The Downside of Omniscience

The Downside of Omniscience

Response to a Friend’s Question About God’s Omniscience


Quote from my essay, “Theological Theory of Everything”:

“God is not omniscient concerning human choices. Obviously he knows everything about the material universe. But he doesn’t know everything that his human creatures are going to do—which means he doesn’t know the future in its entirety.”

Quote from a friend’s email to me regarding the statement above:

“I’d be interested to hear what you read in scripture about this.” 


My response:

First I want to emphasize what I’ve said orally as well as in writing—that I have little desire to defend my theological statements. My primary calling is simply to share ideas that I believe to be true (or at least that are likely to be true) for you to contemplate and pray about. I especially am loath to provide “proof texts” in defending my ideas, since—as I stated in “Theological Theory of Everything”—you and I and virtually any halfway literate reader of scripture can shoot down almost any claim (including our own) with only a handful of proof texts if we have the motivation to do so.

I can think of many close friends whom I would decline to answer if they sent me a message identical to yours, because I know their predilection for proof texts. However, since I know you are not of that ilk, I will do my best.


As often as not, my most controversial conclusions arise out of inference rather than from unambiguous, panscriptural writings. I’m terrible about coming up with analogies and metaphors, but let me try.

Assume that we’re living a few centuries ago, with little knowledge of chemistry or physiology or laboratory methods. I look all about me year after year and surmise, “I believe the color green in plant leaves must be strongly associated with their survival advantage and general health and growth, because it’s almost universal—perhaps because green is helpful, or perhaps because other colors are not. I could in no way prove that assertion, but it makes eminent sense and is consistent with almost everything I see in the plant world.”

Here’s the comparison. I look at the first couple of chapters of Genesis and I discover an omnipotent being who is SO powerful he can just speak (whatever that means) and stuff appears: “Let there be light. And there was light.” Cool.

And he makes all sorts of living things—plants, and the craziest possible menagerie of critters. But then he makes a human being “in his own image.” And he tells the human being, essentially, “Be creative. You have authority over this place. You have authority over all the other animals.” And it makes eminent sense that, if God gave humans such authority, he wasn’t reserving it for himself—in other words, he was genuinely waiting to see what they would do. That’s what it generally means when you delegate authority to another person.

Later on, I learn that Yahweh has called his special people to be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). By reasonable extension/extrapolation, that implies that his people are to intercede for the world. THEY are to intercede (act as priests). Why doesn’t Yahweh do it all himself? It is consistent with almost everything I see in scripture that the entire creation is set up in such a way that people are supposed to do it all. That theme carries through to the very end, when we see what God intends to have in place at last—see Revelation 1:6 and 5:10, and finally, they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him. . . (Rev. 20:6 RSV). All along he wanted them (people) to do it, and in the end he will have his way.

It makes little sense for God to have ordained all the suffering of the cross, and for people themselves to have suffered, just to get to a point where humans are “reigning”—making sovereign, creative choices—while God fondly looks on, knowing full well every detail of what they’re going to do, smiling with affection at choices his kids (mistakenly) imagine to be their own.

I rather believe the texts to be quite serious and straightforward: God really did expect the humans to be making free, independent choices (that could even surprise God) from the beginning; and God genuinely will delight in seeing human beings “reigning”—making sovereign, free, independent decisions that can even surprise him—on the new earth. It’s just gotta be a lot more fun for God as well as for humans.

Three additional intersecting lines of thought:

(1) As I describe in “Theological Theory of Everything (and in several others essays), what God says through his prophets doesn’t always come to pass. Perhaps the most notable examples are the story of Jonah, and Jesus’ claims—which turned out not to be valid—that the end would come very soon, cf. Matthew 16:28. The most reasonable explanations to my mind are that God changed his mind because of exigencies created by human actions. Otherwise, if he is absolutely omnipotent and omniscient, he ought to have gotten it right 100% of the time. And his failing to get it right implies that he didn’t know precisely what was going to happen: Free choices made by myriad individuals certainly carry the possibility of making things go differently, at least on occasion, from the way God’s infinitely brilliant/analytical mind is able to predict.

(2) Similar to that line of thought: the instances (e.g., Genesis 18, Exodus 32:9ff., Amos 7) when human beings argued with (perhaps we should say bargained with?) God, whereupon we learn that God changed his mind.

Let me add a personal example: in the early 1970s, Elaine and I received a letter from one of Elaine’s college friends (who by then was also a friend of mine). She was living in Mexico, and was respected within the charismatic Christian fellowship there. In her letter she excitedly described how diverse Christian prophets from all over Mexico had reported receiving identical messages from the Holy Spirit—namely, that on a certain date (each prophet had identified the same date) there would be a devastating earthquake in Mexico, as judgment upon its wickedness. Our friend was excited about this clearly miraculous confirmation of God’s word from multiple sources; she and many Christians in Mexico were eager to see God’s word vindicated in a way that would make the Mexican people “sit up and take notice.” I wrote her back, urging her to communicate to her Christian brothers and sisters that they MUST not operate in the spirit of Jonah, who was more invested in being proved a genuine prophet than in seeing mercy given to the people of Nineveh; that the Mexican prophets should rather assume the spirit of Moses in Exodus 32, and the spirit of Amos, who saw God’s judgment and cried, . . . Forgive Israel! How can Jacob survive? He is too weak! (Amos 7:2 NET). A couple of months later, our friend wrote back to report that she had shared that message with her fellowship, and the basic ideas had been widely disseminated throughout Christian groups in Mexico. And people had repented, calling for prayer and fasting and intercession for Mexico. And there was no earthquake. This is the kind of story that anyone can easily “disprove” with third-grade logic, and therefore I never share it as an example of God’s intervention in human affairs. But for those who are inclined to believe, it’s a cool example of how God interacts with humans.

In these stories about God’s changing his mind, the way I see it there are two principal possibilities: either God was toying with the humans—knowing full well what they were going to say, and enacting a charade in order to educate them in some way; or God was indeed interacting with individuals on a near-equal basis so far as creativity is concerned (pace God’s being a lot bigger, smarter, powerful, etc.)—and was genuinely surprised by their reactions.

This is as good a place as any to introduce a major point of speculation. It seems to me that, (a) given a God who can read the minds of all his creatures and knows precisely what they are thinking or feeling or planning at all times and even what they will do for the indefinite future, or (b) given a God who made creatures who are so much like himself that they can come up with original thoughts and feelings and plans that even surprise the omnipotent Creator, it is the latter who is “bigger. It takes a really big God to make critters who can surprise even himself! (Yes, I am quite aware that God can read our thoughts, because I communicate with him constantly in a nonverbal way. But that doesn’t mean God can ferret out in the present time every complex thought or emotion or plan that our brains will concoct well into the future.)

(3) The third line of thought is pure speculation, but I believe it deserves serious consideration. Ask yourself the following (after all, you exist in the image of your Creator): would you want to interact eternally with zillions of creatures whose every thought and feeling and plan you already know, or would you prefer to socialize with individuals who can constantly surprise you and come up with cool stuff that even you hadn’t completely thought of? I can’t imagine that anyone would choose door number 1.

This speculation proves absolutely nothing. I can’t defend it with a single “proof text.” It may not be valid. But I believe the entire flow of scripture and salvation history points consistently and vigorously toward an understanding of our Lord that describes not only his omnipotence (total human independence required a really imaginative creative stroke!) but also his playfulness and his love. For in the end the God who is love is seeking a bride—one who loves reciprocally, absent any compulsion, totally free either to love or to reject. And how can that happen unless the lover isn’t even certain whether the beloved will respond in kind? So not only is God not always able to know our thoughts or our plans, there are times when he is unable to know our emotions with complete certainty. Is it not possible that our Lord was expressing genuine concern when he said, “. . .when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8 NET). (I like to compare Jesus’ trepidations with the first time I called a girl with whom I was madly in love, asking for a date.)

And it will have required end run after end run after end run around human interactions and resistance and sin and selfishness before our Creator, our Lover, could finally have his way without compromising that freedom, that independence, that creativity, that god-like-ness with which we were imbued (cf. Psalm 8:4-8)—before we would respond with tearful adoration and anticipation of that wedding night to end all wedding nights (cf. Revelation 19:7, 21:9)! For he suffered every pain, every bit of darkness, every rejection, every hatred that has ever been expressed or experienced, in order to gain at last the unsurpassing joy of voluntary, joyful intimacy for which he created humankind in the first place.

I probably wouldn’t say this aloud in a public forum, because it would be so jarring to many people’s minds that they would miss the point I’m making; but I believe you (rational, passionate lover that you are) will understand when I suggest that sex is the ultimate demonstration of this understanding. Let’s be realistic: 90+ percent of all songs are about romantic love, and that’s what motivates a large majority of human behaviors. And sexual intimacy is the ultimate expression and desire and end point of romantic love. I am bold to suggest that that is simply a fact.

Sexual intimacy drives an incredible proportion of (unfortunately broken) human behavior, because it reflects the grand experience that God intended for humankind in the first place. Our Creator God is a lover. And he molded the universe so that, after he had done everything that was necessary (requiring virtually infinite pain for himself) to win the freely chosen passion of his beloved, he might have a Bride capable of voluntarily returning his love. And what a wet rag would be tossed onto that process if he knew from day one what his beloved’s response would be!