By James M. Rochford

The term omniscience comes from two Latin root words that mean “all” (omnis) and “knowing” (scientia). This means that God knows “every true proposition and believes no false proposition.”[1] Indeed, God knows all true propositions—whether past, present, or future.

Biblical Basis

God sees everything. Job states, “[God] sees everything under the heavens” (Job 28:24). The Bible uses the metaphor of “eyes” to describe how God sees everything happening on Earth: “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, watching the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3).

God knows our thoughts. David writes, “You understand my thought from afar” (Ps. 139:2). Likewise, David told his son Solomon, “The LORD searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts” (1 Chron. 28:9). God “knows the secrets of the heart” (Ps. 44:21). Indeed, Hannah silently prayed “in her heart,” and her “voice was not heard” (1 Sam. 1:13). Yet, God still knew her thoughts and prayers.

God knows our freewill decisions before we make them. Jesus said, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Mt. 6:8). David writes, “Even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O LORD, You know it all” (Ps. 139:4).

God knows exactly how long our lives will last. David writes, “In Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them” (Ps. 139:16).

God knows all possible outcomes—even if they actually occur. This is referred to as middle knowledge. Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof writes that God “knows what is possible as well as what is actual; all things that might occur under certain circumstances are present to His mind.”[2] Feinberg also affirms that God “even knows things that possibly could occur, even if they never do.”[3]

For instance, when David was fleeing from Saul, he hid in the city of Keilah. David asked God if the men of Keilah would betray him if Saul came to the city. God said, “Yes, they will betray you” (NLT). As a result, David fled the city (1 Sam. 23:11-13; cf. Mt. 11:21-23; 2 Kin. 13:19; Jer. 38:17-23).

God has exhaustive and infinite knowledge. The psalmist states that God has named and numbered each and every star in the universe (Ps. 147:4). Thus, he writes, “Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite” (Ps. 147:5). The term “infinite” literally means “there is no number” (ʾayin mispār; cf. Isa. 40:28). The author of Hebrews states that “all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). Likewise, John writes that God “knows all things” (1 Jn. 3:20).

God knows the past, present, and future. Isaiah writes, “The former things have come to pass, now I declare new things; before they spring forth I proclaim them to you” (Isa. 42:9). Then, later he writes, “[God] announces the end from the beginning and reveals beforehand what has not yet occurred” (Isa. 46:10 NET).

What about passages that teach that God “remembers” or “forgets” things?

“God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Ex. 2:24). When the text states, “God remembered,” this doesn’t mean that God has a foggy memory. Instead, in the biblical sense, this means that God is choosing to act. For instance, when God remembered Noah, it meant that “God caused a wind to pass over the earth” (Gen. 8:1). When God remembered Hannah, it meant that he helped her with pregnancy (1 Sam. 1:19). Likewise, the problem with the dead is not their ability to remember, but their inability to act (Ps. 6:5). This is anthropomorphic language that the inspired author used to describe God’s complex mindset regarding his people. Stuart writes that the term “remember” (zākar) is “idiomatic for covenant application rather than recollection.”[4]

“I am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isa. 43:25; cf. Jer. 31:34). The word “remember” is a case of intensification from the previous line: “wipes out your transgressions.” This is an anthropomorphic way to describe our complete forgiveness. Grudem writes, “God will never again let the knowledge of these sins play any part in the way he relates to us: he will ‘forget’ them in his relationship to us.”[5] Feinberg writes, “This is just the biblical writers’ way of saying that God does not count these sins against us.”[6]

How can God know the future unless he causes or determines the future?

If God exhaustively knows the future, this means that all of our future decisions are already set in stone. For instance, from eternity past, God knew that Judas would betray Jesus in AD 33. Therefore, once God knew this, Judas had to betray Jesus; otherwise, God would’ve made an error.

For some, this difficulty leads to theological determinism where humans don’t truly have free will (i.e. Calvinism). On the other hand, others preserve human freedom by claiming that God doesn’t actually know the future (i.e. Open Theism). Even though these views are polar opposites, both seem to admit that God’s foreknowledge eliminates human freedom. But is this true? No. God’s knowledge of the future doesn’t eliminate free will.

First, this is a category error: Knowing is not the same as causing. You might know that I ate bacon and eggs for breakfast this morning, but does this mean that you caused me to eat that for breakfast? Obviously not. Knowing something does nothing to bring it into reality.

Yet, our knowledge of past and present events also applies to future events.[7] For example, in the film Minority Report (2002), three humans called “precogs” can see the future and stop crimes from occurring. While they know that these crimes will occur, they are not causing these crimes to occur. After all, if their predictions of the crimes made them responsible, then the policemen in the movie would be obligated to arrest the precogs, rather than the criminals! In the same way, God’s knowledge of the future identifies what humans freely choose to do, but he doesn’t cause them to do anything.

Second, this objection commits the modal fallacy. An example of the modal fallacy is this: “Something is true; therefore, it is necessarily true.” This is somewhat complex, but consider this argument below:

(1) Necessarily (If God knows that the Cavaliers will win the finals in 2040, then the Cavaliers will win the finals in 2040).

(2) God knows that the Cavaliers will win the finals in 2040.

Therefore, necessarily (the Cavaliers will win the finals in 2040).

Perhaps you can see the problem: Premise 2 lacks the word “necessarily.” This syllogism snuck that word into the conclusion. That makes this argument invalid.

In philosophy, the term “necessarily” means that the proposition couldn’t possibly be otherwise. For example, it is necessarily true that “triangles have three sides” or “a bachelor is an unmarried male.”

But is it a necessary truth that the Cavaliers will win the finals in 2040? Hardly! This is a contingent truth—not a necessary truth. While God knows with certainty that the Cavaliers will win, this doesn’t make the proposition necessarily true. “Certainty” refers to the psychological convictions of a person, but “necessity” refers to the truth of propositions. To put this simply, “people are certain; propositions are necessary.”[8] Therefore, the argument above is unquestionably fallacious.

Consequently, some fatalists bite the bullet and rephrase the syllogism to state:

(1) Necessarily (If God knows that the Cavaliers will win the finals in 2035, then the Cavaliers will win the finals in 2040).

(2) Necessarily (God knows that the Cavaliers will win the finals in 2040).

Therefore, necessarily (The Cavaliers will win the finals in 2040).

This argument is valid, but it isn’t sound. That is, the conclusion follows from the premises, but is each premise true? No.

How could it be the case the premise 2 is true by necessity? Put a different way, how could premise 2 not possibly be false? It’s easy to see that triangles necessarily have three sides, or that bachelors are necessarily unmarried. But is it necessarily true that the Cavaliers will win the finals in 2040? No, this is simply not a necessary truth.

God freely created the world, and he “could have created a different world, where [premise 2] is false.” God also had the freedom to created “no world at all.” To make premise 2 necessarily true “implies that this is the only world God could have created and thus denies divine freedom.”[9] No determinist would want to accept such a bizarre view of God’s creative freedom.

Third, some philosophical models show that God’s foreknowledge and human freedom aren’t logically incoherent. One such model is called Molinism.[10] Put simply, this view holds that God knows what humans would do if they were put into a specific situation. Since God has this sort of conditional knowledge, he chose to create a world where he knew that someone like Judas would freely betray Jesus if he was placed in certain circumstances. To be clear, Judas’ circumstances didn’t force him to choose to betray Jesus. Rather, God knew that if Judas was placed in those circumstances, he would freely choose to betray Jesus.

To illustrate this concept, consider the show To Catch a Predator.[11] On the show, law enforcement officials entice sexual predators to meet young girls through Internet chat rooms. When the predators try to meet the girls in person, the film crew brings the Police to trap and arrest them. If you watch the show, the men often plead, “I’m innocent… This was entrapment!” However, the Police and prosecuting attorneys retort by saying, “No way! You freely chose to act on your desire to prey on these girls. So, you’re going to prison.”

Is Molinism true? We’re unsure. At the very least, it gives us a possible theory that demonstrates that God’s foreknowledge and human freedom are not logically incompatible. But it’s simply a philosophical model, and we need to acknowledge that we have left the realm of revelation, and entered into speculation.

While Scripture tells us that God knows the future, it never tells us how he knows the future. Various philosophical theories could explain the compatibility of foreknowledge and freedom, but Scripture is simply silent on the subject. Thus, we prefer to appeal to mystery regarding how God knows the future, rather than trying to unscrew the inscrutable.

Fourth, Calvinism and Open Theism both make equal and opposite errors regarding God’s foreknowledge. How does God know the future? Calvinists claim that God knows the future because he causes the future. On the opposite extreme, Open Theists claim that free will invalidates God’s knowledge of the future; therefore, he can’t know the future.

Both views assume that foreknowledge and freedom are incompatible, so we need to reject one or the other. The Calvinist rejects free will, while the Open Theist rejects foreknowledge. Yet, as we have shown, this is quite mistaken.

The Bible teaches both God’s foreknowledge and human freedom, and as we have seen, these are logically compatible ideas. How exactly does God know the future free decisions of humans? I don’t have a clue. But I also don’t have a clue as to how God can create the universe from nothing. Yet, this is perfectly consistent with a maximally great being. Rather than denying either God’s foreknowledge or human freedom, we should affirm both of these clear teachings of Scripture and instead admit that the answer is a mystery to finite people. Indeed, this is what we should expect when studying an infinitely intelligent being like God. As Isaiah writes, “To whom would you liken Me and make Me equal and compare Me, that we would be alike?” (Isa. 46:5) It might be easier to teach a chimpanzee to play chess than for an infinite Mind to explain how he knows the future!

Does God’s omniscience eliminate his own free will? If God knows what He is going to do, then how can He choose to act differently?

Imagine knowing in advance everything that you were going to do for all eternity. Wouldn’t your perfect foreknowledge take away your ability to make free choices? Some atheists[12] argue that God’s foreknowledge would constrain his free will—even eliminating his ability to make free choices. Is this the case? No, this objection is riddled with problems.

Once again, this is a category error. Put simply, knowledge of an event doesn’t cause that event. For instance, I know that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States. But this doesn’t mean that I caused him to be the president. Likewise, I know that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but I am not causing it to rise.

In the same way, God’s foreknowledge doesn’t determine his future actions; rather, his future actions determine his foreknowledge. God’s future actions are logically prior to his foreknowledge—even though they are chronologically after his knowledge of them. It’s true that God cannot perform actions that contradict his foreknowledge, but it’s also true that his foreknowledge perfectly reflects what he will freely do.

A similar principle applies to God’s moral nature constraining his actions. God cannot lie because this contradicts his nature (Heb. 6:18; Titus 1:2). So, in a sense, God’s nature controls his actions. Yet we are discussing his own nature. He isn’t being controlled by something above himself or beyond himself. Instead, he is being constrained by himself.

What about Open Theism?

See our earlier article “A Critique of Open Theism.”

If God wasn’t omniscient, what implications would this have for our lives?

If God wasn’t omniscient, we wouldn’t know if our pain and suffering had any ultimate purpose. When you suffer, you often cry out, “Why?” But if God doesn’t know the future, then even he doesn’t know the answer to that question. Fortunately, you don’t have this problem as a follower of Christ. Paul writes, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

It’s true that you are “perplexed” when you suffer, but this doesn’t mean that you need to “despair” (2 Cor. 4:8). Even when you lack the explanations, you can still know that God has the answers and will one day explain this to you. However, if God is just as clueless as you regarding your suffering, then you really would have a cause for desperation. After all, not only are you clueless about why you’re suffering, but so is God!

If God wasn’t omniscient, then he could surely offer you comfort and consolation during times of suffering—much like a good friend. But he couldn’t gain your confidence or trust in leading your life.

If God wasn’t omniscient, we would have good reason to hide our sin. Perhaps Adam had this concept of God after his great and terrible Fall in the Garden. When we read about him hiding in the bushes, we often think, “What a fool! Didn’t he know that the omniscient God knew exactly where he was hiding and exactly what he did?” Yet, if God wasn’t omniscient, Adam stood a fighting chance of talking his way out of his sin.

Perhaps this is what you think when you hide your faults and failings from God and others. Maybe you think that God can’t see where you’ve been, what you’ve been doing, or who you’ve been doing it with. How foolish! You cannot hide any skeletons in your closet from the infinite-personal God: “There is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13).

Does this intimidate you? It shouldn’t. When you bring your problems into the light, you will experience God’s grace to entirely new levels, and you will experience hope and healing in new ways. David writes, “When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. 4 Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. 5 Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, ‘I will confess my rebellion to the LORD.’ And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone” (Ps. 32:3-5 NLT).

If God wasn’t omniscient, we couldn’t trust God to lead our lives. What would be the point of trusting God to lead our lives if he knew just as much as we do? Perhaps we would consult God as a colleague when making decisions, but not as a leader with any sort of expertise.

But again, this isn’t the case with the true God. We cannot improve on God’s leadership of our lives (Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 2:10), and humility requires us to subordinate our plans to God in view of his exhaustive knowledge (Jas. 4:13-17). This is why Solomon tells us, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:5-6).

If God wasn’t omniscient, we would constantly wonder if God was going to discover a reason to reject us. All of us keep secrets at times in our lives. It’s only natural to hold back from others when you fear that they will discover something that could result in alienation or rejection. This is quite an insecure place to live when you are one step away from being discovered for who you really are.

This can make the concept of God’s omniscience a terrifying reality. Perhaps you’ve had one of those nightmares where you’re giving a speech only to look down and discover that you’re buck naked!

Yet, that nightmare pales in comparison to standing fully exposed before the infinite-personal God. Here, we aren’t embarrassed from others seeing our naked body. Instead, it’s terrifying to think that God sees deep down into the secret thoughts and hidden actions of our very soul (Ps. 44:21; 139:2; 1 Chron. 28:9). The only pair of eyes in the universe who truly matter can see absolutely everything about you.

But there’s nothing to fear. God knows your faults more than you can possibly imagine, but he loves you more than you ever dared to dream. God has a deeper knowledge of your sinful secrets than any person you’ve ever met; yet he has a deeper love for you than any person you’ve ever encountered (1 Cor. 13:12; Gal. 4:9; 1 Cor. 8:3; 1 Jn. 3:20).

If God wasn’t omniscient, we would be tempted to engage in hypocrisy. Your motivation for authenticity grows when you realize that God sees who you are behind closed doors. This was the problem of the Pharisees. Jesus said,

“When you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. 5 When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Mt. 6:3-6).

The “secret” inner life of the believer is rewarded because God sees it. If you didn’t think that God knew what you were doing behind closed doors, this could very easily lead to hypocrisy, separating your inner life from your outward appearance.

[1] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (2nd ed., Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 1075.

[2] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 67.

[3] John Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), p.300.

[4] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 103.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 192.

[6] John Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), p.319.

[7] Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I Am not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity, 2004), 61.

[8] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (2nd ed., Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 1078.

[9] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (2nd ed., Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 1079-1080.

[10] For an introduction to this view, see William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000).

[11] I’m indebted to Craig for this illustration. William Lane Craig, “Response to Gregory A. Boyd,” in Four Views on Divine Providence, Zondervan Counterpoints Collection (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 226.

[12] Regarding God, atheist Richard Dawkins argues, “If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention.” Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 78.