Doctrine of God (part 15)

June 13, 2010     Time: 00:38:34


I. C. 3. a. (2) (b) Two Problems of Omniscience i. Compatibility of Foreknowledge and Freedom . . . I. C. 3. a. (2) (b) ii. Middle Knowledge.

1. Attributes of God
Lecture 15

We have been talking about divine omniscience and theological fatalism – whether or not everything happens necessarily because God foreknows everything that will happen. If God foreknows everything that is going to happen, then how can there be free will? How can you refrain from doing anything, if God already knows you are going to do it?

Fatalism is the view that everything that happens happens necessarily. Theological fatalism is the view that because God foreknows everything, everything happens necessarily. The argument for theological fatalism goes like this:

Let X be any event that you choose arbitrarily.

1. Necessarily, if God foreknows that X will happen, then X will happen. (That is in virtue of what knowledge is. Knowledge is justified true belief – it is what is true. So if God knows that X will happen, then X will happen.)

2. God foreknows that X will happen.

3. Therefore, necessarily, X will happen. (So X cannot be free – everything that happens happens necessarily.)

That is the argument for theological fatalism. What I pointed out last time is that this argument is logically invalid. That is to say, it breaks the rules of logic. All that follows from the two premises is:

3.* Therefore, X will happen (not “Necessarily, X will happen.”)

From the fact that God foreknows X will happen, you can be sure that X will happen. But it doesn’t follow that it will happen necessarily. It could fail to happen, but it won’t. If it were to fail to happen, then God wouldn’t have foreknown X.

God’s foreknowledge of the future is very much like a time machine. For an illustration, I’ll use a scene in the time travel movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (this is my favorite time travel movie!). In it, Bill and Ted have this time traveling device that enables them to go back into the past. While they are back in the past, they get thrown into jail, and they say to each other, “How are we gonna get out? We’re locked in!” One of them suddenly has an idea, “I know – we’ll come back from the future, and we’ll leave the keys here so we can open the cell and get out!” The other one says, “Great idea! Where will we put them?” “Over there under the wastebasket!” So they go over and look under the wastebasket, and sure enough, there are the keys where they left them when they returned from the future! From the fact that they find the keys under the wastebasket, you know that they will go back in time and leave them there. But does that mean that they will necessarily go back and leave them there? No, they could fail to go back and leave the keys. But if they were to fail to go back, then the keys would not have been there to be found. From the fact that the keys are under the wastebasket, you know that they will go back in time and leave them there, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t do that freely. They can still freely refrain, but if they were to freely refrain, then the keys wouldn’t have been there when they looked.

That is an illustration that I hope will convey to you this idea that we have the power to do X or not-X, and whichever one we do, God will foreknow. But his foreknowing it doesn’t determine it or render it necessary.


Question: It seems that this would be compatible only on the B-Theory of time. If God is to know what is going to happen, then it seems there needs to be a fatalistic chain of events of cause and effects, so he knows if he causes something, everything will play out on an A-Theory of time. To know something is going to happen in the future – for him to know we actually will do something – it would seem to imply a B-Theory of time.1

Answer: I think what you are asking is a quite different question than what we are addressing now. You are asking, how can God foreknow the future if these events are not causally determined by events in the present? That is a subsequent question we can take up in a minute. What we are asking here is simply, if he knows them, does that make everything fated to occur? I think you can see that that doesn’t follow. So hold off on that question about how he foreknows the future. In fact, what I am going to say later might have some implications on that.

Question: On conclusion #3, is “necessarily” the word that you are tying to God causing X? If you took the word “necessarily” out, that would be a true statement, would it not?

Answer: That is (3*). If you remove the “necessarily,” that is true, that does follow from 1 and 2. But don’t think the “necessarily” here is a causal necessity! Remember, I said last time that is the crazy thing about fatalism. Fatalism isn’t saying everything is causally determined to happen. It posits a constraint upon human freedom which is completely unintelligible because it says X could be an uncaused event, totally indeterminate, and yet somehow it is constrained to happen just by God’s knowing about it – which is unintelligible. The argument has got to be fallacious because fatalism posits a constraint on human freedom which is completely unintelligible.

Followup: That gives us a good excuse when we do something stupid.

Answer: Right, you can say it was the will of God or something like that. But the argument won’t work.

Question: This is regarding human freedom. The Reformers would say that we are free to do whatever we want, but we only want to do what is bad. So when God changes our heart, that is the cause of us doing anything good.

Answer: Yes, this is different from that. Luther did believe that in virtue of God’s foreknowing the future, everything was fated to occur. But that is not what Calvin thought. Calvin didn’t think that just in virtue of God’s knowing the future, everything was fated to occur. Even if you believe that man is sinful and fallen and cannot do any good work, still we can say he has a variety of sins to choose among. He can choose various sins; so if X is some sinful act, we are not asserting that we have the capacity to do some good, but you have a choice of some sin to commit. I don’t think that is really at the heart of the issue. The heart of the issue is whether in virtue of knowing about something, that something happens necessarily.

Followup: The issue to me is God causes good to happen.

Answer: That is not the subject here. Causal constraints are not the issue here. That will come up when we talk about providence and God’s sovereignty. This is just an argument about God’s knowing about it. You could adopt Calvin’s position – and that is, in virtue of God’s knowing about an event in advance, things aren’t necessitated to happen; rather, in virtue of God’s sovereignty and providence, God caused everything to happen. So Calvin is not a fatalist, but he is a determinist. You see the difference? Causal determinists think everything is caused to happen. Calvin wasn’t a fatalist. He didn’t think that just in virtue of God’s knowing the future, everything was fated to happen.

Followup: When you say, “Man has the freedom to do whatever evil things he chooses,” God also has the ability to stop that because he can change that person’s heart at any moment. In that case, man doesn’t really have the freedom he thinks, if God can cause him to change his evil ways.2

Answer: Again, you are raising issues related to God’s providence and his causal relation to the world, and that is not what this is about. This is about merely God’s knowing the future. We are studying the doctrine of divine omniscience and the claim on the part of a group of people called “Open Theists,” who are evangelicals but who deny God’s foreknowledge of the future. They say that God gambles, that he doesn’t know what is going to happen. This is a significant movement that is rending evangelical churches apart. It is a growing movement that we need to be alert to. But it is not about causal determinism. These people believe that if God foreknows things, then everything happens necessarily. Since they think we have freedom, they therefore deny God’s foreknowledge, which denies God’s omniscience, which denies God’s perfection. This isn’t some academic issue. I’m trying to explain why we are spending time on this. This is a vitally relevant issue in the church today – we must get straight our understanding of divine omniscience and foreknowledge.

A question was asked last week why we couldn’t redefine omniscience in such a way that God’s ignorance of future free acts doesn’t mean he doesn’t know everything. What if we define omniscience, not that God knows every truth, but that God knows every truth that it is logically possible to know? The Open Theist can say that God knows everything that is logically possible to know, but it is not logically possible to know the future free acts of men, and, therefore, this is not any infringement upon God’s omniscience. God does know everything that is logically possible to know and that is how omniscience should be defined, according to the Open Theist.

The problem is, even on that mistaken definition of omniscience, God still turns out to be not omniscient. The argument that Open Theists give is the following.

Let P be any future-tense statement about some action, like “George will eat pizza for lunch on Saturday.”

The argument goes like this:

1. Not possibly (God foreknows P and P is contingently true). (To be contingently true is the opposite of being necessarily true. If P is a free act, then it is only contingently true that “George eats pizza on Saturday.” It is not necessarily true – we already saw that that is false; that is theological fatalism. There is no good reason to believe that it is not possible for God to foreknow P and for P to be contingently true. But let’s give them this premise; suppose it is true that it is not possible for God to foreknow P and P to be contingently true.)

2. P is contingently true.

3. Therefore, it is not possible for God to foreknow P.

If it is not possible for God to foreknow P and P be contingently true, then since P is contingently true, it is therefore not possible that God foreknows P. That is the argument to show that it is not possible for God to foreknow these future contingencies, so that doesn’t infringe his omniscience.

The problem is that this argument is also logically invalid. That is to say, it breaks the rules of logic. All that follows from the two premises is, “Therefore, God does not foreknow P.” It doesn’t follow that it is impossible for God to foreknow P. He could know P, but in this case it would just follow that he doesn’t. The argument doesn’t show, in fact, that it is not possible for God to foreknow P. Therefore, it would mean that if he doesn’t foreknow P, he is not omniscient because (remember) the revised definition says, “To be omniscient you have to know everything that it is logically possible to know,” and here we see it is not true that it is logically impossible for God to know P. It is possible for God to foreknow P.3

That is just a little more information on the earlier question that shows that even if you revise the doctrine of omniscience (so that God only knows what is logically possible to know), it still turns out that he is not omniscient. This is because there are things that are logically possible to know, and he doesn’t know them. Therefore, he wouldn’t be omniscient even on that revised definition (which is itself inadequate).

I realize that this is complex, but I thought this question was an important one and needed to be addressed a little more deeply.

In conclusion to this section on divine foreknowledge and human freedom, I think we can say that there is no good reason to think that in virtue of God’s knowledge of the future, everything is fated to occur. God foreknows everything that is going to happen, he foreknows every true proposition, including future-tense propositions. And that is perfectly compatible with freedom and contingency.


Question: If God has foreknowledge of something, can that something not occur?

Answer: I would say that even though God has foreknowledge of something, it could fail to occur. Even though God foreknows X, X could fail to occur. But it won’t. If it were to fail to occur, then he wouldn’t know it.

Question: Is this as simple as a matter of timing? If I sit here and think about what you are going to say next, I might be able to have a good guess of what words you are going to use. But if I could really see the future, then I would know what words you would use but I wouldn’t have affected them or directed them.

Answer: That is exactly right! That is why I say fatalism is just unintelligible – how can your knowing what words I am going to say have any effect on what I am going to say? Fatalism has got to be false because it posits a constraint that doesn’t make any sense.

Question: You could say it could come about for some reason or some cause and therefore it would be true whether or not it is necessarily true or not.

Answer: I’m not sure I understand you; but what causes the event is irrelevant here. We are not talking about causal determinism. Why the event occurs in terms of its causes just doesn’t matter.

Question: Conclusion (3*) is true. It would also be necessarily true also. It wouldn’t preclude it.

Answer: It could be, but not in virtue of God’s foreknowledge. It doesn’t follow from God’s foreknowledge that it will occur necessarily, which is what the fatalist says.

Question: So what you have so far is God knows everything, man still has free will, but doesn’t the Scripture also say God causes everything?

Answer: That is what we are going to talk about when we get to the doctrine of providence. We will talk about that when we get to doctrine of providence and sovereignty. Here we are just talking about omniscience.

Question: Can you explain how this connects with how, for example, Jonah wrote his book and the events in it and how God foreknew those events.

Answer: What I would refer you to would be the first section of this class on the Doctrine of Revelation, where we looked at the doctrine of inspiration and where I talk about how God knows what every person would freely do in any set of circumstances he was in.4 So knowing that the prophet or apostle was in a set of certain circumstances, God knew he would freely write the book of Romans or the book of Jonah, and so you can have a doctrine of inspiration of Scripture that doesn’t imply a dictation theory of inspiration. That material was covered in that section of the class. This is helpful in talking about doctrine of inspiration.

Question: With respect to God’s foreknowledge of events, are those events considered potential events? They aren’t actual events right? The reason I am asking is related to the counting of infinite number of events and how that is related.

Answer: You are drawing in another issue here. Whether or not these future events known by God are actual or not is going to depend on your theory of time. Suppose you have a graph where time is the vertical axis and the Big Bang is at time 0 and the Big Crunch is at some time t* in the future, where the universe collapses or ends. On a B-Theory of time, all events in time and space are equally real. So if we are in the middle time t, the events at t +1 are actual on the B-Theory of time. They are real and actual. But if you are an A-Theory of time advocate, then you don’t think that the future is real. It is merely potential. All that exists is what exists now. So events in the future that God foreknows will happen don’t exist in any sense. In that sense you can say that the series of events is potentially infinite – it will go on forever without any end. But the future is not actually infinite because there really aren’t any future events; they don’t exist at all. So that is going to depend on which theory of time you adopt.

Followup: Couldn’t the absurdity of counting up actually infinite number of events be used against counting the future potential events?

Answer: Only if they are real; and I don’t think there are an actually infinite number of future events. Indeed, I don’t think there are any future events. I don’t think they exist at all. There aren’t any future events. They don’t exist. There will be events, but as they occur, they will be potentially infinite. They will go on and on forever. But in fact there are no future events on the A-Theory of time.

Middle Knowledge

Let’s turn to the next section, which is the second problem raised by God’s omniscience. That is the question of what I call God’s “hypothetical knowledge.” A lot of times people ask the question, “Why did God create the world, if he knew it would be such a mess and so bad?” Here we need to draw an important distinction in answering this question between God’s foreknowledge and what we could call his hypothetical knowledge. God’s foreknowledge is his knowledge of everything that will be. He knows what will happen. By contrast, his hypothetical knowledge is his knowledge of everything that would be under certain circumstances.

One of my favorite illustrations of this is the wonderful scene in Dickens’ Christmas Carol when Scrooge is confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. After seeing these horrifying scenes of Tiny Tim’s death and his own death, Scrooge asks the spirit, “Are these shadows of things that will be, or shadows of things that might be only?”5 And the spirit doesn’t answer Scrooge. In fact, Scrooge was asking the wrong question. What the spirit was showing Scrooge was not shadows of things that will be. He wasn’t showing him the actual future. We know from the end of the story that Tiny Tim did not die, that Scrooge reformed his life and learned to celebrate Christmas and keep it in his heart. So these weren’t scenes of what will be. But neither was the spirit showing Scrooge merely scenes of what could be. Anything could happen. What he was showing Scrooge was what would happen if Scrooge were not to repent. He was showing Scrooge hypothetical knowledge of what would be the case if Scrooge were not to repent.

So when a person asks, “If God knew the world would be such a mess, why did he create it?” he is not talking about God’s foreknowledge. If God knows that this is the way it will be, it is in a sense “too late” to do anything about that. The future by definition is what will be. So if God knows that it will be that way, then that’s the way it is going to be. Rather what the person is really asking is, did God have knowledge of the way of the course of events would be if he were to create it, so that he could say, “Oh, that looks like it’s going to be bad! I’m not going to do it; I’m going to refrain from creating the world?” This is hypothetical knowledge. What the person is really assuming is that God has hypothetical knowledge of the way the world would turn out if he were to create it in a certain way.

This is, in fact, a controversial issue. Not all theologians agree on this. Some theologians say that God doesn’t have this sort of hypothetical knowledge about what would happen if he were to create the world. He has foreknowledge of what will happen, but he doesn’t have hypothetical knowledge. If you take that view, that enables you to completely short circuit this question because God didn’t know how the world would turn out if he were to create it in a certain way. Therefore, he can’t be held responsible for the way the world turns out, the way he knows it will be. If God doesn’t have this kind of hypothetical knowledge, he can’t be held responsible for such a messed up world’s existing.

On the other hand, I think there are powerful theological reasons for thinking that God does have this sort of divine hypothetical knowledge. The Bible teaches divine sovereignty and providence over everything that happens in the world. On the Christian view, the world is not just some sort of a cosmic accident. Rather God planned the world down to its most minute detail. Everything that happens in the world happens either by God’s direct will or, at least, by his permission. This kind of providential planning of the world requires hypothetical knowledge on God’s part. God would need to know what every free creature would do under any circumstances in which God might create him. So by creating certain people in certain circumstances, God could bring it about that his ends are achieved through the free decisions of those people.

This sort of process would be unimaginably complex, when you think about it. Just think what would be involved in bringing about a single event in history, say, the Allied victory at D-Day. God would have to have all of the right people in all of the right places to freely make all of the right decisions, and, of course, that would depend on their parents and their education, their upbringing, and just a myriad of factors that soon become incomprehensible to a finite mind. Only an infinite mind could have the grasp of the complexity necessary in order to plan a world of free creatures by using this hypothetical knowledge.

This would solve the dilemma of divine sovereignty and human freedom. God is sovereign over the world in that he creates the people he wants in the circumstances he wants knowing how they would freely choose so that his ends are ultimately achieved through the free decisions of these people.6 So God is sovereign and yet people are free.

This sort of hypothetical knowledge has a technical name for it – it is called “middle knowledge” because it is in between God’s knowledge of everything that could be and his knowledge of everything that will be. It is his knowledge of everything that would be under any particular set of circumstances.

Suppose God does have this kind of middle knowledge. How might one answer the question, “Why did God create such a messed up world as the world that we have on our hands?” The answer might be that God’s options may be limited. That is to say, given that God wanted creatures to be free, it may be that they would have messed up any world that God could have created. In any world of free creatures, it is possible that those creatures would go wrong and introduce sin and corruption into that world. So for any world that is feasible for God that has this much good in it, there would also be this much suffering and evil in the world.

In every circumstance in which God creates a person, God’s will is that that person do the right thing – that he refrain from sin, that he do the morally right thing. But God knows that if he puts some people in certain circumstances they would sin, that they would not do the right thing. God, then, wills to permit that. He doesn’t want them to sin, but knowing that is how they will freely choose, he permits them to do so. But in his providence he so orders the world that, on balance, he creates a world in which there is much more good than evil in the world. And it is this world which will ultimately result in his final purpose’s being achieved, namely, a world in which there is a multitude of persons in heaven from every tribe and tongue and people and nation who come to know him and his salvation. Therefore, we can be confident that God’s choice of the world is the wisest choice. Despite the sufferings and inequities of this life, nevertheless it is under God’s sovereign direction. Thus, it will be a world in which, ultimately, multitudes of persons will be saved and come to know him and these evils and sufferings of the world were permitted only with this good end in mind.

What that means is that the onus is really on us – it is we who mess up the world by our own free choices and decisions. It is not God who is to blame for the world’s being the way it is; rather it is us. Therefore we need to turn to him for forgiveness and moral cleansing for the way we messed up the world in ways that he doesn’t want us to do.


Question: Under that logic, God created this world as being his wisest choice out of all possible worlds to make.

Answer: Yes, although that doesn’t mean there is a unique wisest choice. There could be a whole range of good choices that he could make.

Followup: I wanted to bring up the example about the whole idea that we are living in the best of all possible worlds that Voltaire ruthlessly attacks in his book.

Answer: This isn’t committed to that. There are lots of possible worlds that are better than this, but they may not be feasible for God to create because his options are limited by the free will of creatures. You could say maybe there is a world where there is a multitude of creatures who all freely never sin, never do any evil, and they all go to heaven. That would be a much better world than this one. But it is not feasible for God to create such a world because in any world of free creatures that he creates which has as much good as this one, there would also be this much evil and suffering. So I am not suggesting that this is the best of all possible worlds by any means. It is a difference between a possible world and worlds that are feasible for God given human freedom.7

Question: [makes a theological interpretation of why God used crucifixion as the method of Christ’s death. And God created the world so “the good would be so good and wicked would be so wicked”]

Answer: One thing you raise that is a very profound theological question is “the good of Christ’s atoning death.” Some theologians have thought that the good of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross is a good which is so great that in fact a world in which horrible evil and sin exist is on balance actually better than a sinless world because the sinless world would not have this great good of the sacrificial atoning death of Christ and this tremendous passionate demonstration of the love of God. That is a very interesting point. Why think that a world without sin or evil is necessarily a better world than a world in which there is tremendous sin, wickedness, and evil but there is also this tremendous and overwhelming great good of the redemption that is in Christ? I think that is a very profound point to ponder. It may well be the case that this is a good that is so great that it justifies God’s creating a world that is horribly messed up8


1 5:25

2 10:07

3 15:06

4 20:07

5 24:57

6 30:22

7 35:14

8 Total Running Time: 38:34