One of the most promoted themes (or fear factors) in American popular Christianity is “God has a plan for your life.” Accompanying this is, “Make sure you’re walking in this plan or else….”
Throughout a large part of Christendom as well as other approaches to life is the notion that life is fatalistic, “Qué será, será.” (Whatever will be will be.) All of life is somehow foreordained and we are all living out of someone else’s script like role players in a movie. Astrologers look to the stars, and hyper-Calvinists personal destinations of heaven or hell were decided long before they were born, in fact, “from the foundations of the world.” Many others are just resigned to the notion that life “brings what it brings.”
When others talk of “Everything happens for a reason,” someone or something is controlling the roll of the dice. Extreme behavioral scientists reduce all human behavior to merely stimuli-response mechanisms where freedom of the will is only wishful thinking.
Certainly, freedom of the will is much more limited than we’d like to believe. And our heredity and past decisions play a large role in creating how our lives play out. Yet, regardless of one’s Christian tradition or other worldview, we often resign ourselves to a “Qué será, será” kind of life.
But—what if the future is open and waiting for us to create it? What if we are not shut up in a stimulus-response world? What if we are free (within important limits) to live into a future we have a decisive hand in creating? I believe this is thoroughly biblical and worthy of creatures created in the image of a creating God.
Biblical Evidence for an Open Future—The experimental side of God
When the authors of the Torah (five books of Moses) began describing God’s relationship to humanity, often overlooked is God’s experimental side. This has a direct bearing on how the future unfolds. In Genesis, we are told that God created a “very good” world. But humanity became so violent and unmanageable that God had to destroy it. We are told that The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
The KJV has “It repenteth me that I have made them.” This captures it well, as to repent is to go in another direction. Here is the issue in a nutshell: had God known this future outcome, God would never have proceeded as God did. God did not anticipate this outcome because the future is not known to God. It is not known because it remains to be determined.
Adam’s loneliness and Sodom and Gomorrah’s wickedness
We are given an earlier hint that this is the case in the story of the creation of Adam and Eve. Biblical scholars from the early rabbis to the present agree that “Adam” was created as a standalone creature, as God’s only partner in caring for the garden. After God and Adam enjoyed life together in Eden, God becomes aware of Adam’s loneliness. “It is not good for the man to be alone.” So, God begins to find ways to assuage Adam’s loneliness which eventually becomes Eve. God did not anticipate Adam’s loneliness because God did not know the future of their relationship.
Another helpful insight involves the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here God is informed of the wickedness there and resolves to do something about it. However, God needs to verify the report before God acts. [Genesis 18:20-21] Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” If not, I will know! Remarkable. God could not look into the future to see Sodom and Gomorrah’s destiny.
Abraham gets tested
One more example before we move on. It concerns God’s choice of Abraham to be the father of a great nation and the beginning of how humanity would be brought back to the original creation’s goodness. God did not want to make another move that might end in disaster. Abraham must be the right choice. But how to know? So God arranged to test Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son. [Genesis 22:9-12] When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Another of God’s realizations, “Now I know.” Since God could not look into a future not yet determined, this test was necessary. These examples suggest a needed revising of Omniscience from “all knowing” (knowing everything) to “knowing all there is to know.”
The Book of Revelation: What must soon come to pass
But you may be thinking, what about the book of Revelation? Doesn’t it lay out the future? Well, only if you begin with the presumption that the future is foreordained. If not, the future that Revelation describes is based on an apocalyptic understanding of history that permeates the New Testament and has proven itself not only unreliable but wrong. The book opens and closes with the announcement that what people hear read to them (or read themselves) is to happen soon. Everything recorded in the book has a first-century application. There is no need to project any of it into the future. Revelation, as with all apocalyptic writings, was written to give assurance that God is not absent regardless of how dire things look in the present. In that, he succeeded. But he did not give us a blueprint of the future, merely a hoped-for outcome that never materialized.
What about the prophets?
One might also ask about biblical prophecy. Didn’t God tell the prophets what was going to happen in the future? Prophecy had little to do with anything but the immediate future. And it was always provisional, meaning that God’s action against an enemy of Israel could go one of two ways, either repentance would earn a reprieve from destruction, or lack thereof meant punishment of some kind. To think that God knew the outcome has God just toying with the prophet and the enemy (or Israel) for who knows why. This is not taking either God or the prophets seriously. Since God did not know the outcome of how the prophet’s message would be taken, it was delivered in hope, not jest. Notice the condition necessary for a hopeful future.
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. [Jeremiah 29:11-14]
God’s Omniscience, Omnipotence, and Omnipresence Reexamined
All of this raises questions about the Omniscience, Omnipotence, and Omnipresence of God. Perhaps the most universal error in interpreting the Bible is reading it unconsciously anachronistically. We tend to apply views that surface much later than the Bible to the Bible. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity is not a biblical concept. It may be hinted at or even nascent, but it is not part of the biblical writers’ understanding. It was hammered out in the 4th century. Yet, we apply Trinitarian ideas as we read about Jesus. This is not to say that postbiblical developments are not reliable or unnecessary. They often are, but they should not be used to determine what the biblical writers had in mind. This applies to our notions of the Three Omnis which are more philosophical than biblical and are postbiblical in origin.
The biblical God is not Omniscient, as we have seen, or even Omnipresent. What the psalmist declares in Psalm 139 about an all-knowing and ever-present God is best seen as hyperbole from one who is ecstatic about God. It should be noted that when the rabbis formulated doctrine, they never cite the Psalms, for they are too individualistic, worship oriented, and full of hyperbole. Can we really say unequivocally that “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore”? [Psalm 121] Too many righteous people (Paul, and Stephen, to name just two) would want to temper that high-minded praise. It should not be taken literally.
Humans tend to want to know as much as possible, enlarge their presence as much as possible, and be powerful enough to exert their will. The Omni God is based on taking each category to its perfect state. Or, as Xenophanes put it, “If horses had gods, they would look like horses.” Only they would be perfect horses. I say all this not to argue against such a God, but to caution Bible readers against anachronistic interpretations.
The Omnis aren’t so much wrong as misleading as commonly presented. If the Bible tells us anything of God’s nature it is “God is love.” That is God’s essence and every manifestation of God must originate and end in love. We have seen that if God is all-knowing, it cannot mean knowing everything, just all that can be known. If God is present everywhere it must mean as a loving life partner, not a cop on patrol. If God is all-powerful, it must mean only in the exercise of love, and love has its limitations for forcing one’s will. This takes us to the point: the future is open because God’s knowledge, presence, and power (all forms of love) are not sufficient to marshal creation into a predetermined future. God was not able to make Israel a sufficient light to the nations because Israel did not participate as an equal partner. It remains to be seen if the church can do any better. That is to say, God has in mind a certain future but without creation’s willingness to walk into it, all bets are off.
What about you and me?
The question of an open future is vital for a disciple of Jesus. It offers the possibility of an enriched way of life because it flows from actual decisions we make of our own free will acting in partnership with a loving God. Since the future is not set, we cooperate (or not) in determining our personal futures. Life is not fatalistic; we are not robots programmed for life. We are free moral agents whose future is awaiting us. But—to make the best of it, we must walk into it with God.
[Next Monday’s post looks at what an open future can mean for your life]