Apologetics Thursday – Dealing with Counterfactuals

By Christopher Fisher

It is often claimed that knowledge of counterfactuals proves that God knows all possible futures. God knowing all possible futures is a strong belief held in many Open Theist circles, so it is not necessarily an argument against Open Theism. But if false, it definitely counters most Arminian and Calvinist interpretations of God.

Interestingly enough this claim surfaced recently on a thread on the GodisOpen Facebook page in which a Classical Arminian guest alluded to Paul to make this point:

1Co 2:8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

The claim is that not only does God know the future, but that God knows all possible futures that could exist as well. The commenter believed that God must have communicated secretly to Paul that the rulers of his age would not have killed Jesus if they knew God’s plan.

It is not clear Paul’s meaning: would the rulers have tried to thwart God’s plan if they had known, or would they have become Christians had they have known? Probably Paul is thinking that the rulers would have done everything in their power to retain power and attempted to thwart God’s plan. But, wouldn’t that be common knowledge? Would that require special revelation to Paul to accomplish? Paul is most likely using counterfactuals in the same manner and with the same rhetorical sense that normal people communicate.

Elsewhere Jesus engages in counterfactuals:

Mat 11:23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.

Jesus is engaging in a deliberate insult toward Capernaum. He is calling Capernaum less savable than Sodom! This is right after Jesus attempts to convert them and fails:

Mat 11:20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.

So is this a case of Jesus knowing all possible futures? It does not seem that way. Jesus did not see the future, assumedly, where he attempts to convert Capernaum and fails. If Jesus knew the exact moment one city would repent, why did he fail to convert Capernaum? Why is the entire Bible filled with stories of God’s failed attempts to convert Israel to Him? The more reasonable answer is that Jesus is being deliberately insulting, pointing out that Capernaum is worse than Sodom. Jesus is most likely using counterfactuals in the same manner and with the same rhetorical sense that normal people communicate.

So why should we reject God knowing every possible future?

1. It is a mechanism that is not derived from the Bible and invented in order to salvage some philosophical notion of omniscience. Throughout the Bible, God is very unconcerned about His knowledge as a defining characteristic. When contrasting Himself to the pagan idols, the ability to smell comes up more than having knowledge of things. God prides His ability to act more than His knowledge of things. In fact, praises of God’s knowledge throughout the Bible (the rare times they occur) often are centered on the here and now, have nothing to do with counterfactuals, and are intimately related to the speaker (see Psalms 139).

2. God often claims not to know certain things or expect certain things.

Gen 22:12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

Jer 3:7 And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it.

Deu 8:2 And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.

Isa 5:4 What more could have been done to My vineyard That I have not done in it? Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes, Did it bring forth wild grapes?

While it is understood that the claim that God knows all possibilities does not negate God being surprised at what possibilities are chosen (the claim is almost falsifiable), the Bible just does not read as if this is the theology of the writers. Instead, this is imported onto the text without hint in the text of such theological understandings.

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