By Christopher Fisher
In Exodus 32, a story is laid out in which God is conversing with Moses. God tells Moses that He will destroy Israel and make a new nation out of Moses. Moses objects and pleads to God to spare Israel. The text then describes something interesting. God repents of the “evil” (the proposed destruction of Israel) that God thought God would accomplish:
Exo 32:14 And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
The question is then asked: Did God “know” a falsehood? Did God know something that was not true? Was God wrong in thinking He would destroy Israel?
The story is simple. God thinks He will do something. Someone convinces God not to do that thing. God then changes His mind and does not do what He thought He was going to do. Normal human communication standards would not consider God “wrong” although events did not ultimately turn out in the way God has expected. A parallel:
A group of people are flying to Dallas. All people on board, especially the pilot, believe they will be flying into DFW airport. In other words, everyone thinks they are going to DFW airport. As the pilot nears Dallas, a stewardess decides it would be funny if instead they land at DLF airport. This stewardess is very persuasive and persuades the pilot to instead fly to DLF airport. Were the people wrong to think “they were going to DFW”? Was the pilot wrong when he first took off to think that they were “going to DFW”?
Normal people reflecting on the situation at a future time would not say that the people were “wrong”. The people were right to think “they were going to DFW”. The airplane was pointed in the direction. The pilot was navigating the plane to DFW. They were, in fact, going to DFW. A normal person would reflect and say: “They were going to DFW, but then the pilot changed his mind and they instead went to DLF”. In fact, the only time the people would be wrong to think “they were going to DFW” would be after the pilot changed his mind. After the pilot knows that the plane is now headed to DLF, the pilot would likewise be wrong to believe “he was going to DFW”.
When evaluating the truthfulness of past claims, it is only valid to evaluate them with the truth available at the time. In the Exodus 32 example, the only way God would actually be “wrong” is if God knew full well He was not going to destroy Israel. The view of future omniscience makes God wrong. If the future does not exist, then God is not wrong to believe “He is going to destroy Israel” if in fact that was His destination at the time.
This can be modeled:
Presentism: Statements about the future are not true or false, in the logical sense of the statement. Statements about the past are only true if tensed to recreate the context of the statement. Both the past and future do not exist; all that exists is “now”.
It is argued:
Because statements about the future are neither true or false (there is nothing to be true or false), future truths cannot affect the truth claims of the present. Those future events do not exist to weigh against the true value. It would also be a mistake to claim that truth claims of the present must hold into the future if the context changes (and vice versa, that claims of the present must hold into the past).
Furthermore it is argued:
While events can actualize in ways that are unexpected by God (in Jeremiah 18:8 God admits as much by saying “I will not do what I thought to do”), this does not necessarily involve thinking a falsehood.
True or false statements are only true or false in the context and time in which they are stated. Because there is no such thing as the future, attempting to include the future truth or falsehood into the truth equation would be the equivalent of trying to include similar non-existent mechanisms. One might as well say that any past event is true or false because of some other irrational and non-existent factor (such as timetravel).
Example of an equally nonsensical claim: “God was not incorrect about destroying Israel because of future timetravel, God can both destroy and not destroy Israel in the past.” Or “God was not incorrect about destroying Israel because all future branching paths lead to parallel worlds and one branching world included God destroying Israel.” These sorts of Deus Ex Machinia’s should be rejected as nonsense.
The statement that “In some context in the past, God thought He would destroy Israel” is the eternal truth (likewise is “In some context in the past, God didn’t think He would destroy Israel”). Alternative phrasing of the same statement: “In some context in the past, God knew He was going to destroy Israel”. At the moment in Exodus when God uttered that He would destroy Israel, it was true in the context in which it was uttered. In Exodus 32:10, God knew He would destroy Israel. God believed the truth. Whether or not Israel was ever destroyed is irrelevant to the question because future truths do not exist to weigh into the claims of the past.
Take for example a similar example:
At time point T1, proposition A “We are going to DFW” is true.
At time point T2, proposition A “We are going to DFW” is true.
At time point T3, proposition A “We are going to DFW” is true.
At time point T4, the pilot changes his mind and diverts the course to DLF.
At time point T5, proposition A “We are going to DFW” is false.
Notice the logical law of Non-contradiction is not violated in these two propositions. A truth (proposition A) cannot be both true and false at the same time in the same sense. Because time (and, more importantly, other factors) can change between T1 and T5 then “We are going to DFW” can be both true and false depending on the context of which it is said. Tensed, “We were going to DFW” can be both true and false depending on the T value to which is referred.
Now apply this concept to Exodus 32:
At time point T1, proposition A “God is going to destroy Israel” is true.
At time point T2, God repents.
At time point T3, proposition A “God is going to destroy Israel” is false.
At time point T4, we analyze:
Now it would be true at T4 the proposition “At time T1 ‘God was going to destroy Israel’ was a true proposition.” But it would not be true to say “At time T3 ‘God was going to destroy Israel’ was a true proposition.” It would also not be true to say “At time T1 ‘God was not going to destroy Israel’ is a true statement. Truth cannot be divorced from the context in which it is said. This is not to say that some context can change and truth value of the statement can’t remain the same (is it even still the same statement?). In order for proposition A to remain true at T3, the relevant context would have to hold between the two points.
In short, when evaluating truth we should not apply contexts which are not applicable. We should not assume that truth propositions would hold changing the context in which the truth is uttered.
At T1, God was going to destroy Israel. That was God’s intent. God was preparing and planning on destroying Israel. Rephrased: at T1, God knew “that He was going to destroy Israel”. Because God was going to destroy Israel (and God could have accomplished this as planned), God knew the truth.
At T3, it is no longer the case that God was going to destroy Israel. The context of the statement changed, thus we should not assume the truth value must hold. God no longer thought “that He was going to destroy Israel”.
Because of presentism, it can logically be claimed that God does not believe falsehoods about the future although it is possible that He could be incorrect if we irrationally project present truths into past “truth calculations”. Because the past does not exist, except in memory, recalculating truth determinations from the past is as fallacious as using future truths to calculate present truths. If the truth did exist, only then God would have believed a falsehood. God is only wrong if God knows the future.
In other words: God can know some truth now that does not materialize as expected.