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.

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 First and the Last

The first book of the New Testament
was written by one of the 12 Apostles
to show how the [first] coming of Jesus
fulfills the Old Testament prophecies
about the Promised King.
The restoration of the throne of David
is fulfilled in Jesus.
The last book of the New Testament
was written by one of the 12 Apostles
to show how the [second] coming of Jesus
fulfills the Old Testament prophecies
about the Promised Kingdom.
The restoration of God’s people
is fulfilled in Jesus.

Of the four gospel writers, Matthew places a particular emphasis on showing that Jesus was the Anointed One…the promised Messiah. Over and over, Matthew says, “this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matthew 1:22, 2:15, 2:17, 2:23, 4:14, 8:17, 12:17, 13:35, 21:4, 26:56, 27:9). Matthew’s point is not simply to validate the reliability of the Old Testament prophets. Matthew is emphasizing to his readers that these Old Testament prophecies were pointing to Jesus.

The Jews had long been waiting for the Promised One:

  • the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:14-15).
  • the seed of Abraham who would “possess the gates of [his] enemies” and bless “all the nations of the earth” (Genesis 22:17-18).
  • the lion of Judah who would command the obedience of all the peoples (Genesis 49:9-10).
  • the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10), the righteous branch (Jeremiah 23:5, 33:15), the king who would gather his people and destroy their enemies, reestablishing David’s throne as the seat of power over a kingdom that would never again be defeated (Isaiah 9:6-7), just as God had promised David (2 Samuel 7:16).

Jesus came in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about the promised Messiah. Jesus is the promised King. However, the kingdom that God has promised his people was not immediately ushered in when Jesus came to earth (at least not in its entirety). Although Satan has been judged (John 12:31, 16:11), cast down (Luke 10:18), and bound (Matthew 12:29), he still temporarily retains his role as the “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), blinding and enslaving the kingdoms of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 John 5:19). The ultimate destruction of evil and the peace and prosperity of God’s kingdom have not yet been fully realized.

Jesus died and returned to heaven with “unfinished business.” As Cleopas said on the road to Emmaus, “we had hoped that [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). As his disciples asked him after his resurrection and before his return to heaven, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Perhaps some of the disciples misunderstood the nature of God’s kingdom, but it remains true that there are still unfulfilled promises about the restoration of God’s people, the eradication of God’s enemies, and the establishment of God’s eternally peaceful kingdom.

The biblical canon closes with the apostle John’s reassurance that Jesus will return, fulfilling the remaining promises, and perfecting God’s kingdom. John’s vision does not reveal new promises so much as it reveals the fulfillment of old promises. John does not quote specific Old Testament prophecies the way Matthew does. John communicates via a different genre, writing an apocalypse, not a biography. John refers to Old Testament prophesies using allusions not quotes. Yet his point is still quite clear. Jesus will come again to fulfill the prophecies of Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah and others. The Promised King will return to establish his kingdom, rescue his people, and destroy those who oppose him.

The people of Matthew’s day had been waiting for the Messiah to be revealed. Matthew wrote his gospel to display the glory of the King who had come. In our day, we await the return of the King to establish his glorious kingdom. Jesus appeared to John in a vision to reveal the coming of the kingdom that he has promised. Come, Lord Jesus!

The Victory of the Cross

Today marks the second in the series of major Christian holidays celebrating Christ’s life on earth.  The first, of course, is Christmas, when we celebrate the arrival of Jesus on earth, the incarnation of God in human flesh, the second Adam, coming to save his fallen Creation.  Then comes today, Good Friday, marking the substitutionary atonement that Christ made on our behalf, dying in our place, and paying the penalty for our sin.  On Sunday, we will celebrate his Resurrection from the dead, the vindication of his death and his triumph over the grave.  Finally, there was his Ascension 40 days later, his return to his rightful place, the throne room of Heaven, where He sits at the right hand of the Father, ruling his Creation, and acting as our mediator.

Every year on Good Friday, I experience a little bit of internal conflict, or to use a couple of bigger words, “cognitive dissonance” when I contemplate this holiday.  Most holidays are days of celebration.  Certainly we can be thankful and we can rejoice for the good things that resulted from the events of this day, but can we really “celebrate” the day that sinful men murdered the Son of God?  Jesus suffered the ultimate humiliation, and it is to our great shame that our sin was responsible for this great injustice.  So do we celebrate Good Friday, or do we just commemorate it, sort of like we do with December 7, 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor?  I remember when I saw Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, in the theater.  When the movie was over, there was no applause, no cheering, no one discussing what a good movie it was or recalling particular scenes that they found impactful.  It was silent.  It was somber.  Outside the theater, other people who had come to see other movies were talking, joking, laughing, etc.  But those who had just watched The Passion filed out of the theater in silence and walked to their cars without saying a word.  There was no celebration that day.  

However, without taking anything away from the somber reality of sin that led to this day, and the immense suffering and humiliation that Jesus suffered on this day, I do think that we can rightly celebrate the victory that Christ accomplished on Good Friday.  The cross was not a low point, a temporary defeat, followed by a comeback.  No, the cross was where Jesus won.  It was a grueling victory, and the cost of victory was infinite, but it was victory nonetheless.

I don’t remember if I’ve heard someone say or teach this before, or if I’ve simply thought it myself in the past, but some people might have the idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection can be treated as independent events, with his death paying the penalty for our sin, and his resurrection making it possible for us to have eternal life.  As if, in theory, he could have simply died, and ceased to exist as a man, with his spirit simply returning to his pre-incarnate state; in which case, those who placed their faith in him would not have to suffer eternal damnation, because Jesus paid that debt for us, but that when we die we would just cease to exist if not for his resurrection.  His death keeps us from going to hell; his resurrection allows us to go to heaven.  Two distinct events with two distinct effects.  However, this is not what the Bible teaches.  Hebrews 2:14 says that Jesus “shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death.”  Jesus didn’t die and then later defeat the devil when he rose again.  He defeated the devil when he died.  In reality, we cannot separate Christ’s death and resurrection into two independent events and attempt to describe certain things that his death accomplished, and certain other things that his resurrection accomplished.  Paul says in I Corinthians 15:17 that, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”  If Christ was not raised, then his death was ineffectual, and was nothing but a tragedy.  But Christ was raised, which is the proof that his death secured the victory.

One of the things that got me thinking about the victory of the cross was a rabbit trail that I went down when I was studying Psalm 18.  I was considering the Messianic elements of Psalm 18, but anytime you look up information about Messianic Psalms, the one that rises to the top is Psalm 22.  The opening line of Psalm 22 is quoted by Jesus while hanging on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And that question, “why have you forsaken me?” raises other questions.  What really happened in the relationship between God the Father and God the Son?  Was Jesus really abandoned by God, or was he just expressing his anguish by quoting the anguish that David felt?

It’s been my experience that most people take it for granted that God “turned his back” on Jesus at some point when Jesus was hanging on the cross, because God “cannot look on sin.”  I was reminded of a line from the 1985 Carman song, The Champion, which depicts the crucifixion as a boxing match between Jesus and Satan.  (This song from 30+ years ago was very popular during my formative years of the late 80’s and early 90’s.  It surely ranks up there with other timeless classics such as Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art.)  In the song, after Satan delivered his “knock-out blow,” the lyrics say, “God the Father turned His head, His tears announcing Christ was dead!”  This captures the typical understanding that Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” because that was the moment at which all our sin was imputed to Jesus, and God turned his head, no longer looking with favor on his beloved Son.

Now, I do not intend to untangle the theological intricacies of exactly how the atonement works, and the degree and manner in which the unity of the Holy Trinity may have been temporarily fractured.  That is a topic for another day, or an entire lifetime, which maybe we will understand when we get to heaven.  However, in reading some of the ideas about it, I came across something interesting.

It is said that quoting the first line of a passage was a common means of referring to a complete unit of Scripture.  (Remember that chapter and verse numbers were not added until sometime later.)  So, instead of pointing someone to “Psalm 23,” you would refer them to “The Lord Is My Shepherd.”  It’s possible, then, that in quoting the first verse of Psalm 22, Jesus was actually referring to the entire Psalm, not just the part that he quoted.  If that is the case, it might give a different impression of what he meant when he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  He might have been pointing his hearers to that Psalm, not necessarily expressing his personal feeling of being forsaken.  What I found particularly interesting is the link between Jesus’ words in John 19:30, “It is finished,” and the last phrase of Psalm 22.

Psalm 22 begins as a lament.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? …(paraphrasing now)… I cry out to you day and night, but you do not answer … my ancestors trusted you, and you delivered them; they cried out to you and were rescued; they were not put to shame… but I, on the other hand, have been robbed of human dignity; I’m nothing but a worm; scorned, despised, mocked… I lay in the dust of death, surrounded, with no one to help me… I have no strength, no courage, not even words to defend myself.” 

The language of this first section of the psalm is very clearly fulfilled by Christ on the cross.  Compare Psalm 22:7-8 with the account from Matthew’s gospel:

PSALM 22:7-8
“All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

MATTHEW 27:39-43
“And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads….so also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying…, ‘He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him.’”

Other obvious Messianic prophecies in Psalm 22 include verse 16 (“they have pierced my hands and feet”) and verse 18 (“they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots”). These are just a few examples; it is not my goal right now to delve into all the parallels between Psalm 22 and the crucifixion.  The point is, Jesus isn’t just fulfilling an isolated phrase that applies to him.  Psalm 22 is drenched in prophecy about Jesus.

Then about two-thirds of the way through the psalm, there is a sudden shift.  Verse 21 begins with David’s final plea, “Save me from the mouth of the lion!”  And then we suddenly have an abrupt change.  Verse 21 continues, “You have rescued me…” or some translations, “you have answered me.”  And for the remaining ten verses he sings God’s praises.  “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.   You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.”  David continues, predicting the glorious reign of God over all the earth: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.  For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.”  He says that the renown of the Lord will be passed down from generation to generation, closing with verse 31, “they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.”  Those final words, “he has done it,” are remarkably similar to the last words of Christ, “It is finished.” 

Actually both of those phrases are just a single word in the original languages.  Psalm 22:31 ends with the Hebrew word “asah” which can be translated as do or done, make or made, accomplish, cause, appointed, execute, fulfill, etc.

The English translation of John 19:30, where we have the words, “It is finished,” comes from the Greek word “tetelestai,” which is very similar in meaning to the Hebrew word “asah” used in Psalm 22:31.  It does not just mean that something is now over; it contains the sense that something has been completed, fulfilled, accomplished, or satisfied.

Now, I don’t want to make too much out of a single word, especially since we don’t even know for sure what particular word Jesus actually used.  The gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1 in Aramaic, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani”, and it is doubtful that he suddenly switched to speaking Greek when the Apostle John recorded his final words in John 19:30. Thus, John’s choice of the Greek word tetelestai is probably a translation of what Jesus said, and while it is inspired Scripture, we shouldn’t read too much into the dictionary definitions of the word selection.  However, I would like to give a few examples that will hopefully serve to give a better understanding of how the original readers of John’s gospel likely understood the word tetelestai.  According to what I’ve read, this word might have been used by an artist upon completion of his work; a painter pulling the brush away from his final stroke, or a sculptor having taken hammer to chisel for the last time and brushing the last bit of dust off his completed work; a chef placing the final garnish on his creation: “Perfect!”  It might have been used by a servant reporting back to his master that he had successfully completed his assignment.  A priest might have said it after a sacrifice had been offered.  A judge might have used this word to signify that the sentence for a crime had been completed; justice has been satisfied!  It could have been used in a commercial sense when certifying that a debt or invoice had been paid.  And finally, it could also be used in a military context, as a victorious battle cry: “The foe is vanquished, it’s over, I won!”  We could perhaps read each of these uses into the final words of Jesus, as God was certainly creating a masterpiece with his plan of salvation; Jesus was an obedient servant, who offered a perfect sacrifice, satisfying the requirements of justice, paying a debt that was owed, and defeating the enemy.  All these uses would be true, but that is not to say that Jesus necessarily had all these aspects in mind and was intentionally trying to convey each of these aspects with what he said.  However, the point I want to make is that his final cry of “It is finished” was not a cry of despair or resignation simply to indicate that his life was over.  It was a declaration that his work was completed, he had fulfilled what he had been sent to do.  The best explanation for what Jesus meant is found two verses earlier in John 19:28, “Jesus, knowing that all was now finished…”  Or, depending on the translation, “knowing that all things were now accomplished, or completed.”  The same word tetelestai is used there.  Jesus knows that he has reached the goal, he has finished the race, and satisfied what God sent him to accomplish.

The gospel writers make it abundantly clear that Jesus’ actions on earth were fulfilling scripture.  Jesus himself said on numerous occasions that he had come to do the will of the Father, to accomplish his work.

David ended Psalm 22 with the word, “He has done it.”  He foresees the glorious reign of the Lord over all the earth as being accomplished.  Jesus gives his final breath on the cross with the word, “I have done it.”  The work that needed to be done, the plan that God had laid out, has been completed; it is finished.

Friday is not a day of defeat, leaving Jesus waiting for a day of victory to arrive.  He is not “down for the count” on Friday, waiting for Sunday to make his comeback.  He won on Friday.  The implementation of the plan is complete.  He has done it.  It is finished.  The rest is vindication, proof, waiting for the rest of the dominoes to fall.  To reference The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there is a “deeper magic from before the dawn of time” that is at work here.  What Satan thought was a victory for him, was actually the promised seed of Genesis 3:15 striking the fatal blow.

And so, I conclude that it is appropriate that we celebrate the victory that was achieved on Good Friday.  And on Sunday, we will celebrate even more, because Christ is risen!

Pity the Fool!

“if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.”  -1 Corinthians 15:19 (NLT)

Why? If Christians are wrong, and this life is all there is, then why should we be pitied? Is it just because we had our hopes set on something, and those hopes were not realized? (Proverbs 13:12 – “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”) But if we’re hoping for something more after this life, and then we die, and that’s it…how are our hopes dashed? What hopes? We no longer exist.

Or are we to be pitied, because the expectation is that Christians lead a life that is distinctly different from others? Keep reading in 1 Corinthians 15… Paul says in verses 30-32, “why should we ourselves risk our lives hour by hour? For I swear, dear brothers and sisters, that I face death daily. And what value was there in fighting wild beasts—those people of Ephesus—if there will be no resurrection from the dead? And if there is no resurrection, ‘Let’s feast and drink, for tomorrow we die!”food and drink

If we are not living for eternity, then we might as well find all the enjoyment we can in the pleasures that this world has to offer. But the implication is that we have forsaken these pleasures in the pursuit of something higher and better (Hebrews 11:26 – “[Moses] regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.”)

Not that we cannot or should not take pleasure in the enjoyment of food and drink and the material aspects of God’s creation. (Ecclesiastes 8:15 – “I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.) However, our enjoyment of life is to be found in contentment with what God gives us, not the pursuit of these temporal pleasures.

So the question remains, if we were to reach the end of this life, and it were found that there is no resurrection to eternity, would an observer think, “What a pity! They gave up so much in life, and for what?” Or would the observer simply note, “Well, they were wrong about eternity, but at least they got to enjoy all the same worldly benefits as their neighbors.”