by Keith Sherlin

– I have extracted this article from my full book on a Theodicy titled, “How Can God Be All Powerful and Totally Loving When he Planned a World With Sin and Suffering: A Reformed Evangelical Dispensational Theodicy.” Yet while I offer this as a proposal to a most difficult question in the minds of many who ponder the ways and orderings of the universe by our omnipotent, omniscience, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent LORD, I do so hopefully in the book and in this extracted article in the spirit of humility. I certainly seem to concur with one of my favorite theologians and Christian administrators of the 20th and 21st century, Dr. Paige Patterson, who said: “Salvation is the most complicated subject in Holy Scripture. The longer I study it, the more convinced I am that no one has a total grasp of its meaning since in the end it is an act of God that we cannot fully fathom.”[1]

Yet even so, we all are under a divine obligation to prepare our minds for action (1 Peter 1:13) as we “make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Consequently, anytime we speak about the subject of Theodicy, i.e. how sin entered into God’s universe when he is both sovereign and totally loving, we invariably face the question of how does God know the future. In fact, much, if not all, of the debate and dialogue among the various divisions in the body of Christ on the doctrine of election revolve around God’s knowledge. The same can be said for how one approaches the subject of a Theodicy. I believe, based upon a normal or plain hermeneutic of Scripture, God has answered at least in some sense how he knows the future. Unlike Open Theism that makes God having to look to learn and even make educated guesses, which in turns makes a mockery of God and is a wretched heresy of magnanimous proportions, and in contrast to mere prescience, which I think is exegetically unsustainable though not per se a heresy, I offer a textual solution to an age long so-called mystery.

Illustration: God Knows What Albert and Burt Will Do Before He Ever Created Them Yet He Still Chose to Create

While riding down the road with Chris Cone after we had preached at a Conference in Viola Arkansas, I shared with the group in the car how everyone who believes in God’s full omniscience has to by default accept that God has a people born in history that will never be known as a part of the redeemed, i.e. the non-elect. It seems so many fear this reality that they will do much to revise or alter God’s knowledge in order to avoid that idea. Yet once we affirm that God knows all before there ever was anything in actual history we are all left in the same dilemma, God chose to create knowing beforehand that some people would not be known as his children of grace. I shared this story below to make it simple. I love illustrations; in fact a good illustration can go a long way in clarifying a spiritual truth as Dr. Ryrie has so wisely said.[2] After giving this illustration below, Dr. Cone urged me to write on this and place this into the public as a way to show that none of us can escape this issue of God’s future knowledge of those who will never believe. So here is a simple illustration to help show that we all must face this subject of God’s knowledge in eternity before we ever existed, even if we fear what that might mean.

Suppose God is in eternity determining to create Albert, who he (God) knows will one day accept Jesus Christ (even if from the libertarian free-will ideology), and he is also determining to create Burt, who he already knows will one day reject Jesus Christ (even if from the libertarian free-will ideology). At that moment in history God had a choice, did he not? He could still choose to create Burt (knowing his end destination would be hell) or he could choose to refrain from creating Burt so that he would never exist and thus experience hell. But since he still chose to create Burt we all have to explain why God would do such. All Evangelicals, those who accept the authority and full inspiration of Scripture, are caught in this position because if we accept that God knows all before he ever created all then we are still left with why did he choose to create those whom he knew would suffer in judgment. We know God could do otherwise had he chosen to do so. Yet we know that some are the “Burts,” i.e. those who never accept Christ Jesus, and thus these will definitely go into eternal judgment. What God knows cannot turn out any other way than what he knows. He cannot be wrong on what he knows will be. If God knows Burt will never believe before Burt is ever created and born in history then it is a settled fact that Burt will never believe and his end destination is judgment. That is a settled fact before God ever creates Burt in actual time and history. We know God could have refrained from creating a Burt (anyone who will never believe), but since we know there are those who never believe we know that God knew that fact before creating them and yet he still made sure those people would come into existence in time and history despite what their end destination would be.

In fact, the pain of facing this reality (whether from the Classical Augustinian/Calvinist or Classical Arminian position) is a reason why some departed courses from both camps to introduce the idea of Open Theism, i.e. God does not truly know the future choices of people until they occur. They realized that if one embraces the doctrine of full omniscience that whatever God knows to be the future then such must come to pass just as God knows it. Thus they developed an Open Knowledge view of God, i.e. his knowledge of the future is not known but is evolving, growing, and developing. That course, however, is so full of landmines that no wise, much less honest student of Scripture, could ever entertain without a sacrifice of the faith itself.

Therefore, I offer here a textual approach to what God has revealed to us on the subject of how he knows the future. Unless we want travel the road of Open Theism we all must honestly face this question, even if it manifests our own insecurities and fears. In the end letting the text speak for itself in a literal or plain way will do us all good as we progress in our sanctification than if we allow our fears and insecurities to infiltrate our interpretive methodology.

An Exegetical Study on God’s Absolute Omniscience: The Bible tells Us How God Knows the Future

Peter preached, calling out the people of God to listen in Acts chapter 2:22-23. Jesus Christ’s death took place because of God’s definite plan, predetermined plan, determined purpose, and foreknowledge (Omniscience), yet the sin is in the hands of people, not God. A great way to see this text is by looking at how numerous translations translate a portion of this:  Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge (ESV) predetermined plan and foreknowledge (NASB) determined purpose and foreknowledge (NKJV) God’s set purpose and foreknowledge (NIV) God’s prearranged plan (NLT) by the deliberate will and plan of God (TNEB) in accordance with his own plan God had already decided (GNB) in the predestined course of God’s deliberate purpose (Moffatt’s) by the fixed purpose and intention of God (Goodspeed) by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge (KJV) of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.

The Bible Explains How God Knows the Future. He is not Omni-Observant but Omniscient from Himself.

All of those translators, because they are honest with the actual words of the text and do not try and remove God from his director’s throne, recognize that the Greek phrase of: “te (the) horismene (definite, fixed, determinate, appointed, resolved, decreed) boule (plan, purpose, will, counsel, decree, aim, God’s own purpose, planned out will) kai (and) prognosei (to know beforehand, pre-knowledge in that it is pre-the event or pre-moment in time, previous determination) tou (the) theou (of God),” means that God thought up the plan in his own mind before it ever was to be in history. Nowhere in the Bible do you find the Bible saying God looked to see and then planned in accordance to what he saw. The Bible could very easily say that. There were precise Greek words that could have been used to say such a thing had that been what God had wanted to say. Christians believe in the verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible, and therefore we affirm that had God wanted to say something different he would have chosen the precise words to communicate the difference. Instead, God chose each and all of the words just as he so desired.

The Bible Does Not Say God Looked into the Future and Saw the Future so He Could then Make His Plan.

If God had meant to say that He would have said it this way: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, in accordance to what God looked (anablepsas-to visually look at, observe) and saw (eiden [aorist/past tense version]-which comes from the main Greek word horao-which means to see, perceive, to look at such as with the eyes, seeing to the point of perceiving to the point of knowing it) delivered Jesus up to be crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

God Did not Choose the Greek Words for Look and See. Luke Used These Words in Other Places but not in Describing God’s Foreknowledge

Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, wrote under the inspiration of God. In Acts he chose the exact words to show that God does not look and see the future but that he purposed the future, and he therefore knew the future from within himself. However, in certain places in the Bible we see that Luke did use the terms that mean to look or to see. So this reveals to us that had Luke wanted to communicate this, he would have said this in the book of Acts on God’s knowledge. But Luke did not use the words for look and see but instead used definite terms that prove God’s absolute omniscience. The brief study of the terms in Luke’s other writing will help us.

Luke 21:1: Jesus Looked and Saw/Observed

In Luke 21:1 God says that “Jesus looked [anablepsas] up and saw [eiden] the rich putting their gifts into the offering box and he saw [eiden] a poor widow put in two small copper coins.” In this text, we see Jesus functioning in his normal human state in which to know or to figure out what was going on around him he used his normal human faculties to observe and see the events around him by looking at the events in time.

Luke 17:14: Jesus Responds After Looking and Seeing Their Actions

Luke 17:14 says, “And when he [Jesus] saw (idon) them he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went they were cleansed.” Here again we can glean that Jesus responded, or made his choice or directive after he saw, perceived, looked at the situation. The Greek word here is again precise in that it shows a human action or a response to what has been observed, learned, or seen.

What Then Does the Difference Between the Words Look and See and Foreknow Mean?

There is a difference between know (ginoskei-knows-present tense) and foreknow (proginoskei-to know before the time because of a prior [pro=a prefix to the word] inner determination for that to be) from the words look (anablepsas) and see/observe (eiden). God does know everything in the present and he also foreknows everything from eternity. But he foreknows from eternity as God the Father because he thought up all of time and history in one single thought in eternity and he did so without looking into any form of time and history to see, observe, or learn. Omniscience means that God thought up history, not that God observed, looked into, or saw what would be and then made his decisions and plans based upon that. Such a thought is the human transplanting the way he learns and sees onto God the Father, and such an act is sinful.

God does see and watch all things presently. Genesis 1:31 and 6:5 teaches us this. Just like a director will see and watch his own play, drama, or production God as the Father presently sees and watches his own story (history). But God does not see and watch to know because God is omniscient before history ever took place or before he ever saw it. God thought out the universe by his own will and mind. He thought out (the omni/infinite aspect of God) every single moment of time (knowledge that would come to fruition in time and space) and is thus fully oniscient. To say anything less than God has full omniscience is a violation of God’s truth that he has revealed about himself and is a Trinitarian heresy. He does not have to study or be educated to know anything. Anyone who says that God the Father learns (or makes educated guesses) is describing an idol instead of the God of the Bible.  See the diagram below as to how the Scriptures teaches God in relationship to history.    

A Biblical Diagram of God’s Mind/Knowledge In Contrast to a Pagan View of God’s Mind/Knowledge from the Open Theist and Prescient View

The first diagram captures the biblical teaching. God does not look, observe, learn, or grow in what he understands about the future (as depicted in the 2nd diagram). God foreknows, and the word foreknows means that he thinks up all of this in his mind without reference to any effort on his part to learn, see, or observe anything outside of himself. God is responsible for his own knowledge. Nothing outside of God determines or influences him in what he knows. He knows because he thinks up his knowledge from himself. He plans his own knowledge, he determines his own knowledge, he purposes his own knowledge, he decrees his own knowledge, and he sets in place his own knowledge. And once that was set in his mind, he governs the universe as the Father of the household universe that he providentially created to make sure that every detail that he has determined and foreknown in his mind comes to play inside of time and history. Every molecule and every second of history moves according to the precise, perfect, and predetermined plan of God’s mind, yet he does so without ever violating his holiness or ever condoning or agreeing or participating in any sin or unholy thought, attitude, or act. As Joseph said and Moses recorded under divine inspiration, “As for you [Jacob’s brothers] you meant evil against me, but God meant it [the evil acts of the brothers towards Jacob] for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as thy are today” (Gen. 50:20).

[1] Paige Patterson, “Foreword,” in “Stop Asking Jesus into your Heart: How to Know for Sure you Are Saved,” by J.D. Greear (Nashville TN: B&H Publishing, 2013), xiii-xiv.

[2] Charles Ryrie, Ryrie’s Practical Guide to Communicating Bible Doctrine (Nashville TN: B&H Publishing, 2005), 48-58.

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