Further to my recent post asking whether God knows the future without having predetermined it beforehand, several people (friends and family included) have argued that because God is outside time He can see the whole of the future before Him, regardless of whether or not He determined it. An analogy sometimes employed to explain this linear view of time is that of a book which sets out the whole of human history, a kind of timeline of humanity, in story format. As someone who has read this book God can see everything that is going to happen before it actually happens, so the argument goes, without having predetermined it, because He stands outside of time and can at once see the beginning, middle and end of the book.
At first glance this seems a helpful way of understanding a God who is truly omniscient. I especially like the idea that events from long ago, from the deepest recesses of human history, are as fresh in God’s mind today as when they happened. It certainly gives an insight into a God who can forgive people now on the basis of events at Calvary then, which are just as fresh in God’s mind today.
But upon further reflection this book analogy begs, at least for me, two – related – questions. Firstly, aren’t the mechanics of this notion of a God who stands outside time quite different when comparing His being out of past time and future time? After all, the past has taken place, it has occurred and cannot be reversed (isn't this what movies and theoretical discussions about time travel always come back to? Remember Christopher Lloyd and the "space-time continuum" in Back to the Future? Pure class!). So for written time (the past) it is quite easy to conceive of a God outside time who revisits the past at His choosing (a bit like replaying a DVD). But isn’t the idea of a God outside of time visiting the future a somewhat different kettle of fish? How would this work? Those events haven’t happened yet, so how can God (excuse the analogy) fast forward the DVD player or read the second half of a book which is simply composed of blank pages? A “God outside of time” sounds profound, but unless someone explains how this works in practice, they are simply clever words which explain very little.
Of course, there is a way to explain how a God outside of time can visit and know the future: if it has been predetermined already. In other words, if the book (or DVD) has been produced in full already, then God – viewing from outside of time – can go back and forth and visit the various parts of the book or DVD as He pleases. But then this leads us to the second question which the book analogy raises, namely, who wrote the book? Conceivably only God could author the whole of human history, but then this raises another problem: if God is the Author of the Book, this means He has predetermined absolutely everything, which in turn means there is no such thing as genuine free will and we bear no responsibility for our actions. As such, we are guiltless of all that happens and the sole blame for the failings of all humans and humanity's history is the book’s author. Naturally, as a Christian I cannot accept this, believing that all the horrible evil which exists in the world is man's doing, not God's.
Another alternative is not to postulate one book but rather millions, “zillions” even, to take into account the myriad of possible permutations the future might take, as suggested in my previous post. Is this the only alternative to a history that has already been pre-written: the possibility of billions upon billions of routes linear time might take and which, naturally speaking, cannot be known until they have occurred? This is the logical outworking of open theism which argues that God does not plan the future, rather, we do (or at the least play a major role in shaping it). If God has not determined the future and works with us, adjusting and adapting His plans in light of the decisions we make, the future can take any one of a trillion forms, none of which can be known until it actually and finally occurs.
Actually, I do find the book analogy helpful, or rather a possible modified version. Let me say first, though, that I am no open theist. I greatly appreciate its focus on genuine free will and a God who works with and relates to His creation, but I baulk at the notion of a God who permits us to shape proactively the future while He passively follows behind in our wake, patiently picking up the pieces and readjusting His plans accordingly. Such a view clashes with my understanding of Heilsgeschichte (salvation history) which has been predetermined from the foundation of the world. Neither is the Heilsgeschichte metanarrative yet complete, with the parousia (Second Coming) and events leading up to it still yet to come about. But neither am I a supralapsarian Calvinist (in fact, I rather think many Calvinists are not either), stating God has foreordained everything. Once we take that route where do we draw the line? Do we seek to interpret every stubbed toe, every trip over the doorstep, every word we utter, as God's doing? You may laugh or regard such talk as bizarre, but there are people (Christians) who really think this way. I assure you once one becomes enslaved to such a view one can go quite mad seeking God's purpose in the most insignificant of events.
The key, it seems, is to find an analogy which reconciles both free will and God's will. So instead of a single book written in its entirely (no free will), or a book which is only half-written and the second half of which consists of blank pages (full, unfettered free will), or else zillions of books, only one of which is the correct book (i.e. that one which lists the correct sequence of the billions upon billions of possible permutations which can only become evident at the end of time), instead I propose the following modified book analogy for consideration.
Let’s say there is a book which sets out the whole course of human history and God’s dealings with humans, both collectively and with us as individuals (so it’s quite a massive book, then). The author of this book is God. He has determined the book’s beginning and has also written the final chapter. There are also various bits in between He has written and nothing can change these, as God’s plans cannot be thwarted. Heilsgeschichte is on track. Half this book has already been written in full. (Actually, we don’t know the exact fraction as we have no knowledge how far into the book we actually are; it all depends when Christ returns. We might be halfway through, three-quarters, nine tenths, even only a hundredth of the way through – only God knows). Now the remainder of this book – the future – has not yet been written. However, neither are these pages blank. After all, God has a plan that encompasses the whole of human history, having for example planned events leading up to His Second Coming. So let's say the chapter titles, subheadings, even the basic plan for each page, have all been predetermined by God. Meanwhile, He has also predetermined the milestones in each of our personal lives (eg Prov 16:9).
But in between are the paragraphs, the bits where free will comes in, that is, the minutiae of our lives, or even perhaps something more significant than the minutiae, quite important bits from our own perspective but which God permits us to determine and shape ourselves. To be sure, as Christians we can submit our wills to God (Rom 12:1-2) and allow Him to write those paragraphs. Thus we can make the Lord’s Prayer our own: “Your kingdom come, your will be done”, or we can rebel, so that the final version of that particular paragraph in our lives can look quite different, far less literate, from how God would have written it. Thus, from various proof texts we recognise God determines our path (eg Ps 37:23, Prov 19:21), but that doesn’t stop us making wrong choices and paying the consequence (which is, after all, the price of genuine free will). For example, we know from Scripture that God does not want Christians to marry unbelievers, but let's face it, many Christians do, often paying the price for disobeying this aspect of Scripture throughout their lifetimes. Hence, regardless of God’s master plan (Heilsgeschichte, chapter headings, subtitles, the milestones in our lives as children of God, or whatever), nonetheless we have been given free will to shape those parts of the future insofar as they pertains to us. So might the analogy of a partially-written book, with a second half consisting of broad brush strokes (excuse my mixing of metaphors) be a useful one? While the chapter titles and headings, indeed the plot and final chapter, have all been determined by God, conceivably the paragraphs are yet to be written by both us and also God’s chastisement and/or response to our actions. I wonder if such an analogy helps to explain how we might reconcile predestination and free will, a God who knows the future but one who also allows us to shape it too.
I like the book analogy for another reason. In the book of Revelation we are told at the Judgement that the books were opened (20:11-15 cf Dan 7:10). Twice we are told that in light of the contents of these books each person was judged according to their works. I don’t know if we are to take this passage literally or if it simply a metaphor (apocalyptic literature is known for drawing strongly on symbolic and pictorial language, and God certainly doesn't need physical books to record the whole of human history). Nonetheless there emerges in Scripture pictorial language of recorded time in book format.
Why It Matters
Actually, after I wrote much of this I asked my good friend Chris Lazenby, who dwells far more eloquently on philosophical issues, to have a quick read through my comments before posting them to make sure I hadn't dropped a clanger. He kindly said I hadn't, but as we chatted back and forth for an hour about what exactly time, omniscience, the future, and various other related issues actually mean, and the ramifications of each, I was struck by how in some cases we might never provide satisfactory answers. At that stage I decided it was worthwhile ending this rather abstract comment on a practical note (yes, you've read this far and have found out I now wonder if the whole thing is a waste of time!). In short, why does this issue matter? Well, the first thing it requires us to do is give some serious thought to the sovereignty of God and what that actually means. If God is truly sovereign, then that surely means everything He wants will come about. But of course it hasn't and won't. For example, in 1 Peter 3:9 we learn He does not want any to perish, but for all to come to repentance. Yet Scripture quite clearly indicates not all will be saved (universalists would argue otherwise, but that is for another time!). So maybe we need to reconsider our human understanding of what a sovereign God is. I'm quite sure God could be the sovereign God we've all envisaged at some time or other, the God who determines absolutely everything. I just no longer think He is. I think, maybe, that by giving humans free will to obey Him or sin, bad things happen which are our fault, not God's. In short, a sovereign God has relinquished some of His sovereignty so that we can have free will. This merits further thought, because if it's true it has a massive bearing on how we view and relate with God, and how He has made us and views us and the trust He places in us. Second, the concept of an only partial predetermined future and genuine free will, whereby we will give an account of what is written in those books about us, ought to make us think very carefully about our actions. There are divine expectations of us, much like the servants were required to given an account of how they used the money entrusted to them by the Master in the Parable of the Talents. In short, free will comes at a price.