This is the crux of all time-travel movies! If I go to the future, and while there accidentally read the book I will someday write, how then can I come back to now in my H. G. Wells machine and write the book? If I know which outfit I am going to choose tomorrow, am I still free to choose some other clothes to wear? One theologian who wrestled with the foreknowledge of God concluded helplessly: “We find ourselves trying to fit the ocean of God into the teacup of our brains.”
Clearly, God knows the future to the extent of being in control of his own plans and universal designs. The prophetic passages of Scripture reveal intricate and insightful details about kingdoms many centuries in the future – and they came to pass with uncanny accuracy. Old Testament prophecies about Jesus and his ministry have all come true. Prophets instructed by God have often revealed things that only a seer into future events could have known.
In Isaiah 46:9, 10, God tells us: “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.
Some scholars in recent years have posited a theological position known as the “openness of God,” suggesting that he is certainly in control of his own cosmic plans and decrees . . . but that even heaven cannot possibly know the results of the next U. S. presidential election, or all of next week’s NBA scores, or what shirt you will choose to put on tomorrow morning. They point to Bible passages which suggest that even God can be surprised and disappointed by outcomes based on human frailty. In Genesis 6, God sees the wickedness that is widespread in the earth. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (In the King James Version, It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth.) In I Samuel 15, God laments to his prophet Samuel: I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.”
However, we should note that these passages don’t indicate surprise but a stricken awareness of sin’s inevitable results. Just as parents often realize that the permission they give to a son or daughter is going to bring heartache, freedom requires them to reluctantly grant the choice. The reality of sin coming into our world is something God knew before the creation of Eden and the salvation test offered there – and God was certainly grieved but not blindsided as a result. One commentary notes regarding the story of the flood and God’s grief about the swift degradation of our world: “The repentance of God does not presuppose lack of foresight on his part or any variableness in his nature or purpose. In this sense God never repents of anything.” And even Samuel, just a few verses after the apparent “second-guessing” that God did about his selection of Saul, said to the rebellious king: “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.”
In his book, The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer describes the knowledge of God – past, present, and future – as instant and effortless. God never learns, he writes. There is never a fact that he finds out tomorrow instead of today. And he never asks a question except to draw out a response from one of his children for our own good – as when he says to Cain: “Where is your brother Abel?” The night before Jesus died, he not only knew that his Calvary would come tomorrow – since that was his divine mission and under his control – but he also knew that at a certain moment several hours in the future, a rooster would crow twice.
- S. Lewis has a helpful essay entitled “Time and Beyond Time,” found in his Mere Christianity. He suggests that the time-stream, with its yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows, are like a line on a page. You and I must experience each moment as it comes. But God, he writes, is the entire page. Every moment is now to him – but he can still experience joy at the moment of your conversion.
The infinite nature of God, Lewis also proposes, answers the question of how God can deal personally with each of us and the millions of prayers that ascend to him each moment. Not locked in time as we are, his divine presence allows him to simply be now and present and attentive to each of us for as long as we need. In the recent Christian bestseller, The Shack, a distraught father, “Mack,” is able to go to the mountain cabin where God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit can simply suspend their entire universe – apparently – and minister to their one grieving child for an entire weekend.
While the mystery of perfect godly foreknowledge is incomprehensible to us, we can rest in the assurance that God is in full control of our universe, and that his plans for our present and future salvation are as sure as tomorrow’s sunrise.