Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Omniscience and Freewill, Does God Know All Or Did He Leave Some Wiggle Room?

The Proposition:
In Is there a God? (Oxford, 1996, p.7-9) Professor Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, University of Oxford said this:

"It seems to me that the same considerations require that we understand God being omniscient in a similarly careful way. Just as God cannot be required to do what is logically impossible to do, so God cannot be required to know what is logically impossible to know. It seems to me that it is logically impossible to know (without the possibility of mistake) what someone will do freely tomorrow. If I am really free to choose tomorrow whether I will go to London or stay at home, then if anyone today has some belief about what I will do (e.g. that I will go to London), I have it in my power tomorrow to make that belief false (e.g. by staying at home). So no one (not even God) can know today (without the possibility of mistake) what I will choose to do tomorrow. So I suggest that we understand God being omniscient as God knowing at any time all that is logically possible to know at that time. That will not include knowledge, before they have done it, of what human persons will do freely. Since God is omnipotent, it will only be because God allows there to be free persons that there will be any free persons. So this limit to divine omniscience arises from the consequences (which God could foresee) of his own choice to create free agents. I must, however, warn the reader that this view of mine that God does not know (without the possibility of mistake) what free agents will do until they do it is not the normal Christian (or Jewish or Islamic) view. My view is, however, implied, I believe, by certain biblical passages; it seems, for example, the natural interpretation of the book of Jonah that, when God told Jonah to preach to Nineveh that it would be destroyed, he believed that probably he would need to destroy it, but that fortunately, since the people of Nineveh repented, God saw no need to carry out his prophecy. In advocating this refinement of our understanding of omniscience, I am simply carrying further the process of internal clarification of the basic Christian understanding of God which other Christian philosophers such as Aquinas pursued in earlier days."...“All this does of course assume that human beings have some limited free will, in the sense that no causes (whether brain states or God) determine fully how they will choose. That is the way it often seems to us that we have such a power. Even the inanimate world, scientists now realize, is not a fully deterministic world—and the world of thought and choice is even less obviously a predictable world.”

The Concept, Called the "Open Futures View" Also Commonly Known As "Open Theism":
1- God is the creator of all things
2- God gave mankind free will.
3- God does not fatalistically predetermine free-will creature's actions
4- God knows only what is logically possible to know about the future
5- The possibility exists that God is wrong about his creation's future actions if they act illogically
6- Therefore God can change his mind to account for what was previously unforeseeable
God must know our actions on the basis of his foreknowledge. God's foreknowledge, however does not fatalistically predetermine our actions. It is merely a destination that he knows that we will take under any circumstance given what we have been given at any time. Evangelical and reform circles take this one step further adding election and predestination, both concepts which are taught within scripture. Dr. John Calvin however, warned against teaching predestination  in an ipso-facto manner:
"First, then, when they inquire into predestination, let then remember that they are penetrating into the recesses of the divine wisdom, where he who rushes forward securely and confidently, instead of satisfying his curiosity will enter in inextricable labyrinth. For it is not right that man should with impunity pry into things which the Lord has been pleased to conceal within himself, and scan that sublime eternal wisdom which it is his pleasure that we should not apprehend but adore, that therein also his perfections may appear."~ [Calvin, Institutes, Vol.3, Part 26 Ch. 21 Section 1]
Although these concepts are closely tied together I think we will be best served to focus on one aspect of the puzzle. In light of scripture we must ask the following questions regarding God's foreknowledge in cases where it appears that God either didn't know the outcomes or changed his mind by "repenting" of what he originally intended to do. There is said to be at least 40 such cases or applications of the "repentance" of God in the OT. We will look a few of the more significant ones such as follows:

A- How Do We Account For The Lord's "Repentance" In Genesis?
Genesis 6:6-7 ~ "And it REPENTED the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. 7- And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it REPENTETH me that I have made them."
 Was it not among all the logical probabilities of God's understanding that man would defile the earth with his sins the way he did? Was God caught off guard somehow? Further after the flood, (Gen. 9:9-17) would God need to make a reminder for himself to never flood the earth again because he may be overtaken by man's future decisions which to God would be also another logical impossibility?

B- How Do We Account For God's Almost Destruction Of Israel After Delivering Them From Egypt?
Exodus 32:14 ~And the LORD REPENTED of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
Moses plead for the lives of Israel. Was man's action not a part of the logical probabilities that God could accounted for from the beginning? Or was there a greater lesson and message at work in this?

C- How Do We Account For The Lord's "Repentance" In Judges?
Judges 2:18 ~"And when the LORD raised them up judges, then the LORD was with the judge, and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge: for it REPENTED the LORD because of their groanings by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them."
Once again, was it logically impossible for God to have foreseen the groanings of the people after Joshua's leadership and what the people would suffer at the hands of their enemies during this "sin cycle" that we observe in the period of the Judges?

D- How Do We Account For God's "Repentance" Over Saul's Kingship?
1 Samuel 15:35 ~ "And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD REPENTED THAT he had made Saul king over Israel."
God called and anointed Saul. Was it logically impossible that God, after having made Saul and knowing him from his mother's womb, as God told David, would not know or somehow loose sight of what Saul was going to do or the decisions that he would make out of his own heart and free-will?

E- How Do We Account For God's "Repentance" Over The Angel's Actions Regarding Jerusalem?
2 Samuel 24:16 ~ "And when the angel stretched out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD REPENTED him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed the people, It is enough: stay now thine hand. And the angel of the LORD was by the threshingplace of Araunah the Jebusite."(Also see 1Chron. 21:15)
God ordered this destruction. Was it logically impossible for God to have forseen how he would feel about the destruction and suffering of the people of Jerusalem before he commanded the angel to do his bidding?

F- Then There's Jeremiah's Words To The King Of Judah Calling For The Nation To Repent. How Do We Account For The Conditional Promise Of God's "Repentance"?

Jeremiah 26:12-13 & 19 ~ 12-Then spake Jeremiah unto all the princes and to all the people, saying, The LORD sent me to prophesy against this house and against this city all the words that ye have heard. 13-Therefore now amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God; and the LORD will repent him of the evil that he hath pronounced against you. ...
In this same verse of scripture the elders recount Micha's prophecy under the reign of King Hezekiah (Micah 1:1 and 3:2) which also led to God's mercy instead of the prophesied judgement:
Jeremiah 26:17-19 ~ "17-Then rose up certain of the elders of the land, and spake to all the assembly of the people, saying, 18-Micah the Morasthite prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah, and spake to all the people of Judah, saying, Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Zion shall be plowed [like] a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the house as the high places of a forest. 19- Did Hezekiah king of Judah and all Judah put him at all to death? did he not fear the LORD, and besought the LORD, and the LORD REPENTED him of the evil which he had pronounced against them? Thus might we procure great evil against our souls."
G- Jonah & Ninevah

Then there is the one that Dr. Swinburne alludes to. The story of Jonah and Ninevah, under the reign of Jereboam II (793-752 BC). After disturbing Jonah's life, sending on a mission, initially against his own will, and almost killing him to make him do HIS bidding. The King and the city, originally promised destruction,  repented to God and the wrath of God was abated. That declaration ends in this statement:
Jonah 3:10 ~ "And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God REPENTED of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did [it] not."
Although it would be 140 to 180 years after this prophecy that Ninevah would be overtaken by the Assyrians, their destruction was not in the lifetime of Jonah or any of the then current inhabitants of the land.

Scriptural Contrast:

In spite of all of what has been mentioned above, now we should contrast it all to Numbers:
Numbers 23:19 ~ "God [is] not a man, that he shlould lie; neither the son of man, that he should REPENT: hath he said, and shall he not do [it]? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?"
What Does All This Mean?

The scholar correctly asks: "Is all repentance the same?" That's the $64,000 question. Let's see:

In all of the verses where the "repentance" of God is called into question, the word repented or repentance is the Hebrew word נָחָם (nakham).

According to  NetBible.org  this word means that God “was grieved” or “was sorry.” Here's tenh rest of the dfinition as rendered:

In the Niphal stem the verb נָחָם (nakham) can carry one of four semantic meanings, depending on the context:
(1) “to experience emotional pain or weakness,” “to feel regret,” often concerning a past action (see Exod 13:17; Judg 21:6, 15; 1 Sam 15:11, 35; Job 42:6; Jer 31:19). In several of these texts כִּי (ki, “because”) introduces the cause of the emotional sorrow.

(2) Another meaning is “to be comforted” or “to comfort oneself” (sometimes by taking vengeance). See Gen 24:67; 38:12; 2 Sam 13:39; Ps 77:3; Isa 1:24; Jer 31:15; Ezek 14:22; 31:16; 32:31. (This second category represents a polarization of category one.)

(3) The meaning “to relent from” or “to repudiate” a course of action which is already underway is also possible (see Judg 2:18; 2 Sam 24:16 = 1 Chr 21:15; Pss 90:13; 106:45; Jer 8:6; 20:16; 42:10).

(4) Finally, “to retract” (a statement) or “to relent or change one’s mind concerning,” “to deviate from” (a stated course of action) is possible (see Exod 32:12, 14; 1 Sam 15:29; Ps 110:4; Isa 57:6; Jer 4:28; 15:6; 18:8, 10; 26:3, 13, 19; Ezek 24:14; Joel 2:13-14; Am 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:9-10; 4:2; Zech 8:14). See R. B. Chisholm, “Does God ‘Change His Mind’?” BSac 152 (1995): 388.
To our conversation and the verses listed where God repented, the first category applies because the context speaks of God’s grief and emotional pain (see the statement in Gen. 6 v. 6) as a result of a past action (his making humankind). For a thorough study of the word נָחָם, see H. Van Dyke Parunak, “A Semantic Survey of NHM,” Bib 56 (1975): 512-32.

NetBible.org further says this:

The Hebrew word naham, is an onomatopoetic term which implies difficulty in breathing, hence, "to pant," "to sigh," "to groan." Naturally it came to signify "to lament" or "to grieve," and when the emotion was produced by the desire of good for others, it merged into compassion and sympathy, and when incited by a consideration of one's own character and deeds it means "to rue," "to repent." To adapt language to our understanding, God is represented as repenting when delayed penalties are at last to be inflicted, or when threatened evils have been averted by genuine reformation (Gen 6:6; Jon 3:10). This word is translated "repent" about 40 times in the Old Testament, and in nearly all cases it refers to God. The principal idea is not personal relation to sin, either in its experience of grief or in turning from an evil course. Yet the results of sin are manifest in its use. God's heart is grieved at man's iniquity, and in love He bestows His grace, or in justice He terminates His mercy. It indicates the aroused emotions of God which prompt Him to a different course of dealing with the people. Similarly when used with reference to man, only in this case the consciousness of personal transgression is evident. This distinction in the application of the word is intended by such declarations as God "is not a man, that he should repent" (1 Sam 15:29; Job 42:6; Jer 8:6).


When we see that God "repented" throughout scripture we see no connotation that God either repudiated his actions or underwent a change from an evil course. That type of repentance was/is man's.

Further, God being God could not be surprised by any action of man and must by virtue of his being as God know and account for all actions of men whether those actions are logical or not before they occur. Therefore God IS NOT restricted by logical possibilities and somehow deficient when illogical choices are made. God in his infinite wisdom had already made a propitiation for the sin that man would choose before man ever hit the ground. How do we know that? This is how:
Revelation 13:8 ~ "And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the lamb slain from the foundation of the world."
Foundation Heb. (Katabole)~1) a throwing or laying down 1a) the injection or depositing of the virile semen in the womb 1b) of the seed of plants and animals 2) a founding (laying down a foundation)

Jesus was not a propitiation for man's sins after the earth was created at some point when it was necessary, he was a propitiation BEFORE the earth was founded. In other words neither sin, not the actions of men caught God by surprise, it was already accounted for. Secondly God saw the end from the beginning, not in a fatalistically predetermined manner, but in a manner that allows him to "do his pleasure" or as he pleases among his creation:
Isaiah 46:9-10 ~ "9-Remember the former things of old: for I [am] God, and [there is] none else; [I am] God, and [there is] none like me, 10- Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times [the things] that are not [yet] done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:"
Unfortunately Dr. Swinburne and others who adopt his approach feel that God is feeble in both his insight, attempts and limited in knowledge or abilities. Open Theism is a sad and heretical view of God and one that makes God seemingly powerless to effect change within the world. The God of the bible is not a powerless God waiting on man's next decision before he responds. He is an active God establishing fellowship and relationship with and throughout his creation.

God is not feeble neither is he bound by what we see and understand as logic. Is God illogical? Yes, at times he is. How many individuals serving him see that there is a shorter path through the "wilderness" of their life than the path that God has placed us on? There are a number of things in our lives that we think could have worked out much more easy for us. There are many situations in our lives that defy logic. The key here is in coming to understand that God has some of us on a seeming "40 year path" for his own purposes and reasons, and those purposes and reasons (some which we may never know) will all serve to make us better in the end. Usually those purposes and reasons allow us to see and experience him, his wonder, and people  in ways that we would have never experienced otherwise.

How many times are true friends and enemies revealed through adversity? How many times is the clear path and logic of God revealed in an otherwise illigical situation or circumstance? Have you ever wondered, "Lord why am I here or going through this?" only to find that what you had gone through, which seemed very illogical of God to put you through, actually made you more keen, increased your worship and fellowship both with God and man? How many times through steps that we though that were not expedient for us that God has proven that his grace was truly sufficient? Then how many times has God led you to make rather illogical decisions so that you could serve him better and more effectively? A person with a degree can get a job at mostly any major corporation, but what about those who God called to make the illogical decision of becoming a missionary with no guaranteed income or living?  Did God not know his calling nor the response he would get?

A Much Better And More Biblical Concept Is This:
1- God is the creator of all things
2- God gave mankind free will.
3- God does not fatalistically predetermine free-will creature's actions
4- God knows all thing that are possible to know about the future, actions, and even the very thoughts of his free-will agents without impugning upon their free-will.
5- God's "repentance" is not equivalent to the repentance of men, therefore any change of outcome from God is 1-What he expects it to be and 2- Is something whereby the mercy of God can be extended to mankind.
6- Therefore there is no decision of man, neither logical or illogical possibilities, that are impossible for God to both know and have already accounted for eg: There is no possibility that God could be worng about what he foreknows.
7- Therefore God does not make bad decisions or deviate from his intended plan of action


  1. The other point that I didn't emphasize in the article is, if God said he would destroy Ninevah and knew all along that it was goint to repent and not be destroyed, did God lie about destroying it in the first place?

    Now that's deep but I think there's a sound biblical answer, but I'll leave that open for discussion also.

  2. Now, one thing I can say about Swinbourne's argument is that it takes away and elimitnates my previous question.

    I think that was the foundation of the development of his thesis regarding this. I may be wrong but it appears to be so.

    I also think that his assertion or idea was unecessary.

  3. This was a real blessing, Pastor Harvey!

    I don't usually let things slide, but I've been so busy lately that I never reconciled Ephesians 1:4 and it's been bugging me for awhile now.

    It isn't that some are left without a chance. That never seemed right to me, but I try not to understand God by feelings. Now is see clearly that God in His foreknowledge knew what every individual would do in the exercise of his or her free will and then He could "choose", whatever that means. LOL, I guess I'm not as clear as I thought.

  4. Even if I know that someone is going to do something I dont like, I dont experience the true hurt of it until its done.

    God obviously knows all thing but the actual experience of it is a different thing.

    The bible says dont greive the Holy Spirit. now the holy spirit knows before hand that we are going to sin and warns us but He is still greived when we committ the wrong.

    Just a thought

    This dude is way off on this one but I understand his angle.

  5. That's right, there is a difference between the response of God and the knowledge of God. He by his own will only responds in time all though he knows from eternity.

    I think what's displayed in those times that he says..."destruction will come upon you" he seems to also always provide an option or an alternative like "if you repent"...If there is no repentance God will carry out his actions but if there is no penalty where is the justice? If fact some people wouldn't pay attention without the possibility of penalty.

    Look at seat belts, cell phones, parking tickets and the boot, etc...now the critic doesn't like this sort of thing because they want to believe that this is simply a control mechanism and that's all...It's much more though. It's a relationship tool and a boundary definer.

    In a marriage, your spouse says, "that's OK, I feel our relationship ought to be free and open, so sleep with as many people as you want and I still love you nand I'll do the same." What kinda mess is that?

    No boundaries equals no commitment...God has a voluntary free-will commitment to the believer and has established the boundaries. Anything without boundaries is an arbitrary construct and may or may not be effective or in place when it's needed.


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