How (or Why) Does God Know the Future?

Arminians and even some Calvinists (along with those who claim to be neither) may struggle with the concept of God’s “meticulous sovereignty” (also sometimes referred to as “exhaustive sovereignty”). The Reformed confessions state that “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” Despite the evidence from verses such as Ephesians 1:11 and Matthew 10:29 indicating this to be the case, many people resist this idea. However, all orthodox Christians agree that God is both omniscient and omnipotent.

I have found James P. Boyce to be a helpful guide in explaining why God’s omniscience and omnipotence necessitate his exhaustive sovereignty over all events. In particular, one paragraph from Chapter XIII, Section IV of his Abstract of Systematic Theology. I have quoted that paragraph below, breaking up some of the sentences and attempting to restate them in my own words, because Boyce’s writing from the 1880’s can be a little bit hard to follow for some of us “modern” folks. Hopefully my words are a faithful representation of what Boyce said in his own words.

But whence is God’s knowledge of the futurity of any events, except from the knowledge of his purpose, to cause or permit them to come to pass? 

Having established (in Chapter 9) that God “knows all the past, present, and future of all things,” Boyce now seeks to address the question of how God knows the future.  The answer, he says, is that God’s knowledge of future events can only come from His knowledge of His own purpose in causing or allowing the events.  

The knowledge of the futurity of any event, over which any one has absolute control, is the result of his purpose, not its cause. And, as God has such absolute control over all things, his knowledge that they will be, must proceed from his purpose that they shall be. 

If a person has absolute control over a future event (as God does), then that event will only take place if He allows (or causes) it to take place.  In other words, a future event only becomes certain when the one with absolute control over the event chooses to cause or permit the event to occur.  If the event is under His absolute control (and it is), then the event will not occur without His purpose in causing or permitting it.  In other words, the purpose must precede the knowledge.  God does not first have knowledge of a future event and then incorporate it into his purpose.  The purpose comes first, and the knowledge flows out of the purpose.

It cannot be from mere perception of their nature, for he gives that nature, and in determining to give it, determines what it shall be, and thus determines the effects which that nature will cause. 

Nor is it from mere knowledge of the mutual relations which will be sustained by outward events or beings, for it is he that establishes these relations for the accomplishment of his own purposes. 

Having established the source of God’s knowledge of future events, Boyce addresses two alternative explanations for the source of God’s omniscience.  The first is that God knows what will happen in the future because of his intimate knowledge of the actors who will bring the events to pass.  In other words, God knows what Joe Smith will do because He has perfect knowledge of Joe Smith’s nature, and knows what Joe Smith will freely choose to do in any and every circumstance.  Similarly, God knows the nature of wind and water, and sun and moon, and all of creation, and so He has knowledge of all future events due to this knowledge of the nature that produces these events.

The second alternative, similar to the first, is that God’s knowledge of future events is derived from his knowledge of the relationships between the actors and events that occur throughout history. In other words, God perceives the “chain reaction” set into motion by His creative act (and other acts where He directly intervenes in history), and thereby knows what other events will occur as a result.

However, in both cases, the nature of every created being and the relations between beings and events were given by God, so these alternative explanations do nothing to explain God’s knowledge of future events outside of His purposes.

To say that this nature and these relations are from God, and are not from his purpose, is in the highest degree fatalistic, for it would involve that they originate in some necessity of the nature of God, because of which he must give them existence without so willing, and even against his will. 

If one were to object, saying that the nature and relations that God created and established do not arise from His purpose, then the alternative would be that the nature and relations that came from God “had to be,” due to some essential aspect of God’s nature.  Thus, in an attempt to avoid ascribing God’s knowledge of future events to His eternal purpose (in a vain attempt to preserve libertarian “free will”), one has devised an even more fatalistic framework wherein God himself is bound out of necessity to create a world that leads to a known future.

In this way alone could God be said to know, and yet not to purpose them. His knowledge would arise from knowledge of his nature, and of what that nature compels him to do, and not from knowledge of his purpose and of his will involved in that purpose. This, and this alone, would make equally certain and known what will come to pass, without basing that knowledge upon his purpose; 

Boyce perceives no other option that would preserve God’s knowledge of all future events without having purposed for those events to occur.  The only alternative is to claim that the certainty of all future events arises from an essential aspect of God’s nature, and thus it is God’s knowledge of Himself that is the source of His knowledge of all future events.

but it would not only be destructive of his free agency and will, but, from the nature of necessity, would make the outward events eternal and prevent the existence of time, and the relation to it of all things whatsoever.

As was noted previously, by linking God’s knowledge of future events to an essential aspect of His nature (rather than His purpose), free agency and free will are destroyed; however, this also gives rise to yet another problem.  If the certainty of an event depends on a necessary aspect of God’s nature, then the event cannot be a future event.  If the event arises from an essential aspect of God’s nature, then the event must always exist; it can never “not be,” since it arises as a necessity out of His nature.  Therefore, all events are eternal and the passage of time cannot exist.

Pick Your Joneses

Christians are instructed not to be lovers of money (2 Tim. 3:2, 1 Tim. 6:10). We are instructed not to store up treasure on earth (Matt. 6:19), and to be content with what we have (Heb. 13:5). We are not to love the “stuff” (things) the world has to offer (1 John 2:15).

This is no easy task. Our sinful tendencies towards covetousness, greed, selfishness, etc. are easily inflamed and influenced by the world around us. And for many of us, we’re exposed to and surrounded by a great deal of wealth. If we are not highly intentional about our lifestyle and spending choices, it will be difficult to resist the impulse to “keep up with the Joneses.”

So, I have a suggestion: pick your Joneses. Not that you should try to “keep up” with anyone, but be aware of the natural human tendency to define “normal” based on the company you keep. If you happen to be able to afford a $1M house, perhaps there are good reasons to purchase a $1M house, but you will have to fight the tendency to assume that owning $100k cars and boats and other “toys” is normal since that’s how your neighbors will live. Even if you are intentionally not “keeping up with the Joneses,” your benchmark for “normal” is likely set by those around you. While your neighbors may trade in their Mercedes for a new one every 2 years, you are “content” to keep your 5-year-old Mercedes. But would you be content driving a 10-year-old Kia?

Assume that the Christian who earns $1M/year, the Christian who earns $100k/year, and the Christian who earns $25k/year are all living within their means and all believe that they are avoiding “extravagant” or “lavish” living. But they all have different definitions of what “extravagant” and “lavish” mean. If you are only living conservatively in comparison to your peers, then are your spending habits and lifestyle really determined by the application of Biblical principles, or are they determined by the world?

Maybe you could afford a $1M house, but you choose to buy a $250k house in a neighborhood where the average house is $200k. Maybe you could afford a $100k car, but you choose to buy a $30k car (whereas the average car in your neighborhood is a $15k car). You now have the most expensive house and car in the neighborhood, but you have less “peer pressure” to upgrade than if you were living “conservatively” in the $1M neighborhood.

This is what I mean by “picking your Joneses.” If all your friends like to eat at steakhouses with white tablecloths, your natural tendency will probably be the same. If all your friends like to eat at McDonald’s, your natural inclination to eat at “fancy” restaurants will likely be different. It’s just human nature to make judgments on a comparative basis, and those comparisons are based on what you consider “normal.” So, when you’re making lifestyle choices, don’t just consider what you can afford. Perhaps give some thought to the unavoidable influence that your peers have on you.

(A similar idea is to make it your goal to live in such a way that you are pursuing “downward mobility.”)

I Can Work With That

Adam and Eve sinned… and God said, “I can work with that.”
Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery… and God said, “I can work with that.”
Pharaoh hardened his heart… and God said, “I can work with that.”
The scribes and Pharisees conspired to kill Jesus… and God said, “I can work with that.”

Does this reflect your view of how God works all things together for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28)?  Is God simply responding to bad things in order to salvage his plan?

If this is your view, perhaps you should reread Genesis 45:5-8 and 50:20 where Joseph declares that he was sent to Egypt because it was God’s plan and intention, and God’s action that brought it about (using the evil actions of Joseph’s brothers to accomplish his will).

Reread Exodus 4:21, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 14:4, and 14:8 where God repeatedly says that he is the one who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, because it was his plan from the very beginning to do so.  (God had a similar plan involving Sihon king of Heshbon, as noted in Deut. 2:30.)

Reread Acts 2:23 and 4:28 where it is clearly stated that the wicked conspiracy against Jesus was part of God’s predetermined plan.

If these evil deeds are intended and predetermined by God, does that make God the author of sin?  No!  The humans who sin commit their sin freely (uncoerced) out of their own evil intentions.  However, the fact of their evil deed is not just known by God, but is planned by God, and in God’s plan, he is working something good in spite of the evil intentions of the human actors.

The Unity Scale

Christians are called to unity. (John 17:21-23, Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 1:10, etc.). Unity requires harmony, like-mindedness, having things in common. However, until we are perfected in glory, there is an inverse relationship between the number of people with whom we have unity and the number of things about which we are unified. For example, if I state that “it’s good to be happy,” this is something that almost everyone can agree on. However, as soon as I add to that statement (for example, “watching the St. Louis Cardinals win makes me happy”), the size of the group that is in agreement will shrink.

So, in our pursuit of unity, there is a balance between pursuing unity with the maximum number of other Christians possible and pursuing unity in as many areas as possible. In the new heavens and new earth, there will be 100% agreement over all things with all people. In our current fallen world, we sometimes have to choose between limited unity with more people or more unity with fewer people.

If you take the route of pursuing unity with the maximum number of other Christians, you will find that the number of things about which you are unified must be relatively small. This can lead to a pretty anemic version of Christianity, where “doctrine” consists of little more than platitudes.

On the other hand, trying to achieve unity in as many areas as possible can lead to isolation. One of the connotations of “fundamentalism” is the idea that you only associate with those who share your opinions on just about everything. When you can’t come to agreement on an issue, you splinter off into smaller and smaller groups.

A healthy approach is not simply to find the “midpoint” where you have a reasonable level of unity with a reasonable group of believers, but to have a balance of both types of unity: a mix of basic unity with the larger body of Christ and a smaller group of believers with whom you can enjoy deeper unity on more levels. If all of your unity with other believers is at a very basic level, you’re probably lacking in doctrinal depth and missing out on the joy of pursuing and discussing rich theology with others who are likeminded. If all your unity with other believers is with a small group of others who agree with you on almost all matters, you’re probably missing out on the diversity within the body of Christ and you’re probably not being sufficiently challenged to love, respect, and work together with those who hold different convictions than you.