Can God Transcend Time to Know the Future?
Back in the days of Thomas Aquinas theologians were debating the nature of God's omnipotence. When defining this attribute, it was simply stated that God can "do everything"; which is implied by the Latin term. Aquinas qualified omnipotence, clarifying that it should not be construed to mean that God can do the undoable, for it must entail logical possibility in order to avoid absurdity. As author Anthony Kenny said, God's omnipotence does not mean He can make a table which He did not make (The God of the Philosophers), for the ability to make something which one has not made is an absurdity, not an ability anyone can possess. Why is it permitted in theology to place qualifications on omnipotence to avoid the dreaded "table scenario," whereas it is not at all permitted to place the same qualifications on omniscience? Is it a matter of denigrating the character of Almighty God? If so, why is doing the undoable considered less acceptable than knowing the unknowable? While Aquinas settled the problem with omnipotence for all of Christendom, keeping the world safe from silly religious speculations, Aquinas failed to do the same for omniscience.
Aquinas admitted that the immutable foreknowledge of a purely contingent action by a moral being involved contradiction (e.g., vacillating on the definitions of "immutable" and "contingent", etc.). So in order to fix the problem he looked, not to Scripture, but to the speculations of the Roman philosopher, Boethius, a champion of Aristotelian thought. Boethius defined "eternity" as "the total and simultaneous possession of unending life". (A. Kenny. The God of the Philosophers, p. 88). This came to be expressed in terms of a static, punctiliar realm. From Boethius, Aquinas obtained the concept known as the "eternal now" (the notion that God dwells outside of time). This allowed him to keep the traditional foreknowledge dogma sacrosanct and still give humans freedom to perform contingent actions. Bless his heart, but I think he failed! In the year 2002 the old Greek ideas about the nature of time seem to only be welcome in religious circles where, among other things, they are used to deal with such recalcitrant issues as the immutable foreknowledge of contingent actions.
If time is some sort of realm (or dimension) then God could very well foresee and thus foreknow everything within this realm. God could hold time in His hand as if it were a waterglobe, viewing all of the so-called actions therein in all of their static glory. To affirm such, however, is to affirm the fixity of all that is foreknown, leading us to the dead-end road of determinism.
Let's assume I am truly endowed with free will. This means that I have the power to originate my own actions. create that which is truly new (i.e., never before created). I can choose good or I can choose evil. Let's also assume that God has immutable foreknowledge of all of the contingent actions of the collectivity of man from creation onward. Regardless of which course I may take, God has, from eternity, seen it as an immutable reality. God therefore foreknows the outcome, not as it may happen but as it shall happen.
Assuming, now, that I am truly free and indeed the originator of my supposedly contingent actions; how is it that I will never act in a fashion contrary to what has always been foreknown? How is it that I will infallibly act in a manner in which God always knew I would act? Where do I obtain the information (presumably only in God's mind) in order to act in such precise accord with his foreknowledge? Can I ever act in a manner in which God did not immutably foresee? If I answer this in the negative, am I not establishing the inevitability of my actions?
The issue is not as much about foreknowledge as it is about the kind of foreknowledge. Those of us who take issue with foreknowledge do not dispute God's ability to objectively know his own will and sovereign actions necessary to accomplish that will. We simply question the integrity of the alleged immutable foreknowledge of future contingencies (hereafter abbreviated "IFCC").
Those Biblical passages customarily marshaled as proof-texts for IFFC invariably turn out to be those which affirm that which we do not dispute, namely God's objective knowledge of his own will and sovereign actions. One of the more popular of these passages is Isaiah 46:10: "I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is still to come." This passage, which is usually cited in various fractured forms, is put forth as proof of the IFFC dogma, but the passage is not an unqualified statement regarding foreknowledge. If we read that chapter in toto we will see that the object of God's knowledge is none other than His own plans and sovereign actions which he has set into motion in order to accomplish a certain end. God is, in a manner of speaking, telling the prophet, "Look here! I'm letting you in on this beforehand; this is what I'm going to do". He's not saying, "Look here! In the year 2002 in October there's going to be cold-hearted snipers roaming the D.C. area killing innocent people, and afterward going to the YMCA to unwind."
Those of us who question IFFC hold that future contingencies are non-existent; they are possibilities, not objective realities. Why then should it impugn the character of Almighty God to deny that these non-existents can be objectively foreknown? To speak of the certain (objective) or immutable foreknowledge of something which does not exist and may or may not exist is to speak of the immutable foreknowledge of a nothing. Is the ability to know a nothing any less silly than the ability to make something which one has not made? If something is known objectively or immutably, it cannot be known as a mere possibility but rather as an absolute reality. To allege otherwise it to contradict the accepted definitions of "objectively", "absolute" and "immutable".
If you have not already done so read my articles titled Time, Eternity, and Predestination and Does God's Perfect Knowledge of the Future Render Free Will and Human Responsibility Meaningless?, in which I deal with these issues in more detail. In these articles I address the nature of time, and how God's omniscience relates to freedom of will. I argue that God created time, which is present in nature; God did not create the past or future. These are only perspectives of time conceived in the human mind, having no objective existence in reality. The only time that exists is present time. While the future is merely conceptual, having no objective existence until it arrives as the "present," it does subjectively exist in the mind of God, and is foreknown perfectly by Him because He exists outside of time as well as in time, and thus is not subject to the limitations of knowledge that we time-bound creatures are subject to. While God foreknows the choices men will make throughout all of time, He does not create the future, and thus did not create the future to be a certain way.
I believe your argument can be summarized as follows: Time is not a creation of God, but has always existed, and thus God cannot transcend time to know anything other than the past and present. There is no objective future to know (because it does not exist), so it logically follows that God cannot know it, for it would be impossible to know the unknowable and nonexistent. Ultimately your position on God's foreknowledge is based on your understanding of time, specifically your denial of the objective existence of the future, and your affirmation that time is not a creation of God, but is eternal. It is on these two points that your argument hangs, and on which we disagree. If you are right about the eternal nature of time, and God's inability to transcend time, I would have to admit that your view that God does not and cannot know the future is valid. The real question here, then, is Does God transcend time?, and Does the future have an objective existence?
Genesis 1:1 is the key to answering the first question. "In the beginning...." There was a beginning. Time was something that came into being at the dawn of creation. God did not have a beginning. He is a-temporal, while creation is temporal. God is not bound by the limitations of time, and neither is time part of God's eternal nature. God is transcendent to time, because God is transcendent to the created realm. God is unique in that in addition to being transcendent to time, He also interacts with time when He interacts with His creation. Because God created time, He transcends time, and is not bound to the "present perspective" that humans are bound to. He is both above time and in time. I do not get that from Boethius, but from Genesis 1:1, which I consider to be an accurate statement of reality, and not just some figure of speech.
Does the future have an objective existence? As I argued in Time, Eternity, and Predestination, past and future are not created entities. God merely created time, and the nature of time is an instantaneous present. The past and the future do not exist, i.e. they are not objectively real. They are only perspectives on time from the standpoint of the present. The past did exist in a "prior present," and the future will exist in an "upcoming present," but all that does exist is the present. The (perceived) future is only actualized when it becomes the present through the process of the passing of a series of instantaneous nows. Something can be anticipated to occur in the future, but until it actually occurs it cannot be said to be objectively real. The future is non-existent. It can be anticipated, but not fully known, or experienced.
We must ask, then, if the future is not objectively real, and if God did not create the future, how can God perfectly know the future? God is able to know the future because He transcends time, and has all knowledge. That is what omniscience is-all knowledge. Even your understanding allows God to have all knowledge that is possible, that just excludes the future because you believe that the future is non-existent, even in the mind of God, because time is eternal, and God cannot transcend time. If God created time, however, His perfect knowledge can include all human choices throughout the history of creation, even those yet to occur. You said, "Those of us who question IFFC hold that future contingencies are non-existent; they are possibilities-not objective realities." I agree that there is a sense in which future contingencies are non-existent: they are non-existent in time until they have actually occurred in the present, but they are realities in the mind of God because God exists outside of time and knows them perfectly. God's timeless knowledge of what will occur in the created realm must be worked out in time for it to become a reality.
You have compared omniscience to omnipotence, stating that if both are unqualified, both are contradictory and nonsensical. I do not believe this is a valid comparison because in the case of omnipotence it is simply a matter of an improper and absurd definition of omnipotence to say that God can do the logically impossible. There is no inherent contradiction, however, to the notion that God can know everything man will do in the future (including future events), and yet maintain that we have genuine free will. (Even if you are correct that God does not transcend time, and thus is only able to know the present, it still could not be said to be a contradiction or nonsensical, but simply an error of understanding based on an incorrect concept of time.) We only encounter a contradiction when we mistakenly believe that God's prior knowledge of what we will freely choose means that He is the one choosing for us.
Why is it so difficult to think that God can have perfect knowledge of others' actions as well as His own? Set aside any philosophical or scientific arguments about the nature of time for a moment and just consider the idea itself. While it is logically contradictory to say that God's omnipotence means He can make a square circle, there is nothing logically contradictory with a being who can know all that both He and other rational creatures will do throughout all of time, and yet there be genuine freedom of will (it would only be contradictory if it could be demonstrated that there is no such thing as an objective future, both Biblically and scientifically; God does not exist outside of time, and is unable to know view God cannot know future events). It may be an amazing thing, but it is not a contradictory thing by any means.
There is a difference between the notion that the future is predetermined by God with no contingency on man's free choices, and the notion that all of man's free choices are foreknown by God in His timeless omniscience. Only the latter is true. It does not logically follow that God's complete foreknowledge of all human choices means that God dictates those choices. God's timeless knowledge of all human choices does not mean that God makes a timeless determination of future events. Prior knowledge of an action does not make the person with that knowledge the cause of that action. If I had perfect knowledge of history, that would not make me the cause of history. There is a difference between knowing something and causing something.
It seems to me that you are viewing God as a big human being, with the same limitations that we humans have. We can have limited knowledge of our own plans and intended actions, but not others. Now it logically conceivable that God could be like that, but you seem to think that He could only be like that. Your God is just a big man, with a larger "brain" that we humans, but one not large enough to know all things. I speculate that this has more to do with your personal opinion on what God can and cannot know based on your human perspective than it does with the philosophy of time. You humanize God because you see a contradiction between free will and omniscience (in the traditional understanding of the concept).
You said, "Assuming, now, that I am truly free and indeed the originator of my supposedly contingent actions, how is it that I will never act in a fashion contrary to what has always been foreknown?" I believe this misses the point. You yourself noted that you are the originator of your actions, but then turn right around and make it seem as though God is the originator, and you follow suit. What is foreknowledge? It is knowing something beforehand, not making that something happen. Just because I may know exactly how many times a light will turn green in one day, and know the exact intervals between each changing, does not make me the cause of the traffic light turning red and green. Your statement above is like saying, "How is it that the streetlight will never act in a fashion contrary to what you have foreknown?" Foreknowledge is contingent on man's choices. God foreknows what choices we will make. His perfect knowledge of them does not make Him the originator though. We are always the originator, while God perfectly knows what actions and choices we will originate. He knows the choices we will make with our own free will before those choices are ever made in the course of history. It goes without saying that our actions would never be contrary to what God foreknew because what God foreknew was the actions and decisions we would make. If you knew the Angels were going to win the World Series before they won, would that make you the cause for their winning? No. The prophets of God prophesied about future events. They knew what would happen in the future. Does that make them the cause of the future? No. The same goes for God.
There can be no doubt that in God's mind the future of the created realm is fixed, not in flux. By "fixed," I do not mean predetermined, but rather foreknown, and thus firmly established. Because God's foreknowledge is perfect, He knows all events that will ever transpire, and nothing which He has foreknown could ever happen in any other way than that manner in which He foreknew it. The fact that the future is fixed in the mind of God, however, has nothing to do with free will. The real question is not "Is the future fixed?," but rather "Who fixes the future?".1
Then you said, "How is it that I will infallibly act in a manner in which God always knew I would act? Where do I obtain the information (presumably only in God's mind) in order to act in such precise accord with his foreknowledge?" Again, I think this misses the point. You are presupposing that God's foreknowledge means that God wrote the script. No. We write the script, but God knows what we will write before we write it. If I could have known every word of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet before he wrote it, that does not make me the author. William Shakespeare would be the author. God gets His information from us, not us from Him. In His mind's eye He could foresee what we would do, and "gain" knowledge of it. His foreknowledge and our actions only line up because of the fact that He perfectly knows all that we will make happen. If He was not omniscient His knowledge of our actions would not line up, because His knowledge would not be complete and He could be mistaken at times.
I find it noteworthy that you did not give me any scientific basis for a different understanding of the nature of time than that which I hold to. Now you may have lots of information you could share with me, but I find it significant that you have not shared it, and have not emphasized it in your argument. From what I see, this issue hinges on the nature of time, not the logical coherency of IFFC, for there is nothing illogical about it, yet it is the logical nature of IFFC that you have been focusing on. If it is the nature of time that would not permit God to know future things, I need to see how you are justifying your view of the nature of time.
I agree with you that the context of Is 46:10 specifically refers to God's plans, and does not say that God knows all things that man will do. With that said, however, how can God make known the end from the beginning without knowing what men will do as well as what He will do? It does not make sense to say that God has perfect knowledge of what He will do if God does not have IFFC, because God interacts with creation. Knowledge of what He will do is contingent to some degree on what we will do. If God does not know what we will do, He cannot be sure as to what He will do or how He will respond to what we will do. He has to wait until we do whatever it is we will do in order to determine what it is that He will do. You cannot have a being with perfect knowledge of His own actions unless He has perfect knowledge of others' actions as well, unless that being does not interact with anyone else, or cannot be affected by anyone else, both of which are not the case with God. Unless I am misunderstanding your position, I believe this simple fact makes your view lose logical credibility.
To say that God can have perfect knowledge of what He will do throughout all time, but not perfect knowledge of what those with whom He is interacting will do, is like saying that I know I will get married on August 9, 2003 but do not who I will be marrying. If I do not know who I will be marrying, and whether or not she will agree to marry me, how can I know I will be getting married at all? Knowledge of my marriage is contingent on the free will of someone else, a free-will decision to which I have no prior knowledge. According to the logic of your view, then, God could not have perfect foreknowledge of His own intents and acts, and cannot guarantee that they come to pass because His intended actions are determined in part by the actions of others. If this is so we would be forced to conclude that God cannot know the end from the beginning, thus falsifying His own statement in Isaiah 46:10.
While you have correctly pointed out that Isaiah 46:10 does not mention God's knowledge of anything other than His own plans, I believe you have passed over the passages of Scripture that demonstrate He does have foreknowledge of others' actions. There were many prophecies given wherein God predicted what people would do, even particular people, and how God would respond to them. For example, God prophesied that Cyrus would issue an edict allowing the Jews to return to Palestine from their captivity in Babylon, some four hundred years before the event occurred (Isaiah 44:28). The Apostle John predicted the response of the earth-dwellers to God's wrath (Revelation 6:15-17; 9:20-21; 11:10; 12:17; 16:9-11; 20:7-9). Daniel prophesied of future world kingdoms, and the future actions of the antichrist (Daniel 2:39-43; 7:2-26; 8; 9:24-27; 11). Judas' betrayal of Christ was prophesied by Christ before it ever happened, and was predicted by Jeremiah (Matt. 27:9-10), and David (Acts 1:16). How could Jesus know that Judas would betray Him if God cannot know the future choices of anyone other than Himself? None of these prophecies would be possible if God did not have IFFC. I could go on and on listing the specifics of many more examples, but it would only belabor the point. God not only foretold what He would do, but also what others would do, and how He would respond to them.
If we argue that God knew what these people would do because it was in His plan for them to do so, and they must do so, then we are destroying their free-will to do otherwise, which is what you are trying to protect. If we argue that God intends for things to happen in a certain way, and works with individuals to influence them towards fulfilling His plan, we must confess that the results are not certain, and thus the fulfillment of God's plan is not certain. At best prophecies are divine hopes, but not divine predictions of reality. God could only hope that man will cooperate with His plans and that His will would be done, but cannot guarantee so. The example of Cyrus is especially telling because Cyrus was not even born when God prophesied what He would do. If God does not have IFFC, how could He know that a person named Cyrus would even exist?
Christ Hall, from Eastern College, had this to say regarding open theology (which is the basic position you hold):
The openness model surely allows, indeed, describes situations in which God, on the basis of acquiring knowledge that God did not possess in the past, can and does reassess his own past actions. I find this position to be deeply flawed, largely because it well nigh necessitates that God will make mistakes, however unintentional. How can God help but err if God acts on the basis of what he thinks humans may do, but can't be entirely sure of how they will act or respond in a given situation? The result is a God who is constantly learning, is sometimes taken by surprise, and who occasionally acts in a mistaken fashion on the basis of a misdiagnosis of the future.
We are presented with a God who fumbles along like the rest of us, trying to do what seems best, but often ruing what he has done in the light of how things actually turn out. Yes, God responds to his creation, but these responses might well turn out to be wrong, at least when viewed from the fuller knowledge God will possess in the future."2
My position is based on my understanding of time, and an exposition of Scripture. You have yet to convince me of your position. While I am open to the idea that I could be wrong, you would have to do three things to convince me of such: 1. Convince me that my understanding of time is in error, presenting a scientific and philosophical base to reject my view and endorse yours; 2. Provide me with a new hermeneutic to interpret prophecy (explain to me how God could prophesy the future actions of men, if indeed He does not have IFFC); 3. Adequately explain to me how God can have perfect foreknowledge of His own actions, but not ours, if some of God's acts are contingent on human acts (which He does not have perfect knowledge of in advance). Until you can do these three things I must remain committed to my current understanding.
1. Greg Koukl, "What Determines the Future?"; available from http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5261; accessed 16 October 2000.
2. Chris Hall, "Does God Know Your Next Move?; available from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/007/1.38.html; Internet; accessed 14 June 2001.)
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