The topic of God and time is complicated and unclear. Christian theologians and philosophers disagree about God’s relationship to time. Theorists disagree about whether only the present moment exists, or if the past and the future are equally real. One question that comes up in teaching theology is God’s knowledge of the future: how does God know the future, and how does God’s knowledge fit with human freedom, God’s providence, and the reality of the future?

Theologians and pastors commonly declare that “God is outside of time” such that all of history is as a continuous present moment before God. He can see the first moment and the last one simultaneously. I’ve also heard the analogy of God as a spectator on the top of a skyscraper looking down on a parade in the streets below. The spectator can see the first floats of the parade and the last floats all at once. Such explanations are given to satisfy our wondering about how God can foreknow and predestine certain people and events, and how God can “declare the end from the beginning.”

Does God know the first events, last events, and all the in-between events because He sees them, and in some sense learns ahead of history’s procession? Or, does God know all of history because He sees what He has planned? A passage such as Isaiah 46:9-11 is difficult for me to see otherwise than in the second sense of foreknowledge based on foreordination:

Remember the former things long past,

For I am God, and there is no other;

I am God, and there is none like Me,

Declaring the end from the beginning,

And from ancient times things which have not been done,

Saying, ‘My purpose will be established,

And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’;

Calling a bird of prey from the east,

The man of My purpose from a far country.

Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. 

I have planned it, surely I will do it. (NASB)

In this latter sense, we can compare the analogy of a professor knowing the future of what lectures will occur and when they will occur in a course, based on what the professor has planned before the semester began (see the syllabus!).

This idea of foreknowledge as based on foreordination fits with the ideas of God’s close involvement of providence to fulfill His purposes for creation, including the making of detailed predictions (such as the cross) and working to fulfill them by means of human free decisions (see Acts 4:25-28 that identifies specific predictions from Ps 2 of the roles of Herod and Pilate). This view (appearing in Reformed theology and having deep Catholic roots as well) is difficult because to affirm that God’s knowledge of the future is based on God’s planning of the future suggests that God plans evil events. Oh no.

God is not the author of evil; God is the Creator and Sustainer who invented creaturely freedom, even with the tolerable and temporary outcomes of evil misuse of freedom. God willed that creatures will make free, morally responsible choices, and He planned reality with that proviso to “endure with much patience” the evil in creation (Rom. 9:22), which He had “subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, but in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption…” (Rom. 8:20-21). These are difficult matters by which God both takes responsibility as the Lord of all creation and everything that happens in it (e.g., calamities, Isa. 45:7; and disabilities, Exod. 4:11). God also ordains free decisions, including horrendous evils, and salvation from the consequent pain—including that the Son Himself would bear the full force of pain by suffering the punishment of Hell firsthand in the cross.

Against the alternate explanations that God sees the future and makes plans accordingly, as if He is a pre-temporal observer of human events (as in a crystal ball), my intuition is that the future does not exist in any concrete or even conceptual way apart from God making plans.[1] Only the present moment exists for God and for us, since the molecules that constitute (at least partially) created reality are not warehoused somewhere for observation as “the past moments” or “the future moments.” The only creation that exists is the single created universe passing through a succession of moments. We remember the past moments, and we anticipate the future moments, but we live in and experience only the present moment. (God no doubt has His own reality and perhaps time with it, but I won’t guess at that.)

The practical result is that the future is definite and durable as the plan-for-what-will-be because of God who ineluctably drives the present to His planned purpose for creation. His promises never fail because He fulfills them as planned. His knowledge is perfect, without learning or loss. In the similar way that we plan a wedding, and then experience it with our guests, God planned His creation and then experiences it with us. While the Bible begins with a human marriage that became toxic, the planned-for-end is the Creator’s wedding feast with His creatures, which marriage culminates in renewing all things to continue in perfect freedom unspoiled forever.

An unhelpful assertion that frustrates clear thinking about the question of God and time is the idea that God’s foreknowledge and foreordination are somehow in competition with human freedom of choice. This assertion shipwrecks any forward progress on the question by excluding a real harmony of God’s freedom and creaturely freedom (as in the production of Scripture by divine and human co-authors, 2 Pet. 2:19-21). Instead of competition, the biblical descriptions of God’s involvement with human choices have a relational dimension of a shared project between God and His creatures. God neither overrules human choices, nor does God surrender His own choice to human will. Instead of being mutually exclusive, divine and human freedom are collaborative by God’s design and providence (and I am not affirming synergism in salvation).


[1] I agree that God knows all the ways people could have chosen, which never in fact occur (such as David’s appeal for guidance from God in 1 Sam. 23:8-14).