An Open Question? God’s Foreknowledge is Complete – Including Our Suffering
The future is not what it used to be! At least this is what some evangelical Christians called “open theists” are saying. Open theists believe that God knows the future to some extent, but not exhaustively. Clark H. Pinnock, a professor of theology at McMaster Divinity School, for example, maintains that “the God of the Bible displays an openness to the future (i.e. ignorance of the future) that the traditional view of God’s omniscience simply cannot accommodate”. In part, the future is determined; but in part it’s still uncertain because God does not fully know the good or bad choices that will be made by human beings that will decide it.
Is this a vibrant alternative to a boring concept of God who has all of the future exhaustively worked out, as Pinnock maintains? Or is it a dangerous heresy that undermines the glory of God and the very fabric of Christian faith and practice?
The future has always fascinated people. The biblical prophets foretold it (free of charge), New Age crystal gazers claim to predict it (for a fee), and futurologists (salaried) make a living from it.
Predicting the future was an important business in New Testament times. In Philippi, the apostle Paul met “a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling” (Acts 16:16). It’s also big business today, whether it’s an ultrasound to tell you the sex of your unborn child, or a weather forecast to give the “go ahead” for the church picnic, or a stock-market report which predicts the rise and fall of your share portfolio.
If open theists are correct, then God is only in the business of predicting the immediate future. When it comes to long-range predictions, he’s taking a risk by putting his reputation on the line.
So what does the New Testament tell us about the extent of God’s foreknowledge? Paul writes in Romans: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:28, 29).
The classic Arminian interpretation of these verses is that the word foreknew simply means foresaw, and that what was foreseen was a person’s faith. So God sees ahead of time those people who would trust in Jesus, and on the basis of that foreseen faith he predestined them to eternal life.
But this can’t be the meaning of foreknew in Romans 8, because it produces a “do-it-yourself” job of salvation. Salvation becomes dependent upon something in us (our choice) and not in God (his sovereign grace). Throughout Romans, Paul argues that we are unable to save ourselves. “When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).
The practical reality is that every Christian gives thanks to God for their salvation. We recognise that if left to ourselves and apart from his gracious intervention we would certainly perish.
In Romans 8:29 the sense of the word foreknew is much stronger. It is nearer in meaning to chose than foresaw. The word draws its meaning from usage in Old Testament passages like Amos 3:2 where God speaks of his covenant commitment to his people Israel, “You only have I chosen (literally known) of all the families of the earth.”
The object of this foreknowledge is people whom God has elected to save — not faith. Paul does not flatter us as if we were chosen on the basis of our own meritorious act of faith. Rather, God chose and loved us before we were created. He predestined us to be made into the likeness of Jesus.
Paul relates the foreknowledge of God in Romans 8:29 to the sufferings of the believer. Suffering is no reason to feel bitter or resentful but is the means of making us like Jesus. Here we find a wonderful assurance that God has our good in mind in all that he does.
Interestingly, much of the drive behind open theism has come from a pastoral desire to help those who suffer evil. For example, John Sanders writes,
When a two-month old child contracts a painful, incurable bone cancer that means suffering and death, it is pointless evil. The Holocaust is pointless evil. The rape and dismemberment of a young girl is pointless evil ... God does not have a specific purpose in mind for these occurrences.
Or again Gregory Boyd says:
I know Christians frequently speak of the purpose of God in the midst of tragedy caused by someone else... this I regard to simply be a piously confused way of thinking.
Open theism tries to solve the problem of evil by saying that it’s senseless. God doesn’t stop it because the future is open. This creates an opportunity to lay the blame on something or someone else — in this case the free but unforeseeable actions of his creatures. This is very different from Paul’s view in Romans 8. What open theism has done is to renounce the omniscience of God in order to logically explain the existence of evil to those who suffer.
This is not how the Bible views evil. The Bible teaches two propositions that are in apparent tension. The first is that God is sovereign and knows the end from the beginning. And the second is that he holds us to be morally responsible creatures. We freely choose to believe or rebel, obey or defy him and are held fully accountable for such actions. These two propositions are simultaneously true and while there is a mystery here, there is no contradiction. Donald Carson calls this compatibilism.
At the heart of the debate with open theism is the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. As soon as one truth is domesticated or sacrificed at the expense of the other, a paradigm shift occurs in many other areas of Christian belief and practice. In prayer, for example, if we weaken human responsibility and only emphasise divine sovereignty, then why pray? God already knows what he will do before we ask! The same imbalance affects the practice of evangelism. Why preach the gospel if God already knows ahead of time who will be saved? On the other hand when we weaken divine sovereignty, then why seek the guidance of God? Can a God who is ignorant of the future guarantee that his will is wise?
The New Testament never says that God was surprised by the entrance of evil into the world; quite the opposite. God knew ahead of time of Adam’s free but sinful choice to disobey him. If he didn’t, then he couldn’t have foreseen the need to send his Son into the world to die for sinners. Yet the fact is that the whole sweep of the Old Testament, including the free choices made by countless numbers of people, all prepared the way for Christ and were foreknown by God.
Paul summarises it beautifully and breathtakingly that God had planned the coming of Jesus to be our saviour “before the beginning of time” (2 Tim. 1:9). Or, in Ephesians, Paul writes “he chose us in him before the creation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).
There is a sovereignty and omniscience that God exercises exhaustively throughout all history and not just in a partial way. Jesus tells us that “the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Lk 12:7). Again, in respect to prayer, he says “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt. 6:8). His knowledge is both specific as well as comprehensive.
On the other hand, the New Testament also points out that people are morally responsible for their actions. Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, did not excuse those who sent Jesus to his death. He said, “and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23). It wasn’t God who crucified Jesus; it was men by their free, unforced choices. Nevertheless, in the very same verse, Peter maintains their responsibility while affirming God’s sovereignty: “this man (Jesus) was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge.” God was still in charge. He used the evil actions of men to accomplish his purposes, and yet in such a way that he was not the author of evil. The Scripture insists that God is unfailingly good while simultaneously exercising his sovereign mastery over all events, good and evil, whether past, present or future.
We do not often understand the things that God is doing in our lives at the time, or even with hindsight. Nor indeed do we always welcome them. But to say to someone in pain that God does not know the future and that their suffering is pointless is to remove all hope from their situation. A God who is ignorant of the future cannot guarantee anything, least of all that their sufferings will work out for good. We may not be able to give those who suffer an answer to their “why?”, nor will an answer even be necessary. But if God is in control of the future, then at least we can rest in that confidence and be assured that he knows the way that we take.