The Judeo-Christian scriptures seem emphatic: God knows everything. But what does it mean to know something?
Can God know something that isn’t true? Can He know something that will never happen?
Does knowledge mean understanding, or the acquisition of a piece of information, or something else?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but the fact that they are hard to answer proves that it is possible to interpret scriptural divine omniscience in different ways.
This has profound implications for our understanding of free agency and the nature of God.
Until recently I had always held a strong, nearly dogmatic, view that God knows everything, including every choice we will ever make. After all, believing otherwise seems to mean that He doesn’t know everything, and is therefore not omniscient.
However, this would mean that either
1. His knowledge of the future only includes what WILL happen (in which
case He doesn’t know what COULD happen and isn’t omniscient by some definitions) or
2. He knows all that will happen AND all that could happen, but He really doesn’t need to know about what could happen as it will never happen anyway, so the vast majority of his knowledge is utterly useless to him and everyone else.
I can now demonstrate that a god who doesn’t know exactly what we will choose to do, knows far more, or holds knowledge of far more value to us, than a god who knows our every move in advance.
Imagine two chess players, taking turns to play against a computer. One player wrote the algorithm that the computer uses to select its moves, and has memorised every move that the computer will play in response to his moves, and so has selected a plan that will beat the computer every time, using the exact same moves.
The second player knows every possible combination and sequence of moves possible in a chess game (impossible by human standards, look it up!), but doesn’t know what algorithm the computer is using to select its next move. This player is also able to instantly judge the value of a move based on the probabilities of victory compared with all other moves.
Both players would win, but which one inspires more awe and wonder? Which one knows more? Which one is more intelligent? Which one would win regardless of the computer’s algorithm?
You see, it doesn’t even make sense to think of the future as something fixed, frozen and waiting to be thawed out by the ever-advancing present. Not when we believe in free agency. That concept means that we have an entirely independent influence on our future and, consequently, on everyone’s future too.
So the future is fluid, an infinite ocean of possibilities, only a fraction of which will ever happen, but as soon as it happens, it is no longer part of the future but of the past, which is knowable.
The future can only be spoken of as knowable if it is taken as a whole, as this infinite mass of possibilities. You can only know the future by knowing all of it, not just what will eventually happen, because that subset is subject to our free agency, and therefore cannot be known in isolation from all other possibilities.
I believe God knows the future in that mind-boggling sense, not in the sense of a defined, pre-written future.
Why is there a danger in believing that God knows everything we will do, in a predetermined sense?
Read all about it in part 2!