What Does God Know and When Did He Know It?

To be God is to know … everything. He is the Creator who brings beings into being from out of non-being. If something, anything, exists, God knows it; and he knows it complete­ly, exhaustively, immediately. He knows the world from the inside, as a singer knows the song she holds on her breath. It’s not as if God creates the world, at which point it then becomes available for his inspection and study. Divine creation and divine knowing are one eternal act. David Burrell states the fundamental theorem: “God knows what God does,” and what God does is makes things be (Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions, p. 108). There can be no more intimate and comprehensive form of knowledge than the infinite Creator’s knowledge of his finite creatures.

Standing in the analytic philosophical tradition, Hugh McCann prefers to formulate divine omniscience in terms of propositional knowledge: “An omniscient God should know of every true proposition that it is true, and of every false proposition that it is false” (Crea­tion and the Sovereignty of God, p. 62). Perhaps this is the most helpful way to think about divine omniscience, but its seeming anthropomorphism makes me uncomfortable. What is this but the projection of the human mode of rationality upon the screen of eternity. Are we to think of the divine Creator as a being who thinks discursively, forms concepts, has beliefs and assents to propositions? But perhaps I protest too much. Let us assume that divine omni­science is properly defined as the timeless knowing of true propositions.

Christians have traditionally confessed the omniscience of God. It’s part of the job descrip­tion for divinity. The problem arises when we speak of God’s knowledge of future events. How can God cognize what hasn’t happened yet? Does he peer into a crystal ball? The theory of atemporal eternity provides a nifty solution: God does not foreknow future events; he apprehends them in his timeless present. Boethius advanced the classic formulation in the sixth century:

Since then all judgment apprehends the subjects of its thought according to its own nature, and God has a condition of ever-present eternity, His know­ledge, which passes over every change of time, embracing infinite lengths of past and future, views in its own direct comprehension everything as though it were taking place in the present. If you would weigh the fore­knowledge by which God distinguishes all things, you will more rightly hold it to be a knowledge of a never-failing constancy in the present, than a foreknowledge of the future. (The Consolation of Philosophy V.6; cf. Lydia McGrew, “Before the Mountains Were Brought Forth“)

Consider the following proposition: John is going to mow the lawn next Saturday. You and I might have every reason to believe that John will mow his lawn. We have witnessed him doing it every Saturday for the past two months and know this is habit and rule. He has specifically informed us that he intends to mow his lawn this coming Saturday. The weather bureau is predicting fair weather. But any number of things might happen that could prevent him from mowing his lawn. Perhaps the mower will break down. Perhaps John will come down with a bad case of the flu. Perhaps his kids will prevail upon him to take them to the county fair. We therefore cannot know that the proposition is true. It thus qualifies as a future contingent.

Now the interesting thing is that if God enjoys a temporal mode of existence, as Richard Swinburne, Alan Rhoda, and many other philosophers claim, then God may well be in the same predicament as the rest of us. What’s going to happen tomorrow is as future to him as it is to us. Yes, the sempiternal Deity knows a lot and is therefore in a great position to make super-accurate predictions, but unless he causally determines human decisions and actions, he cannot predict with 100% accuracy what John is going to do. John may well surprise him. Nor need this ignorance be seen as compromising the divine omniscience. Just as God cannot do the logically impossible, so he cannot infallibly know the logically impossible. Swinburne proposes a revision of divine omniscience—“not as knowledge at each period of time, of all true propositions, but as knowledge of all propositions that it is logically possible that he entertain then and that, if entertained by God then, are true, and that it is logically possible for God to know then without the possibility of error” (The Christian God, p. 133). Omniscience only guarantees the knowing of that which can be known. The future is not something that can be known, and at the point it can be known, it won’t be future anymore. When will then be now? Soon.

But the situation is different if God enjoys an atemporal mode of existence, transcending space and time:

By contrast, a timelessly eternal God would, as the creator of time, have equal access to all events—past, present, and future. Thus, the atemporalist reasons, a timelessly eternal God would have no difficulty knowing about John’s mowing his lawn, since he is eternally aware of that very action. And, of course, this does not compromise John’s freedom, any more than it would if next Saturday had already arrived and you and I were watching him mow his lawn. (McCann, p. 62)

It’s not as if God knows the future before it happens; he knows it in the same way he knows past and present, in timeless apprehension. Burrell states the position clearly:

God, who knows eternally and who knows by a practical knowing what God is doing, knows all and only what is, that is, what God brings into being. Yet by that knowledge, like an artist, God also knows what could be, although this knowing remains penumbral and general, since nonexistent “things” are explicitly not constituted as entities. By definition, an eternal God does not know contingent events before they happen; although God certainly knows all that may or might happen, God does not know what will happen. God knows all and only what is happening (and as a conse­quence, what has happened). That is, God does not already know what will happen, since what “will happen” has not yet happened and so does not yet exist. God knows what God is bringing about. Yet since our discourse is temporal, we must remind ourselves not to read such a statement as saying that God is now bringing about what will happen, even though what will have happened is the result of God’s action. (p. 105)

But the atemporalist is not out of the woods. Contemporary philosophers have raised the question whether a being who surpasses time can know what William Lane Craig calls “tensed facts.” Consider, for example, this statement: John is mowing his lawn. This is not a report of a timeless state of affairs. As McCann notes, its full force is “that John’s act of mowing his lawn is occurring now, that it is actually present” (p. 63). The same situation obtains with other tenses. If I assert, “John will mow his lawn again next Saturday,” then I am saying that it will occur after the mowing that is presently occurring. If I assert, “John mowed his lawn last Saturday,” then I am saying that it occurred before the present. “Always, then, tensed statements display a perspective that respects temporal transition,” explains McCann. “They are not just indexed to a certain temporal location, but indexed to it as present” (p. 63). This means that in order to know whether a given tensed statement is true, one needs to know its temporal location; one needs to know what the present moment is.

But can a God who lives outside of time apprehend time in this way? Is he capable of distinguishing past and future and therefore of identifying the relevant “present moment,” thus enabling him to judge whether a tensed statement is true or false? Temporal eterna­lists think not. In order to make the proper determination, God would need to be active in time at the relevant moment, but the atemporal God transcends all such moments. It would appear, therefore, that timeless Deity is unable to grasp what John did, is doing, and will do. So much for omniscience.


How does God tell what time it is? The answer is simple. He looks at his infinity wrist­watch. But apparently it doesn’t tell time because, so the argument goes, it isn’t in time. Quite honestly, this has all the feel of a pseudo-problem generated by a failure to properly appre­ciate the divine transcendence. God knows reality not in the mode of a created being but in the mode of infinite Being who knows all creatures as their transcendent source and ground. As St Thomas Aquinas writes: “Since God is the cause of things by his knowledge, his know­ledge extends as far as His causality extends” (ST I.14.11). It sure doesn’t sound like a tensed fact would be a problem for the holy Omniscience—he is, after all, the Creator of tensed facts. But the temporalists tell me it’s a genuine problem that demands resolu­tion. I’m not convinced and neither is McCann.

McCann believes there is an error lurking in the argument somewhere. A tensed proposi­tion, he notes, “is tied to the perspective of the speaker who asserts it and to the moment of its assertion, so that a unique set of conditions determines its truth or falsehood” (p. 65). If yesterday I had said, “John is mowing his lawn,” I would have meant that he was mowing it then. If he was not mowing his lawn at that time, then the proposition is false. It would not become true if John mows his lawn the next day. I could not acclaim, “Aha, my statement was true after all.” I would need to make a new statement, perhaps verbally identical, to cover the situation. The truth conditions of a tensed proposition, McCann further explains, “are defined by a perspective localized to a single point in time, and so must simply either be satisfied or not. They cannot change within the instant that deter­mines them, and nothing that occurs at any other instant matters” (p. 65).

Where does this leave us on the issue of whether an atemporal God can know tensed propositions? If what is said above is correct, the truth or falsity of a tensed proposition is not an elusive thing at all. It is, rather, a timeless and unchanging state of affairs, just like the truth or falsity of a statement in mathematics. But then it cannot be a difficult assignment for a timeless God to know such propositions. What would be required is the same thing such knowledge requires in our own case—namely direct experience of the world of change. If the account of God’s action as creator developed here is correct, that is precisely what he has. Simply by being aware of his own activity in creating the world, God has direct and unchanging awareness of the entire sweep of history, of which time is merely an aspect. It seems clear, therefore, that God can know tensed propositions without difficulty. (p. 65)

Philosophers can argue this out. I keep coming back to Burrell’s maxim: “God knows what God does.” God isn’t an observer to historical and cosmic events, limited by his atemporal perspective. God is the doer of space and time, the doer of history, the doer of change, process, activity, and event, and thus the doer of every propositional statement ever uttered. As the doer of time, he is present in all tensed nows in their nowness and thus uniquely qualified to distinguish between this present now and all other nows. He knows the time now and knows that other nows are not the time now. He doesn’t even need a watch.

“Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite” (Ps 147:5).

(4 December 2016; mildly revised)

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4 Responses to What Does God Know and When Did He Know It?

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    “But can a God who lives outside of time apprehend time in this way? Is he capable of distinguishing past and future and therefore of identifying the relevant “present moment,” thus enabling him to judge whether a tensed statement is true or false? Temporal eternalists think not. In order to make the proper determination, God would need to be active in time at the relevant moment, but the atemporal God transcends all such moments. It would appear, therefore, that timeless Deity is unable to grasp what John did, is doing, and will do. So much for omniscience.”
    I think the error is a misunderstanding of the nature of time. Time we now know (as I understand it) relative. Whether something is in the past, present or future depends on where you are standing. An event which for one observer has already happened may not for another have happened yet: there is no universal “present moment” for God to know, so he does not lack omniscience for not knowing it. He can know when everything in time occurs relative to everything else in time (i.e. all our subjective time experiences) without being subject to time himself, and subjective time is the only kind of time which does or can in fact exist.


  2. donald says:

    If God exists everywhere but moves through time, then God has a reference frame. Presumably the most logical one would be where the microwave background appears isotropic, but at any rate, this means it would make sense to say that a given object has a velocity relative to God. And vice versa. I don’t see how you avoid this. If you give God a location in time and you think He is capable of interacting with the universe everywhere, you have assigned Him a reference frame. In theory, God has a velocity relative to us.

    If God can know everything that is happening in His reference frame’s present moment, it means He can send messages at infinite velocities. If He is also capable of changing His velocity, He should be able to send messages to His past.

    It’s a standard homework problem in physics books to show that if faster than light particles exist, you could set up situations where you could send messages back to your own past. It involves sending these particles to a receding spaceship which then sends back a rep,y with its own faster than light particles. If the velocities are right, the reply arrives before the original message is sent.


    • donald says:

      And yes, I think what I just wrote is absurd. But I think the idea that God is in time is absurd.


    • donald says:

      Or to put it yet another way, if God exists within time and is limited by time, then God has physical properties. Relativity doesn’t allow for easy separation of time and space. If God exists everywhere but only knows what is happening “ now”, you have implicitly assigned Him a velocity.

      And maybe the light speed barrier applies to Him and the part of Him that is on Earth has no more idea what is happening in the Andromeda Galaxy than we do. The part of Him here has to wait 2 million years to know what the part of Him there knows. You start to get a very pantheistic view of God, where God’s body is in some sense located at every point in spacetime or maybe is spacetime.

      I don’t believe any of this. But any talk of God existing in time forces you to think about the physics of God. Not the metaphysics. The physics.

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