It sounds like a war of artificial intelligence: A.I. meets pre-programmed rebel-Robot. Rather it is the dark discussion about defining what it means for God to be All-Knowing.
In all seriousness, this doctrine has spawned many, very real, human wars. It is not a small issue. What does it really mean for God to be Omniscient, to know all?
The founder of Protestantism, believed that there was no such thing as human choice, because in order for God to know everything, that must mean that he also knows every choice we will make. In that way, there are no real choices, just determined results. Such a philosophy predated Luther and can be found promoted by many pagan scholars as well. That view has been labeled as “hard determinism” and in various forms is a bed-rock of belief by a majority of Christians.
To be All-Knowing, does that require that God must also pre-determine? Many will prefer to quote the interpretive opinions of famous luminaries (smart dead people), but let’s consider what the Bible actually presents.
Here are biblical statements about God as Omniscient:
- “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” (Psa 147:5)
- “Now we can see that you know all things” (Jn 16:30)
- “Lord, you know all things” (Jn 21:17)
- “Lord, you know everyone’s heart” (Act 1:24)
- “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3)
- “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight” (Heb 4:13)
- “For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 Jn 3:20)
The first is clearly a praise of God as magnificent, such that his understanding is limitless. He has no deficiencies or anything lacking to his knowledge. Consider carefully what this says: he has no limits to his understanding, but that does not require that he must therefore predetermine all events. That assumption is a by-product of random human reasoning and not something declared in Scripture. More on this later.
The second is a praise of Jesus by his followers as one who just proved that he was beyond the level of a student. The context shows that his disciples recognized that he didn’t need any Rabbi or master teacher to continue to question him like someone still in need of training. It is not a specific revelation by God about his omniscience.
The third above is a phrase of honor and again not a specific teaching on the omniscience of God. Peter was simply saying that Jesus knows the answer to his question far better than Peter himself ever could. Yes, it is also true that Peter may well have recognized the omniscience of Jesus as Lord God, but he is not suggesting here that Jesus thus already knew what Peter would answer, so that is why he didn’t need to answer the Lord’s question. That kind of determinism is not found in these statements about this all-knowing attribute of God.
The fourth speaks about how God knows the underlying motives of how and why our desires are what they are, but it is not teaching that God knows because he has already programmed our desires to always select a pre-determined outcome. That is something added to Scripture by over-zealous reasoning on the meaning of all-knowing that somehow must progress to also be all-determining.
The fifth reveals that all wisdom and knowledge have their source in the Lord. Knowledge comes from God, but that doesn’t force the assumption that therefore choice is pre-forced also by God.
The sixth passage above says that God sits supreme over everything so that nothing escapes either his notice or his allowance. Reality happens only within what God has established and never outside of his divine authority. Once again, that does not subsequently mean then that God must choose every outcome, but rather that every outcome must exist and submit to his Sovereignty.
The seventh, perhaps is the clearest statement on establishing the specific doctrine of the Omniscience of God, by simply saying, God knows everything. However, in context, the writer is not actually teaching specifically on this doctrine; rather, he is stating the comforting truth that God is established as sovereign over everything, so that not even our own feelings or reasonings, that might lead us to despair when self-reflecting, can prevent God from being able to override our failures with his saving grace.
You may have noticed above, as consistent throughout Scripture, it doesn’t say that God knows our every choice. He may, but it doesn’t actually say that. That idea that has become a fundamental doctrine is what is called extra-biblical, if not also dangerously additive. Rather, the preponderance of Scripture states that people will be judged according to their choices and actions and not per a pre-determined script.
God is omniscient! He does know everything. He created everything, so that nothing exists beyond or outside of what he knowingly established. In this sense, he knows every detail of substance as well as every possible outcome of existing options. He knows every single possible chess move to the entire game of life he created. He is all knowing.
However, he never states that this omniscience means that he must determine every option in order to remain all-knowing. That is a human reasoned issue. Think-tanks are fascinated by the confusion resulting from questions on whether or not God can be all-knowing if a speck of pollen lands somewhere other than where God knew it would land. He is certainly capable of knowing such detail, just as he knows every bird that falls from its nest. However, the biblical text doesn’t extend that statement about his level of awareness to the point that supposedly God knew the bird’s plight because he intentionally and specifically set up the chain of events that would push the baby to its death.
In other words, the Bible doesn’t interpret the meaning of all-knowing as knowing all outcomes. This distinction presents all-knowing as a matter of objective-substance, rather than necessarily a matter of subjective-occurrence. God knows what he created, how it all works, how every option unfolds, and what it takes to fulfill his will. That is a knowledge of substance. A later human choice is not new information that alters knowledge; rather, choices select from available options as a function of time.
God’s complete knowledge established laws of nature with cause-and-effect impacts that always culminate in his overall intended will. At times, he directly intervenes in that natural course to address his will and respond toward human activity. However, within those boundaries, he appears content to allow free will to actually operate freely and without insisting on determining momentary fate. His absolute knowledge is not threatened by our varied selections, nor is his sovereignty presented as reduced in any way by not pre-programming every eventuality. There is no question, however, that his ultimate intended purpose will always occur exactly as he designed.
This philosophical conundrum is why—even though God states about himself that he is the God of the past, present and future, as well as the God of the beginning and the end, and that his words are spoken in the past and are not always present-tense—that scholars try to take him out of time. Determinists need to create a God that sees every human choice as already unfolded, so that he can be all-knowing to the extent of also being all-determining. As logical as that may sound, the Bible doesn’t present God that way. A time is coming when God will reveal the educated reasonings of man to be futile and lacking in the very knowledge that it claims to be explaining.
Scripture tells us that Jesus set aside aspects of his God-nature in order to take on the limits of humanity, but even then he remained fully the Son of God (Phi 2). His choice to set aside dependence on his innate ability to know all things did not reduce his Sovereignty or his Divinity. So it is with God being omniscient.
For him to say that he has set before mankind the choice between life and death, such that our individual selections will result in eternal blessings or cursings, and that our choices will impact our salvation, in no way reduces his sovereignty or omniscience. God is not threatened by our free and uncoerced ability to make choices.
That lie, that God’s omniscient sovereignty is somehow undermined by free will in humans, is the same reasoned distortion that Jesus was somehow less divine while in the flesh. Setting aside rights and abilities to allow humanity to freely choose to worship him or reject him does not reduce God from being God.
In truth, God may well know what you are going to have for lunch. But, if he chooses to allow you to select from any of the conceivable options he created without forcing or pre-determining chicken salad, he remains the All-knowing God. It likely makes little difference to him what you choose. He can and will direct your ultimate outcome to remain in line with his over-all will, while still allowing complete freedom to reject chicken salad in favor of a juicy burger with mushrooms and bacon.
God’s plans cannot be undermined, but don’t make the mistake of assuming God planned what you would eat for lunch. All knowledge remains in him, even if he knowingly chooses to allow you to pick from his menu. There is no option that could surprise the Lord or change his knowledge.
God cannot be changed from who he is by your choices. He repeatedly records how he alters what he said he would do, to deal with choices people have made, and in every case he remains God and remains omniscient and sovereign. According to his own word, he has chosen to allow you and me to make significant life-choices that can have a direct and lasting impact on our eternity.
Here is how Scripture presents the “knowing” of God regarding human interaction. Notice that God is said to know the inclination and tendency, rather than the actual choice; and that he tests and searches our inner desires and thoughts to know what we are likely disposed to do. Scripture simply never presents the knowing of God as predetermined outcomes or choices.
“The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth…but Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (Gen 6:5-8)
“…even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.” (Gen 8:21)
“The Lord heard you when you spoke to me and the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard what this people said to you. Everything they said was good. Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!'” (Dt 5:28-29)
“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” (Dt 8:2)
“I know what they are disposed to do, even before I bring them into the land I promised them on oath.” (Dt 31:21)
“then heart from heaven, your dwelling place. Forgive and act; deal with each man according to all he does, since you know his heart (for you alone know the hearts of all men), so that they will fear you all the time they live in the land you gave our fathers.” (1 Kg 8:39-40)
“I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity.” (1 Chr 29:17)
“But when envoys were sent by the rulers of Babylon to ask him about the miraculous sign that had occurred in the land, God left him to test him and to know everything that was in his heart.” (2 Chr 32:31)
“would not God have discovered it, since he knows the secrets of the heart?” (Psa 44:21)
“O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord.” (Psa 139:1-4)
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psa 139:23)
“Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” (Pro 24:11-12)
“Yet you know me, O Lord; you see me and test my thoughts about you.” (Jer 12:3)
“Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, ‘Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?'” (Mt 9:4)
“You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” (Lu 16:15)
“Then they prayed, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.'” (Act 1:24-25)
“And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (Rom 8:27)
God tested Israel while wondering in the desert for 40 years to know whether or not they would obey. The Bible does not state that God already knew every eventuality and that the testing was only so that the people would know. Whether or not we are comfortable with the truth, the text says it was so that God would know. Skeptics will suggest that this kind of God then doesn’t actually show that he knows every choice, but defining knowledge is not the right of ignorant men. God says he knows everything, and that must mean that he knows without requiring the predetermined selection of every occurrence.
The real marvel is not how can God remain all-knowing while humans exercise free will, but rather how phenomenal God is to have all knowledge and power but to restrain the tempting intervention to force every choice to be a good one. As a loving parent, that is what I often wish I could do (but try not to do)—to manipulate the choices of my children to think they are making their own choice, but in actuality to only allow them to pick from what I know would be best for them. That disability is yet another reason why God is God and I am not.
He knows all details of how life and reality can be what they are, but he chooses to restrain his manipulation and allow me to pick freely within the system he has created. He could force the choice and determine every outcome. Many think that is what he must do. But his word says otherwise, and he remains omniscient.
Amazing. Lord, help me to make choices that honor you. You know everything. You know every conceivable option, and I want to pick that which is absolutely best, not just completely free. I freely choose You. I choose to follow your lead and I trust that you will repair and heal me from my bumbling past choices. I know I don’t earn salvation by anything I do, but by your Son’s glorious sacrifice, and I freely respond to your invitation to accept him as my Lord and Savior.
I recognize from your own words that you don’t force me, nor do you pre-program my selections, in spite of what religious philosophers say. You offer yourself in a lineup of lesser options and draw me to yourself without forcing the outcome.
Some will accept your gracious offer. Some “reject the grace that could have been theirs”. As you declare, Bible experts “rejected God’s purposes for themselves” (Lu 7:30).
Where else could we go, Lord, You have the words of truth!