Let’s do a little exercise.
Consider the word, “God”.
What are 5 adjectives, descriptions, traits, or characteristics that come to mind upon reading or hearing that word? Take a minute to jot them down or say them out loud (quietly, if you’re in the office!).
Now for some self-inspection: why do you think those are the 5 you chose? Beyond perhaps that you think they accurately describe God, what about your past experience, reasoning, and thinking led you to this moment where you’d select those 5 things?
Maybe on a different day you might’ve chosen 5 different words. After all, if God exists, God is a tough being to describe with just 5 words or phrases from our languages.
Here’s my 5 - I did it just now as I’m writing: rescuer, creator, wise, beautiful, and perfect goodness.
We probably have different lists. That’s okay. There’s not an exact right list of 5. There’s wrong answers out there too, in my opinion. Not all lists are equally correct. Of course, you really need far more than 5.
But, sorting that out is for another time.
What I’d love for us to consider more deeply is what led to you making that list. What filter do you run your ideas through? Is it scriptural interpretation, is it your own reasoning/experience, is it your tradition/upbringing, is it convincing philosophical/theological arguments that you’ve encountered? Likely it’s a mixture of all of them, but what do you weigh more heavily?
What do you do when those sources of evidence seem to conflict, to offer competing or contradictory traits?
That’s where it gets tough - but also fascinating!
One area where this happened for me was on the topic of God’s knowledge. What does God know? Well, “everything” is the quick and easy answer. As I got older, the answer became more nuanced - God knows everything that is possible to know. Right, ok, that makes sense; for example, God can’t know that I am a woman. It is impossible to know such a thing - because I’m not a woman! We can’t take God to task for not knowing things that are false - such is the nature of knowledge. But for all the other stuff that’s possible to know, God knows it.
I always assumed this meant God knows what is true of the past, present, and future. I had heard scriptures that carried that texture. Little phrases and verses I would hear in Christian education and church, though never really digging into the passages:
I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate….
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.’
There are other pieces of biblical evidence that suggest a robust, if not exhaustive, divine foreknowledge. And yet, I found a growing number of my peers, who were also committed Christians, finding severe philosophical problems with endorsing the idea that God has complete knowledge of the future.
The key issue goes back to the “possible to know” discussion. Philosophers have questioned whether future-tense statements are even able to be true or false, thus undermining our ability to know them. The future doesn’t “exist” so they say. There’s nothing “out there”, “down the corridor of time” that would make a sentence such as “I will have Chipotle later” true or false at the time of its utterance. You can surely be correct in reporting your intention to have Chipotle, but that’s about the present situation - your current mental state. Whether you actually eat it later, the situation of eating Chipotle, doesn’t exist for you right now, and thus can’t hope to generate a return of “true” for you future-tense statement.
You can guess and predict, even very reliably so. But, that’s different from knowledge. Again, so some philosophers say.
As you can see, this flies in the face of traditional theology regarding God’s omniscience and foreknowledge. What’s a fellow supposed to do?!
We dig into this a bit further in this week’s episode “Does God Know the Future?” You can watch on Youtube or listen on your favorite podcatcher. You can support us by subscribing to this blog for free or sending it to a friend. Better yet have an actual conversation with your friend or spouse about these ideas!