FAQ: Where does it say in the Bible that God is in absolute control of everything that happens in the world? What about free will, and why should we pray if God is completely in control of every future event?
That is an excellent question, and one that has been debated through the centuries, though perhaps not enough. For us, this is not a “deal breaker,” that is, something we consider non-negotiable in terms of having to agree on it with someone before we can work together with him. Our desire is to know the truth because if we know it and tell it and live it, we can glorify the God of truth.
As usual, this relatively brief “Frequently Asked Question” is not designed to answer it in depth, but to broach the subject in a way that we hope will cause you to think outside the scope of your previous belief. As always, what Jesus said in John 8:32 is most relevant: knowing the truth will make you free and, conversely, believing error will adversely affect the quality of your life.
The basic belief of most Christians is that God is outside of time and, therefore, once upon a time (biblically, “in the beginning”), before the world began, He saw the future as a present reality including every single detail of human history, even the socks you are now wearing, or the fact that you would not be wearing any. If that is true, is there any other way your footwear today could have turned out, and did you really have genuine freedom of will in making the sartorial choice you did?
Honest and accurate research will show that the origin of this idea is not biblical, but Hellenistic and Platonic, and I will refer you to two books that go into detail about that. God most certainly does have foreknowledge, but Scripture does not support what we will herein refer to as “absolute foreknowledge,” and the ramifications of this spurious doctrine are far-reaching and very difficult to reconcile in the human heart. Indeed, this issue most definitely pertains to the quality of one’s life.
Perhaps the thorniest issue to reconcile is that of evil and the resulting suffering of mankind, the horror and magnitude of which words cannot describe. If God knew that the angel Lucifer would rebel against Him and later, as Satan, wreak havoc upon mankind such as we see all around us (and in our own lives) daily, but still went ahead and created him, how can that not hinder our love for and trust in Him? If God knew that Adam and Eve would disobey Him and bring disaster upon the human race, but still created them anyway, how can He be all good, as He claims to be? And how can we fearlessly put our lives into His hands?
Some sincere and well-meaning Christians would tell us that we must trust that God’s ways are higher than our ways (an extrapolation usually taken grossly out of its context in Isa. 55:7–11); that “…all things work together for good…” (a very poor KJV translation of Rom. 8:28—the NIV is accurate and thus far more satisfying in terms of reality); that we must “take it on faith,” etc. Whoa—take what on faith? Biblically, “faith” is trust in an understandable promise.
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.
The Word of God has “…everything we need for life and godliness…” (2 Pet. 1:3) and His words make sense. On the contrary, superstition (“an irrational belief arising from ignorance or fear”) calls for one to believe nonsense. At the bottom line, what is at stake in regard to this issue is whether or not God is love and lovable.
Once upon a time (biblically: “in the beginning”), when God was all by Himself, He sovereignly chose to relate to mankind as His Word subsequently declares He does, that is, in a “linear” relationship, experiencing time passing with us. His perspective is definitely far beyond our own (“…With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day”—2 Pet. 3:8), that is, He sees the big picture that we as temporal beings cannot, but He makes it clear that He relates to us according to how we see time.
We can understand that from statements such as what He said to Abraham in Genesis 22:12, “…Now I know that you fear God.…” If words have meanings, up until that moment God did not absolutely know what Abraham, a free will being, would choose to do. If a person has genuine free will, then his choices cannot be absolutely known in advance of his decisions to make those choices, even by God—unless, of course, He says differently in His Word, which He does not.
Did God have a pretty good idea of what Abraham would do? Certainly. Couldn’t a good parent fairly accurately predict what his child would do in a given situation, and even more so if he could read his mind, as God can? Multiply that probability as much as God is bigger than we are and you can begin to see how He can be so accurate in His predictions.
No doubt you agree that God knows everything that can be known. The question is whether or not He can absolutely know the future decisions of free will agents if they do not yet exist to be known. Consider this: God knows every detail of the past and every detail of the present, including the thoughts, words, and deeds of every human being, and of Satan, and his evil spirit minions. That knowledge, combined with His knowledge of His own will and His own ability, make Him able to predict the future with amazing accuracy. However, when it comes to biblical prophecy, we must distinguish between what is conditional and what is unconditional. God cannot lie, and when He makes an unconditional statement about what will happen in the future, He does so knowing that He has the wherewithal to bring it to pass without overstepping the free will of any human being (which is also something that, by His nature, God cannot do).
When they first hear that God does not have absolute foreknowledge, many people jump to the conclusion that this idea makes Him look smaller and less capable. Hopefully their “hang time” on that jump is minimal because the truth is that it makes Him look much bigger and far more impressive.
Think about it. Who would be more capable and worthy of recognition, a football coach who somehow knew ahead of time each play the opposition would run, or the coach who knew the game and his own plays and the opposing team so well that he could skillfully adjust to whatever came at him and come out victorious? Obviously, the latter. Ditto for God.
Bobby Fischer was once the world’s greatest chess player. Suppose you sat down to play him in his prime? Any doubt of the outcome? Would Bobby need to know what your moves were before you did? Nope. Why not? Because it wouldn’t matter at all what you did, he’d have a hundred contingency plans for each move you made. After all, he’s Bobby Fischer, the world’s greatest chess player. Ditto for the world’s greatest God! He will ultimately prevail over the Devil, and all those who have made the free will choice to believe His Word will live happily ever after with Him and the Lord Jesus.
Let us not fall into the trap of putting our trust in the static, pagan concept of a bored deity mindlessly watching His pre-planned scenario unfold and maybe having to wonder what cosmic tragedy he has assigned to us. No, we who have made Jesus Christ our Lord can lay our very lives in the hands of the God whose fathomless love surrounds us and whose limitless resourcefulness are at our disposal. Our heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus stand with us in the trenches of life, and they are never caught off guard by the circumstances coming at us, but always ready to show us the next thought to think, word to speak, and step to take.
There are two books in particular that I found to be extremely enlightening about this whole matter. One is The God Who Risk, by John Sanders, and the other is God of the Possible, by Greg Boyd. In closing, I’d like to share with you a review of Boyd’s book that I did shortly after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. I titled it “Choose Your Own Adventure,” and I believe that it will give you much food for thought.
The incredible events of September 11, 2001 thrust into the world’s collective consciousness the age-old question: “If there is a God, and if He is a loving God, how could He have allowed such a horrifically evil occurrence?” Corollary to that question are many other equally heart-bending inquiries such as: “Is what happened on September 11 somehow a part of a sovereign God’s plan for mankind?” Or: “Do you mean to tell me that God knew exactly what was going to happen and did nothing to stop it?”
The problem of evil, that is, how evil can co-exist with a God who says He is love, is not only one that often tragically affects us personally, but it is also one that has turned countless people away from the Creator, who longs for them to know Him for who He truly is. Given the Christian Church’s traditional answers to the above questions, I think it is safe to assume that even millions of Christians are plagued with doubt as to whether some God-ordained tragedy may befall them. If knowing the truth makes one free, then believing something contrary to God’s Word, especially about such a vital issue as this, could put people in great bondage.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001 holocaust, I think we have a golden opportunity to set before people God’s answers to their questions, if we are willing to re-evaluate some “sacred Christian cows” and ask, “Where’s the beef?!” I believe that Greg Boyd’s book, God of The Possible, can help us understand and articulate those answers. The fact that it is only 169 pages of good-sized print helped me get started on it, and what I found was a book loaded with Scripture, a rock-solid biblical exposition of a subject it seems has been too often ignored in favor of the unscriptural Platonic, Augustinian tradition. The latter may well have left the majority of the Christian populace with an almost fatalistic worldview that significantly dilutes their resolve to pray, to share their faith, and to realize the far-reaching importance of their own choices.
In his Introduction, Boyd asks such penetrating questions as:
If every choice you’ve ever made was certain an eternity before you made it, were you really free when you made each choice? Could you have chosen differently if it was eternally certain you’d make the choice you did? If God foreknew that Adolf Hitler would send six million Jews to their deaths, why did he go ahead and create a man like that? [We might now add Osama bin Laden].
How is God not responsible for the behavior of evil people he “unleashes” on the world if, in fact, he is absolutely certain of what they will do once “unleashed”? If God is eternally certain that various individuals will end up being eternally damned, why does he go ahead and create them? And then try to get them to accept his grace throughout their lives—as though there were genuine hope for them? If the future is exhaustively settled in God’s mind, as the classical view holds, why does the Bible repeatedly describe God changing his mind? Why does the Bible say that God frequently alters his plans, cancels prophecies in the light of changing circumstances, and speaks about the future as a “maybe,” a “perhaps,” or a “possibility”? Why does Scripture describe God as expressing uncertainty about the future, being disappointed in the way things turn out, and even occasionally regretting the outcome of his own decisions?
Boyd says it was questions like those that led him on a 17-year search in the Bible. The thesis he sets forth in God of The Possible is that, to some extent, God knows the future as definitely this way and definitely not that way, but that to some extent, He knows it as possibly this way and possibly not that way. He calls this the “open view” of God, or of the future, much of which is settled ahead of time either by God’s predestining will or by existing earthly causes, and much of which is yet open to be decided by free will agents. He shows that the issue at stake is not about whether God is omniscient or has foreknowledge—He is and He does.
Rather, the issue is about the nature of the reality that God perfectly knows, that is, what is the content of the reality of the future. If God does not foreknow future actions by free will beings whom He chose to create that way, it is not because His knowledge is in any sense incomplete. It is because there is, in the open view, nothing definite there for God to know. Boyd states:
One is not ascribing ignorance to God by insisting that he doesn’t foreknow future free actions if indeed free actions do not exist to be known until free agents create them… Those who oppose the open view of God on the grounds that it compromises God’s omniscience are simply misguided.
As to the book’s title and its thesis, Boyd says that:
…the classical tradition became misguided when, under the influence of Hellenistic philosophy, it defined God’s perfection in static, timeless terms…Given this definition of divine perfection, there was no way to conceive of God as entertaining real possibilities…It followed for classical theology that reality must be eternally and exhaustively settled…This view is misguided on biblical, theological, and practical grounds…God is the God of the possible and not simply a God of eternally static certainties. Practically, a God of eternally static certainties is incapable of interacting with humans in a relevant way. The God of the possible, by contrast, is a God who can work with us to truly change what might have been to what should be.
In conjunction, he writes:
God can and does predetermine and foreknow whatever he wants to about the future. Indeed, God is so confident in his sovereignty that he does not need to micromanage everything. He could if he wanted to, but this would demean his sovereignty. So he chooses to leave some of the future open to possibilities, allowing them to be resolved by free agents. It takes a greater God to steer a world populated with free agents than it does to steer a world of preprogrammed automatons…The God of the possible creates the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ structure of world history and of our lives, within which the possibilities of human free choice are actualized…A God who knows all possibilities, experiences novelty, and is willing to engage in an appropriate element of risk is more exalted than a God who faces an eternally settled future.
And I have to say, “Amen.”
Boyd’s work is divided into four chapters, the first being “The Classical View of Divine Foreknowledge.” Here he explains how the influence of Greek philosophy has resulted in most Christians having come to believe that once upon a time God saw as present reality every single future event of human “history” exactly as it would occur, even down to the garish neckties that too many television personalities apparently have no choice but to wear (those are my words, not his in case you hadn’t guessed). He shows that the biblical material used to support the classical tradition that the future is exhaustively settled does not, in fact, prove it. It proves only that some of the future is settled.
In Chapter One, Boyd sets forth some key sections of Scripture used by defenders of the classical view of foreknowledge to prove their point and offers another explanation of them, one more consistent with the whole of Scripture and with the reality of human existence. He examines the five categories of divine foreknowledge in the Bible, that is: the chosen people, individuals, Christ’s ministry, the elect, and the end times. In this chapter, Boyd also looks at Settled Aspects of the Future, Foreknowing Predictable Characters, Foreknown Life Plans, Prophecies of Kingdoms and Judgments, The Foreordained Messiah and the Predestined Church, and in its conclusion he writes:
God decrees whatever he wishes to decree [based upon knowing His own ability to pull it off]. He controls whatever he chooses to control. He is never caught off guard or at a loss of options. He anticipates and ingeniously outmaneuvers his opponents. Hence, all who align themselves with him can have total confidence that he will ultimately achieve his objectives for creation.
Chapter Two is titled, “The God Who Faces a Partially Open Future.” Boyd argues that the Bible passages showing a partially open future should be taken as literally as those showing a partially settled future. The subtitles in Chapter Two are: God Regrets How Things Turn Out (and includes Does Regret Imply Lack of Wisdom?); God Confronts the Unexpected; God Gets Frustrated; God Tests People to Know Their Character; God Speaks in Terms of What May or May Not Be; Hastening the Lord’s Return; Jeremiah 18 and the Flexible Potter; Reversed Divine Intentions. In its conclusion, he states:
The fact that verses as explicit as these [the many that he has covered in the chapter] aren’t allowed to communicate that God really changes his mind or experiences regret or unexpected disappointment testifies to the truth that the classical exegesis of these passages is driven by philosophy rather than by the texts.
Chapter Three is “What Practical Difference Does the Open View Make?” and it is terrific. Among other things, Boyd talks about Rational Minds and Transformed Hearts, The Clarity of God’s Word, Possibility Living, The Urgency of Prayer, and Resolving the problem of Evil. Here are some quotes:
The extent to which the Word of God is incoherent to us is the extent to which it is of no benefit to us…A person’s mental picture of God is the most important feature of his or her belief system [and] determines how we relate to God, for better or for worse. Most of the time we are unaware of our deepest beliefs about God. We may think we believe one thing about God, repeating teachings we have been given, when, in fact, at a deeper level, our picture of God does not actually reflect these teachings. And since our hearts always respond to what we really believe, not what we think we believe on a theoretical level, our lives frequently don’t reflect what we say we believe.
He goes on to say that if God experiences no true possibilities,
…it directly suggests that possibilities are not real, for God’s knowledge, not ours, reflects reality as it really is. If we believe that possibilities are not real, we will be more inclined to accept things that we could, and should, revolt against…Conversely, if we believe in the reality of possibilities, for even God faces them, we will be more inclined to take a proactive stance. Knowing that what transpires in the future is not a foregone conclusion but is significantly up to us to decide, we will be more inclined to assume responsibility for our future…[We] will be more inclined to adventurously and passionately envisage and pursue what could be instead of resigning ourselves to what supposedly was settled an eternity ago about what will be.
The bottom line is that life is all about possibilities. We are thinking, feeling, willing, personal beings only because we, like God, are beings who can reflect on and choose between possibilities. We are fully alive when we passionately seize them, adventurously explore them, and define ourselves by actualizing them…The picture of God as the ‘God of the possible’ creates a people who do not wait for an eternally settled future to happen.
Regarding prayer, Boyd writes that, in his experience, many Christians do not pray as passionately as they should, but rather do so out of obedience and without the sense of urgency that Scripture attaches to prayer. He thinks too many interpret the cliché “God is in control” to mean that “God controls everything,” thus leaving them with the obvious question: “What real difference could prayer possibly make?” He says that:
…the common cliché that ‘prayer changes us, not God,’ does not reflect either the purpose or the urgency that God’s Word gives to petitionary prayer.
He states that prayer is a chief means [obedience is another] by which humans participate with God in determining the future and that the will of God “be done on earth as it is heaven.” Listen to this insight:
Prayer is also part of what makes us morally responsible agents. Because God wants us to be empowered, because He wants us to communicate with him, and because he wants us to learn dependency on him, he graciously grants us the ability to significantly affect him. This is the power of petitionary prayer. God displays his beautiful sovereignty by deciding not to always unilaterally decide matters. He enlists our input, not because he needs it, but because he desires to have an authentic, dynamic relationship with us as real, empowered persons.
Regarding the power of prayer and the problem of evil, Boyd waxes both logical and inspirational:
When we rid ourselves of any lingering suspicion that evil somehow fits into the eternal purposes of God, we are more inclined to do something about it. Jesus spent his entire ministry revolting against the evil he confronted. He never suggested that any of the physical or spiritual afflictions he confronted somehow fit into his Father’s plan. Rather, he confronted these things as coming from the Devil and carried out the Father’s plan by healing people and delivering them. We who are Christ’s disciples should follow our Master’s lead. We are to pray that the Father’s will would be done (Matt. 6:10), not accept things as though his will was already being done!
Chapter Four, 42 pages, consists of 18 most pertinent questions and answers, questions you may have after reading this review of Boyd’s book. It is full of enlightening and comforting insight. The last question addresses his experience that most people who honestly examine the evidence for the open view and then choose to reject it do so not because the evidence is weak, but because they fear its implications. The question is:
If God isn’t in control of everything, the world feels unsafe. If the future is open and things can happen outside of God’s will, what guarantee is there that there is a point to a person’s suffering? Maybe it’s all just bad luck.
Here are some excerpts from his answer:
How is the scariness of a view relevant to the question of whether or not it is true?
Good question, huh? He believes that the open view simply articulates what we already believe at a core level, based upon how we act. Boyd wonders how believing that a string of robberies and beatings in your neighborhood was ordained by an all-controlling God helps you to cope with the fear that it might happen to you? You still know at the core of your being that the world is just as scary with your belief as without it. He submits that such a belief makes the world an even scarier place because:
If God has decided this, there is nothing you can do about it. If God is the sort of God who is capable of ordaining such evils, then you can’t trust God’s character. You have nothing to hang on to.
If God chooses not to control all things, however, then there is something you can do about it. As a morally responsible free person, you can make choices that maximize your safety and minimize your vulnerability against other free people who have chosen evil. The world is perhaps still scary, but less so than if the Creator himself had the kind of character that made him willing to ordain child kidnappings and the power to ensure that what he ordains will certainly be accomplished.
Boyd closes his book with an appendix expositing 19 passages of Scripture that support the open view of God and of the future. What he has found is very compelling.
Do I think everyone currently residing on terra firma (earth) could benefit from reading this book? Yesss! We see in Scripture that because Jesus walked with total trust in his heavenly Father and carried out his part of The Plan, God could reciprocate and keep His Word both to Jesus and to all those who call upon his name. Hey, that’s you, right? So keep calling, by aggressively and passionately praying and obeying.
Closing note: There has never been a better time to get into people’s hands our book, Don’t Blame God! Have you read it lately? It expands upon much of what you just read, and it really helps people to love and trust God. In conjunction with that, our teaching, You Are the Only You God Has [available as an audio teaching and an article listed under God’s Foreknowledge], is extremely relevant to this whole issue, and it is a real winner.