Outcomes, Omniscience & the Abraham Dilemma
A Trillion Outcomes?
I have heard it theorized that God doesn’t actually know the future as a settled and determined fact, but rather that God, in His infinite wisdom, knows all of the possible futures that can be brought into existence, and has a plan ready for each one. As one author put it, this would account for a “trillion, trillion” possible outcomes. Some have even stated that we should stand in awe of the fact that God is so wise to be able to manage all of these myriads of possibilities.
There is, however, one large gaping hole in this theory. One of the most essential characteristics of God is His omniscience, the doctrine that God knows everything. If God were sitting back moment by moment waiting to see which way the future may fork at any given time, that means for just a split second, God would have to lay aside His omniscience to allow a specific “potential future” to become a reality. If God can lay aside His omniscience, then He would for just that moment cease to be God.
With God’s omniscience in view, the idea of God having contingency plans for every theoretical potential future is circular reasoning. If God truly is omniscient, and there were potential futures, He would know ahead of time which future would become reality, which would negate the purpose of preparing for all of these potential futures in the first place.
More on God’s Omniscience
Apart from philosophizing about this concept, what does the Bible say? Consider Isaiah 46:9-10…
Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:
This verse teaches that God declares the end from the beginning and tells about things to happen in the future from the ancient past, far before they ever take place. If the idea of God knowing all the potential futures and not just the future were true, this means that the verse would have to read “declaring the present from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that just happened up to this moment.” If this were true, it would be a flat contradiction of this verse.
I’ve also heard the argument that God must not have exhaustive knowledge of the future because many times in scripture we see God repenting, regretting and discovering things as if He didn’t know what the future would be. From the view of God’s omniscience, I would make the argument that although the scripture does indeed record these actions of God, God would know ahead of time that He would change His mind, regret and discover. As human beings, we can only understand the actions of God as snapshots within space and time. Thus, by comparing one event of history to the next, we can sometimes see that God does indeed exhibit these behaviors.
The Abraham Dilemma
Let me give an illustration from the life of Abraham that will show God knows about these changes ahead of time.
When God commanded Abraham to take his son Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice, we see that Abraham followed through with God’s instructions and would have indeed taken the life of Isaac had the Lord not stopped him. God responds to Abraham in Genesis 22:12…
And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
The highlighted phrase in this verse would indicate with just a cursory reading that God did not know that Abraham feared Him, and that after seeing Abraham’s obedience, God then knew.
However, let’s back up a few chapters and provide some historical context to this statement. God and two angels appeared to Abraham just prior to bringing judgment upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In God’s conversation with the angels and Abraham, a very interesting phrase is found that sheds some light on God’s knowledge about Abraham. Here is God’s statement from Genesis 18:17-19…
And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.
This verse, which occurs years before the offering of Isaac, tells us that God already knew before the later event ever took place that Abraham was going to obey His word concerning the things related to the covenant that God made with him. He foreknew Abraham’s obedience before it ever happened.
Does this mean that God was not telling the truth in Genesis 22:12? No, it simply means that God actually experiences foreknown changes of mind, regrets and discoveries. God knows things in different ways than what we know them. We are limited to this moment by moment existence in time and space, but God from eternity has the distinct advantage of being able to see the whole of history in a moment, a level of knowledge that we as human beings cannot even imagine.
How gracious God is to express His knowledge to us through His word in ways that we can understand, whether it be repenting, regretting or discovering. These passages show God pulling back a corner of eternity and revealing Himself to us in such a way that we can understand just a little. There is no need for God to manage a “trillion, trillion” possible outcomes in order for us to appreciate His wisdom and glory.