Does God Know Everything
Before it Happens?

By James L. Morrisson



Do not go beyond what is written"
(1 Corinthians 4:6).


The Bible tells us that God is omniscient. He knows everything. He knows many things before they happen. The Bible speaks of many things as being predestined or foreordained - large words that mean that God planned them and knew of them before they happened.

It also tells us that man has free choice, free will, and will be held accountable for the choices he makes. This implies that not everything is foreordained and that how man chooses makes a difference.

Theologians have struggled for centuries to try to find a comprehensive formula fitting these two principles together. I hesitate to deal with such matters, but perhaps a simple and nontraditional approach may have something in it that is useful.

I shall start by saying that I rather like the approach of C. S. Lewis, a man of remarkable vision and insight. In "The Great Divorce" he raises this question with an elderly Scotsman, who replies, "Dinna fash [trouble] yourself about that, laddie. Ye canna understand it now."

Lewis' point, I believe, is that we humans live in a world that is measured by space and time. Everything happens in a certain physical space and a certain time sequence. God, who created everything, created space and time. God is not limited by what he created. In his dealings with us he usually works within the space and time limitations that we live in, but he himself is not limited by either space or time. While we are on earth, limited by space and time, we cannot understand how God sees time. The Bible tells us that "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day" (2 Peter 3:8). Almost 2,000 years ago Jesus said that he was coming "soon" (Revelation 22:20). His sense of "soon" must be rather different from ours! (Unless otherwise noted all Scriptures are from the New International Version, and any emphasis has been added.)

It also seems that at times something happens in the spiritual realm long before it happens in the physical realm. Samuel told Saul, "The Lord has taken the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it... to one better than you" (1 Samuel 15:27). It was over 20 years later, after many close calls, that David actually became king of all Israel.

God is the God "who is, and who was, and who is to come" (Revelation 1:8). He is the eternal "I AM" (Exodus 3:14; see John 8:58). Perhaps it can be said that God exists outside of time, and that, to him, the past, the present and the future are all one. The Bible doesn't really tell us. But I think it quite likely that God sees time differently than we do.

While on earth we humans "see but a poor reflection, as in a mirror" and we "know in part" (1 Corinthians 13:12; see also verse 9). I believe these statements apply just as much to our understanding of Scripture as they do to any other area of our understanding The Bible tells us that God's ways and his thoughts are not our ways and thoughts; they are far higher (Isaiah 55:8-9). Paul, the most intellectual of the New Testament writers, said, "Oh the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out!" (Romans 11:33). Isaiah declared that God's "understanding no one can fathom" (Isaiah 40:28). Job said , "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know" (Job 42:3; see also Psalm 139:6).

God "has given us everything we need for life and godliness, through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness" (2 Peter 1:3). He has revealed a great deal about his ways. He has revealed all we need to know. But he has not answered all our questions. Scripture was not written to answer all our questions. Scripture is not a book of systematic theology. It was not given to us primarily to delight our intellects, although it often does that. It was given us to change our lives. It is "living and active", it "penetrates", it "judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). It is "at work" in us who believe (1 Thessalonians 2:13). "The engrafted word of God... is able to save your souls" (James 1:21 KJV). "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). Jesus' words "are spirit and they are life" (John 6:63). "The one who feeds on me will live because of me" (John 6:57). The truth of God's word cleanses and sanctifies us (John 17:17). I believe it is primarily God's word, as revealed in his Scripture, that enables us to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2).

Because our understanding of this area is limited, I suggest that it is wise to follow Scripture's admonition, "Do not go beyond what is written" (1 Corinthians 4:6). "Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar" (Proverbs 30:5-6; see also Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32; Revelation 22:18-19).

In this spirit let us look at some of what Scripture has and has not said about God's foreknowledge.


God knows of many events before they occur. Scripture is full of predictive prophecies, in which God declares in advance what will later occur. Some of these prophecies are fulfilled almost at once, as with Jesus' prediction that Peter would deny him that night (Matthew 26:34). Some are fulfilled within a fairly short period of years, such as Jesus' prediction of the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem which occurred about forty years later (Matthew 24:2). Some are fulfilled hundreds of years later, as were the many Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Messiah. Some may relate to the very distant future, such as Peter's prophecy of a new heaven and earth (2 Peter 3:12-13).

How does this occur? Let me suggest two ways.

  1. As I have noted, it may be that past, present and future are all one to God. Our time-limited minds find it hard to imagine how this could be, or what it would be like. But it may be that in one aspect God can perceive and deal with things outside of any time frame, while in another aspect, perhaps simultaneously, he deals with man within the time frame in which man lives. This is all speculative, because Scripture does not really tell us.

  2. Scripture makes it very clear that God is in control of history, of human events. It also says that God plans many of these events before they occur. In this sense God knows the future because he has planned it and his plans will be carried out.

Let me give one example. About 586 B.C. the kingdom of Judah was destroyed by Babylon, and many of its people were carried off into captivity in Babylon. Scripture says that God's anger was aroused at them because of their disobedience and idolatry and "he brought up against them the King of the Babylonians" and "handed all of them over to Nebuchadnezzar" (2 Chronicles 36:17). He told Jeremiah, "I am about to hand this city over to the Babylonians, and to Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, who will capture it" (Jeremiah 32:28). God raised up a harsh pagan kingdom to carry out his purpose of punishing Judah for their persistent disobedience and idolatry.

In this context, consider God's words as given through Isaiah:

"Remember the former things, those of long ago. I am God and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me. 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. From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose. What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do" (Isaiah 46:9-11; see also Isaiah 14:24, 27).

Much of what we call predictive prophecy is simply God announcing ahead of time what his plans are and what he intends to do. God makes plans and then carries them out. "I foretold the former things long ago, my mouth announced them and I made them known; then suddenly I acted and they came to pass" (Isaiah 48:3). His plans cannot be thwarted (Job 42:2; Psalm 33:11; Isaiah 14:24). God "works out everything in accordance with the purpose of his will" (Ephesians 1:11). And he has declared, "Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7; see also Isaiah 42:9).

We tend not to recognize how intimately God is involved in everything that happens on earth. He raises up nations and brings them down. "He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing" (Isaiah 40:23). He tears down and destroys and builds up and plants nations and kingdoms (Jeremiah 1:10). "There is no authority except that which God has established" (Romans 13:1). God declares, "With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please" (Jeremiah 27:5).

God says, "There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand" (Deuteronomy 32:39). "I am the Lord and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I the Lord do all these things" (Isaiah 45:7; see also 1 Samuel 2:6). God is omnipotent.

God sustains "all things by his powerful word" (Hebrews 1:3). "His judgments are in all the earth" (2 Chronicles 16:14). Not one sparrow falls to the earth "apart from the will of your Father" (Matthew 10:29). "The eyes of the Lord are everywhere" (Proverbs 15:3). Nothing escapes his notice (Psalm 139:7-12; see Psalm 19:6, Proverbs 5:21).

Sometimes this is expressed in surprisingly strong terms. "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" (Psalm 139:16).

All of this is very reassuring. We can take great comfort in knowing that God is in charge, that he sees everything that is happening, that he is all-powerful and that what he plans will be carried out. Because he is all-powerful, and also all-good, he is our fortress and our stronghold, and we can put our trust completely in him. It is good to know that we can, indeed, "trust in the Lord with all your heart" (Proverbs 3:5).

But does this mean that everything is foreordained, planned and controlled by God in advance, determined by God before it happens? Let us look at another major thread in Scripture.


Scripture teaches clearly that God has given man free will. Man can, and must, choose. His choices have consequences, often very heavy consequences. Man is accountable to God, and will be judged by the choices he makes.

God did not create man as an automaton, or a robot. He wanted someone who would serve him and love him, not out of necessity, but out of choice. He wanted a love and a service that were freely given. If we do not understand this, we do not understand much in Scripture.

God gave Adam and Eve one commandment: Do not eat of the Tree of Knowledge. They chose to disobey God. They chose to do it their way rather than God's way. They chose to believe the serpent (satan) rather than God. They, and all mankind, have paid the consequence for their choice. "Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin"; "the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men"; "through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners" (Romans 5:12, 18, 19). Disobedience is a choice. One man's wrong choice brought sin, death and suffering into the world.

Were Adam and Eve free to choose? Did God know ahead of time how they would choose? He knew that they could disobey, but did he know that they would disobey? Did he intend that they would disobey? Was their disobedience part of his plan?

There are some who argue that God must have known that they would disobey. I have great difficulty with this argument. It seems to me to be saying that God deliberately set Adam and Eve up for failure. It is saying that, when God created Adam and Eve, he put them under the curse of sin and death. If this were true, how could God say that all that he had made was "very good" (Genesis 1:31)? It also seems to me to be saying that God willed and intended, from the beginning, that death, sin and suffering would come into the world. If God knew from the beginning that Adam and Eve would disobey him, then he must have intended from the beginning all the terrible consequences of their disobedience I find this very hard to attribute to God. Unless the words of Scripture clearly compel it, I am very unwilling to say that God intended, from the beginning, to bring sin, death and suffering into the world.

As I read Genesis chapter 3, it shows God as surprised and disappointed by the choice Adam and Eve made, and as changing several of his plans because of what they had chosen. God said to Adam and Eve, "What is this you have done?" (Verse 13). Then he said "Because you have done this" (verses 14, 17) various new things would happen. Eve would have pain in childbearing (verse 16). Adam would undergo painful toil (verses 16-17). Because "the man has now become like one of us", Adam and Eve would no longer have eternal life (verse 22). Adam and Eve were expelled forever from the garden (verses 23-24). The whole context, as I read it, is, "You have disappointed me; you have not done what I hoped and expected you would; therefore I will have to make a number of changes in the way I deal with you." It seems to me this is the natural reading of the chapter.

Revelation 13:8, referring to "the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world" (KJV has "foundation") seems to speak of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection as predestined from the time the earth was created. This would seem to imply that Adam and Eve's disobedience was predestined. But note that the first Scripture that can be read as a prophecy of Jesus' coming is Genesis 3:15, which comes after, and as a consequence of, their disobedience. On the whole, I do not read this passage as outweighing the strong sense that I find in Genesis, chapter 3, that Adam and Eve had a genuine choice, and could have gone either way.

Throughout Scripture we find this theme of choice. Always it is presented as a genuine choice. Men are free to decide either way. And they are responsible for the choices they make.

In Deuteronomy, chapter 28, God explained in great detail the blessings that he would bring if his people Israel choose to obey him, and the curses that he would bring if they choose to disobey him. If they obey him, he will bless "everything you put your hand to", he "will open the storehouse of his bounty", he "will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you", "the Lord will make you the head, not the tail", etc. (Verses 1-12). If they do not obey, "the Lord will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin", he "will plague you with diseases", he "will cause you to be defeated before your enemies", he will "afflict you" with boils, tumors, festering sores, madness, blindness and confusion, he will "bring a nation against you from far away", he will "bring on you every kind of sickness and disaster", he will "ruin and destroy you", etc. etc. (Verses 15-68). Although these curses are primarily stated as applying to the nation of Israel, God made it clear that they apply also to individuals (Deuteronomy 29:18-21).

Then God gave them a choice, stated in a manner that emphasizes its awesome importance. "This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).

God told them that how he dealt with them would depend on the choices they made; he spelled it out in great detail. He then presented them with a clear choice. He told them which way he wanted them to choose. But he left them free to choose. Unfortunately they did not choose as he wanted. Much of the rest of the Old Testament is the story of the wrong choices the Israelites made in response to this challenge. God repeatedly warned them, but they refused to listen. Eventually he destroyed Israel (the northern kingdom) and sent Judah into captivity in Babylon and Persia for 70 years because of their persistent disobedience.

It was because they refused to listen and to repent that God brought disaster on them (2 Kings 17:7-23; 2 Chronicles 36:15-17; Jeremiah 11:17, 16:10-13, 17:4, 32:30-35, 35:17, 44:2-6). Did God plan this disaster from the beginning? Was it his intention, before the Exodus began, that the nation of Israel would be destroyed and its people scattered? I do not think so. Scripture says that all these disasters came on them because of their choices - choices that were not predetermined but that they made because their hearts were wrong.

These passages deal primarily with the nation of Israel. God has also stated blessings and curses that apply to choices we make as individuals (see, for example, Psalm 1; Isaiah 3:10-11, 5:8-23; Jeremiah 17:5-8; Luke 6:20-26).

In the New Testament God repeatedly gives choices to us as individuals. Jesus began his ministry by calling on people to "repent and believe" (Mark 1:15). To repent, metanoia, is to make a choice. It is to think differently, to reconsider, to make a change. To believe is also to make a choice. Jesus spoke of a narrow gate and road that lead to eternal life, and a wide gate and road that lead to destruction. It is up to us to choose which one we will enter and follow (Matthew 7:13-14). Jesus tells us to "make every effort to enter through the narrow door" (Luke 13:24). He tells us that if we put his words into practice our house will stand, and if we do not put his words into practice we will face destruction (Matthew 7:24-27). It all depends on our choice.

John's gospel tells us that some received Jesus and some did not (John 1:11-13). Those who chose to receive him gained the right to become children of God. Some believed in Jesus and gained eternal life; others did not believe and were condemned (John 3:16, 18). Some chose light and some chose darkness (John 3:19-21). It all depended on their choice.

Paul tells us to live by the spirit and not by the flesh (Galatians 5:16-26). He tells us, "God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life" (Galatians 6:7-8). "If you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God" (Romans 8:13-14). "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature" (Colossians 3:5).

"Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness" (Romans 6:13). We can be "slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness" (Romans 6:16).

"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds" (Romans 12:2). "Put off your old self", and "put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-24). "Make every effort... to be holy" (Hebrews 12:14).

These are all choices, that have important consequences. There are many others that could be mentioned.

Scripture expects men to take an active part in their own spiritual growth. This is why we find so many vigorous words and phrases in Scripture, such as "make every effort", "strain", "struggle", "pursue", "run with diligence the race set before you", "fight the good fight", "persist", "resist", "stand", "take hold", "guard", "endure to the end", etc. If everything is preordained, what would be the use of all this strenuous effort? I believe God wants and expects our cooperation in much that he does. "We are God's fellow workers" (1 Corinthians 3:9). We and Christ are yoked together (Matthew 11:29). We are part of the body of Christ; he is the head and we are the body parts, all working together "as each part does its work" (Ephesians 4:15-16). We work and he works (Philippians 2:13).

This is absolutely amazing. Why would the creator of the universe want or need my cooperation in anything? But God is often amazing, and I think Scripture is quite clear that he does want the cooperation of each of us, and that his plans for each of us will not be fulfilled unless we cooperate with him in their fulfillment.

God is sovereign. He is in total control. He does as he pleases. But one of the ways in which he has chosen to exercise his sovereignty is to give men free will. He allows us to choose. He warns us of the consequences of our choice but he will not interfere with our choice, even though he sees that it will lead to disaster. He has made our free will an essential part of his plan.

I believe God has a destiny for each of us. He has a plan and a purpose for each of us. But we will achieve that destiny, that plan and purpose, only if we desire it and cooperate with God to achieve it. He will not impose it on us, nor will he bring it about without our active cooperation.

To say this is not to lessen or deny God's total sovereignty. It is simply to describe the way in which he has chosen to exercise his sovereignty.

God "works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will" (Ephesians 1:11). His plans cannot be thwarted and will be carried out. But what is his purpose? What are his plans? I believe Scripture shows rather clearly that, while sometimes he may foreordain things precisely, quite often he makes his action depend on the choices we men make. I'll discuss this further in the next section.


It has been said that God knows everything in advance except that he cannot know how men will exercise their free choice. I think this is an overstatement. As I look at Scripture, I find some cases in which God accurately predicted what men would do. I find other cases in which it seems that God did not anticipate what men would do. Let us look at what Scripture tells us about this issue.

1.  Some cases in which God accurately foretold
what men would choose to do.
  a. Exodus 3:19, "I know that the King of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him." When God said this Pharaoh was an adult, ruling as king, who considered himself god. Yahweh God already knew a good deal about his character. God also hardened Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 4:21), thereby confirming what was already in him.
  b. Deuteronomy 31:16-18. Shortly before the invasion of Canaan, God spoke a remarkable prophecy through Moses. God said, "These people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them. On that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them and they will be destroyed." He continued, "I know what they are disposed to do, even before I bring them into the land I promised them on oath" (verse 21). In fact this is what happened, although not until a good many years later. Note that by the time he gave this prophetic word, God had already seen the rebellion and disobedience of his people on a number of occasions.
  c God foretold the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. He foretold, accurately, that these pagan nations would behave in a certain fashion, and would attack in certain ways. Scripture even indicates that he raised them up for this purpose and caused them to attack. In other words, it was not entirely a matter of their free will.
  d. God prophesied that he would raise up Cyrus, King of Persia, as his servant who would allow Jerusalem and its temple to be rebuilt (Isaiah 44:28-45:4). (Persia conquered Babylon, so the Jews became captives in Persia.) This happened. "The Lord moved the heart of Cyrus King of Persia" to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1:1). Again, this does not seem to have been wholly a matter of Cyrus' free will.
  e. Jesus correctly predicted that Peter would deny him (Matthew 26:34).
  f. Jesus repeatedly predicted his own crucifixion (see, for example, Matthew 16:21). The Jewish leaders "did what [God's] power and will had decided beforehand would happen" (Acts 4:28). The crucifixion was predetermined by God.
  g. Judas is an interesting case. Scripture tells us that "Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him" (John 6:64). In his great prayer the night before he was crucified, Jesus referred to Judas as "the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled" (John 17:12). This sounds as if Judas' betrayal of Jesus was predetermined by God. But there is another side to it. Jesus' crucifixion was predetermined. But was Judas' part in it inevitable, or did it depend on Judas' free choice? As I read the record, Jesus deliberately gave Judas an opportunity to repent and change his mind. At the Last Supper Jesus said "One of you will betray me" (Matthew 26:21). When Judas asked, Jesus replied "It is you" (verse 25). Was this an invitation to Judas to change his mind? That is how I see it.
Then Jesus said, "The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born" (Matthew 26:24). He seems to be saying, in effect, "Judas, I will be crucified, as Scripture has foretold. But you don't have to be the one who betrays me. If you don't do it, God will arrange some other way for it to happen. Think what you are doing and save yourself from a terrible outcome." Judas chose not to change. According to John's gospel. Jesus offered Judas a piece of bread dipped in the dish, Judas took it, and "As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him" (John 13:27). Is not this saying that it was Judas' decision to take the bread (thereby confirming that he was the betrayer) that finally sealed his outcome? Note that when Jesus referred to Judas as "doomed to destruction" it was after Judas had chosen to accept the 30 pieces of silver, after he had refused to turn away from his plan of betrayal, and after satan had entered into him. Was Judas "doomed to destruction" because God had preordained Judas' destruction, or was he doomed because of the choices he made? The record is not wholly clear, but I tend to favor the view that Judas could have repented and saved his soul, and that he was "doomed" because of the choices he made.
2. Cases in which it seems that God did not foresee
how men would act.
I have found a surprising number of examples in this category. I shall mention quite a few of them, because I have not often seen the issue discussed in these terms, and because I think many may be surprised at the conclusion to which they seem to point. Perhaps no one example is conclusive, and some of them could be given more than one interpretation. (I am simply stating what seems to me the plain and natural meaning of the texts.) Nevertheless I think their cumulative force is quite persuasive.
  a. Genesis, chapter 3. Adam and Eve. I have discussed this above.
  b. Genesis 6:5-7. Before the Flood, Scripture records, "The Lord saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the Lord said 'I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth - men and animals and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air - for I am grieved that I have made them.'" (KJV has "it repenteth me that I have made them.") The result was that God caused a cataclysmic flood which destroyed the whole earth (see 2 Peter 3:6), except for 8 members of Noah's family and the animals he preserved on the Ark.
The Hebrew word translated "grieved" means just that. It speaks of physical or emotional pain or sorrow, or being displeased or vexed. The Hebrew verb which KJV translates as "repent", naham, means, essentially, that God changes his mind, "he relents or changes his dealings with men according to his sovereign purposes" (Harris, Archer and Waltke, "Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament", Moody Bible Institute, 1981, vol 2, p. 571). There are quite a few passages in which Scripture speaks of God as repenting, in this sense. The plain meaning of this text, I think, is that God looked at what man had become, he was deeply grieved, pained and disappointed, he changed his mind (repented), and he decided to destroy his creation and start all over with Noah and his immediate family. If God had known in advance that this was what would happen, why would he be grieved and pained, why would he repent, and why would he change his plans?
  c. After the Israelites worshiped the golden calf at Mt. Sinai, God said to Moses, "Your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and said 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.' I have seen these people... and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation" (Exodus 32:7-10). Is it not clear, from this passage, that the Israelites behaved in a way that God had not expected? Because of this his anger burned against them, and he decided to terminate his covenant with the people of Israel, to destroy them totally, and to start all over again with Moses and his descendants. Actually Moses interceded for the Israelites with God; God relented (KJV "repented") of his decision to destroy the Israelites; and he continued his covenant with them.

God promised that he would give the Israelites the land of Canaan (Leviticus 14:34; Numbers 13:2). He expected that they would start to take it soon after they left Mount Sinai. They refused to do so, choosing to believe the unfavorable report of the ten "spies" rather than the promise of God (Numbers, chapter 14), and God said to Moses "How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they" (Numbers 14:11-12). Again, God relented of his purpose to destroy Israel and start all over with Moses, but he did declare that no Israelite over 20 years of age (except Caleb and Joshua) would enter Canaan. Their children would be the ones to enter it (Numbers 14:20-31).

Scripture refers to the Israelites' action as "unbelief", "disobedience", "rebellion" against God, and "contempt" for God (see Numbers, chapter 14; Deuteronomy 1:26; Hebrews 3:12, 4:6). These are all words implying choice. It seems very clear that the Israelites chose not to do as God expected, that he was angry at them for their disobedience, and that he changed his plan for the conquest of Canaan because of their disobedience. Look at God's language: "How long will these people treat me with contempt?", "How long will this wicked community grumble against me?" Is this the language of someone who is seeing people act in the way he knew they would? Is this the way one would respond to behavior that was foreseen and expected?

God's plan was fully carried out despite the Israelites' disobedience and rebellion. It was delayed for almost forty years, and this generation of Israelites had no part in carrying it out, but it was carried out. God's plans cannot ultimately be defeated by our disobedience, but those who disobey can lose a great blessing that he wanted to give them.

  e. God tested Abraham. He asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac, in whom rested all the promises God had given Abraham. Abraham prepared to do so, and at the last minute God provided a ram for the sacrifice (Genesis, chapter 22).
Did God know how Abraham would respond to this test? To me the text is rather clear that he did not. God wanted to find out what Abraham would do, and his subsequent treatment of Abraham would depend on how Abraham responded. "The angel of the Lord" said "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son" (verse 12). "Because you have done this and have not withheld your son", God renewed the many promises he had already given Abraham (verses 16-18). "All nations on earth will be blessed because you have obeyed me" (verse 18).

James says of this, "was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did`" (James 2:21-22). Does this sound like something preordained, in which Abraham had no choice?

  f. God promised that Eli's descendants would minister to him forever. But because they disobeyed him and failed to honor him, he terminated that promise, saying "Far be it from me! Those who honor me, I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained" (1 Samuel 2:30). Because Eli's sons did not act as he had hoped and expected, God declared void a commitment he had previously made.
  g. God said, "I am grieved that I have made Saul King, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions" (1 Samuel 15:11). (KJV has "it repenteth me"). Because Saul had disappointed him so grievously, God took the kingdom away from Saul (verse 28).
  h. Isaiah 5:1-7 is a parable about a vineyard which the Lord planted and prepared. I shall quote it in full, because I think it illustrates so clearly the point I am making.

"I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge and it will be destroyed. I will break down its wall and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it. The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress."

The parable is the history of Israel and Judah. God is saying, "What more could I have done for you?" "When I looked for good fruit, why did I get only bad?" "When I looked for justice, why did I see only bloodshed and unrighteousness?" Are these the words of someone who foresees and preordains everything in advance, so that nothing that happens is a surprise? Are they not, rather, words of intense sorrow, disappointment and even amazement that his people did not do as he had expected them to?

Jeremiah 2:21 is similar, although much briefer. It expresses a similar surprise, "How then did you turn against me?"

  i. We hear this same sense of amazement and even horror in God's words to Jeremiah, "'Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all). But my people have changed their Glory for worthless idols. Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror' declares the Lord, 'My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water'" (Jeremiah 2:11-13). If all of this was foreseen in advance, why the intense amazement and horror? Other Scriptures speak of God being amazed, appalled or horrified at what men have done or failed to do (see, for example, Isaiah 59:16, 63:5; Jeremiah 5:30, 18:13).
  j. Jeremiah 32:35 says, of idolatry and child sacrifice committed by the Israelites, "I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing." Jeremiah 19:5 is similar. How can God be said to have foreseen something that never entered into his mind?
  k. In Jesus' parable of the tenants, the landowner (God) sent messengers to his tenants, whom the tenants mistreated. "Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son', he said" (Matthew 21:37). But they killed the son. And so he took the vineyard away from them and gave it to another. The landowner (God) did not anticipate what the tenants would do. He said "They will respect my son." Instead they killed the son. And so he changed his plans.
  l. I have saved for the last a group of Scriptural passages in which God makes it very clear that whether a prophecy is fulfilled according to its terms often depends on how men respond to it. I think they show that God's action is often contingent on what men may decide to do, and is not irrevocably preordained.

God told Solomon, "When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land" (2 Chronicles 7:13-14). How God treats us depends on the choices we make.

Many years later, God told Jonah "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you." Jonah went and proclaimed, "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned" (Jonah 3:2, 4). Nineveh fasted and repented, and "when God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened" (Verse 10). (KJV says God "repented".) Jonah was angry, but God said that he had the right to have compassion on Nineveh and to decide not to destroy it.

Still later God made a general principle of this:

"If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it" (Jeremiah 18:7-10).

This passage would make absolutely no sense if God always knows in advance how people will act. If everything is preordained, there would be nothing to change. But God is saying that, to a remarkable degree, his plans for us are contingent on our own attitudes and actions. God is sovereign, but he chooses to exercise his sovereignty in a way that takes into consideration how we humans act. Is not this clearly saying that God does not always predetermine, or even know in advance, how men will act?

Later still, God applied this principle again. He told Jeremiah to speak to the people of Judah. "Tell them everything I command you; do not omit a word. Perhaps they will listen and each will turn from his evil way. Then I will relent and not bring on them the disaster I was planning because of the evil they have done" (Jeremiah 26:2-3). Note that word "perhaps". Does this sound as if God knows in advance what they will do?

Jesus applied the same principle. Twice he said, "Unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:3,5).

God applied this principle in his many prophecies about the destruction of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. He begs his people to repent, to change, to listen. It is only when they refuse over and over that he finally brings to both kingdoms the destruction that he prophesied. See, for example, 2 Chronicles 36:15-17, "The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God's messengers, despised his words, and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians." God did not want to bring destruction on his people, but he was finally compelled to act because of the repeated wrong choices his people made. His action was very much influenced by their choices.

I think that in this area of prophecy we can see the two threads that I have spoken of earlier. Sometimes Scripture speaks of future things as foreordained. Jesus said that he could avoid crucifixion by calling on his Father to send his angels. Then he said, "But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way" (Matthew 26:54; see also verse 5). Acts 4:28 says that Pilate and the Jewish leaders did "what your power and will had decided beforehand would happen." In Revelation 4:1 the voice of Jesus told John, "Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this." But on many occasions it is clear that what God ultimately decides to do will depend on what man does or does not do. It is not foreordained, but depends on man's choice

Does Scripture contradict itself? Is God inconsistent? No. I suggest that God, in his sovereignty, is free to act as he chooses. Some things are foreordained and he will not allow them to change. In other things, what he ultimately does depends on man's choices. God is free to act either way, as he sees best. He is not limited by our doctrine or theology.

3. God longs for men to make the right choices,
but he will not force them.

One theme that keeps sounding in these Scriptures is God's sorrow over the ways man chooses to behave. God reaches out to us in love. He longs for our companionship. He begs us to return to him. And he is saddened by our refusal to respond.

"God is love" (1 John 4:16). "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19; see also verse 10). "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son" (John 3:16). It all starts with God's love for us. God takes the initiative. This is extraordinary. So far as I am aware, Judaism and Christianity are the only religions which speak of a loving God.

God says to his people, "I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness" (Jeremiah 31:3). The Psalms speak over and over of his chesed, his loving-kindness (see, for example, Psalms 17:7, 36:7, 63:3, 103:4). "Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness" (Lamentations 3:22-23).

He will not force us to return his love. He wants us to love him of our own free will. But it saddens him when we to do not respond. We see this sadness in a number of Scriptures.

Jesus said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing, but you were not willing" (Matthew 23:37). One can almost hear the tears in his voice. What he looked for has not happened, and he is deeply saddened that it has not. I believe we hear the same sadness in Isaiah's parable of the vineyard, "What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?" (Isaiah 5:4; see also Micah 6:3). Again, God said, "What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah?" (Hosea 6:4).

Repeatedly God begs his people to return to him. "'Return, faithless people', declares the Lord, 'for I am your husband'" (Jeremiah 3:14; see also Jeremiah 4:1; Hosea 14:1). "All day I have held out my hands to an obstinate people" (Isaiah 65:2). "Seek me and live" (Amos 5:6). "The Lord longs to be gracious to you" (Isaiah 30:18). God says, "I long to redeem them, but they speak lies against me" (Hosea 7:13). "The more I called Israel, the further they went from me" (Hosea 11:2).

"I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen. I called you, but you did not answer" (Jeremiah 7:13; see also Jeremiah 25:3, 4, 7, 35:17). "I warned them again and again... But they did not listen or pay attention" (Jeremiah 11:7-8) "When I came, why was there no one? When I called, why was there no one to answer?" (Isaiah 50:2; see also Isaiah 65:12, 66:4). We see it over and over. God is pleading with us to listen, to answer, and is deeply saddened at our refusal to do so.

Are these the words of someone who has known from the beginning exactly what would happen? Or are they the words of someone who is deeply disappointed in the choices his people have made, but still will not interfere with their freedom to choose?

There are times when we reach a point of no return with God. God said, of his people Israel, "Do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them because I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their distress" (Jeremiah 11:14; see also Jeremiah 7:16). But this came only after God had repeatedly pleaded with them to listen, and they had refused. Even then, God later restored his people, and told them, "'I know the plans I have for you' declares the Lord,' plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:11-13). God's compassions are, indeed, "new every morning"!

4. Predestination and election.

There is a view that men's decision to be saved is predetermined. It asserts that some people are predestined, or elected, for salvation and others are predestined, or elected, for damnation. The concept is that, when or before any person is born, God has decided either that he will go to eternal life with God, or that he will go to eternal punishment. God has decided irrevocably which it will be, and nothing the person does can change that decision.

I have several problems with this view. I shall state them very briefly and simply, in the hope that out of that very simplicity some light may possibly flow.

First, Scripture declares unequivocally that God's purpose is for all men to be saved. God "wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). God is "patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). "My Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes on him shall have eternal life" (John 6:40). God sent his son because God loved "the world" (John 3:16). He "takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). He is "the atoning sacrifice" for "the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). (According to Strong, kosmos, "world", means the physical world including its inhabitants.) "The Lord has laid on [Jesus] the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6). God "did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all" (Romans 8:32). "We have put our hope in the living God, who is the savior of all men, and especially of those who believe" (1 Timothy 4:10). The result of his act of righteousness was "justification that brings life for all men" (Romans 5:18). "The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men" (Titus 2:11). God is "loving toward all he has made (Psalm 145:13, 17). "Everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matthew 7:8; see also Revelation 3:20). When Scripture tells us so clearly and so often that God wants everyone to be saved, how can we say that God intends, and therefore wants, some men, perhaps most men, to be damned? How can we attribute to him a purpose which directly contradicts what Scripture says is his purpose?

Let us look more closely at 2 Peter 3:9. God wants "everyone to come to repentance." Indeed, Peter says that Jesus has delayed his Second Coming for the purpose of giving more people an opportunity to repent. Is not this saying, quite clearly, that everyone has an opportunity to repent and be saved? Repentance was central to Jesus' message while on earth (Mark 1:15). How can one assert a doctrine under which repentance is said to be impossible for many? Scripture says that there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7, 10). Why should there be rejoicing over something if it was predestined long in advance?

There are some who have argued that God's purpose cannot be that all men be saved, because we would then have to say that his purpose has failed, since many, perhaps most, are not saved. We cannot, it is argued, admit that God's purpose has failed. I think we have to stand with what Scripture says, no matter where it seems to lead us, and Scripture says that God wants all men to be saved. But if we state God's purpose more precisely, the supposed problem disappears. If we say that God's purpose is to offer salvation to all men, that his desire is that all men will accept the offer, but that he will not interfere with man's freedom of choice, then his purpose has been fulfilled perfectly.

Second, so far as I can find, all the Scriptural passages dealing with predestination or election speak of predestination or election to salvation, or to other good things. We are chosen "to be holy and blameless in his sight" (Ephesians 1:4) We are predestined "to be adopted as His sons" (Ephesians 1:5). We are predestined, and chosen, to hope in Christ and to be for the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:11). We are "created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2:10). We can put on the new self , "created to be like Christ in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:24). We are "predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son" (Romans 8:29). Whether the word is predestine (proorizo), foreknow (proginosko), elect (eklektos), or some other word, I do not find any Scripture that says that some men are predestined, preordained or elected to damnation. (The one possible exception to this is the case of Judas, discussed earlier. To me it seems fairly clear that Jesus offered Judas a chance to repent and that he could have repented.)

To say that anyone is predestined, or elected, for eternal damnation is to go beyond what is written. There may or may not be logical reasons for asserting that position, but I believe they rest on human reasoning and not on Scriptural revelation.

I think we can carry the point further. If the only Scriptural references to predestination speak in terms of predestination to good things, does not that indicate that God's destiny for us, his predestination for us, is only good? He wants all men to be saved, to have eternal life with God, to become like Christ, etc. But he wants our cooperation, and he will not force that. When men choose to become stiff-necked and rebellious, then God's righteousness and justice require him to bring judgment on them. As I read Scripture, it seems to me to say that God's purpose for all men, his plan for all men, his destiny for all men, is always good, but we, by our rebelliousness, can fail to achieve what God destined us to achieve.

A Scripture that I find suggestive here is Matthew 25:41. Jesus says to the goats, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels". This suggests that originally God never intended that any human would go to eternal punishment. It was only after Adam and Eve disobeyed that it became necessary to use Hell as a place where humans would be punished.

Third, the Scriptures which talk about salvation all talk in terms of a choice that men make. None of them speak of salvation as something predetermined by God in which man can have no effective choice.

Those who believe in Jesus have eternal life; those who do not believe are condemned already (John 3:16, 18). We have a clear choice, to believe or not to believe. If we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved (Romans 10:9). Again, we have a choice. Those who obey Jesus are saved (Hebrews 5:9). Obedience is a choice. There are two gates and two roads; one leads to eternal life and one to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). We must choose which gate and road we will take. In each case, Scripture says that our salvation is based on our choice, and only on our choice. It seems to me that these Scriptures directly contradict a view that our salvation or damnation is predetermined by God and we have no choice in the matter.

We see this just as clearly in the Scriptures relating to final judgment. The sheep and the goats are judged by what they "did" or did not do (Matthew 25:40, 45). "Everything that causes sin and all who do evil" are thrown into the fiery furnace, while "the righteous" shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Matthew 13:41-43). God's angels "separate the wicked from the righteous" (Matthew 13:49). "Those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" (John 5:29). The test, in each case, is what did men do? What choices did they make? There is no suggestion that it is all predetermined so that their actions have nothing to do with it. (I am not saying that we are saved by our deeds.We are saved by faith, and only by faith, but genuine faith must be shown by our actions.)

How can it be asserted that our salvation or damnation is predetermined, and rests on God's predestination or election, when none of the texts that talk about salvation say anything about predestination or election, and all say that our salvation or damnation rests on the choices we make?

Some who argue for predestination would say, "Yes, it is a matter of choice. But only those whom God has called by his grace are capable of making the right choice." We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Salvation is a gift of God. The faith that leads to salvation is itself a gift from God. But can we say that God offers that gift to some and not to others? Can we see him as saying, before each child is born, "This one will be saved, and that one will be damned"? Jesus said, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32).

Romans 9:18 might be thought to say that God does make this kind of choice. It says that "God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden." This does not tell us when God makes the decision to have mercy or to harden. Consider the following:

a. God hardened Pharaoh's heart to resist the Exodus of the Jews. But by the time God said "I will harden" Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3), Pharaoh was an adult, the ruler of Egypt, who considered himself to be god. God already knew Pharaoh's character (see Exodus 3:19), and he was reinforcing what was already there.

b. Isaiah 6:9 says, "Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart. and turn and be healed!" This was said after many years of obstinate rebellion by God's people Israel.

c. Romans 1:18-32 speaks of those whom God "gave over to a depraved mind" (v. 28). This occurred because they had already rejected God by their actions.

d. Hebrews 6:4-6 speaks of some whom it is "impossible" to bring to repentance. The context is clear that these are people who, after knowing God, have chosen to turn away from him and reject him.

e. Romans 9:13 says "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." This choice did occur before birth (verse 11), but it has nothing to do with salvation. It deals with God's choice of Jacob for a special function, that of becoming the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. (Incidentally, "hate" can mean "love less". Compare Luke 14:26 with Matthew 10:37.)

I believe that God has clearly stated his purpose that all men will be saved. Our destiny is to be saved. I see no convincing evidence in Scripture of any other purpose or destiny that God has for mankind.

Unfortunately, many of us refuse to accept the salvation that God offers us. We do not cooperate with God. We rebel and are stiff-necked. For that reason, we fail to realize the destiny which God has for us, and we incur his punishment. But our failure to achieve our destiny is not because God's purpose for us was our destruction. It is because we chose not to accept his good purpose. The responsibility lies with us.


This is a large subject. Much more could be said about it. But I think we can see some things fairly clearly.

First, this is an area which we cannot expect to understand fully. We do not have all the answers. Scripture tells us quite a bit, but our knowledge and understanding of it will always be imperfect and incomplete.

Second, God is totally sovereign. He is in control of everything in his creation. The question is, how has he chosen to exercise his sovereignty? My sense, after reviewing this material, is that some things may be foreordained, but many things are not. God quite often bases his action on what men choose to do or not do. If they make one choice he blesses them. If they make the other choice, he will eventually bring disaster on them. To a remarkable degree, he has chosen to work in cooperation with us, so that his plans for us, as individuals or as a nation or other group, will come about only to the extent that we accept them and cooperate with them.

If we truly believe that God is sovereign, we need to accept the fact that he will exercise his sovereignty in the way that he chooses, and not necessarily in the way that we think he should. .

Third, can God always foretell how man will exercise his free will? In some cases he has done so, but there are quite a few cases in which it seems that he did not foretell or expect what men did. Because men did not act as he had anticipated, he changed his plans for them.

Fourth, whether or not the foregoing is true, I think that we men should always act as if we have free will and as if we will be held accountable and responsible for the way in which we exercise our free will.

Fifth, ultimately our faith is in a person, not a doctrine or a theology. Paul wrote, "I know whom I have believed" (2 Timothy 1:12). Our faith is in who God is and in what we know about his character. We also know that "In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). I suggest we always need to be careful not to get so locked in to a particular theology or set of doctrines that we lose faith in God if he does not act according to our expectations.