The Problem with Prophecies and Foreknowledge

The Problem with Prophecies and Foreknowledge October 1, 2020

In order for God to need to send Jesus down for our salvation, we needed to be pretty sinful. So, at the time of, say, Daniel (who prophesied Jesus), or Psalm 22, some 600 years before Jesus came, we had prophecies dictating that Jesus was to come and rebuild Israel and destroy the wicked, amongst other things. Leaving aside arguments over Daniel’s historicity (and the timing of the writings of the Psalms), and claims that it was written in the second century B.C.E., it seems there was a 600-year time-span from the prophecy to the moment of Jesus’ arrival. What this implies, is that in that 600 years, there is nothing that, not just one person but the whole of humanity, could do to avoid needing Jesus to come down and atone for our sins. This means that all of humanity was without the possibility, without the ability, to be able to act in any way to divert the necessity for Jesus to atone for our sins; we were going to be evil, and that’s that.

Even given apologists’ defences and mental contortions (see the idea that God could have something called “Middle Knowledge”), we have a scenario where we humans were still “freely” choosing to be sinful and an onus on God that he chose this world to actualise. This meant that he would have to send Jesus to atone for our sins. He chose the world that, even with 600 years forewarning, humanity would do nothing to avert. The difficult issue for Christians is that if one believes that this is the best possible world that God could create, then his design is a little poor, since even with such foreknowledge, we would be unable to divert imminent sinfulness and resultant atonement. If we, with God’s best choosing, still could not act differently, given God’s foreknowledge that we wouldn’t, then God simply didn’t do a good enough job at designing us. If we are the apex of God’s creation, as the Bible leads us to believe, then God is responsible for our design when we find ourselves unable to act in any other way than sinful enough to deserve atonement. It seems odd that, as the apex of creation, we are so poor as to constantly incur the wrath of God. But he chose this world to create, knowing full-well we would act like this!  How can God be angry if he knows what is coming?  If he has divine foreknowledge? If he designed, chose and created us this way?

One imagines that in another possible world that God could have chosen to create, there could be a humanity that did not necessitate Jesus coming down to pay for our bad behaviour and evil ways. In this world, humans would be better behaved, though, one would assume, have less free will. If we did have the same amount of free will and could avert the sacrifice of Jesus, then why did God not create that particular world?

In the world in which we live, Jesus supposedly knew and indicated the main perpetrator of his betrayal – Judas Iscariot – and it seems that there was nothing that Judas could do to avert his own, desperate, and condemned future. There was no way he would sit at the Last Supper and say, “You know what, Jesus, I’m really going to surprise you, with my ability to choose freely, and not leave the table now and report you. Instead, I really fancy some more bread and a glug of wine. Incidentally, I am considering supporting you to the death now, in case any nasty traitors decide to report you. You’ve really made an impression on me, and I’ve had a change of heart.”  Unfortunately, it seems his path was chosen many years before. If he could have chosen otherwise, then why didn’t he?  I would state that he would have to be someone just a little bit different to have chosen differently but let’s not get onto a full-blown free will debate.

Crucially, it is vital to note that 600 years of foreknowledge is no small undertaking. Knowing what will take place in 600 years’ time does not entail simply adding the odd thing here and there to the potion of life. Not a bit. To do that, with the massive enormity of variables that exist in the universe, you have to lay in place something of such intricacy that it is nothing other than deterministic. The classic mantra of chaos theory is that of the butterfly effect: if a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world, does it set off a tornado on the other?  The theory entails the small variation in a system having a large effect on the variations of that system in the long term.

The causal connection between events in a system can mean that the variation in initial conditions can have truly profound effects. So, in order to know that Jesus is to come down in 600 years and atone, in order to know that humans will not be able to act in any way but evil enough to necessitate Jesus’ arrival, God has to know and manage the whole world on a micro-scale to a staggering degree. And I mean manage, because, according to the Old Testament, God manages the world an awful lot.

The Old Testament is filled to brimming with accounts of the times that God has intervened, interfered and got generally involved with events on earth. This idea that God has simply chosen the world with its freely willing humans happily doing as God has actualised is somewhat negated by the fact that God spent some three thousand years or so intervening, and making sure cities got burnt here; armies got massacred there; entire tribes and nations were killed there, right down to their women, children and animals; a man was struck down there for picking up sticks on a Sabbath; or, over there, making sure that 42 children got mauled by two bears for calling Elisha “bald”.

So, for Jesus to be prophesied, God has to ensure that he has the right parents, who have to be, for prophetic reasons and reasons of Jewish authority, in the lineage of David. This is no small organisational feat – the family line must be kept alive throughout the years. In fact, the order is taller than you might think since it is often not a case of ensuring things do happen, but ensuring that things don’t happen. Mary (Jesus’, for example, cannot be bitten by that poisonous snake when she was 12, must not have injured her uterus when the plough skewed into her abdomen at 14, must not have slipped off the wall she was walking along a week later, must not have starved due to a poverty-stricken lifestyle, must not have been miscarried, must not have contracted an early form of cancer, must not have… the list is tremendous.

And that is just for Mary, in her short life. One has to map out the entire history of the world to ensure the rest. It has to be ensured that Jesus doesn’t die in some way before his time of preaching and atonement. The entire ancestral line of his parents must be preserved (well, he actually only has one parent – quite where his genetic makeup on his father’s side came from, we’ll never know). The Egyptians must not have been allowed to kill their Hebrew slaves, the surrounding empires must not have obliterated the Israelites in a major conquest, a volcanic eruption must not have wiped out the Middle East, a meteorite must not hit Earth, man must have evolved in a certain way from the original life-form. So on, and so on, to the point that, in order to ensure that Jesus would come down in the fashion predicted, some 600 years later, God has to micro-manage the entire universe, and this smacks, just a little, of determinism. In order for something to happen with any kind of certainty later down the causal chain, God, pretty much literally, has to make the butterfly flap its wings.

There is no other way that a freely intervening God can be explained, other than for achieving certain ends, for managing his world and universe, otherwise he would simply not have bothered intervening.

All too often, people view prophecy and foreknowledge with a relatively benign outlook, without thinking about the implications involved. The example of prophesying Jesus arriving to atone for the sins of mankind concerns itself, predominantly, with foreknowledge, but intertwined with this is the difficult idea of theological determinism.

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