Does God Know the Future? (Bruce Epperly)

If God knows everything that has happened and will happen, and God is all powerful, does prayer matter?  This is the question that Bruce Epperly ponders in today's posting.  It is an important question that too often we evade.  So, take a read and engage Bruce in conversation.


Does God Know the Future?
Why Does it Matter for Those Who Pray?
Bruce Epperly

When I was a child, my mother posted a magnet on our refrigerator that proclaimed, “Prayer changes things.” I have always taken this motto seriously. While I have many ways of praying – I use words, images, energy, touch, and silence at various times – I pray for things, large and small, knowing that within God’s reign and the interdependence of life, there may, in fact, be no small things.

As a practical and constructive theologian, I am interested in how our beliefs shape our practices and everyday lives. Accordingly, the question of divine foreknowledge is important to me. Does the fact that God knows – or does not know – everything in advance shape our faith and practices of prayer? In this essay, my answer is a resounding “yes” and, more than that, I assert that a God who does not know the future – a God for whom the future is open – inspires us to pray and claim our role as God’s partners in changing the world. In contrast, a God who knows everything in advance renders our prayers unnecessary.

Classical theology asserts that God knows the plot lines of our stories before we were conceived. As Rick Warren states, God has planned all the important events of our lives without our input. God holds the past, present, and future, according to classical theology, in an eternal now. Divine omniscience and omnipotence are intimately connected: because God’s knowledge is always active and never passive – God creates but does not receive. Accordingly, we can add nothing new to God’s experience. More interestingly, if God perfectly knows and decides all that will occur in changeless eternity, then nothing new can happen to God and God can do nothing new in the ongoing history of the universe. If divine knowledge is complete and divine action is perfect, any variation of either on God’s part is unnecessary and would imply the existence of imperfection in God’s nature.

What are the implications of divine foreknowledge theologically? First, our prayers really make no difference to God or anyone else. God already knows – and may have planned – what will happen. Prayer is entirely for our sakes and changes nothing in the condition of those for whom we pray. Our belief that our prayers make a difference is an illusion, grounded in our temporal existence. Second, and more radical, a God who knows and plans everything in advance may be described as “all powerful,” but such a God actually has finite power, since God can do nothing to alter God’s knowledge or plan. God is caught up in an eternal “Groundhog Day” in which God experiences the same universe and same finite events over and over again, with nothing new possible.

I assert that a God who neither knows – nor can determine – the future in its entirety not only makes the statement “prayer changes things” meaningful, but also has more options and influence than a God who knows and determines everything in advance. To clarify, there are two ways of looking at omniscience: 1) knowing everything – past, present, and future – as actual or 2) knowing everything in the past as actual and knowing the future in terms of possibility, but not actuality. I opt for (2) and believe that it allows us to interact creatively with a living God, and not a fully determined, unchanging God. God knows everything up to this moment in time and the landscape of future possibility, but not the actuality of what will occur.

To summarize, if God neither knows nor determines the future in its entirety, then our prayers add to the universe and support God’s ever-present aim at wholeness, beauty, love, and healing. Our prayers open the door for new possibilities of well-being for others and allow God to be more creative in bringing shalom to our lives and the world. Our prayers shape, to some degree, others’ experiences and, thus, allow for a greater influx of divine energy and possibility. Second, a God for whom the future is open can do new things, explore new possibilities, and shape the world in unexpected ways in partnership with the ongoing universe. God is not a prisoner of God’s past decisions. This is truly a living God: even though we have real freedom and creativity that places limits on the expressions of divine activity, God has infinite resources to respond to the world as it is and will be. Ironically, a God who is limited in some ways has more power and creativity than one who has determined everything in advance. God is alive, creative, novel, and creative yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

In an open universe in which creativity and freedom and real, our prayers are important: they shape us and others, and enable us to be God’s partners in healing the world.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly.


Doug Sloan said…
God can still be God and not know or control the future.

The problem with God knowing the future is that the future is not singular. With every choice we make 1) numerous new futures are made possible for ourselves and for others now and for all future generations and 2) numerous other futures are made impossible for others now and for all future generations, indeed some future generations will no longer be possible. When considering all life, the number of possibilities is dynamically beyond what can be enumerated.

The problem with God controlling the future is that it negates free will. God created the universe with its infinite chaotic complexity to enable the appearance of life and especially sentient free-willed intelligent life.

God is as interested in seeing the results of our choices as we are. For God, the purpose of life is two-fold: 1) the journey taken by life and 2) how life discovers and relates to God.
John said…
I agree, God is as dynamic as is God's creation. God's dynamism is reflected in Creation - creation has manifested itself in God's 'image and likeness'. I long ago rejected the teaching of traditional theology that God is "all knowing" and possesses knowledge of all things in the future. The notion seems to me to be naive and intended to deny the complexity of what God has created. Not only that, it seems to box God in: the claim is that God cannot exist or survive in a world with known outcomes. It appears to me that traditionalists perceive the idea of unknown outcomes as a threat to God (or to the God they want to worship) - insisting that there are only two possibilities: either God is constantly exercising complete control of all things, or God is powerless.

Does God know the future? Does God even want to know the future? It seems to me that for God to have knowledge of the future would preclude the visible dynamism that underlies all of creation. God did not create humanity as a race of wind-up dolls. Instead he created humans with the ability to dream dreams and to make choices. And God created the cosmos in such a way that there appears to be a built-in uncertainty in most things - kind of like a random number/event generator, so that in nature things are always happening in new and different ways.

As a result, even though the universe seems to follow certain patterns in how it operates on a micro- and macro- level, events and accumulations of matter and energy are constantly mutating and morphing into new and different configurations.

I think that was God's macroscopic plan all along. Microscopically, on the human level, I am still working out what that means - but I have accepted the dynamism of life and the universe in general as an 'a priori' principle from which to proceed.

Bruce Epperly said…
Thanks John and Doug for your great theological reflections.
val said…
It is written: A woman shall compass a man and create a new thing in the earth (Jer 31:22), the man is Satan(Isa 14:16), the new thing is turning the hearts of the fathers to the children. It is written: Satan has deceived the whole world (Rev 12:7), until the heel of time when a woman shall bruise him(Gen 3:15). Check out the bruising of Satan by exposing his lies at
David Mc said…
Perhaps we are each writing a novel for God. God wouldn't peek at the ending, I think. If he did, maybe we can assume he'll skip the middle?
John said…

Correction: I said, "the claim is that God cannot exist or survive in a world with known outcomes."

What I meant was: "the claim is that God cannot exist or survive in a world with UNKNOWN outcomes."

The sense I get from traditional theology is that uncertainty about information is unGodlike, or anti-divine. Perhaps God not uncertain about truth, but I think God is comfortable with uncertainty about human choices, and the future of Creation in general.

As I write this I am reminded of Asimov's Foundation series and the 'psycho-history' of Harry Seldon. We humans want to think that knowledge, even knowledge of the future, is determinable and quantifiable, and capable of being grasped and articulated with precision and indeed perfect accuracy.

What if all knowledge, even the knowledge possessed by God is only estimation and approximation and by its very nature incapable of precision and definitive accuracy, not because we don't have the intellectual tools but because of the nature of knowledge itself. Knowledge is after all a creation of God and not something outside of God over which God has mere control. And, as even traditional theology will admit, our information about God and all of God's creation is limited to perceptions, estimates, and approximations.

David Mc said…
How can we make such a big gift out of free-will if the creator knows the outcome? That's not free, it's predetermined approval of our final product. We can, and do, declare victory even before the finality, but that's not of knowledge (except if you count scripture) it's faith. To be not so sure, and still fight for pure good? I think that's called fearlessness.

Hey John, Asimov? I think I read all his stuff as a teenager. Seems like I read most of it 2-3 times since he often repeated himself in different books. He was pretty concise otherwise.
Doug Sloan said…
More precisely, the future does not exist and it is completely unknowable by any entity.
Doug, you can get a sense of where the future is heading, but as we all know there are no guarantees!
Doug Sloan said…
Since the future does not exist and because we have free-will, God can be surprised by our choices.
Anonymous said…
Would this imply that God is the Alpha and the well.. Sigma? Not all the way down to the Omega?

This is another one of those conversations were I feel we pull God off the throne and put him on our level. Jesus prayed even though he clearly knew he would die. Why isn't prayer about communion with God.. a conversation.

I guess my big question is who is God? I have read here that he didn't create the universe, he doesn't know what will happen, he doesn't judge, he doesn't need atonement for transgression against what he says.. is he just a real nice old man with some nice platitudes and stories for us to listen to?.. if we even want to listen? The Bible is just a nice story.. great to read at bedtime, but we keep making it up and writing more stories as we go.. so there is no real power in what it says, simply a nice idea.

Am I missing something? I want to draw these suggestions out to their ultimate meaning vs sound bite religious thought.

David Mc said…
Good points Chuck. We're mere mortals and are left with our questions. The Alpha and Omega statement can be very comforting to many. I suspect God does see time and eternity in a way very different than us- by design. I think there are some good points made, but not "ultimate meanings" by any stretch. Good luck with that. Ultimate meaning = Heaven in my book.
John said…
Hey Chuck,

I too am uncomfortable with "sound bite religious thought," but I think the proper name would be Twitter theology or perhaps Twitology? The idea of compressing my faith statement into 140 characters or even 250, seems too concerned with simplification.

God as Alpha and Sigma - I like that! - but "Delta" might better represent the ideas than Sigma. The end of the human story, the end of the divine story is not written yet. Perhaps God is aware of the now and of the later, perhaps he designed the the now and the later - perhaps not. The human need to define God and God's Creation has led humans to impose on God the definition of Alpha (as if there were beginning) as well as Omega (as if there were an end), all of which is to leave humans with the unspoken assumption that God exists in a linear framework. But even traditional theology rejects the notion that for God there was a beginning or an end, and rejects the notion that God is bound in any way by human notions of time. So I think we should avoid attaching too much significance to a alphabetical metaphor, especially when it skews our thinking about ideas which are not relevant to the metaphor.

But Delta is helpful for me. I know that everything in creation is always changing, if not in substance, then in speed and/or location and/or time. Change. I have come to regard Change as more important than beginnings or endings. We are made in God's image. Then perhaps our very ability to change and adapt is part of the divine image and likeness which resides within us and in which we reside. Scripture tells us that each of God's children were given the option, the choice, to change or not. The stories preserved in Scripture are about those people who chose God, who chose to change. Perhaps Alpha, implying the source of all things, and Delta, the source and spirit of change, are better Greek letters to describe what we know about God.

John said…

OK I'm going to preach some more because I am too tired to re-write this to be less pedantic.

You said: The Bible is just a nice story.. great to read at bedtime, but we keep making it up and writing more stories as we go.. so there is no real power in what it says, simply a nice idea.

The Bible is not a nice story. It's words also don't convey just one nice idea for all time and for all people. The Bible was inspired and preserved by God as a source of revelation of the Divine, and of the Divine will for those who have the eyes and ears to discern it's truths. And the message adapts with time, culture, circumstance, and the individual seeking meaning from its words. It's meanings change. It is just not so simple as a bedtime story. And we do not make up meanings, but pray to God to reveal through it's words the meaning God has in store for our lives. We have to get used to change.

The Bible is not a nice story. It is all about people who constantly reject God and turn their back on God, and about a God who is faithful through it all. It is about people on a journey out of the Garden, through an unknown wilderness to the place that God has set aside for them, and about a journey from oppression and slavery, through a desert in fear and deprivation, about exile in a strange land where the people do not know God, and journey back again to the promised land, which when they arrive, is not all it's cracked up to be. It is about a world which is full of surprises, and full of choices, full of disappointments, and full of goodness. And it is about a God who is faithful through it all.

And in it God teaches us how to live: to love one another, to forgive, and to be compassionate. The Biblical prophets come one after another, each teaching us to spend less time enforcing the Law and more time caring for one another. And when the prophet is killed the people return to the Law as a horse returns to its barn. And then along comes another prophet teaching compassion, and when he is killed, his message is soon forgotten. And then Jesus comes along, to teach the same lesson, yet ever more forcefully, and he too is killed. And notwithstanding the gift of the Resurrection, within too few years the Church begins to trot out the straight jacket. And through it all God remains faithful.

Doug Sloan said…
The Bible is important and deserves to be studied seriously and theologically.

In the history of this scripture, taking them literally is a "new" development that began in the United States in the mid 1850s.

For many, many centuries prior to that, it was widely understood that much of the scripture was to be taken metaphorically or as parable whose purpose was to invoke questions and provoke discussion, not provide singular answers.

So the discussions we have on this site are a faithful response to the scripture - a faithful response that has a long history. Our faith is a journey not a destination.
Doug, a literal interpretation didn't begin in the 1850s, with people taking them metaphorically prior to that. One of the key platforms of the Reformation was putting aside the allegorical interpretation that had dominated in the middle ages. The allegorical/spiritual interpretation was used primarily so that texts could be made useful in that era. It was understood that the underlying texts might tell history, but that wasn't the important element.
David Mc said…
If calculus is the language God talks, no wonder we're confused.

"Do you know calculus?" I admitted that I didn't. "You had better learn it," he said. "It's the language God talks."
Doug Sloan said…
God is timeless. More precisely, God is beyond time, beyond the constraints, confines, and control of time. God is not bound by events or expectations. God is bound by the conditions imposed by the act of creation and God is bound by the relationship God has with each of us.
John said…
Doug, you say that God is bound by the constraints ofcreation. Are you saying that God cannot do the miraculous? You said that God is not bound by events and expectations; does that mean that God is not bound by covenants, or that God does not answer prayers?

Definitions are problematic, especially when applied to that which defies definition.

Doug Sloan said…
My theology is my own and places no obligation on you and vice versa. Nonetheless, I appreciate the discussion - it helps me to refine and fine-tune my theology.

Here is a refined restatement of my position to which you referred in your question:

God is love and grace. These are unchanging characteristics of God that define who God is, has been, and always will be. God is timeless. More precisely, God is beyond time, beyond the constraints and confines and control of time. God is not bound by events or expectations. God is bound by love and grace; God is bound by the conditions imposed by the act of creation; and God is bound by the conditions imposed by the act of being in relationship with creation.

As background, here is a small portion of how I understand God...

God is the Creator, Artist, Designer, Engineer, and Programmer

God’s creation works chaotically

God’s creation does not work randomly

God is not a dictator, puppet master, control-freak, or mechanic

God is not micro-managing or fixing the universe

God is not experimenting or playing with the universe

- - - - -

God is not capricious

God performs neither miracles nor acts of retribution

God neither intervenes nor condemns

The only miracle is the resurrection and transformation of the human spirit,
not preceded by death, to the service of the Good News

Such a change deserves the respect and wonder and contemplation
that has always been reserved for the miraculous

God created the universe to work a certain way. God will not interfere with the mechanics of the universe until its operation has run its course.

God created a chaotic universe so that sentient free-willed life would appear. God will not interfere with free-will.

Grace is not awarded for satisfied requirements and grace is not earned for works or acts and grace is not part of a quid pro quo arrangement or relationship and grace is not a stipulation of a contract or covenant. Yet, we live, we exist and have always existed, in (not “by”, not “because”, not “alongside”) the grace of God. Grace is always freely available and freely supplied and supplied freely unconditionally and abundantly without exceptions and without restrictions and without qualifications. Grace and conditions are mutually exclusive, even oppositional. A faith full of grace has no conditions. A faith with any condition or any qualification or any requirement or any exclusion has no grace. God has never required and never recognized and never accepted any sacrifice by anyone for anything. God requires nothing of us – this is grace.

God accepts whatever we bring to the God/person relationship – personality, talents, inabilities, cognition, knowledge, ignorance, life journey, spiritual journey, walk about, wandering, seeking, questioning – and emotional and mental status: love/hate, anger/peace, sadness/happiness, hurt/health, agitation/serenity, apathy/passion, confusion/clarity, fractures/wholeness – all of this, all of whoever we are and have ever been and have ever contemplated, we bring to the God/person relationship and God accepts the totality of who we are as a gift. The constant inviting presence of God and the unconditional acceptance of us in our entirety as a gift – this is love.

Through the constant presence of God, we are constantly invited by God, we have a constant opportunity from God to accept and acknowledge the grace and love of God and to live a life imbued with and possessed by the grace and love of God. Each of us has something to offer to God and God has only good – unconditional grace and unrestrained love – to constantly offer to each of us.
David Mc said…
I like Doug's hypothesis. At least it logically explains reality. Does it leave you empty? I find it as fulfilling as any other story.
John said…
Much to think about, and I think much to agree with.


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