Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Problem of Foreknowledge - My Views & Defenses

All right, I came across a guy called HELLBOY on an apologetics forum, and he had some basic questions that a lot of atheists rightly have. So I think I'll just do a little exercise and answer his questions on foreknowledge. His main question is: "What are the limits of God's foreknowledge?" He writes:
It is my estimated opinion that the answer to this question identifies the nature and moral character of the GOD of the Bible.

If GOD has perfect foreknowledge, then the problem of evil incriminates GOD.

If GOD has limited foreknowledge, then it makes GOD a gambler, which also has unflattering moral implications.

I have never gotten a sound answer to this problem from Christians - and was hoping to find clear thinking on the matter here.

Excellent question and one the theologians have blown several brain gaskets over. I am going to present my view of the solution to this problem, which I think actually works rather nicely.

First off, the question, "does God have limited foreknowledge?" Lately I have been hearing a lot about Open Theism and their idea that God has limited foreknowledge. You might think that from my rejection of determinism (fatalism) and Calvinism that I would happily subscribe to Open Theism, but I do not. I think there are a few fundamental problems with such a view.

One, the Bible simply does not seem to line up with this view. Yes, I know God certainly says that He is testing people to find things out here and there. However, I view this as more of a literary expression for the benefit of the people. Take a look at Jeremiah 1:4-5.
The word of the LORD came to me, saying,

"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations."
All right, so God knew Jeremiah before he was born and appointed Jeremiah to a specific task. Now please understand me here, I do not think that this appointing at all messed with Jeremiah's free will. But these verses do show that God is aware of what we are like before we are even born.
Psalm 139:4
Before a word is on my tongue
You know it completely, O LORD.
And God apparently knows everything everyone is going to say. An Open Theist might say that was just for David because God had such close communion with him, but that seems inconsistent to me. That's like saying that all of the major themes of God's relation to man in the Psalms are just for David and not for everyone.
Psalm 139:16
All the days ordained for me
were written in Your book
before one of them came to be.
Now, please understand me again. Just because David's days were ordained and "written in God's book", that does not mean that God did not allow David to have a "backyard of choices", as an old family friend wisely put it. However, this verse definitely indicates that God knew an awful lot about David and what would be going on in David's life long before it happened.

Then we have prophesy. For one, Jesus foretells Peter's denying of Him, down to rather specific details. Secondly, there are amazing fulfilled prophecies concerning such things as the fall of Tyre, the end times, etc.

The Open Theists always assume that God's foreknowledge is limited, but they also always assume free will. These two philosophies actually seem to be contradictory, not complimentary, to me. Assuming God has a limited foreknowledge and humans have free will, who is to say that the end times will be just as God has planned them to be? It has been thousands of years since the prophesy was made. The amount of human decisions in that time period are simply ridiculous. A single man makes millions upon millions of decisions every single day. Multiply that over two thousand years and hundreds of billions of people, and a limited-foreknowledge God would be lucky to guess that the world would end at all, let alone come up with specific details about how it will happen.

Certainly, God could make those prophecies come true. But think about how much free will that would overrun. It was prophesied that Judas would betray Jesus, but does that mean that Judas' betrayal of Jesus was forced by God? If so, then Judas cannot be blamed for what he did. And yet, Scripture does blame him. I think it is painfully obvious that if someone is blamed for what they did, they had the ability to choose otherwise. If they did not, then God was to blame for the betrayal. Which is clearly not true.

The only other option here is that God has unlimited foreknowledge - that His foreknowledge knows all and surpasses all. But personally, using scripturally-informed thinking I acquired from a chapter in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, I am going to call it, "extralogos", a term I invented meaning "outside knowledge".

Let's dig into that. The Bible is extremely clear about what kind of God we are serving. Right from the first verse, we are told amazing, important things about God.
Genesis 1:1
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Watch this sentence carefully. The insight in it is amazing. In the beginning (time comes into existence) God created the heavens (space comes into existence) and the earth (matter comes into existence).

It is the grand trinity of necessities for functioning physics: time, space, and matter. In that order, mind you.

What does this tell us about God? Well, the main thing is that it tells us is that the world as we know it had a beginning. This strongly implies that God existed "before" the beginning (or rather outside the beginning). Also, this verse is helpful to understanding my concept of extralogos.
2 Peter 3:8
With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.
So, how does that work? Einstein came very close to discovering something similar on earth. His theory of relativity states that time is not absolute. In other words, time in certain places in the universe moves faster or slower than in other places.

God, being eternal and infinite, is absolutely not limited by time. Of course, He can do things in sequence. But that does not mean He is stuck in sequence Himself.

I highly suggest reading this chapter in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.

By this line of thinking, God is actually in 1970 right now just as much as He is in 2009, or 2012, if there will be one. He is just as much in 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. as He is in 1992 on the day of my birth.

This allows many concepts to have much more clarity. First of all, it destroys the problem of how people can make choices foreknown by God. God is there before they made the choice, and He is there after they made the choice. Certainly, the choice was still theirs to make, and they could have made their choice either way, but no matter what they did, God was still well aware that it happened. He did not force them to make the correct choice, He was merely present before, during, and after the choice was made.

While we are still stuck in time, stuck in part of our sequential existence, wondering what choice to make, God is already far ahead of us in the future time where we did already make the choice, and the outcome has also come to pass.

I am of the view, however, that God can work in sequence, which means He can sort of constrain Himself to our time. It is not as if He is outside of our time and cannot get in; rather, He sort of chooses not to be "in" all of the "time", so to speak. His choosing to be "in" allows for real-time interaction between God and man, for instance, when God was testing Abraham, perhaps God sort of constrained Himself to time, and so tested Abraham in sequence like any of us might.

A sort of side note must be made here. I do think that God "tests" everyone, that is, presents us with a set of options and allows us to make an informed decision.

The fact is, whether He knows our choices before we make them or not, we are still responsible for making the right decisions. Assume for a moment that a) the universe is running as usual but b) God did not exist for several thousand years and c) suddenly began to exist, and d) had perfect extralogos as I have defined here. Of course, this is only a hypothetical scenario. But if for thousands of years people had been making choices all by themselves, they would still be receiving punishment or reward for their actions, though only on earth. Then, suddenly, God appears. He transcends time and thus knows every move the humans will make before they make it. After their deaths He will punish or reward them based on their choices. Did the system go from just to unjust? No. If anything it went from unjust to just, because on earth, when you do something wrong, it will not necessarily be punished. Likewise, when you do something right, you will not necessarily be rewarded.

Please do note that if God did not exist at all times, of course, it would be ridiculous to assume that He had extralogos or perfect foreknowledge. But for the sake of example, imagine the above scenarios. As a popular website,, states, asking when God was created is like asking, "what does blue smell like?" Blue is not a thing that has a smell. God is not a being Who has a beginning.

Now, on to more. Another user on the forum, kognishun20, writes:
William Lane Craig has a view on God's Foreknowledge. He expresses that God has middle knowledge.

God knows all possible outcomes. God knows all possibilities that exist. Therefore God knows the best outcome. God chooses the best possible outcome. Therefore creating a world involving free will he knows the best outcome. God then is not cornered by evil in the world.

He choose the best world that was possible involving free will. William Lane Craig has a couple articles on his website.
Now, we've already explored how if God were outside of time (as the Bible and logic indicate), He would absolutely know what was going to happen before it does, since He is no more in the "before" than in the "after". "Middle knowledge" assumes that God is trapped sequentially in time like we are. He is not.

HELLBOY writes further:
This brings a specific question to my mind: Is Opening The Door For Someone To Cause Great Evil, Immoral?

For example:

Suppose you had to write a fiction story about a man who was a psychic (even though you probably do not believe in psychics, your story would include one as it’s main character).

This man had a vision that one of his guards was going to betray him (the psychic was a very rich man who had guards). The psychic saw in the future and knew that the guard was not only going to try to take over the psychic’s house, but that the guard would fail and end up being turned into a snake who would later be cast into a fire. In fact, the psychic knew all this about the guard before he ever hired him.

In the mean-time however, the psychic, KNOWING ALL THIS, kept the guard on for hire and saw him daily, smiling and acting as if nothing were the matter.

Now, is the fact that the psychic (who is a completely fictional character) does not tell the guard the horrors that will befall him any measure of immorality?


The psychic had a vision of the guard BEFORE he ever hired the guard. In the dream, if he hired the guard, all of this evil would come upon the guard at the guards own doing, HOWEVER, if the psychic does not hire the guard, then the guard would not succumb to the evil, many lives would be spared and general happiness would abound.

If the psychic hires the guard, knowing that his hiring the guard would absolutely lead to the guard choosing to ruin himself and further, cause many of the other guards to join him in a kind of mutiny, and further bring all manner of death and destruction to the psychic’s family and friends, as well as the guards he deceived… AND during the period of the guards’ employment (before the rebellion and destruction) – the psychic does not mention a word of any of this…

Is this an immoral act on the part of the psychic? How about hiring the guard even though the psychic knows that this action will bring about so much evil, instead of not hiring him, which would guarantee the continuing peace and happiness of the psychic’s household and neighborhood.

(Of course, many religious types believe that psychics are of the Devil, and would be reticent to use their imagination, remember, however, even C.S. Lewis had witches etc. - but for the sake of fiction, I would be interested to know the Christian’s assessment of the morality of the psychic in this tale.)

In Craig's explanation, psychic ability would be replaced with a knowledge of probabilities. How is created life not diminished in value (perhaps immorally) with the knowledge that most of your creation would end up either:
1. Ending up in eternal torment.
2. Being wholly annihilated.
3. Choosing to be annihilated.

All right, first off, the psychic here is trapped in sequential time. If that psychic makes a choice, that choice will affect other events, etc. While we, and the psychic, take the universe in sequence, God takes and took and will take it all at once, if you understand what I mean. It's not like God has to make choices in a sequence of time that will set off a chain reaction of other events. Rather, He makes all of His moves at once.

The unique thing about God is that I think He can be both a casual observer and an active participant in what goes on in the world. He's not obliged to step in and save the day all the time. However, He does when He sees fit to do so, which is part of His master plan. It is futile for me to try to describe the details of this plan, because I am merely a device inside of His plan myself.

I would also like to note that certain things that are sinful for us as human beings are not sinful for God. For instance, it would be sinful for me to brag about how awesome I was, but for God that is OK. So maybe for us to allow evil to run its course is wrong, although for God it is not. For instance, if a man whips out a gun and runs into a bank to rob it, it is our duty as human beings to tackle the guy and take him down. But is it God's?

It reminds me of a story about a group of Indians, Sioux, I think. The Sioux were very careful about training their children to survive in the wilderness. The Sioux fathers would allow a range of bad things to befall their children in order to teach them. For instance, a little boy might move toward a fire. He may have some vague knowledge that it will hurt him or none at all, but on he will go toward that fire. Meanwhile, the father will stand by, knowing his child will learn about what fire is like and why to avoid it. The child will stick a finger in and immediately pull it back out, crying. And the child will have been trained not to touch fires.

But if a child were about to fall in the fire, the father would certainly rescue him. However, the father would let the little boy have a taste of fire and the other dangers of the world, so that the boy would be able to live well later on.

Now think about this. It seems all right to me for the Sioux father to allow his child to stick a finger in the fire to learn a lesson. The wilderness is a harsh place and the child needs to learn about it. But now imagine this: it is not a father watching the child by the fire but another child, a slightly bigger one. This bigger child is watching the little child, and there are no adults around.

If the little child moves toward the fire, of course it is the bigger child's duty to go and stop the child before he sticks so much as a finger in the fire. You see, the father was completely in control of how close the little child got to the fire. But the bigger child, no matter how responsible he may be at his age, cannot guarantee that he can save the little child if the little child gets too close.

Plus, it is simply not the right of the bigger child to discipline the little child. That is the right of the father, which is why the bigger child should simply stop the little child in his tracks.

Secondly, I take the annihilationist view of Hell. I may write another article on why I consider the annihilationist view to be more biblically supported than the eternal Hell view, but for now, let me just say that I think everyone knows that the eternal Hell view is simply immoral. It is unspeakably, unimaginably cruel to punish a conscious person for all eternity. Here is a good article on the subject.

I read a good comic that helped me to understand the classic question, "if God is real and good, why does He allow ___?" The comic went like this: one character asked the other, "if God is so good, why doesn't He stop all the school shootings?" The other character replied, "oh, didn't you know? God isn't allowed in the schools anymore!"

When we happily push Him away, I do think that out of courtesy He backs off. And if God is good, that means we pushed goodness away, and it backed off. It is no wonder that we get ourselves into such messes.

And another thing - what is God supposed to do? He has the following choices:
a) Don't punish people who do wrong and tell them He won't
b) Threaten to punish those who do wrong and don't carry out the threat
c) Threaten to punish those who do wrong and carry out the threat

He could do a, but then people would not be motivated to make good choices. He could do b, but then He would be lying. The Bible states that God cannot lie. By definition, God is good. If God were to lie, it would cause Him to be evil, which would make Him cease to be God, right? OK, b is definitely not an option.

All that is left is c, which is in fact what God did and does. Try these three methods on a two-year-old and you will find that God's choice was really the most sensible one. It may seem all well and good to criticize God's method of doing something, until you have a look at His other options.

Now let us suppose something else. Suppose you had a robot, and you built that robot to perform a certain task. You gave that robot the ability to make choices and a conscience to tell it what choices to make, plus instructions on how to perform the task. The robot did not perform the task, and it was the fault of the robot.

Would it be unjust to just scrap that robot and build another? By your logic, to be fair and kind and good to the robot, you must allow it to be alive and keep its batteries fresh for all of eternity. You have to keep it running and nourished forever, even if all it does is botch tasks and suck resources.

Even if the robot had not done anything wrong, is the creator really obliged to allow it to keep living? Not really, if I'm understanding things correctly. If the creator of the robot decides to just cut off its power source, that's OK. That's no problem. The robot will instantly cease to exist, cease to understand and cease to comprehend. Except for a few things the robot changed here and there, it will be like it never existed.

Now, of course, I can see some atheists screaming foul play. Why can't we abort babies, then?!? they ask, they lose consciousness instantly and it's like they never existed! Well, the simple fact is, mothers and abortion doctors are not the Creator of the baby. Imagine a little boy sneaks into the lab of our robot creator and smashes the robot to pieces with a rock. That was OK, right? No; it was not, because the boy did not have rights to take the robot's "life"; while the creator of the robot did.

So it is perfectly all right for God to simply destroy His creatures. And He has warned us that He will if we do not perform in the way He wants us to. We have the option to make the choice, though He knows what choice we are going to make. Actually, it's not so much of a "though" situation as an "and" situation. I will post the previous sentence again with a conjunction modification. We have the option to make the choice, and He knows what choice we are going to make. It is not an impossible conundrum. It is merely not something observable on earth, which is why we have such a problem imagining it.

And if the creatures do not perform correctly when given the chance, the instructions, the time, etc., then they can be punished accordingly. If God did not punish people for their sin, in fact, He would not be a just God. A judge who lets rapists and murderers off the hook is a judge who should be shot.

But now think about this: imagine a judge who actually takes the punishment for rapists and murderers upon himself. The rapists and murderers should, and many would be, amazingly grateful to that judge. Because the sacrifice the judge made was so deep, so real, so moving, those grateful to the judge will try again at life. They will try to live within the law out of gratitude to the judge. They will not do so perfectly, but the point is, they will certainly try, whereas before the judge took their place they broke the law on purpose with extreme disregard.

That is the kind of God I serve. That is the kind of God Who took the place for the billions who have given themselves out of gratitude to Him. This is the kind of God Who loved us, so that we will love Him.

Hopefully this will have answered these questions. Frankly, I cannot pretend to fully comprehend these things. If we could understand everything about the nature of God, we would very well be able to assume He does not exist, because He would not be much greater than our brainpower. But this does not stop me from trying the best I can to understand His ways.

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