If God knows the future, how can humans be free? Five Points:
1. Defining open theism
The other day, my boss told me that she thinks God does not know the future. She is an open theist.
Defining open theism is a bit like trying to sweep dirt out of Hidden Falls Ranch: you can work up a lot of dust with some effort, but ultimately it’s impossible to cover every area. Furthermore, just like there are different types of trees in a forest, so too there are many different theologians who either explicitly claim to be open theists or who implicitly fall within the open theist camp. Nevertheless, there are a few defining features to which all open theists adhere:
First, open theists affirm that God does not know the future. There are different views as to whether the future (as we know it) exists or not, but the point remains the same: God cannot know the (libertarian) free choices of his (libertarianly) free creatures without that knowledge violating their (libertarian) freedom. Thus, to preserve this kind of freedom, open theists contend that God does not, in fact, know these free choices at all; God does not know the future.
Second, open theists have a particular view of human freedom. As a kind of logical extension of Arminianism, open theism argues that humans have libertarian freedom (and, again, this is why God cannot know the future). Libertarian freedom is defined as the equal ability, all things considered given a set of circumstances, to either perform an action or refrain from that action. This idea is often called “contrary choice.” I’ve commented on the free will of man here.
So, is open theism biblical? Let’s explore this question in the next points.
2. God knows all things
The most striking claim of open theism is that God does not know the future. From texts like Genesis 22:12 (“for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me”) and Exodus 32:14 (“And the LORD relented from the disaster that He had spoken of bringing on his people”), open theists argue that the Bible clearly portrays a God who does not really know the future, who changes as things happen within creation. When God tests Abraham, He “finds out” that Abraham fears God, and when Moses intercedes on behalf of the people, God “relents” from what He had said He would do, showing an obvious change in God.
But how should we respond? One way to go about it would be to point out that, in the first instance, saying that God did not know what was in Abraham’s heart means He does not know the present, much less the future. If He was really testing Abraham because He did not know how Abraham would respond, we can only say that God does not know the present status of Abraham’s heart. That is a high price to pay.
Second, we must read these rather obscure biblical texts (meaning they do not specifically address the knowledge God has) with other biblical texts which clearly mention the knowledge God has. For example, in Isaiah 40-46 God puts idols on trial: “Set forth your case, says the LORD; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come. Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods” (41:21-23).
In this passage, God challenges idols to tell the future, which would indicate that they are, in fact, gods. Since they are idols, they can do no such thing. But God can, and that is the point of this passage: God is God. God knows the future because He has ordained it and is bringing it to pass. If this is not the case, why does God challenge the idols to do something He himself cannot do?
God knows the words on our tongues before we speak (Psalm 139:4). God knows the days He has appointed for us before we are born (Psalm 139:16). God knew Jeremiah and made him a prophet before he was even in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5). God knew his elect before He created the world (Ephesians 1:4-5). Christ’s death was known from before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8; cf. 1 Peter 1:20). Indeed, God “knows everything” (1 John 3:20).
3. The freedom of man
The overriding concern of open theists is to protect the notion of libertarian freedom. And they have made great inroads and gained popularity because the vast majority of American churches and Christians simply assume human libertarian freedom without ever grounding that idea in Scripture.
But as we’ve seen, this idea is not biblically or philosophically acceptable. Rather, we should say that humans are free to choose according to their strongest desire. This is the only way in which we can truly be held responsible for our actions, for in this way alone we have actual reasons for doing what we do. It is no mere matter of chance. The human will moves as it is controlled by human desire. Jesus says as much: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of his heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Since this is the case, the open theist has now lost the central affirmation and control of their theological system.
4. The freedom of God
Another truth is at stake in this discussion. The lordship of God over his creation is as pervasive as any theme in Scripture, yet open theists deny its full weight. For the open theist, not only is God not fully Lord over his creation, He cannot know with certainty what will happen in the future regarding his creation. But let us take a quick survey of the Scriptures to see if this is true.
Consider Job’s confession after being challenged by God: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). Or a quartet of psalms: “Let the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For He spoke, and it came to be; He commanded, and it stood firm. The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:8-11); “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19); “Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases” (Psalm 115:3); “Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Psalm 135:6).
Or how about Isaiah 14:27: “For the LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?” Or Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance: “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?'” (Daniel 4:34-35).
So the plans and purposes of the sovereign God cannot be thwarted or frustrated, they stand forever, they rule over all things, they are everlasting, and they are ultimately unstoppable. These texts may not be welcomed by open theists (or anyone who believes in human libertarian freedom, for that matter), but any serious consideration of what the Bible teaches concerning the lordship of God over his creation must take these into account.
5. Why it matters
So why does all this matter? It matters because the god of open theism is not the God of the Christian faith. Indeed, one might say that open theism is no longer a major issue in evangelicalism because God raised up faithful, biblical Christian theologians to destroy it. Such pastors and scholars as John Frame, Bruce Ware, and John Piper have written or edited excellent works on the subject from a truly evangelical point of view.
Moreover, the god presented by open theists is no different than the idols of Isaiah 40-46. These so-called gods cannot declare the future or make anything come to pass. A god who does not or cannot know the future is not a god worth genuine worship. Rather, this god is nothing more than a dangerous, pernicious idol. True worship of the Christian God is summed up by Paul in this way: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).
Thanks for reading. Have any additional thoughts? Leave a comment below if you feel so inclined.