I was listening to William Lane Craig’s Defenders podcast (Doctrine of God: Part 13) and he brought up an interesting analogy about omniscience. He discussed Scrooge in Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” The last spirit to appear to Scrooge is the ghost of Christmas to come. He takes Scrooge around and shows him all sorts of disturbing imagery that will happen. Scrooge asks the ghost whether these are things that must happen, or whether he can stop them. The spirit remains silent.
Craig pointed out the spirit would have to remain silent to have any sort of effect. For suppose the spirit knows what will happen: that Scrooge will repent and so these awful things won’t happen. But then if he tells Scrooge what he knows, Scrooge will feel little remorse about not acting to prevent them. Yet if the spirit told Scrooge these things would happen, then Scrooge has no reason to modify his behavior, for he cannot prevent the events from happening.
Craig suggests, then, that we should look at omniscience and instances of God “changing his mind” in the same fashion. This has some interesting applications in the case of Open Theism, because it undermines one of the core exegetical arguments for the position: cases of God “repenting” or “changing his mind.”
God, on classical theism, knows what will happen in every circumstance. He comprehensively knows the future (contra Open Theism). If this is so, then God would have to withhold some of his knowledge in order to bring things about, despite his knowledge that it would occur. Like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, God would know the answer to Scrooge’s question, but would not answer him, so that he could bring it about that Scrooge would repent.
Consider Jonah. Open Theists often point to the story of Nineveh as an example of God not comprehensively knowing the future. Because God sends Jonah with the message that Nineveh will be destroyed, but then, when Nineveh repents, he shows mercy, many people say that God did not know the Ninevites would have such a reaction. Yet why should this be the case? Isn’t it plausible that God did know they would repent and that God sent the message that they would be destroyed because that is the only way Nineveh would be led to repentance? This is, in fact, hinted at later in the book, when Jonah says to God, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2).
But if God had told the Ninevites “I will not destroy you” because he knew that he would not, would not the impetus of Jonah’s message lose its strength. With the threat of destruction, the Ninevites repented. Without, would they have done so? Imagine Jonah’s message going through the streets “Forty more days and Nineveh will not be destroyed!” I think it obvious that this would probably not have the same effect that the initial message was.
So it seems quite plausible that God, like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (in our analogous case), may refrain from telling all he knows at many points throughout Scripture. For if he told people everything he knew, he would know that they would not repent, turn aside from their evil ways, or bring about the actions he desired. The instances wherein God ‘changes his mind’ or ‘repents’ are instances of this: rather than revealing his knowledge, God withholds it, in order to bring about the ends that he desires to (and knows will) happen. We, like Scrooge, would not respond to calls for repentance if we felt it didn’t make a difference in the end.
Final note: the above account implicitly assumes molinism to be the case. So much the better for it, I say!
This is part of a series I’ve written against the doctrine of Open Theism. If you’d like to read more, check out the original post for discussion and links.
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