Is God Omniscient?

Joseph Francis Alward
August 31, 2000

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Many verses in the Bible seem to support the notion of God's "omniscience", his knowing of all things, including all future thoughts and actions.  But, does the Bible definitely teach that God is omniscient? In this brief note we will argue that the answer is, Not necessarily.  The strongest evidence in support of the argument that the Bible teaches God's omniscience is found in verses such as the ones in John in which Jesus' disciples tell him that he knows "all things" (Greek: pas) [1]: "Now we can see that you know all things  (Greek:  pas) (John 16:30)...Lord, thou knowest all things (Greek:  pas) ; thou knowest that I love thee.(John 21:17)

When John wrote about "all things" above, is it certain that he was including all things on that list? While God certainly has the power to know all things, we will show below that pas in the New Testament doesn't necessarily include ALL things.   Another gospel writer--Matthew--also used the phrase "all things" in a different context, and it is evident that he didn't wish for the readers to take the phrase literally.  Here is what Matthew said about the "things" which Elijah would "restore" at the end times:   "And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things (Greek:  pas)." (Matthew 17:11).  Obviously, Matthew didn't mean for readers to imagine that when Elias came he would restore the fallen leaf to the tree, or Adam and Eve to the garden, even if it's not clear exactly what he would restore; thus, not ALL things would be restored.

Consider an example of the type of thing that Matthew wanted us to know would be restored:   thoughts of revealed truth--those put in the minds of the scribes when God whispered gospel truths into their ears; those must have been perfect thoughts at that moment, since they were put there by God. But, over time these thoughts--the revealed truths--transferred from one divine person to another--may have become distorted, unwhole, imperfect.  Those once-perfect thoughts of revealed truth--now imperfect at the end times--would be exactly the kind of "thing" that Elijah would "restore".  But, banal thoughts--thoughts about broken sandal straps, for example were certainly not among the things which would be "restored", whatever the word means; so Elias wouldn't really restore "all thoughts"; he would restore just those thoughts of special, divine significance.

We've given a few examples which make it clear that Matthew didn't really mean "everything" when he used the words "all things".  So, if "all" clearly was not intended to be taken to mean mean literally "everything" in the Matthew verse, why should the statement that god "knows all things" in the verses in John be taken to mean that God has knowledge of literally everything? The answer is, It shouldn't.  We conclude that just as we have an implicit limitation on what "all" means in the Matthew verse, the John verses may also be implicitly limited [2], and therefore that the Bible doesn't necessarily teach that its god knows everything that will happen in the future.

It's interesting to contemplate a god who knows all of the future--very future act by man, his every future thought.  Such a man would have absolutely no free will, and is therefore would not responsible for any of his actions, and everything he does is ultimately done by God, who must have predestined every event and every thought.  It is not hard to imagine that the writers believed that that God might have wanted man to have limited free will, and therefore did not predestine everything in everyone's lives, and therefore did not know everything man would do, or think, and therefore was not "omniscient" by our modern-day definition of the word.

If Paul can be believed, man does not have free will.  According to him, even though God did not give man the free will to resist doing things for which God would hold them blameworthy, man had no right to complain:

"Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' "Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:19-21)

[1] Strong's Concordance in the  Blue Letter Bible.

[2]  The strategy of attacking from a linguistics position the  unqualified "all things" (Greek: pas) in the John verses, and the suggestion that one must find a similarly unqualified, but obviously equivocal, "all things" (Greek:  pas), arose out of correspondence between this author and a member of Farrell Till's errancy @ debate forum.