Time and Foreknowledge (Free Will, Part 2)

Last week, I started writing about a question one of my friends asked regarding my views on free will. That post was part 1 and it has lots of background info for this post, so if you haven’t read it yet you can check it out here. Another aspect  of the question he asked, which I didn’t have time to get to last week, was “Do you believe God is omniscient, or do you believe there are limits to His knowledge of the future, etc.”

Omniscience basically means “all knowing,” and I suppose given these two options I’m going to have to go with saying that I believe there are some limits to God’s knowledge of the future. That’s the short answer 🙂 Here’s the long one …

God Knowing Us

Prophecy teaches us that God has knowledge of future events — fulfilled prophecy gives us proof that He was correct in the past and we have faith that He will also be correct about the future. God has a plan for where the world is heading, and He certainly has the power to get it there. This is the kind of thing we talked about last week when looking at the examples of Jonah and Abraham.

Continuing with these two examples, I’ve said I believe that Jonah, Abraham, and Sarah had free will in how they responded to God’s work in their lives. But the fact that God didn’t make the decisions for them doesn’t prove that He didn’t know how they would respond.

O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. (Ps. 139:1-3)

Many verses speak of God knowing our hearts, but these are mostly present-tense, as far as I can tell. From perfect knowledge of what we are now, I suppose God has a pretty good idea of what we will be and how we will act in the future. I think we still have the potential to surprise Him, through.

I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings. (Jer. 17:10)

If God did know exactly how we were going to live our lives, however, why does He need to search our hearts to determine how to reward us? Probably the best example of this is Abraham’s test. God commanded him to sacrifice his only son, and Abraham was prepared to do so right up to the moment God stopped him. Up until Abraham was at the point where he was about to kill Isaac, it seems that God didn’t know how far Abraham would go to obey Him.

And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (Gen. 22:12)

God’s Foreknowledge

Some people use Psalm 139:16 to say God knows the day we will die and has all our days mapped out. The King James Version doesn’t give that sense at all, but other translations could. Here’s a few:

Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. (KJV)

Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. (NKJV)

Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (NIV)

I really have doubts about this interpretation, though. Going back to the story of Nineveh, God told those people through Jonah that He would destroy their city in 40 days. We know “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18), so I can’t believe He told them this if he already knew He would delay Nineveh’s punishment (Jon. 3:1-10).

A similar case occurs in 2 Kings 20. King Hezekiah falls ill, and the Lord sends Isaiah the prophet to tell him, “Set your house in order, for you shall die, and not live” (2 Kings 20:1). Hezekiah prayed to the Lord …

And it happened, before Isaiah had gone out into the middle court, that the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Return and tell Hezekiah the leader of My people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; surely I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord. And I will add to your days fifteen years. I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city for My own sake, and for the sake of My servant David.”’” (2 Kings 20:4-6)

Again, why would God tell Hezekiah that he was going to die if He already knew that He would give Hezekiah 15 years? This story is one of the reasons we have hope when we pray — because we know God hears us and can intervene to answer our prayers. If everything was predestined, what would be the point of praying? For that matter, what would be the point of obeying the commandments or being loving and faithful? As a commenter on last week’s post pointed out, “If there were no free will, then whether we believe in God & Jesus, and whether we love them or not, would be determined by God, not us. And if that were the case, then it would not be true faith and it would not be true love. For faith and love to be real, there must be a choice.”

Some Ideas About Time

From what I read in the Bible, along with a dab of theoretical physics and a heavy dollop of sci-fi, here’s my pet theory: assuming time and space are connected, then “a God who is not limited by space is not limited by time” (I got that from an old Moody science tape).  I hypothesize that God can step outside of time in a way and see how the potential outcomes are changing. He can look at the whole breadth of human history, read every nuance of the present, and predict and direct the course of events. He has a definitive end goal in mind, and He can directly intervene to accomplish that goal, but I think our specific futures are in a state of flux, changing as we make decisions.

Time and Foreknowledge (Free Will, Part 2) | marissabaker.wordpress.comI’m perfectly willing to admit there are flaws and gaps in my theory, and it might even be totally worthless, but it is what makes sense to me. I’d love to hear your thoughts/ideas/theories if you’d like to share them. 🙂 I really don’t think we can fully understand how God relates to time and the future right now — we can just see glimpses and try to make sense of the clues we are given.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Is. 55:8-9)

In keeping with the fact that God’s thoughts are very different and much higher than ours, He has a unique view of time as well.

But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. (2 Pet. 3:8)

For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night. (Ps. 90:4)

This is very confusing for us, trapped in a single moment of linear time. We have imperfect recall of our own past, second-hand knowledge of history and other people’s lives, limited understanding of the present, and dim ideas about the future. Compared to us, God is indeed omniscient, even if there are what we think of as “limits” to His foreknowledge.

The Potter’s Hands (Free Will, Part 1)

A few weeks ago, a friend asked for my thoughts on “free will.” He’d written a blog post about the subject, and someone contacted him to say they didn’t believe in free will. The ongoing discussion has prompted a fascinating Bible study for me, and I think I’ll have to make this a two-part post to fit everything in.

The idea of predestination has a long history in Christianity. My understanding is it basically says God has foreknowledge of all things that will happen and predetermines who will receive salvation and who will not. The idea that God is all knowing would imply He knows things like how and when we will die and whether or not we’ll be in His family. And if He already knows the course of our lives, doesn’t that mean we don’t have free will?

Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory (Rom. 9:21-23)

At first, this scripture does seem to indicate that God determines our fates and we do not have free will because He shapes our lives. However, when we start looking at examples of how God deals with people, I think we see more evidence for free will than against it. While God does directly intervene to shape the course of some individual’s lives, we also have choices.

Dealing With Jonah

Let’s take the case of Jonah. If it looks like anyone in the Bible didn’t have freedom to choose his own path, it’s Jonah. He was told, “go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jon. 1:2). He decided that wasn’t a good idea, and we all know how God used a storm and a big fish to override Jonah’s decision and get him back on track.

So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jon. 3:3-4)

The people of Nineveh responded with repentance, and “God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it”( Jon. 3:10) The prophecy of Nineveh’s destruction still happened, but God changed the time-table to spare all these people who chose to repent (my study Bible says the destruction happened 100 years later). The Ninevites had free will.

And really, so did Jonah. God was determined to use him for the purpose of contacting Nineveh, but that didn’t stop Jonah from choosing to try running away and then choosing a bad attitude about God’s mercy toward Nineveh (Jon. 4:1-11).  Though God directly molded Jonah’s life, Jonah still chose how he would respond to God’s work.

Abraham’s Children

The life of Abraham is another example. In Genesis 15, the Lord promised Abraham a son and made a covenant with him. Then, after living in Canan for 10 years and having no children, Abram and Sari took matters into their own hands and conspired to create a son using Sari’s Egyptian servant, Hagar (Gen 16:3, 15). But this was not how God planned to give Abraham a son.

And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.” (Gen. 17:18-21)

Though Abraham and Sarah did not act in the way God had intended, He worked with His peoples’ choice. God’s plan moved forward as He willed, but with the addition of Ishmael and all the consequences of his birth.

Ananias and Sapphira

A New Testament example of free will can be seen in Ananias and Sapphira. God does not tempt anyone with evil and does nothing for our harm (James 1:13), so I don’t think we can say that He set them up to fail or that they had no choice but to sin. This is born out by the wording in Acts when Peter confronts each of them about keeping back part of the price of the land they sold as a donation to the church.

But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” (Acts 5:3-4)

Though Satan is identified as putting the evil idea in his head, the blame for choosing to do wrong is laid squarely on Ananias (and later on Sapphira as well in Acts 5:8-9). Both these individuals had the power to chose what they did with their possessions, and they chose wrong.

Authority to Plan

I think the point of Romans 9:21-23 is not that we have no choice, but rather that God has the authority to make decisions regarding how He deals with individuals and shapes future events. If we back-up and look at the verses leading to this point in Romans, Paul is talking about Israel. He covers the issue of Abraham’s children (Rom. 9:6-9), and then moves on to Isaac’s sons.

And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls),  it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” (Rom. 9:10-13)

This is not telling us that Esau had no choice when he sold his birthright (Gen. 25:29-34), or that Jacob had no choice but to steal Esau’s blessing (Gen. 27:1-40). Nor does it mean Isaac and Rebekah were fated to pick favorites and set up a rivalry between their sons. It means God has a plan and He was going to carry it out using or (in spite of) the good and bad choices His people made.

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. (Rom. 9:14-18)

God chooses who to work with and who not to. I suppose you could say there are elements to predestination in this, since God pre-determines which people He will call in this life, which will be nudged toward completing His will, and which will be left to “time and chance” and their own devices.

You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? (Rom 9:19-21).

In my mind, this is actually one of the stronger arguments in favor of free will. We have free will, and God has free will. He get’s to choose how He interacts with His creation, and to a certain extent we get to choose how we interact with God. Even being chosen by God doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll end up in His family — Hebrews 6:4-6 tells us it is possible to “fall away” and reject God’s calling. And if someone is not being called by God right now, that doesn’t mean He is ignoring the choices they make. It’s possible to get His attention (Matt. 15:21-28) and to call upon His name (Rom. 10:13).

Any thoughts or comments? Notice something I missed? Have a scripture to add? One closely related topic that might come to mind is God’s omniscience and the extent of His foreknowledge. That’s what I’m focusing on next week.The Potter's Hands (Free Will, Part 1) | marissabaker.wordpress.com