C. S. Lewis said, “Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow.” While it seems like that statement should be true, it certainly isn’t. Not everyone who believes in God believes that God knows what you and I will do tomorrow. With all due respect, Lewis is wrong here. He’s wrong because of the relatively popular and relatively recent school of theological thought known as open theism.
Open theists believe that God does not, in fact, know what we are going to do tomorrow, but that he is poised to respond to all possible decisions we might make while working to accomplish his purpose however those decisions play out. The future is yet to be determined, according to open theists, because of God’s openness to the results of both his choices and ours.
These are significant claims, with the potential to undermine altogether the nature and character of the triune God who the Bible says is the same, yesterday and today and forever (Heb 13:8). How do these claims arise? At least in part, they stem from an inadequate understanding of texts like the one we studied on Sunday morning at Capitol City.
In Jonah 3, the reluctant prophet Jonah finally preaches in and against the great city of Nineveh, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jon 3:4). In response, Nineveh repents – the whole city, from the king to the beasts of the field, turning from their wickedness and turning to God (3:5-9). [Side note: I don’t know how the beasts of the field turn away from their wickedness. I also don’t know how you force the beasts of the field to fast (3:7). But that’s beside the point.]
The key issue becomes, how does God respond to Nineveh’s response? Here’s how Jonah describes it: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (3:10). God relented. Some older translations (KJV, ASV) actually say, “God repented.” In modern English, words like repent and relent in this context can suggest the idea that God had planned to destroy Nineveh but then changed his mind and decided not to because of Nineveh’s repentance. Such an idea certainly conveys a sense of God’s openness.
But it would be a mistake to read the words of Jonah, or any similar passage, and come to such a conclusion. Why? Because often the writers of Scripture, while inspired by the Holy Spirit, ascribe human characteristics, passions, emotions, and even thought processes to God so that we can better understand God. [This is called anthropomorphism. Don’t ask me to pronounce that.] In the process, they don’t mean to suggest that God is human-like in his characteristics, passions, emotions, and thought processes. There just isn’t a better way to communicate the attributes and purposes of an infinite God to finite people like you and me. Let me illustrate: 1 John says, “God is love” (4:8, 16). Throughout Scripture, God reveals his loving nature. It is fundamental to his character. Yet his love is not like human love. If we limit our understanding of God’s love to what we know and think about human love, we’ll come away with a radically inaccurate understanding of God’s love – and of God himself. Scripture tells us that God is love so that we’ll get closer to understanding who God is and what he is like, but because of the limits of our understanding, we’ll never get the whole picture. At least not on this side of eternity.
The same principles apply when we consider God relenting or repenting in Jonah 3. Scripture isn’t teaching that God changed his mind – for elsewhere Scripture teaches that God will not change his mind: “I say, ‘My purpose will stand and I will do all that I please…What I have said, that I will bring about; what I have planned, that I will do'” (Isa 46:10-11). Rather, the biblical writers are describing the character and nature of God in human-like terms so that humans can understand God. But that should never cause us to limit God to those human-like terms.
Indeed, God radically transcends any and every human quality. In regard to his mind and the future, his purpose stands and will not waiver. Psalm 33:11 teaches, “But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” Ephesians 1:11 affirms the same principle, “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” God has a plan for all of history, and he does sovereignly work everything according to that plan. The future is not open in his mind, and passages like Jonah 3:10 really don’t suggest that he is.
Last thing: Why does all of this matter? What’s at stake in this debate? Quite simply, everything. If God is open, if he changes his mind or will or purpose in any way, then we can’t really count on him. He isn’t worthy of our faith or devotion. He can’t be trusted. If he changes, what would stop him from, at some point in the future, deciding not to save those who place their faith in the gospel? What would stop him from becoming something other than good and loving and compassionate and merciful? If God is open, if he changes, then that changes everything about our faith, because it means everything about our God could potentially change. He becomes unreliable and unpredictable and fundamentally unworthy of our worship and devotion. The unchanging nature and purposes of our God are a foundation of the Christian faith. I pray that we stand firmly on that foundation.