Foreknowledge and The Unbeliever

‘The problems created by the teaching of absolute foreknowledge are clearly understood by the unbeliever. While witnessing one often hears questions in the form, “If God knew, then…?” Ranging from foreknowledge  versus   free-will  to  the   problem  of  the   innocent suffering, the questions assume many forms, but all share one quality—they all question the justice of God. “If God knows what I will do, how can I have free will?” “If God knew my mother would die in an accident, why didn’t he stop it?” “If God knew most of us would end up in hell, why did he create us?” “If God knew Adam and Eve would sin, why did he put the tree in the garden?” “If God knows whether I will be saved or lost, what difference does it make if I believe in him or not?”

The unbeliever is usually brutally honest with  his  questions about God. While we Christians play theological ping pong, the unbeliever usually argues using a philosophical shotgun. He goes straight to the heart of the matter and any target is fair game, as he realizes, maybe better than we, the stakes are commensurate with eternal life or death. The dishonest unbeliever, seeking to avoid the demands of the Gospel, will present any argument against God which will allow him to remain in his unbelief. Unfortunately, absolute foreknowledge presents many opportunities for the non- Christian to question God’s justice. He deserves honest, intellectually-satisfying answers, but the concept of absolute foreknowledge, especially as it relates to free-will, almost always becomes a stumbling block to  belief.

Unbelievers have very little patience with  people  who use phrases like “contingent certainties” or “fixed freedom” or “pre- determined free-will.” They will not play with words as many Christians do, and arguments such as “certain events are not necessary events” will not satisfy their demands. Claiming A=B will not fly on the street, and the non-Christian will be quick to point out that denigrating our finite minds as insufficient to understand God is no excuse for bad philosophy. Unbelievers want honest, consistent, intelligent answers, but the doctrine of foreknowledge only creates problems, it does not solve them.

The relationship between God’s foreknowledge and responsibility was clearly seen by  the humanist  philosopher Bertrand Russell. In his essay, Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?, he presents his  argument concerning foreknowledge as follows:

“The world, we are told, was created by a God  who is both good and omnipotent. Before He created the world He foresaw all the pain and misery that it would contain; He is therefore responsible for all of it. It is useless to argue that the pain in the world is due to sin. In the first place, this is not true; it is not sin that causes rivers to  overflow their banks  or  volcanoes  to  erupt.  But  even  if  it  were  true,  it would make no difference. If I were going to beget a child knowing that the child was going to be a homicidal maniac, I should be responsible for his crimes. If God  knew  in advance the sins of which man would be guilty, He was clearly responsible for all the consequences of those sins when He decided to create man.” [1]

Technically speaking, this is not a question about  the compatibility of foreknowledge and free will, but an argument against the justice of God in the light of absolute foreknowledge. Russell’s argument does not deny that the choices of human beings may be free. Rather, he sees it as irresponsible on God’s part to bring a flawed creation into existence. Even if man is free and sins of his own volition, he argues, if God creates the world knowing catastrophe will result, then God is responsible for the condition of the world because he could have chosen not to create at  all. [2]

Though Russell argues God is responsible for the consequences of sin if he has foreknowledge of the events, the argument also applies to the sins themselves. If God knew people would sin, then he is responsible for the sins also, since he could have foregone creating, thus eliminating even the possibility of sin.

Russell probably assumed God knows the future because he had heard this is what “Christians believe.”[3] Thus, he was responding to what he believed to be Christian truth,[4] and may have been unaware that some Christians reject the notion of absolute foreknowledge as unbiblical. It makes one wonder how Bertrand Russell’s life may have been different if he had heard the Bible does not teach the absolute foreknowledge of God.

There are many unbelievers, who, like Russell, question the goodness and justice of God because they have been told God knows the future. In most cases, unbelievers are only responding to what they have heard Christians say, since they do not espouse Christian presuppositions or ideals for themselves. Though they are sometimes mistaken about what we believe, they readily spot philosophical inconsistencies in our doctrines. It is sad that many people may have been kept from believing in Christ because of the unbiblical idea of absolute foreknowledge.’

Source: Michael Saia, Does God Know The Future?, p 258-261.

Read also: “Open Theism and Evangelizing the Lost” by Lorenzo Dow McCabe.


[1] Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not a Christian” in Why I Am Not a Christian: and other essays on religion and related subjects, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), pp. 29-30.

[2] Of course,  whether or not God could have refrained from creating is questionable, if the future must exist as God has already foreseen it. The history of a creation demands the occurrence of a creative act.

[3] Russell also assumed that God is timeless, though we do not know how he came to adopt this idea. “… since all experience is in time, and the Deity is timeless, no experience is experience of the Deity…” Bertrand Russell, Seems, Madam? Nay, It Is, in Why I Am Not a Christian, ed. Paul  Edwards. (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1957), p. 102.

[4] Bertrand Russell’s essay, Why I Am Not a Christian, is rife with straw men. He describes Christian belief in an astoundingly naive way and then rejects his own mistaken definitions of “Christian truth.” It is obvious from his definitions that he was responding to a social definition of Christianity and not to the truth revealed in the Bible. His arguments are framed more in emotional than philosophical terms, which is surprising for Russell, but is understandable in light of the subject matter. His philosophical clarity is quite evident, though, when he addresses the subject of foreknowledge and responsibility.


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