Is God All This and All That? (Part 1: Omniscience)

God cannot be good, or He cannot be real. This is basically the thrust of the argument which uses the problem of evil against God, at least as He is traditionally understood. The Greek philosopher Epicurus put it this way:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

This dilemma, called in the above form the Epicurean Paradox or more generally just the problem of evil, has always been a difficult problem for Christians. Yes, there have always been answers, but not all of the proposed answers have been good, clear, and coherent. The most popular answer has usually involved free will, but even that idea has been fraught with questions and philosophical challenges (e.g. “Can free will truly exist alongside divine sovereignty, omnipotence, and omniscience?”). Another popular answer, though almost exclusively in Calvinist circles, is that evil was essentially imagined and decreed by God so that He could use it to glorify Himself.

Because of these difficulties, some people have attempted reevaluate Biblical teachings on God to see if we are getting something wrong in the start. This has led some people to startling conclusions.

What if God isn’t actually omniscience (all-knowing)?

What if God isn’t actually omnipotent (all-powerful)?

At first glance, both of these objections sound absurd. Yet there are people who charge that omniscience and omnipotence, at least as traditionally understood, are philosophical traditions imposed on the Bible from the outside, and not actually Biblical teachings themselves.

For those of us who seek to be true Biblicists, sola Scriptura Protestants, we should feel compelled to examine all such claims that our traditions are misleading us from Scripture. We must take them seriously and find out if they are true. Could we be wrong, misled by worldly philosophy?

If we are wrong, there are obvious implications for the problem of evil. If God is not truly all-knowing, and in this case usually people mean He doesn’t fully know the future, then the devastation of sin on the world may have been essentially a surprise to God. Maybe He didn’t mean for the world to turn out so bad, but He took a risk for the sake of love.

For some people, though, even this isn’t enough. Maybe God didn’t see it coming, but surely if He was omnipotent and good, He would have immediately responded to evil by wiping it out. He could have destroyed Satan, or found a way to give people free will without giving them the ability to do evil, just like He gives us free will without the ability to turn into sausage. So if God was not fully omnipotent, at least in the traditional sense, then it might make sense that God did not immediately stop evil in the beginning.

With such a solution to the problem of evil at hand, and with an accusation that full omniscience and omnipotence are unbiblical, it is worth a search to see what Scripture actually says. I’ll tackle the two questions, omniscience and omnipotence, separately.

Does God know everything? More specifically, does God know all about the future, or does He perhaps not know what free humans will choose to do every time? The Biblical evidence is interesting. There are some statements in Scripture which seem to indicate that God doesn’t know absolutely everything. God responded to man’s wickedness before the Flood with regret as though it were a surprise (Gen. 6:5-6), asked Abraham where Sarah was (Gen. 18:9), seemed to need to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah before He judged them (Gen. 18:20-21), apparently found out Abraham’s faith at Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22:12), searched out the hearts of the Israelites for 40 years in the desert (Deut. 8:2), only said “perhaps” about Israel’s repentance from Jeremiah’s preaching (Jer. 26:3), and in many other places acted as though He did not know what was coming. Many people have argued that these narratives provide a portrait of a God who does not know all the future, or even necessarily the whole of the present.

On the one hand, there are statements to the effect that God knows everything. Examples include 1 John 3:20, Psalm 139, Hebrews 4:13, John 21:17, etc. One might argue, though, that in context none of these have anything to do with the important question about the future. It still might make sense to say God knows “everything” but speak loosely and only really mean the present, or perhaps be using hyperbole. Some people even argue that God knows absolutely everything, but that the future is literally nothing until it happens. God knows everything, but the future isn’t part of everything. So does the Bible offer any specific reasons to believe that God knows the future?

There is, to the best of my knowledge, no verse that specifically says that God knows the future exhaustively, but there is evidence that He must know at least some or most of it. A classic example is Isaiah 42:9, in which God declares that He speaks of events yet to come. In fact, in Isaiah God’s knowledge of major coming events is repeatedly brought forth as evidence that He, not the idols Israel and the Gentiles loved to worship, is the true God (Isa. 41:22-23, 44:7-8, 46:9-10). While one might respond that this knowledge seems to be limited to what God is planning to do Himself (e.g. 46:10), such a limitation is hardly compatible with the way this knowledge is used against the idols. Any false god could know what it plans to do, and there is nothing uniquely impressive about Yahweh knowing His own plans.

More evidence that God must know the future at least pretty fully is found in the prophecies of Daniel. Daniel prophesied the rise and fall of many empires in God’s power, and yet these prophecies cover a wide range of types of knowledge. They include God’s own plans, the actions of individual kings and leaders, and the larger movements of history and empire. Sense can hardly be made of the prophecies of Daniel unless God knows every, or nearly every, kind of future action, including the free choices of people.

That said, is there any Biblical “smoking gun” statement proving unambiguously that God knows absolutely everything about the future? No. So it is certainly possible to interpret the Biblical evidence in a way which leaves the future at least partially uncertain to God. Nonetheless, it seems far more likely, given the totality of the Biblical testimony, to say that God does indeed know the future to the same extent that He knows the present and the past. More problems are solved by acknowledging this than by denying it, or at least it seems so to me. This is further supported by the unanimous testimony of the entire Church throughout history up until very recently (for most of Church history no other understanding has existed at all), and by reflections on space, time, creation, and physics, though this latter line of evidence is beyond the scope of this post. If everything must be established by two or three witnesses, then the full omniscience of God seems well grounded.

Of course, I should not skim over the many Biblical texts brought against this view earlier. What of all of these references, mostly in Genesis, which make God sound as though He needed to find things out which He did not know? My answer on this must remain somewhat traditional, not out of any necessary loyalty to tradition but because it seems the most sensible explanation to me out of all the possibilities. I believe John Calvin got it mostly right with his strong notion of accommodation. To Calvin, we see in the Scriptures, and especially in the early Old Testament, God reaching down to speak to us in a way that we can understand, even if this is very limited and even perhaps not always fully accurate in translation. He likened God’s condescension in speaking to us to a parent babbling to their infant child.

I would, in fact, take this line even further. I believe that what we see in the early Old Testament is God revealing Himself first in a way which would simultaneously be understandable and subversive to the original audience, an ancient people steeped in primitive polytheism. They came from a religious culture where the gods were almost exclusively viewed in a very limited and human-like way. They had no other concept of what a deity might be like. So God showed Himself primarily in such terms, as though He were one of their tribal deities, but throughout this revelation also planted the seeds of fuller knowledge, so that the knowledge of God by condescending analogy and the knowledge of God as He truly is wrestled in tension until the fullness of revelation in Jesus.

On an additional note to this, I would suggest that in interacting with man God can do so most freely and easily when He interacts with us on our level, like a character in time rather than simply as the God above time. Just try to imagine the weirdness of interacting with someone from a strictly transcendent, timeless posture. For our comprehension alone, it was necessary for God to speak like one of us.

So, with a decent case for God’s comprehensive foreknowledge established with at least some strength, we will need to move on to look at God’s omnipotence, His all-power. After all, perhaps God knew what was coming, and knew that in the long run He could work all things out, but in the meantime did not have the ability to prevent all evil. Yet I have run wildly long so far, thus I will have to save the next part for another post.

Is God All This and All That? (Part 1: Omniscience)

So what do you think?