Is God Really Omniscient? [Questions That Haunt]

Last week’s question was about God’s benevolence. This week, Sam has a question about God’s omniscience (you can find Sam at her blog and on Twitter). She asks,

I recognize this sounds cheeky to Christians now that I no longer am a Christian but I’ve never had a good answer to it and even when I put on my old Fundamentalist hat I can’t come up with an answer. God seems surprised to learn mankind became so wicked in the time of Noah, so he decides to start again. THIS God does not seem omniscient.

By the time we get to Jesus, Christian theology develops enough that we now claim God IS omniscient SO after God wiped away humanity the first time, did he know he would have to send his son to redeem us? (since he couldn’t just wipe us out, having promised to not do that again)? If yes, was Jesus with God during the time of Noah? Why didn’t God (who was/is omniscient knowing this wouldn’t work the first time) send Jesus to sacrifice his life for us then?

Give Sam your best answer, and I’ll respond on Friday.

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  • Ryan Robinson

    Omniscience does not necessitate exhaustive and certain knowledge of the future *if* it is not already set in stone. In other words, if a certain future is not knowable, it isn’t a lacking in God’s power to be unaware of it. It would be like saying that God is not all-powerful because he can’t create a rock so big he can’t lift it. As a logical inconsistency, it simply isn’t possible and that’s not the fault of God. It’s more of a philosophical question as to the nature of time than it is a question of God’s knowledge.

    In the case of Noah, for example, God probably would have known that people would tend toward evil, but there was always the possibility that they would choose otherwise. Imagine a similar situation with your child: you see them steadily making worse and worse choices and there’s nothing you can do about it, but you keep hoping that they’ll turn themselves around. Eventually you find out that they’ve really hurt themselves and others. Even knowing that it was highly likely, that still hurts as a parent when it comes true, and sometimes that parent has to resort to more drastic measures that they didn’t want to consider before.

  • Perhaps God simply works graciously in tandem with us in time (like a parent) and allows human authors to use anthropomorphisms to describe all that.

  • Kyle_B_s

    If we prescribe to block time, which I do not, we end up in these conundrums wherein we have to answer in the subjunctive as opposed to in the material here and now. God knows all things/omniscience has been imbued by block time/end time thinkers with their perception of a sealed eschatology that incorporates the absolutism taught them by the likes of Plato and others influenced by Greek philosophy (such as Augustine). We can free omniscience from this by reevaluating how we understand time.
    I personally prescribe to flow time, in such there is time as expansion, and, as with any sort of expansion in physics there precedes a level of uncertainty on how more space, more “time”, and more matter will effect what we know and can predict (quantum is a great example of how puzzling these principles can be!). Therefore, the omniscience of God becomes a cherished characteristic, not that he knows the future as in block time (which almost demands we adhere to transcendence/absolutism) but that amidst the confusion we rightly perceive, there is a knowledge of the present that is holistic, and the personality who possesses this knowledge has revealed their expressed desire to bring about a kingdom in Jesus. So omniscience helps us to know that in a moment/event, God knows it fully, and understands possibility (as would the perfect statistician) and, to the one with such omniscience, those who acknowledge this would be welcomed to the call of fidelity to the one who has an understanding how this junk works holistically, and therefore our steps are not mechanical movements prewritten, but a welcoming to symphony where in truth we can say that this god knows the plans he has for us, but such plans call to fidelity to the revealed nature of this omniscience.

  • Ric Shewell

    If God is going to create something that is other than God (which I think God did), then God is going to have to relinquish some of that power and knowledge of the future. If God is going to make things that truly have the capacity to love and relate, then God has to give up knowing those things’ every future move and thought.

    So, I think in creating a creation that is truly free, God gave up knowing every modicum of future events.

    If creation truly enjoy some form of freedom or ability to be in a relationship, then the future ought to be unknowable.

    I think.

    • This.

    • Well it’s not ‘ought’ but categorically ‘must’ right? It’s not a moral reason but an imposition on God based on the nature of loving relaitonships and time itself. At least that’s what the open theist (Pinnock and others) would say who detail views similar to this.

      • Ric Shewell

        I think that’s really interesting. Is it a moral reason or a law imposed upon God? I think this is a place where Pinnock and process part ways. Open Theism says that God is bounded by God’s character. Since it is God’s character to love and create thing that can lovingly respond to God, God chooses to not know the future. But Process says that the laws of the universe bind God from any sort of knowledge of the future.

        It seems to me that Open Theism is more about God’s ethical choices, and Process is more about the Laws that constrict God.

        When you push Open Theists, they eventual say that it is in the realm of possibility that God could choose to know the future, but that would go against God’s character, so God would probably never do that.

        That’s my reading of Open Theism anyway, but I know Open Theists go different ways on this.

  • The God of the OT was a God that reflected the authors’ personal and cultural predilection.Personificationism and anthropomorphism were literary-pedagogical devices, so we shouldn’t look at texts about God changing his mind as evidence that he really does change his mind. This answer cannot be definitively answered, because we are reading the writings of authors who did not have some inside scoop into the nature of God or the Divine. We are reading their struggle to grapple the Divine (whatever that is) into words, words that would resonate with their sense of reality and cognitive environment.

    • I should have also included the NT as well.

    • Dean Chang

      Well, my response that this is that Bible “literalists” open pick and choose which passages they want to take literally and which ones they want to take figuratively. I’m not sure what it means for God to change his mind or experience regret other than what those words mean in their normal sense. Do you? Precise knowledge of the future seems to preclude the usage of those concepts in anyway don’t you think? You can say it’s personification or anthropomorphism if you want, but then you have to explain what the text is getting at by using those words to begin with.

  • Keith Titus

    We anthropomorphize God. The simplistic do so by turning the Great Mysterious into an old white man with long white hair and a white beard who impregnates a young Jewish girl. The more sophisticated assign attributes like “thinking”, “loving”, “hating”, “mourning”.

  • Here’s the key question: Can God be surprised by God’s creation? If so, is God omniscient? I’m inclined in this respect as in many others to suggest that God *chooses* to allow himself to be surprised by his creation. He allows creation a space of freedom so that it may become fully itself. God may or may not be capable of knowing all things in advance. God may choose not to know so that he may be surprised.

  • Hi Sam,

    Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to reconcile conflicting images of God found in the Bible with divine characteristics ascribed to her by old time theologians and philosophers. I used to do that and I drove myself nuts.

    When I finally realized that the future does not exist, that really made all the difference for me. I really do wish the future was written like a book sometimes, and that we were assured a happy ending, but that just isn’t so. Search your heart and you’ll find that this is the case. We have to be honest about that. However scary and depressing it may sound, it is indeed possible we (humans) can destroy our planet–and we’re actually doing a pretty good job of it.

    As far as your specific question about Omniscience goes, I’m happy to tell you that God has all the knowledge that it is possible to have. That is to say, since the future is not yet determined God cannot definitively know how things will turn out. This is not a limitation on God’s knowledge, it is a limitation as to what there is to be known.

    Did God know he would have to send Jesus to redeem us? Maybe so. But, if we take human freedom seriously, there is, in fact, a real possibility that there didn’t have to be a cross in the story.

  • Dean Chang

    I have to say that the three biggest theological leaps that I’ve taken in my Christian walk thus far has been (1) questioning the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment, (2) discovering that there are other theories of the atonement besides penal substitution, and (3) open theism. I will say that the third was the most liberating for me as a Christian. I think what a few of us who grew up in Christians households have realized is just how fatalistic and depressing the idea of the future being permanently fixed from the beginning of time really is and how foreign that concept is to regular people. Some Christians find that comforting, that God is “in control”, but as Greg Boyd often points out, what if God’s “plan” for you was to get in terrible car crash and live the rest of your life as a vegetable? Or what if God’s “plan” for you was for your 10 year old daughter to be raped and murdered? It’s only comforting if things go well for you, if not, you’re left wondering why God came up with this crummy plan for you.

    The notion that the future is partially open and partially determined is precisely how we live our lives and I think it’s odd that Christians so easily discard what is affirmed for us on a daily basis for a concept of the nature of time that I think is based more in philosophy rather than the Bible (the exact critique that conservatives hurl against Open Theism). It is far more comforting to me that God gave us the ability to make free choices and that those free choices have consequences, but that ultimately, God is infinitely prepared to respond to all of our free will choices in the most optimal way possible and that in the end, history is going somewhere good, even if the precise route is not determined.

  • The answer to the question about the so-called omniscience of “God” depends on whose god you’re referring to. You could say “the God of the Bible,” but you will not get a consistent answer across the board as to the character or the nature of that god. Not all Jews see the God of the Bible the same way. Not all Christians see the God of the Bible the same way.

    This is largely because not all Jews and Christians behold the Bible in the same way. To some, it is literal history and actual testimony revealing the supreme deity of the universe. To others, it is sacred myth, with the stories being just that: mere stories, not literal history, and where there may or may not be belief in a supreme deity.

    To Traditionalists (who tend to be scriptural literalists), the answer is “Yes, God is real, and of course He (not she, naturally) is omniscient.” To progressives and Emergents, the answer would be very different, and likely less absolutist.

    It comes down to opinion: whichever version of “god” you choose to believe in will inform your answer regarding omniscience. It’s like asking whether flowers are yellow.

  • Wouldn’t an omniscient God negate free will? I mean if God knows what’s going to happen, doesn’t that mean, in some way shape or fashion, the future is already planned out and what i decide has no bearing on the matter?

  • Dennis

    It hardly takes Omniscience to understand that a bunch of created beings who are estranged from their creator, estranged from knowledge and purpose, (and basically estranged from reality itself) would inevitably create a world of chaos and destruction full of pain and suffereing. So, I don’t think Omniscience really addresses the bigger questions here.

    @ Joel Rieves. Omniscience does not negate free will because omniscience only reveals capacity; not will or action. to say that Omniscience destroys free will is essentially saying that God’s Knowledge itself creates a determined end, or that God’s foreknowledge necessitates particular action by God in every single litlle detail of existence. To say that God ‘determined’ that He would become a human being to ‘save’ lost humanity is one thing. To say that all things are pre-determined, is another thing altogether.

  • Or maybe “The Flood” never happened – perhaps it is allegorical and God never wiped all of humanity (except Noah’s family) off the face of the earth. There are certainly too many logical incongruities and moral dilemmas for me personally to take it as a literal/historical occurrence. Perhaps its part history (normal flooding) and part legend where the actual event was grown (i.e. a tall tale) and spiritual meaning was ascribed – humans do this all the time.

  • Rob

    One- You are basically saying absolutism is evil. God is Absolute.
    Two- You are stating that God has to learn something by looking at the possibilities. Omniscience requires that He Know All Things.

  • Lars

    Sam, apparently you are not familiar with C.S. Lewis’ “Surprised By Free Will,” which details God’s constant amazement at His creation’s utter failure to choose properly, starting with the angels, and on through Adam and Eve, Cain, well, you get the idea. In all seriousness, this has always bothered me as well, God’s willingness to take out broad swaths of humanity when He presumably knew this would be necessary when creation was still in the discussion phase. Like you, I’m not seeing it. God seems less omniscient and more optimistic. (“Watch, THIS time, free will’s going to work! But I’m building in mortality, just in case…”)

    I’ve also heard it explained is that God has limited omniscience (which,I guess, is like limited invisibility) due to the ‘possibilities’ of action, or limits His omniscience to ‘keep things interesting’, if you will (aka Open Theism). That is my cynical interpretation anyway and I hope others weigh in with a better explanation of how creation justified the cost.

  • Of course some new commenting system is in place when my question is posted. It must be Gods will. 🙂

    I’ve heard the arguments of self limitation of omniscience before as well as the notion that God sees all possible futures and our own free will dictates which outcome will happen. Neither answer is satisfactory to me. What scriptural evidence is there for this? Isn’t this just a post-hoc attempt to explain something with no explanation?

    The notion of God as outside of time does imply a God that is less concerned about helping me find a new job than mainstream Christianity would have us believe (and frankly the reason every Christian I know is a Christian in the first place). But even with limited omniscience, human nature dictates that on the whole, humanity would again need redemption.

    Why kick Adam & Eve out of Eden (surprised that needed to be done) to then flood the Earth and start over (surprised that needed to happen) and then to become incarnate and close the deal at last?

    As to the analogy of a parent who knows their kid is going to get a skinned knee after ignoring moms warning to slow down, the parent lets the kid skin his knee to learn a lesson — sure, for small lessons. That same parent, knowing bad choices will lead to death, would prevent it from happening – not stand by and see what happens. I find that a failed analogy.

    Can we know or infer anything about why God doesn’t seem to know things from scripture – rather than just what we “think?”

    • Hey Sam,

      Nope, there isn’t a Scripture references that outlines or describes exactly what God can or cannot do, or what God can know. The Best we have in Scripture is the struggle and the poetry of a people interacting with a God that they admittedly cannot comprehend. So, we take the stories and the poetry, and attempt to make some sense of how an all-knowing God can truly enter into loving relationships that seem to require risk and surprise.

      And we say, “I think,” because we might be wrong. We cannot know for sure.

      You also seem to focusing in on stories in the first 11 chapters of Genesis. These stories weren’t written to answer the questions you’re asking, and they weren’t written to describe how the prehistoric events actually occurred. So, in my opinion, using the Garden of Eden and the Flood to figure out finer points of metaphysics and God’s abilities will always leave us scratching our heads.

      • Lars

        You’re probably not saying this Ric, but this is what I’m hearing – these stories were written for a reason and we can never know what that reason was. We can come up with our own interpretations but it’s just as likely someone else will come up with other interpretations that are exactly the opposite, and just as rational. The trick is to pick the one the feels good and then live your life like that version is God’s Eternal Truth. At least until it no longer works for you and you have to go shopping again. Ultimately though, we end up believing what we have to to justify those beliefs. Some people HAVE to believe God is omniscient/omnipotent or else God is no longer “God”. Others HAVE to believe God is neither because he ceases to be a loving God when he can intervene and doesn’t.

        • Not quite what I was saying. I think we can know something of why these stories were written. Knowing other creation stories of that time and geography, reveals something different about the two Genesis accounts for creation, and points us to a closer reason why they were written. Also, looking at the different terms for God in these accounts provide hints to the time period they were written in and the reasons they were written. Looking at these things, and other stuff, it seems to me that they were written as a monotheistic interpretation of creation narratives. Beyond that, they were also stories with a long oral tradition that explain other natural phenomena such as rainbows, child birth, why we wear clothes, and why we have so many languages.

          So it’s not a free-for-all for interpretation, or go with what feels best. There is some good study to go into, to get closer to its intended purpose, and to avoid using it to as a premise to our own arguments.

          • Lars

            I figured as much and wanted to hedge my position. My main point was that even with rigorous study, people come to opposite conclusions when reading the Bible. I’m thinking primarily of the ongoing drama between the BioLogos/Dr. Enns camp and the The Gospel Coalition/Dr. Mohler camp on the whether Adam and Eve were real people or not (see – Why Does the Universe Look So Old?) for one of tons of articles on this topic).

            These views more or less represent the bookends with others coming in where their comfort allows. My comfort for many years was with Dr. Mohler, but when that became untenable for a variety of reasons, I drifted into agnosticism for lack of anything more substantial. However, others are very happy with Mohler’s God, or Enn’s God, or your God, or even my God (who got fed up here and moved on to an exoplanet less willful).

            • Guest

              I don’t think that the number of interpretation or how wide apart they are is evidence to say there is not a more correct interpretation, or an interpretation with real substance.

              I don’t know, Olympic judging of beauty and style comes to mind. Judges differ from one another. They agree to throw out the extreme views, and work together to find the right score. Sometimes they end with something that is good, sometimes the end score could be more accurate, but there is a score with merit and weight.

  • Charles B. Jordan Jr.

    Short answer – Yes, God is omnicient. Time is a created property of the universe, and God, being the Creator, is outside of Time. Chapters 10 of Augustine’s Confessions has the best discussion on this issue.

    Longer Answer: The problem for Sam is her fundamentalist background which posits that the Old Testament is literally true and that there are no other sources of truth outside of scripture. The truth in the Old Testament lies in its being read allegorically or spiritually, and not literally (See, 2 Cor. 3:6). When the Word became flesh, he spoke in parables, why should we think that he spoke differently to the sages of old. Specific to Noah, Christians down through the ages (such as C.S. Lewis, St. Jerome, and Origin) have held that Genesis, at least until the story of Abraham, is mythic. Noah tells the story of re-creation, whereby God takes the act of a righteous man working with wood to drown all flesh (i.e. base desires). It doesn’t speak to the issue of God’s omniscience.

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  • Paul Roberts

    “In the beginning.” Those three words encapsulate so much, and we can learn a lot by dwelling on what can be inferred from them. Time being a created factor, as someone else has mentioned, is one inference. The idea of Omniscience is not really a valid concept in terms of “reality.” For instance, if you consider the concept of hell. The Creator is the father of all things good. Hell is the absolute absence of anything good. Therefore, “God” is not present in hell. What “God” is can also be inferred from the words, “in the beginning.” The Creator is. When nothing else is considered, there is the Creator, and “him” only. However, after the Creator made the universe and the planet and animals, “he” walked with Adam and Eve. “God” took on a physical (what our world is made of) presence. Jesus, is also an example of a physical presence. In this aspect “God” has the capability to limit “his” own presence. Jesus feeling alone on the cross is a direct example of “God” withdrawing his presence. This capability of the Creator not not be present is not something that is forced upon “him” but rather is a choice made by the Creator. “God” chose to become a man, thereby choosing willful limitation.

    For more on some thoughts on the Creator read:

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  • Laura Tipps Minor

    It is my firm belief that God made humanity knowing we would allow sin to enter the world. In order that he could send His Son to save them and thus show something about the character of God. All the stories in the Old Testament point to the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross, including the flood in Noah’s time. This had to happen in it’s time to show the human race how salvation can come through just one man. The new testament even draws the similarity between Jesus and the Ark. God is Omniscient and can see our timeline at all points as if it were happening NOW. He loves us dearly and has created each with his own unique set of strengths and weaknesses in order to show a different facet of his Glory. We have free will and God knows which way we choose.

  • hkyriazi

    The incongruity of thinking and omniscience occurred to me only recently, and so rather than seek to reinvent the wheel, I thought I’d google it, and this page came up. My point is, regardless of the Bible, thinking implies that one is trying to figure something out. An omniscient God, therefore, cannot be a thinking entity. If God knows everything, He’s got nothing to think about. He simply acts. Very non-anthropomorphic that, a God who doesn’t think. And if he doesn’t think, what could it mean to be omniscient, or know anything at all? Perhaps one could say He is capable of thinking, but simply never has to…