Questions Answered – Is God ever Surprised?

Scot McKnight answers a reader question:

Where are you on this one? Do you think God knows what you will wear tomorrow? Which way you will turn at the corner when you go for a leisure drive? What you will order when you go to Chipotle?

McKnight references John Goldingay, in his book, “Key Questions about Christian Faith: Old Testament Answers”. McKnight writes:

Sometimes God does not know how things will turn out.

I’m aware some of us are bothered by this statement, but I’m summarizing Goldingay and he’s reading the Bible and some passages in the Bible can be read just that way. So where?

Here’s one. Exodus 33:5: For the LORD had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.’” Or this one from Jeremiah 26:3: “Perhaps they will listen and each will turn from their evil ways. Then I will relent and not inflict on them the disaster I was planning because of the evil they have done.” It is the word “Perhaps” that reveals that either God is deceiving or God doesn’t know (or maybe others have other explanations). But a “plain reading” knows that “perhaps” implies contingency. And a final one from Exodus 4:8 Then the LORD said, “If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second. 9 But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground.”

Sometimes things turn out differently from God’s expectations.

“God experiences disappointment” (29). In Isaiah 5 we find a song about a vinedresser and a vineyard, and it tells us that God expected/hoped for justice and righteousness but that’s not what happened. God was surprised. Read Jeremiah 3:6-7, 19-20; Isaiah 63:8-10.

Sometimes things turn out differently than God’s announcements.

Micah predicts through God that Jerusalem would be destroyed but it wasn’t (Mic 3:12); the king submitted himself to God (Jer 26:17-19). And Jonah predicted through God that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days and it wasn’t (Jonah 3:4, 10). The word here is “unless.” If things change, God’s announcements won’t turn out.

God and Nebuchadnezzar in Ezek 26:1-21; 29:17-20. God “sought to kill Moses” but his wife, Zipporah, stepped in and God backed off (Exod 4:24-26). Goldingay says Adam would die if he ate the fruit but he didn’t die — and that is another instance of this. He sees the predictions of Jesus — Matt 10:23; Mark 9:1; Mark 13 — as the same sort of thing.

Goldingay sees this as God’s intent and announcement but that they will happen if God doesn’t change his mind or things don’t shift. God remains consistent with the goals God has in mind.
Goldingay thinks open theism’s explanations don’t always apply. Sometimes God can know the future. Before it happens. But classical theists can’t explain that sometimes God doesn’t know and that sometimes God’s announcements don’t always occur as announced.

McKinght concludes:

Goldingay thinks open theism’s explanations don’t always apply. Sometimes God can know the future. Before it happens. But classical theists can’t explain that sometimes God doesn’t know and that sometimes God’s announcements don’t always occur as announced.

Scripture isn’t bothered by these problems, so Goldingay observes.


  1. I believe God created us with real free will. I call it “Radical Free Will”. So, yes, He watches us as we create our own future, and He is sometimes surprised and, in my case, often disappointed.

    I also believe God can intervene and see to it that I would wear the red shirt, if for some reason, that is what He wanted. He doesn’t do that much.

    He also leads and directs, so that, for instance, the missionary “hears his calling” and goes to the seminary and ends up in a mission field. Or, the accountant or school teacher or policeman might also be lead and directed.

    As I try to understand Scripture, I notice that the ancient prophecies are usually very cloaked and very fluid. For instance, look over 44 of the most definite prophecies that told us about the First Advent:

    No wonder few knew that the baby in the manger was the promised Messiah.

    For instance Zechariah 6:12-13 “Then he said to him, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Behold a man whose name is Branch, for He will branch out from where He is; and He will build the temple of the Lord.”

    How would anyone in Jesus day have known the above pointed to Jesus? Few could have understood it to mean Paul would take the Good News to the surrounding countries, on to Rome, and from there it would branch out to the rest of the world. Few would have realized that “the temple of the Lord” would be Christians, rather than buildings.

    In my personal life, I have sometimes seen direction and leading that protected me, and sometimes made things happen that were astounding.

    When God said, over and over again, that all will eventually turn to the Lord, I am convinced that will happen. Many will resist His will and not easily turn, but all will one day see the Light and follow Jesus.

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