Time and Foreknowledge (Free Will, Part 2)

Last week, I started writing about a question one of my friends asked regarding my views on free will. That post was part 1 and it has lots of background info for this post, so if you haven’t read it yet you can check it out here. Another aspect  of the question he asked, which I didn’t have time to get to last week, was “Do you believe God is omniscient, or do you believe there are limits to His knowledge of the future, etc.”

Omniscience basically means “all knowing,” and I suppose given these two options I’m going to have to go with saying that I believe there are some limits to God’s knowledge of the future. That’s the short answer 🙂 Here’s the long one …

God Knowing Us

Prophecy teaches us that God has knowledge of future events — fulfilled prophecy gives us proof that He was correct in the past and we have faith that He will also be correct about the future. God has a plan for where the world is heading, and He certainly has the power to get it there. This is the kind of thing we talked about last week when looking at the examples of Jonah and Abraham.

Continuing with these two examples, I’ve said I believe that Jonah, Abraham, and Sarah had free will in how they responded to God’s work in their lives. But the fact that God didn’t make the decisions for them doesn’t prove that He didn’t know how they would respond.

O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. (Ps. 139:1-3)

Many verses speak of God knowing our hearts, but these are mostly present-tense, as far as I can tell. From perfect knowledge of what we are now, I suppose God has a pretty good idea of what we will be and how we will act in the future. I think we still have the potential to surprise Him, through.

I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings. (Jer. 17:10)

If God did know exactly how we were going to live our lives, however, why does He need to search our hearts to determine how to reward us? Probably the best example of this is Abraham’s test. God commanded him to sacrifice his only son, and Abraham was prepared to do so right up to the moment God stopped him. Up until Abraham was at the point where he was about to kill Isaac, it seems that God didn’t know how far Abraham would go to obey Him.

And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (Gen. 22:12)

God’s Foreknowledge

Some people use Psalm 139:16 to say God knows the day we will die and has all our days mapped out. The King James Version doesn’t give that sense at all, but other translations could. Here’s a few:

Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. (KJV)

Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. (NKJV)

Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (NIV)

I really have doubts about this interpretation, though. Going back to the story of Nineveh, God told those people through Jonah that He would destroy their city in 40 days. We know “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18), so I can’t believe He told them this if he already knew He would delay Nineveh’s punishment (Jon. 3:1-10).

A similar case occurs in 2 Kings 20. King Hezekiah falls ill, and the Lord sends Isaiah the prophet to tell him, “Set your house in order, for you shall die, and not live” (2 Kings 20:1). Hezekiah prayed to the Lord …

And it happened, before Isaiah had gone out into the middle court, that the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Return and tell Hezekiah the leader of My people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; surely I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord. And I will add to your days fifteen years. I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city for My own sake, and for the sake of My servant David.”’” (2 Kings 20:4-6)

Again, why would God tell Hezekiah that he was going to die if He already knew that He would give Hezekiah 15 years? This story is one of the reasons we have hope when we pray — because we know God hears us and can intervene to answer our prayers. If everything was predestined, what would be the point of praying? For that matter, what would be the point of obeying the commandments or being loving and faithful? As a commenter on last week’s post pointed out, “If there were no free will, then whether we believe in God & Jesus, and whether we love them or not, would be determined by God, not us. And if that were the case, then it would not be true faith and it would not be true love. For faith and love to be real, there must be a choice.”

Some Ideas About Time

From what I read in the Bible, along with a dab of theoretical physics and a heavy dollop of sci-fi, here’s my pet theory: assuming time and space are connected, then “a God who is not limited by space is not limited by time” (I got that from an old Moody science tape).  I hypothesize that God can step outside of time in a way and see how the potential outcomes are changing. He can look at the whole breadth of human history, read every nuance of the present, and predict and direct the course of events. He has a definitive end goal in mind, and He can directly intervene to accomplish that goal, but I think our specific futures are in a state of flux, changing as we make decisions.

Time and Foreknowledge (Free Will, Part 2) | marissabaker.wordpress.comI’m perfectly willing to admit there are flaws and gaps in my theory, and it might even be totally worthless, but it is what makes sense to me. I’d love to hear your thoughts/ideas/theories if you’d like to share them. 🙂 I really don’t think we can fully understand how God relates to time and the future right now — we can just see glimpses and try to make sense of the clues we are given.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Is. 55:8-9)

In keeping with the fact that God’s thoughts are very different and much higher than ours, He has a unique view of time as well.

But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. (2 Pet. 3:8)

For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night. (Ps. 90:4)

This is very confusing for us, trapped in a single moment of linear time. We have imperfect recall of our own past, second-hand knowledge of history and other people’s lives, limited understanding of the present, and dim ideas about the future. Compared to us, God is indeed omniscient, even if there are what we think of as “limits” to His foreknowledge.

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8 thoughts on “Time and Foreknowledge (Free Will, Part 2)

  1. I always enjoy reading your insights into things; especially when they are topics I bring up with others who do not have the same beliefs as I do. It is good food for thought, and can help me to form a concise answer. In recent conversations about free will, I made a less sci-fi-y analogy and proposed it was like a chess board. We (the pawns it would seem) have the ability to choose our moves. God knows the directions we can move and all possible ‘next moves’ and ultimately the outcome of the game. Sometimes He moves the knights or queens for His purpose and we react. I think it can be a helpful humbling if I think myself a pawn in God’s chess game. We know He wins in the end, but He tells us to seek wisdom and choose life that we may partake in the victory instead of laying beside the board as a casualty. Still, you have a drawing for your theory, so I think that is the theory trump card!

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  2. I think the idea of an omniscient, omnipotent God makes more sense when you start thinking of time as something that stretches into 5th, 6th, and 7th dimensions. If the 4th dimension is space/time, and we’re 3D objects moving along an axis of 4th dimensional time, then a 5th dimensional being would be a being which exists along all states of the 4th dimensional timeline simultaneously, and able to move back and forth across the axis of the 5th dimension–which would be the space/time within which a 4th dimensional space/time exists within.

    While our existence is contingent upon a fixed space/time awareness/existence, the Christian understanding of God would be able to move between different space/time awarenesses/existences, being in different nodes of time (different individuals, different spaces, different times) simultaneously, and at any given point of that node of time’s existence along the 4th dimensional timeline. Which means it could be and understand quite literally anything in the universe.

    Where it gets tricky, and where omnipotence becomes interesting (As I understand it), is the 6th dimension, where the whole of creation (the 5th dimension as I understand it with my limited literacy in theoretical physics) becomes itself a point along an axis of potential creation(s)–web theory and membrane theory and things like that belong on this layer, I think. This is where the God as depicted in the Bible would probably be when dabbling directly with folks. Free Will (as I understand it) is pretty much the only claim to divinity humans have–we can make choices based on context and a hypothetical vision of ourselves further down the space/time continuum that we’re pursuing. God as the Bible depicts it is able to see all the different possible versions of us and the infinite pathways leading to these infinite interpretations of our being, and there is a series of ideal choices which are most apt according to the paradigm God has set up for moral living being.

    The folks in the bible as we understand it are from a very specific 4th dimension. Any time they deviate from the ideal path, and God adapts to the wills/demands of a human isn’t changing His plan–instead, it changes which timeline God’s attention is focused on at that given time.

    I’m not sure if that makes sense entirely, but I could spend all day writing about this, and I don’t want to lose myself in theories on time and free will.

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    • Wow, you’ve obviously but a lot of thought into this. I’m not sure I really understand a 6 or 7 dimensional view of time, but it’s interesting to ponder. Thanks so much for commenting!

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    • Hum, I’m a little worried. I started typing “open theist” into Google and one of the top suggestions was “open theism heresy” :/ Using this website: http://www.theopedia.com/Open_theism as a reference, it does seem like I’d agree with most of open theism’s claims, but they seem to see God as taking a more hands-off approach. I do think He lets us make our own decisions and that “time and chance” can happen, but I also see Him taking an active interest in answering prayer and guiding the future towards a specific goal.
      It’s probably something we could debate for the rest of our lives and never have everyone in agreement. An interesting discussion, though. I’ll have to check out your blog and read some of your writings on free will and such 🙂

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  3. Well, I’m sure there are different varietys of open theists, but if you read Greg Boyd for example, a hands off approach is not how I’d describe the view. Actually, it seems to me that in deterministic theology that God takes a hands off approach, by sort of pre-setting everything that will ever happen and then just sitting back and letting it run it’s course. In open theism, he has to be constantly involved in a real way, answering prayers and convicting hearts in real time.
    A good book that helped me understand the concept is, oddly enough, Tec Dekkers’ “Blink” where the main character can see all possible futures in every scenario and has to try and pick the right one.
    But you’re right, we will never fully understand how God works while in this life and time.

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    • I’ll add Boyd’s book to my reading list. My (admittedly very brief) research into open theism for my last comment gave me the impression that, while they believe God does work in the present, they also see Him as spending quite a bit of time sitting back and just waiting to see how things turn out. I’m curious to read more.

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