There is probably little in Christianity as controversial as whether or not God knew all the future details of our world. Was our human history laid out even before it started? Are our past, present, and future following a precise path toward a preplanned destiny? If so, is it even possible for humans to exercise free will? And if every detail of the future of both humans and earthly events was pre-known, of what value is prayer? Such thoughts will be the focus of this study.
Before we continue, it is important to understand the meaning of the words ‘foreknowledge’ and ‘predestination.’ The dictionary1 definition of ‘foreknowledge’ is knowledge of something before it happens or exists. Simply, it is an intuition or a type of extrasensory perception. As for ‘predestination’, some modern Christian denominations only use this word as it applies to being selected for salvation, but for an accurate understanding we must explore the whole meaning. The dictionary2 states ‘predestination’ is: (1) God foreordained everything that would happen, or predetermines certain souls to salvation and damnation, (2) destiny or fate.
Although the concept appears in the Old Testament, the word ‘foreknowledge’ is only used in the New Testament. It translates from the Greek noun prognōsis (pro=before; gnōsis=to know) and is used only concerning divine foreknowledge and signifies that God’s foreknowledge involves the exercise of faith which brings salvation, but doesn’t prevent human will. In Ephesians 1:5,11, Paul states that believers are chosen not because the individuals were foreknown, but because of their actions they would be chosen for a group that was foreknown.3
As a verb (proginōskō), it simply means “to already know something.”4 As used in Romans 8:29, the word indicates that those of certain foreknown groups (of believers) will conform to the image of Christ. This indicates that it is the process or manner that is foreknown, not the individual.5
Foreknowledge is not beyond the ability of humans, though on a very limited scale, compared to the divine nature. From known events, we foreknow that the sun will rise in the morning. We can even detail this event to the precise time and explain all the astronomical events that will make this occur. And given our acquired knowledge of human reactions, we can foreknow, with some certainty, how our spouse or children or friend will behave in relation to something we do, or someone else does to them. We can even predict what strangers will do, in certain situations. We have learned that there are certain particular reactions people will have to everything and, in a small way, we plan every day foreknowing the outcome to our efforts.
Corporations are well trained in foreknowing events and situations. Retailers have studied population trends and psychology and have applied their knowledge to advertising and marketing. They are able to predict how people will react to their efforts and actually plan and produce based on their foreknowledge. Large governments are fairly accurate in foreknowing what will happen in certain events. Wars are sometimes started because of this. And if a war is started by one country against another, do we not, as individuals, foreknow that emotions will rise, human lives will be lost, economies will tumble, and standards of living will be lowered.
In a popular science fiction novel titled Foundation, a mathematician developed a statistical science called psychohistory.6 Psychohistory dealt with the reactions of large human populations, including those of entire planets, to fixed social and economic stimuli. This science, based on accumulated knowledge from the past, could actually predict the probability of future events. It was based upon known reactions to particular happenings; the more information that was known, the more accurate the prediction. Psychohistory foretold of wars, the decline and fall of civilizations, and other important trends hundreds of years, or millennia, in advance.
God has a divine plan for humankind and, for the overall unfolding of this plan, it is this kind of foreknowledge that he uses. God created a physically perfect human with certain predictable attributes; he foreknew at the time of creation the direction humans would take. He prepared the way and means for humans to continue the process of education needed to reach total moral perfection through trial and error and we are now in the midst of that schooling.
Because God foreknows the way, he foreknows the outcome, but because he knows does not mean he is responsible. He is certain of what general trends and events will happen, but does not determine what form these trends and events will take. Other than for those persons who have made the choice to serve God, there is no foreknowledge of individuals necessary.7 God has given humankind the responsibility of a self-education.
The issue is not whether or not God has the ability to foreknow everything in detail, but whether or not he chooses to do so. Matthew 19:26 states that with God, everything is possible, so there is no question that God has infinite knowledge, but how he selects to use this knowledge is the issue. And Psalms 115:3 indicates that God decides how to use his wisdom: “Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes.”8
An accurate description of God’s approach to the events of mankind would be through use of ‘selective foreknowledge.’ He chooses not to be indiscriminate, but selective in what he foreknows. This is evident from a number of scriptural references. Genesis 11:5,6 indicates that it was only after observation that God learned what was going on in Babel. Nehemiah 9:7,8 states that God learned Abraham was faithful. There are other examples, but these prove that God is selective in what he foreknows.
Basically a New Testament word, ‘predestinate’ is from the Greek proorizō (pro=before; orizō=determinate) and is to be distinguished from ‘foreknow’ in that it has special reference to the subjects of God’s foreknowledge which is predestinated.9 In particular, this doctrine refers to God’s predetermining the individuals elected for salvation, and naturally, this also predetermines those not elected.10
A study of Christian history reveals that the original idea of predestination, among ancient Greek writers, had a much wider connotation. Narrowing it down and applied only to individuals elected for salvation is a man-made idea.11 Like much of modern Christian thought, the original concepts were much different from those preached today.
Concerning these ideas of foreknowledge and predestination, a number of questions are raised: Do humans really have free will? Does God intervene and force events to his favor? Can God’s ability to foreknow events influence humans’ actions? Are certain individuals actually predestined toward good, and others toward evil?
Do We Have Free Will?
The Bible states that it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews. 6:18). It is not that God doesn’t have the knowledge to lie, but that it is not in his nature to do so. The statement in Hebrews is a promise and guarantee, and since God is unchanging (see Malachi 3:6), we can believe his oath that he, has not, will not, and does not lie. So, we can, therefore, believe God when he states that humankind has free will to choose right and wrong. If humans have the ability to choose, then we alone are responsible for what happens.
No one in any Christian religion will argue about who created the world in which we live. So that the world exists is not the issue, it is what happens in this world that is open to question. One scholar, John McManners, stated the situation accurately:
“There have been Christians who have suggested that everything that happens in the world is predetermined by God. But the main line of Christian belief has affirmed the freedom of human beings. In creating a human world, God has not only created something other than himself but has created something with a genuine measure of independence over against himself. This is part of what is meant by saying that men and women have been created in the image of God. Although as creatures they are of a totally different level of being from the self-existent God, they do have an affinity with God. They, too, in their own way, are creators; by their decisions and their actions they contribute to the course that the continuing process of the world’s creation is taking.”12
Does God Intervene?
The Bible concentrates on God’s plan to redeem human beings and rescue them from their destructive course and there is no doubt that he makes some decisions of his own. Old Testament examples abound concerning God’s choices. He chose individuals for his purposes (Judges 2:16; Isaiah 6:1-13; Jeremiah 1:1-2; Amos 3:6.8), and he can choose whole groups, as he did with the Hebrew people (Deuteronomy 7:6-10). He will alter the course of events to a redemptive conclusion.13
So, God’s predestination does involve individuals, but in a way different from that taught in most Christian denominations today. God chooses individuals for certain tasks in his plan, but how he does so depends, not only upon events leading up to the appearance of that individual, but also upon the choices being made by the individual during their life time. What influences God’s selections? Well, he can tell much about us, from things besides reading our DNA. He can observe what we do and how we live. He knows what is in our thoughts and what is in our hearts from the prayers righteous people send to him, because he hears them. “The eyes of the LORD watch over those who do right; his ears are open to their cries for help.” (Psalm 34:15) But not so much, if your motives are wrong. “And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.” (James 4:3, NLT) Prayer is powerful, if used correctly.
It is quite possible, although speculative to assume, that although God knew what his plan would be when the promised seed was mentioned in Genesis 3:15, he didn’t know precisely the time, yet, for that seed to appear, or that when Psalms 41:9; 55:12,13; 109:8 indicates that some intimate acquaintance of Jesus would be his betrayer, God knew humankind’s inclination, but didn’t know which individual it would be until a time closer to the event.
Again, God foretold nearly two centuries beforehand that he would use a conqueror named Cyrus to affect the release of the Jews from Babylon (Isaiah 44:26-28; 45:1-6). Possibly, God stated the name beforehand to let everyone know his abilities, but did not know who the individual would be. Maybe only at the time of that person’s conception, God knew that everything was right for that kind of person to be born and, only then, did he intervene and make sure the person was given the name of Cyrus.
These examples are, agreeably, imperfect human opinions and may involve some fallible concepts. They are included only to provoke discussion and give the serious Bible student fresh ideas upon which to approach the subject of God’s abilities and methods in dealing with the human race.
Only Features Foreknown
It is true that, in the beginning, God looked at his human creation and was pleased, but this should not imply that he considered his creation was complete. Could it be that God, in planning the human species, created Adam and Eve knowing that they would fail the test of obedience and actually expected them to fail, because they were not yet finished creatures with the experience to make a correct or proper choice? Were they actually designed to fail so that future humanity could complete their own education? Did he predetermine the general outline of all that would lead to the completed, self-educated, and perfect human race still to come? Is that why he rested on the seventh day, to watch as humanity worked through their education process?
A new born infant is pleasing to his parents, but still isn’t complete until he has grown, been educated, and reached maturity. The parents pre-know the overview of what will happen to the child, because they plan the general outline of his childhood, but don’t know each separate event in his unfolding life beforehand. Therefore, predestination is not about specifics. As mentioned in a book by a dedicated Bible scholar, God’s predestination is limited to the features of his plan14 and not to individuals or details of all specific events. God gave us free will to make choices and these choices were not predetermined for each individual, but God knew how the species as a whole would react to the events of his plan.
God, therefore, does not cause everything, as a religious journal pointed out more than a hundred years ago. He grants us the free will to do as we please within certain broad limits. Yet his wisdom and power are so magnificent that he can, if he so decides, anticipate, counteract, and overrule the various affairs of mankind, so they will work together for what he has planned.15
Copyright © 1998, 2017 Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- Webster’s New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988).
- Vine, W.E., An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, (New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1966).
- The New Testament Greek-English Dictionary, (Springfield, Missouri: The Complete Biblical Library, 1986).
- The New Testament Study Bible: Romans-Corinthians, (Springfield, Missouri: The Complete Biblical Library, 1989), p. 135.
- Asimov, Isaac, Foundation, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1951).
- The New Testament Study Bible: Romans-Corinthians, (Springfield, Missouri: The Complete Biblical Library, 1989), pp. 135-136.
- Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation (NLT), ©2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Vine, W.E., An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, (Old Tappan, NJ: Flemming H. Revell Company, 1966).
- Metzer, B.M., et al., (eds.), The Oxford Companion to The Bible, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 608.
- McManners, John, (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 660.
- Achtemeier, Paul, (ed.), Harper’s Bible Dictionary, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 819.
- Johnson, Paul, Christ, Spirit, Covenants, (Philadelphia: L.H.M.M., 1950), p. 196.
- “Fatalism,” (Zion’s Watch Tower, vol. 7, no. 12, August 1886).