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)

Jesus, Love Mascot? (Or, the Wrath of the Lamb Does Exist)

Every culture in history has had its own problems with the Bible and Christian teaching. Ours struggles especially with the violent judgments of the Old Testament, including broad application of the death penalty and Israel’s conquests of Canaan (a topic I’ve written on recently). Unfortunately, for an increasing number of Christians these days, the solution to these tough texts is to discard them. How is this justified? Here’s the argument (which, for reasons which I will make clear by the end of the post, I am labeling the love-mascot argument):

Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of God.

Jesus showed in His life that He would never kill, harm, or otherwise violently judge anyone.

Therefore any portrayal of God as doing such things in the Old Testament is at best revelation made imperfect by humans.

The love-mascot argument starts from a true premise, but the second point is, well, simply not Biblical. Jesus may not have harmed or killed anyone in His earthly ministry, but that’s certainly not because He was opposed to such judgments. Consider these words of our Lord:

Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:28

The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather from His kingdom everything that causes sin and those guilty of lawlessness. They will throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 13:41-42

But if that wicked slave says in his heart, “My master is delayed,” and starts to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, that slave’s master will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 24:48-51

But I will show you the One to fear: Fear Him who has authority to throw people into hell after death. Yes, I say to you, this is the One to fear!

Luke 12:5

So Jesus preaches that God will very harshly judge unbelievers, even condemning them to a Hell of eternal suffering. He even uses the analogy of cutting someone to pieces. And this is the God Jesus Himself worshiped, served, prayed to, and loved. Jesus Himself believed that these acts are right and just. Also note that in the second text, Jesus—not the Father—is the one who commands this tough judgment.

Of course, none of this even counts Revelation. The book of Revelation tells of many plagues and harsh, violent destruction. This is not just the wrath of some pagan deity. This is “the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16) who was slaughtered (Rev. 5:6). The same Jesus who said “Neither do I condemn you” also “judges and makes war with righteousness” (Rev. 19:11) at the conclusion of the age.

With these terrifying pictures of the wrath of Jesus Christ, we can’t apply the love-mascot logic. It breaks down if Jesus is allowed to judge violently, which He clearly is willing to do. If Jesus is like this, we cannot simply scratch out the OT revelation of God’s painful dealings with people, because they are indeed in line with the eternal Word (John 1:1).

So on to the word “mascot.” Why do I call this argument the love-mascot argument? Because of the way progressive Christianity (a movement which generally encompasses people who use this argument) handles Jesus. Progressive Christianity, albeit with decent intentions, refuses to let Jesus be who He is. Instead, they start with a modern, Western conception of love as something which cannot involve harshness or violent judgment. Then they take the Biblical statement “God is love,” load it with such a niceness-shaped love, and apply it to Jesus in the Gospels. This culturally conditioned Jesus is then used to cut up the OT. But in all this Jesus serves the role as only a mascot of love, and “love” strictly in a very uniquely American sense.

There is more evidence for this throughout the writings of progressive Christians (I do not wish to name any in particular right now, but if you are familiar with them at all this might make sense anyway). If you read much of their stuff, you will find that they treat Christianity as simply one religion out of many. All the religions are spoken of on equal terms, with Christianity seeming to just the preference of the authors. What people do in and for Christ is often equated with what people do in the name of Mohammed or Buddha. A Christian life is given no priority or advantage over a devout Hindu life. Only some of them would be willing to say that Christianity and other religions are basically equal, but they mostly all speak that way.

This does not merely degrade a system of belief. This pulls down Jesus Christ. He is not treated as the only way to the Father, the only name by which we may be saved, or the One Mediator who is Himself God and Man. Instead, when Christianity is spoken of as though it were merely one way among many to lead a life of “love,” Jesus Himself becomes little more than a mascot of love. Instead of being our life, salvation, sanctification, and only hope, He is mostly our example, and good name to cling to in the pursuit of a loving life. Indeed, the more radical end of progressivism, which barely even deserves to be included, would even be willing to say that Christianity is nothing more than living a life of love and compassion. In this, the Son of God becomes a mere mascot.

So what do we do and say? We refuse to let modern, Western ideals of what love should be like be the last word. Instead, if Jesus is God, and God is love, we should let the actual Jesus dictate what we understand of love. The actual Jesus as we see Him through Scripture is not a mascot, but instead lives simultaneously as our Redemption and our Judgment. He is filled both with love for all people and wrath for all people. This is the kind of love which confronts us unapologetically in Jesus, and this Jesus is the means by which we have to interpret the Old Testament. Of course, in that case we should be able to accept the harsh realities of God’s judgments there, because even the Exodus plagues pale in comparison to the end of the age at which the wrath of the Lamb will be unleashed on the world. The Lamb who was slaughtered does love unto death, but those who do not join in His death will find their own much worse. This Jesus is no mere mascot of culturally restricted ideas of love. He is the one and only I AM, the uniquely exclusive path to the Father, who was and is and will be.

With this in mind, let us pray that our hearts and minds will be conformed to the image of Jesus. Let us ask the Father through His Spirit to mold our ideas of love and justice to those He Himself performs in His Son. For who has known the mind of the Lord to be His counselor? But we have the mind of Christ. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

Jesus, Love Mascot? (Or, the Wrath of the Lamb Does Exist)