Omniscience – the logical difficulties of God knowing everything

  • Two questions on a similar theme, now:

    The first is from GT, United Kingdom:

    What does it mean for God to be all-knowing?

    The second, more specific, but covering the same area is from NP, United Kingdom:

    Does human free will override divine purpose? If God knew Adam and Eve were going to fall, why didn’t he prevent sin in the first place?

    The Christian description of God owes much to ‘classical theism’ developed by the ancient Greek philosophers, which states that God is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere (omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent). The ‘unmoved mover’ and similar ideas of a primal God that is the source of everything (including the pantheon of Graeco-Roman gods) can be found in the works of Aristotle and Plato. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, many leading Christian theologians had been extensively educated in the works of these philosophers, and so the classical conception of God was absorbed into Christian theology.

    This view of God does however clash with the Christian assertion that “God is Love” (1 John chapter 4, verse 16), giving rise to the philosophical conundrum known as the ‘Problem of Evil’. This runs as follows: ‘God is omnipotent, omniscient and loving and therefore can prevent evil and would want to prevent evil. Yet evil exists.’ The reason evil exists has been the subject of much debate in Christian theology, with various justifications (‘theodicies’) being made.

    If God is all-knowing, then he would presumably have known the results of giving Adam and Eve (or any human being) free will. The Biblical ‘Fall of Mankind’ (in Genesis chapter 3) is a direct result of God’s gift of free will. Under the classical model, God therefore allowed it to happen and so, through giving free will and not preventing the Fall, God becomes indirectly responsible for the state of the world. That is not to say that God is to blame for sin, but it does explain the extraordinary sacrifice of the Incarnation and death of Jesus Christ, who ‘bore the sins of the world’. The death of Christ took the experience of death, which is the punishment for sin, into the eternal Godhead, removing it from creation.

    However, another way of viewing God’s gift of ‘free will’ is found in ‘kenotic theology’. This comes from a phrase in Philippians where Christ is described as ‘emptying himself’ during the Incarnation (Philippians chapter 2, verse 6-11, sometimes the Greek word ekenosen is translated as ‘humbled’, but its literal meaning is ‘emptied’). It could be hypothesised that in order for free will to be genuine, the outcome of any action cannot be known. Therefore, in a similar fashion to Christ’s humbling ‘emptying of himself’, God may have accepted a self-imposed limitation on his omniscience. This could be why later in the Genesis narrative of the Fall, God searches for Adam and Eve and does not know where they are (Genesis chapter 3, verse 9).

    There are many competing arguments over why God felt it necessary to give human beings free will. By far the most persuasive is the idea that God seeks reciprocal love from created beings, but for such love to be genuine, it has to be the product of independent decision-making creatures. However, the insistence on adhering to the classical view of God being all-knowing, does impact on the belief in human free will. In short, knowing the outcome gives God the option of influencing any decision and it could be argued that as a result human free will is a total illusion because all consequences are dependent on God.

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