, have to conjure up a word that contrasts our brief existence with God’s “existentness”. And that word is “eternal”. He (inspired Peter who) tells us that time has no effect on Him (2 Peter 3:8). So it would seem wise to take Him at His word: His eternality means His range of effective control is independent of our time.
If the Bible had axioms, one of its first would be that, according to Jesus, God is Spirit (John 4:24). Spirits are not physical beings. They’re immaterial — non-physical. They don’t occupy a location in space-time, though they can occupy all of it. So we should presume that God occupies – exists “in” – all of our time, and perhaps other time dimensions we have no knowledge of. So this existence gives Him a view of all of time[v].
- Before Creation, God made a plan for Creation – what would potentially be created. That plan included some events and outcomes He specified (e.g. an Abraham with an Isaac, a Moses and the Exodus, Jesus, His crucifixion, etc.). But, most were NOT specified but simply provided for. This plan contained ALL of the possible outcomes of ALL of the possible paths through all of its possible people and their possible freewill decisions. And, He ensured that for ALL of these possible outcomes He would be *glorified* (in some cases in ways that are inscrutable to us). Formulating such a plan of a finite number of possible outcomes from a finite number of possible inhabitants of His creation is not a difficult task for an *infinitely* capable Creator.
- This plan allowed (within certain limits) any outcomes for us we chose, assuming we were here to actually choose in the first place (the ancestry probability constraint.) In this light, you should be humble in acknowledging that you were not “planned for” in the sense of specified, but you were, indeed, “provided for”. So you and I were “provisional” outcomes of one path through the set of possible outcomes). Before moving on, take a quiet moment and consider the breathtaking magnificence of such a plan.
- God then implemented His plan, creating the universe and all that is in it (from nothing).
- One of the characteristics of this universe is its time (“space-time”). This is axiomatic – a fact of the physics of the reality we know as this universe. (If you don’t agree, please consult any physics textbook dealing with cosmology or the Big Bang event.)
- Having created the universe and its time, it was impossible that its Creator was subject to, or in any way constrained by, either its 3 spatial dimensions or its time dimension. The Creator is not subject to that which He has created. This isn’t just a physics issue: see, e.g. Isaiah 45:9.
- It was mentioned (see 4, above) that, by definition, God is “outside” of the time dimension He created. This means He is independent of and unconstrained by it. If He chooses to examine events that occur in what is for us the future, He is free to do so. He is not trapped in the time dimension we are. He is outside of it[iii]. He can survey along its extent as you would survey along, say, the path of your commute from the vantage point of an airliner taking off from your home airport.
God’s observation of our future has NO effect whatsoever on the set of circumstances we will be confronted with in that future, nor our resultant choices in response to them. We are unconstrained. Our only constraint is that we have to operate within the Will/Plan of God. And that Plan anticipates ALL possible eventualities and outcomes. That is the definition of unconstrained, or free, will.
Since Creation is God’s plan, He is not surprised by, nor is He forced to respond to, any event that may happen within it. Creation is the product of God’s mind. He planned for the event before the beginning.
God’s independence of our timeline seems to be unacceptable to the Open Theist. But why? It’s His plan! Why should anyone think that God spoke the Universe into existence having no, or only a “probabilistic”, idea of how it would unfold? Can you imagine an infinite power and intelligence just pushing the “Create” button having no clear idea of the ultimate result? How insulting of the Creator!
Open Theist advocates should take this away: If you operate in an environment in which your free will is provided for, you are not constrained. If God chooses to know which specific path through His plan people have chosen to pursue (to Him, it’s all past tense), so what? Are you in some way constrained in the range of free choices which are yet in your future? Are you thereby no longer a free agent? No, you remain a free agent. You are exercising your free will to choose your path to your future. The choices you will make are still your choices, not His (unless, of course, you become involved in one of His stipulated events). How does this arrangement cause you to create theories that demean as unable the God who provided for your very existence? Perhaps it’s time for a little humility.
[i] The approach traces its origins to at least the 1800s inspired by writers like L.D. McCabe(1817-1897) and his The Foreknowledge of God: And Cognate Themes in Theology and Philosophy
[ii] R. C. Cook, “God, Time and Freedom” Religious Studies 23 (1988) 89
[iii] It can be debated whether or not God’s plan included forcing these specific behaviors onto these specific people, or whether He simply structured the plan in such a way that these specific people were available to be placed into the roles that required these specific actions of their own volitions, whereas others, also available to fill these roles, would not have so chosen.
[iv] For those interested in the more formal, theological underpinnings of these ideas of God, you can start by having a look at this Wikipedia article on Molinism. Quoting: ‘William Lane Craig calls Molinism “one of the most fruitful theological ideas ever conceived. For it would serve to explain not only God’s knowledge of the future, but divine providence and predestination as well”.’
[v] For the mathematicians and engineers, think of God as orthogonal to our time dimension.