God Doesn’t Know What You Think God Knows [Questions That Haunt]

This week, Sam asked us 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?

Thanks again, Sam, both for your question and for your comments.

Two things I attempt to avoid when actively theologizing are 1) anthropomorphizing God, and 2) analogizing God with human behavior. Readers may consider these arbitrary rules that I place on myself, but they are well-grounded in the history of theological discourse.

God is not human. Indeed, in my theology, the non-humanness of God is what makes the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth so utterly astounding. Although I can’t say I never do it, I am highly skeptical of imputing human characteristics onto God.

Now the tricky part is that pretty much all we know are human characteristics. It doesn’t really help anyone for me to say, “God’s love is not like our love,” when all we know is our love.

Regarding number two, I’m really against analogies, especially bad ones. The Trinity is not like the pitcher, catcher, and manager of a baseball team. And prayer is not like you talking to your spouse.

So that’s why I’m left in something of a conundrum regarding Sam’s question of God’s omniscience. To ask about how much God knows seems akin to asking how much God can store in God’s brain. I only understand knowledge as a human can. I have no way to even conceive of what knowledge would be were I not trapped within time. And God doesn’t have a brain, at least not in the sense of gray matter and synapses that I do.

So let’s look at this a couple ways: biblically and philosophically.

Sam is troubled by the biblical narrative, especially the God’s interactions with humanity leading up to the incarnation of Jesus. The obvious choice is this: If God knew that the incarnation was ultimately going to be necessary, then all of the activity prior to that (expulsion from Eden, Tower of Babel, Flood, Exodus) was just a game. God was either making all that stuff happen to teach us a lesson, or because God is sadistic.

The other option is that God did not know how all this would progress, and it’s in this camp that I place myself. Part of God’s pattern of humility and self-limitation is that God gave up timelessness. That is, God allowed Godself to be bound to time, I suppose because it would be impossible to have true relationship with time-bound creatures if God was outside of time.

There is, of course, a third option, and that is to write off the accounts of the Hebrew Bible as primitive, mythical, and therefore irrelevant. As troubling as the biblical texts are, I will not default to this option, because it’s a cop-out. All we’ve got is the biblical accounts, so we’ve got to deal with them. Dismissing them as irrelevant guts Christianity of its complexity.

But options number two and three can actually be reconciled somewhat. The biblical accounts must be contextualized and relativized. The episodes that Sam refers to — Garden of Eden, the Flood — are considered by biblical scholars to be pre-history, akin to mythologies of other ancient peoples. The real history of Israel begins with Sarai and Abram, and accounts prior to that are too clouded in the mists of time to be understood as history with any basis in actual events. Nevertheless, both the prehistoric accounts, and the post-Abrahamic accounts, tell a story about who God is and how God interacts with us.

In spite of the occasional verse that says that a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day to the Lord, the clear story of the Bible is that God is intimately involved in time with us. God grows frustrated with the Israelites, for example, which is something you wouldn’t expect from a Being who is omniscient.

Now, let’s look at it philosophically. Augustine wrote probably the most famous meditation on time in the final four books of the Confessions, summarized here:

Time, he argues, does not really exist—it is more of an illusion we generate for ourselves for unclear reasons (fundamentally, we fall into time because of our distance from God’s perfection). Past and future exist only in our present constructions of them. From God’s point of view, all of time exists at once–nothing comes ‘before’ or ‘after’ anything else temporally. God created the universe not ‘at’ a specific time, but rather creates it constantly and always, in one eternal act.

Of course, Augustine’s reasoning falls short in light of modern science. Time is not an illusion, but a dimension in which we’re bound. The plethora of “time travel” novels and stories highlight the fact that we’re both fascinated and inherently limited by time. (See this article for a discussion of time as the fourth dimension of creation.)

To me, it does not seem reasonable to think that we are so completely subsumed by time — it is an inescapable aspect of our existence — yet God is completely unbound by time.

So, Sam, my answer is this: If there is a God, then God is experiencing time in some way. I’m not comfortable saying that God is “bound” by time or “limited” by time, since that means that God experiences time like we do, as a march toward mortality. God’s experience of time is unique, but nevertheless real. Thus, God’s omniscience is relative to God’s experience of time.

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  • This is good, Tony.

  • Lars

    Thanks for a very interesting take on omniscience! But I’m not sure how God “grows frustrated” isn’t anthropomorphizing, because that very human attribute (along with jealousy, anger, grief, regret, etc.) is scriptural. Also scriptural are God’s “perfect knowledge” and His limitless understanding (Job 37:16 and Psalm 147:5), which seem to imply the omniscience many impart to God. If we are made in His image, how can we not ascribe human qualities to Him? If God wants to known and loved by His creation, shouldn’t that be the most obvious thing in the world? Why so many red herrings?

    For me, it seems very probable that God could be unbound by time. Can you imagine having to wait billions of years for humanity to finally emerge on the scene without being bound by time? If you are bound, evolution has to be way worse than watching paint dry! And once we are perfected, do we all – God and the saved – become unbound by time? The human mind simply cannot grasp a concept like eternity but I can say that if I had the option of eternal life or annihilation, the latter would be more appealing and potentially less boring. This omniscience question also goes to the Second Coming and ‘the fullness of time’ concept where presumably only God knows when the gig is up. It is a fascinating topic and I applaud you for taking it on!

    (On a side note, did time begin when God created the angels, with independent beings acting willfully and within a space/time construct, or when He created the universe? I’m really not sure what that timeline is – angels before or after. And are time and memory inextricably bound? Is it possible to have memory within the Trinity prior to creation, and thus time?)

    • john karl

      I can’t agree with options 2 or 3 Tony. The real sadness for all of us is that we are immortal beings, created by God in His image, through sin became prey to death, and are stuck in something called time. It is clear He is outside yet a part of His creation. He created time, long before it was necessary, to play out the story of Him. We are not the central characters in the story. He is, and we so often place ourselves in the center of that narrative when we are inconsequential parts of the bigger picture. What is so amazing is, despite this, He sent His Son to be one of us, and to suffer His hatred of sin so that we could have forgiveness of an unforgivable debt and have eternal life as well. Most of our reasoning is so ecocentric, so focused on self and what we want Him to be.

  • Jeremy

    Good stuff Tony. Last line is money.

  • Steven Kurtz

    Stimulating discussions. On time: could we say that it’s not so much a dimension but a relationship between an object in motion and a fixed point? Once you have something moving and a point of reference, then you have a “before” and an “after” concerning its motion. (is the future even “there,” to be known? i.e. is it “knowable?”)

    On the Genesis narratives: since we know that most of the elements in the Creation stories are stock elements from the Ancient world’s various cosmologies and cosmogonies (as people like John Walton has written about, if not also Van Seters) then maybe the stories are ways of doing narrative theology – very relevant, very important, but not at all literal. Maybe the Creation stories are about God starting off with a perfect world in which God is “with” humans – but that goes wrong due to human choice (the conundrum of freedom); and the Flood story is about “starting over” with only “the good guys” which doesn’t work any better. So round three is to start again, but this time, with one family (Abraham and Sarah’s) and “be with” them, via a binding self-cursing covenant (God curses Godself – by passing through the pieces) and through them to restore the original creation “blessing” to “all the families of the earth.” (that’s more or less my take on it, in a hopelessly pathetic nutshell).

  • Daniel J. Adkins

    This is a great response. I’m really interested in this notion of God self-limiting Godself, as it’s not something I have encountered before I started reading Tony’s blog. I’ll have to dig in more (and am open to suggestions as where to look!). But really, I liked this answer.

    • Dean

      This is called openness theology, a couple very accessible books are The Openness of God by Clark Pinnock et al. and God of the Possible by Greg Boyd. When I read the Openness of God it literally made my brain explode. It took me a while, but I’ve become convinced that open theism is the most consistent and logical way to understand God as revealed in the Bible. The main opposition most people have to it is that they’ve just never heard of it before and it freaks them out.

  • Great thoughts Tony. However, the place where your reasoning fails is when it comes to the prophets. Prophesies and foreknowledge of events that are spoken in the prophetic books would indicate that God does indeed know the future. Daniel, Isaiah, and so many of the others spoke of Christ LONG before He stood on the earth. How do we reconcile those?


    • Tomorrow I will have a tuna sandwich for lunch.

      God is free to tell us what God is going to do in the future, and God is free to change God’s mind, too.

  • Matthew Curry

    I subscribe to the viewpoint that God limits himself to his word. He put 2 distinct trees into the garden of Eden, told man which one to eat of and which not to eat. Along with the consequences of eating from both trees. Then He allowed man to be tested by satan. If he already knew that man would fail why test him, If he knew that Eve would fail, why didn’t he intervene to stop her from eating from the wrong tree, and boot satan out of the garden? I believe that because he created choice and the ability to choose, He limited himself to his own word. Psalm 138:2 says that “He magnifies His word above His name” In light of the definition of the word magnify. With His name he is God, and could very easily have stopped Eve, got rid of the devil, etc. But His word said I gave man choice. I believe that He limited himself to His word, and didn’t look ahead. I comfortable with saying God binds himself to time, and his gift of choice to man. I hope I’m making sense. lol

  • Each of us can be seen as an example of God limiting Godself! If God is the Creator of and Spirit embodying All That Is, then theology no longer has to be about bolstering the notion of a god who is ultimately separate from us. The Christian narrative can be read as the story of our reconciliation and reunion with the Reality from which we were never actually separate. This is Good News indeed! But just as we can “be hearers but not doers” of the Word, so too this message by itself won’t necessarily remedy the pain and heartache of our experience of separation. We have to fall in Love at some point. Then we’ll know It is the true nature of the Universe. Ask the mystics. Once you know it, you know it, and questions like “is God time-bound?” start to seem silly. Of course the answer is yes, and of course the answer is no! It’s always God’s choice.

  • I think the problem is that people assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view it’s more like a big ball of wibbily-wobbley, timey-wimey… stuff.


    • Ben Hammond

      Oh YES! …or something like that.

  • Lars

    This conversation touches on another ‘question that haunts’: Can we truly know God from reading the Bible? The message of Jesus seems a little more straightforward but God seems to be all over the place in both Testaments. I am all for hermeneutics and incorporating science and archaeology to try to determine fact myth but sometimes it seems as if you need a PhD to even begin to understand God’s essence. Is this what God intended, to have Himself misrepresented and misappropriated? I agree that everything needs to read in context but the vast amount of people reading the Bible may never be able to do that fully. Not that we shouldn’t try but most of the people I know are never going to buy in to this ‘elitist’ approach, no matter how reasoned.

  • Lausten

    Thanks for taking this one on Tony. It is an easy to dismiss
    as too literal but when you really attempt to draw the line of where God
    exists, you get to important questions. I agree with your rules and how you
    parse out the question, and to a point, what you say God knows. But then you
    say the third option is a cop-out and quickly perform a cop-out of your own.

    If you are going to say that some of the Bible is mythology
    or “clouded in the mists of time”, then you can’t say that it tells us who God
    is. Or, at least, if you do, you need a lot more scholarship to back that up.
    You need to separate out what was written by a man with a political agenda and
    what was a true interaction with the divine. I realize this is a blog post, but
    I think I know you well enough to say you haven’t done that anywhere. I also
    have done enough study to say that anytime someone seriously undertakes that
    exercise, they determine it was a man with an agenda.

    If saying the Bible is myth is a cop-out, then saying,
    “God’s experience of time is unique, but nevertheless real” is also a cop-out.
    I can’t reconcile those two.

  • jbjs40

    I find it amusing regarding the Christian response to Creation vs. Evolution. I told my kids that Christians are guilty of not using their heads on this one. IMO these two things are one and the same. These things can be seen as the same thing if one were to think beyond the argument. The process of creation IS evolution. The process of evolution is Creation. End of story. The finality of this is real and leaves no room for any more debates. Christians are just being dumb by not thinking outside normal routes on this. They are thinking like they are in a box and cannot fathom that others may be right somehow, and this attitude is arrogance of the worst kind. You know everything they (Christians) call others they are even more so.

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