Necessary World Theology and the Problem of God's Surprise

A persistent problem posed by snarky skeptics and churchgoers alike is the problem of God’s surprise.

The problem of God’s surprise is aimed at passages in scripture wherein God seems to change his mind or express regret or learn something new.

Common examples would include when God “regretted” he had created man because of all the wickedness they did, forcing him to wash the earth with a flood. Or when God tested Abraham by telling him to kill Isaac. And when Abraham goes through with the deed, God stops him saying “Now I know you fear God.” Or when the people worship the golden calf at Mt. Saini, and God becomes upset, threatening to destroy them until Moses convinces him otherwise.

The question, of course, being that, if God knows everything, why does he seem caught off-guard by people sinning and why does he need to test Abraham in order to know that he fears God?

This might be neatly rolled into the problem of prayer, that problem being “If God knows what you are going to ask him, why ask him at all?

The standard theological answer is that God, or the writers of the Bible, at least, expresses himself in a way that humans can understand. God’s thoughts and deeds are presumably beyond human understanding. So in order to communicate God with humans, expressions, terms and emotions that people recognized are put into service in order to make God somewhat relatable to our small minds.

That’s as may be. Certainly when God asks “Adam where are you?” in the Garden, this is at the very least rhetorical, given that one assumes God is omnipresent.

Necessary World Theology (NWT) offers an additional explanation.

Under NWT, God’s omniscience is coincident with his omnipresence. Meaning that God knows all things because he permeates space and time, and is simultaneously experiencing everything all at once.

There is a difference between the passive knowledge a schoolboy has that Columbus sailed the ocean in 1492, and the active, experiential knowledge Columbus had while he was in the act of sailing the ocean.

God is eternally experiencing every moment of time in every point in space, and consequently his knowledge is absolute.

Of course God eternally knew that Abraham would exercise faith and obey the command to sacrifice Isaac. But the only reason God knew that, was because Abraham WOULD exercise faith and obey. Had God never asked him to do it, Abraham would not have done it, and God would not have that piece of knowledge in his mind. God does not experience things that do not happen. For God to know something in the fullest sense of the word, that thing has to happen.

God knew from the foundations of the earth that the people of Noah’s day would rebel. But the only reason God knew that is that they did, in fact, rebel. Had they not rebelled, God would not have that knowledge in his mind.

This same principle is true in terms of prayer. Why pray, if God knows everything? Because a prayer unprayed is not a thing. God knows all things across space and time that are actual. A prayer unspoken is, at best, potential.

The real question becomes, does God know counterfactuals; that is, things that might have happened under other circumstances?

For instance, does God know how his nation of people would have turned out if he had selected Esau instead of Isaac?

This is a matter of some debate. Someone who subscribes to Molinism would say that God absolutely knows counterfactuals. God doesn’t just know what is, he is equally aware of what might have been.

It is, no doubt, a bit of narrative license to say that God “regretted” creating humans, but nevertheless, God’s knowledge that the people would become wicked was contingent upon them becoming wicked.

So when God gives some prophecy about future events, he is, in essence, not saying “this will happen,” but rather “this is happening.” Because from his perspective, he is experiencing the future event as he prophecies it.

This concept that God rolls along in time just like humans, only he knows what waits around the corner does not make sense if that thing isn’t, in fact, around the corner. And if God reacted in some way so as to prevent the thing from existing, then it would not have existed for him to prevent.

God is all-powerful and his capacity to pull all of the threads of time is, no doubt, absolute. But unless one assumes a sort of pantheism, wherein the universe is just a part of God himself, it is inescapable that God is interacting with something that exists external to his nature. And since this is a two-party interaction, God may react as well as to act.

The difference being that God’s reactions echo across space and time, since all of his interactions occur simultaneously. And this is how God can be immutable and still interact with time – because all of his nature is interacting with all of time simultaneously. There is no time at which God did not act as he did, since his nature is eternally interacting with time as a whole.