There is a difference between knowing someone personally and knowing about them. We usually prefer the former to the latter. Even so, I hope you will agree that knowing about God is helpful in our pursuit to know him personally. I realize theology gets short shrift these days. It is not a hot topic. But where do we go when things are left unresolved after exhausting sacred text? One option is to dive into philosophy, even if the pool is often murky and bottomless. So let’s wade into uncharted waters and consider an uncommon and unsettled question: Can God be surprised?
Before getting into the question, let me establish two things. First is the use of perfect-being theology for guidance. To put it simply: when we try to describe God, His nature, and His qualities, we must see Him as maximally great. An accurate description of God must have Him possessing the most excellent compossible set of great-making attributes. With this in mind, we have grounds for replacing our current conception of God if we conceive of someone greater. But, of course, this acts only as a guide since we are imperfect arbiters of what it means to be “greater.”
Next is a clear and concise definition of “surprise,” as this is essential to our analysis. I intentionally constrain the meaning to not deviate from perfection. For example, a suitable definition would never imply being scared since God does not experience fear. In other words, I want to use a narrow meaning with the potential of being a great-making attribute. My definition is as follows:
A person S is surprised iff, for any time t and any true proposition p, S experiences joy from knowing that p at time t and has less knowledge of p before time t.
You may recall propositions are exclusively true or false and refer to statements’ meanings. For one to know proposition p, p must be true. Essential to the definition of surprise is the element of discovery. In plain terms, a surprise is an experience of joy from a discovered truth. Based on this definition, it may be a great-making quality. However, a point of contention arises around the idea that God knows that p at time t and has less knowledge of p before time t. If God is omniscient, this seems to be a problem to resolve. With this groundwork in place, we are ready to proceed with the question: Can God be surprised?
Lucky for us, there are only two possible answers: God is never surprised (NS), or it is not the case God is never surprised (~NS). These two disjuncts are contradictory. Therefore, one and only one must be true. Let’s start with the first possibility (NS). John Piper writes:
God is never surprised. To be surprised, you have to be uncertain about what is coming. You have to be ignorant. God is never ignorant about the future or about anything. He is never uncertain about what is coming.
There is an obvious path to avoid right out of the gate. We must agree with Piper’s statement if the word ignorant implies any inability or negative connotation. However, for our purposes, the term means nothing more than the state of not knowing. To not know something may be a matter of choice. The word nescient, which implies the absence of knowledge, might be a better choice than the derogatory word ignorant.
Choice of words aside, those who hold the NS view say God knows all propositional truths, including future ones. So nescience isn’t an option either. Leaving out non-propositional knowledge, like self-awareness and know-how, we can use the following widely-accepted definition as an applicable minimal description of omniscience given NS:
A person S is omniscient iff, for any true proposition p, S knows that p and does not believe not-p.
But does God know every true proposition, or does He have the ability to blot out knowledge? Could God put intrinsic uncertainty into the world to ensure some future events are unknowable? Is God in time, or does He stand outside the entire timeline of history? These are relevant questions to revisit shortly. As for those in the NS camp who affirm that God knows the future precisely, they offer at least the following biblical support:
- God declares things not yet done (Isa 46)
- God knew Abraham would father a great nation (Gen 12)
- God knew me before I was born and the number of my days (Psalm 139, Isa 44)
- God knows what you will say before you speak (Psalm 139)
- Jesus knew of Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial (all four Gospels)
- Jesus knew of his impending death and resurrection (Mark 9, Mt 17)
- Jesus knew the Spirit would come after his ascension (Jn 16)
- God predetermined the existence of the Church (Eph 1, 2)
Let’s briefly consider some responses to the above references. As for declaring the future, this hardly implies foreseeing per se. We make such declarations anytime we state our intention to ensure a future outcome and then carry it out. When I declare we will have groceries tomorrow, I do not see the future apart from my intention to act and make the declaration a reality. Some of the above verses may only illuminate God’s power, not necessarily seeing into the future. One could easily argue the prediction of Abraham’s seed becoming a great nation, the death and resurrection of Christ, the birth of the Church, and the coming of the Holy Spirit as similar declarations. When God declares a future outcome, His word becomes a reality precisely when He chooses.
For example, in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he writes: “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…” This verse plausibly illuminates God’s power rather than sheer foresight. God is far more excellent as the efficient cause of the significant events in His plan than as a mere spectator peering into the future. Paul’s letter may be speaking of future things conforming with His will, as opposed to what will occur down the road, and God sees it coming. It’s interesting, but the popular Jeremiah 29:11 doesn’t say I saw your future; instead, I know my plans for you. It’s easy to confuse omnipotence with omniscience.
Psalm 139 is not necessarily a case of foresight either. Knowing what I will say before I utter the words might better be explained by God knowing my thoughts rather than Him looking at a future point in the timeline and listening to my utterances. First, the brain thinks, then the words come out. By knowing my thoughts, He knows what I’m going to say. There are multiple verses in Scripture where God knows what a person is thinking. So I see no reason to take a well-established concept (knowing our thoughts) and concluding foresight.
But not all of these verses are easily explained away as omnipotence. First is the idea that God knew me before I was born, where all my days were written in His book. This verse is hard to square with anything but God seeing the whole timeline. Likewise, Jesus’s prediction of Peter’s three-time denial with the cock crowing three times is also challenging to interpret as anything but foresight. I will return to this, but we should remember that God may have specific capacities He refrains from using. This idea of restraint is hardly novel, given the kenotic nature of the divine reality (Phil 2:7).
What about the view that it is not the case God cannot be surprised (~NS)? All we need to do to corroborate this idea is to show God possibly can be surprised. To do this, I want to develop three points:
- God may choose not to know every truth
- Some future states may be intrinsically unknowable
- Different persons of the Trinity may not be in the same temporal relationship with creation.
But before I develop the above points, I want to show how Scripture underdetermines the matter. Multiple biblical instances suggest God is nescient, uncertain, surprised, or amazed:
- Jerimiah 3:7 says God thought perhaps A might obtain, but it turned out ~A.
- God told Jeremiah, “Perhaps they will listen and change…” (Jeremiah 26:3) – the word perhaps implies contingency, the uncertainty of the future.
- “I will decide what to do with you” (Exodus 33). At the point when one “will decide,” one has new knowledge they didn’t have before the decision.
- Exodus 4:8 has God describing a pair of mutually-exclusive future contingencies: If ~A, then perhaps B. If ~B, then C.
- Jesus was amazed at the unbelief in Nazareth (Mark 6:6). One cannot be amazed by X if one already has perfect knowledge of X.
- Jesus was surprised at the faith of the Roman commander (Mt. 8)
- Mark 13:32 – “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” – Not all persons of the Trinity have the same knowledge at every point in history.
Some reading this will immediately dismiss the above references as an anthropomorphic writing style to make God and his dealings with humanity more readable. That’s debatable at best and a desperate stretch at worst. Let’s not forget how much room we make for our systematic theology instead of letting the text speak for itself. This tack is relatively common, given nearly everyone who digs into Scripture develops such a system, whether they can articulate it or not. That system then drives further interpretation. But on a straightforward reading, the above verses balance those for NS. Moreover, this underdetermination leaves us with the need for philosophical input.
So what about nescience by choice? If God chooses to be nescient regarding a subset of all true propositions, then it logically follows our definition of omniscience on NS is insufficient. For example, in Isaiah 43:25, we read, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” Isaiah is saying God can erase or blot out knowledge instead of fully remembering every sinful detail of man. Note the verse says this is for His own sake. So why would we demand otherwise? Why limit God because we think his omniscience necessitates knowing all true propositions? I see Isaiah 43 agreeing with perfect-being theology, where God decides, for His benefit, which truths He knows — past, present, and future. We can adjust our definition of omniscience to reflect this perspective:
A person S is omniscient iff, for any proposition p that is knowable, either S knows that p or S intentionally expunges the knowledge of p and does not believe not-p.
Let’s move on to general revelation. There are physical interpretations of quantum observations where randomness is an ontological reality at the lowest levels of nature. Accordingly, for example, when a particle decays, it is not a matter of an observer’s inability to measure but a matter of ontic uncertainty. It’s not about having better tools or more intelligence; it is that some events are intrinsically unknowable with precision. If these interpretations are correct, God designed the cosmos such that future states are not wholly predictable from prior conditions. The late John Polkinghorne held this interpretation:
The intrinsic unpredictabilities of quantum mechanics and chaos theory can be seen theologically as gifts of a Creator whose creation is both orderly and open.
Polkinghorne’s view of openness concerns the future of God’s story not having precision and not being entirely predictable from prior conditions, even if the processes that govern the story are orderly. Given the right balance of order and chaos, God works out the broad strokes of His story despite unexpected outcomes in the fine details. So none of what I’m saying precludes God from having a storyline in advance. I’m merely noting the Script may be a bit fuzzy and that knowing every true future proposition from prior states may be impossible — by design.
Chaos theory is relevant here because it helps explain the micro to the macro route. How do micro-uncertainties down at the subatomic level result in significant real-world unpredictability? Perhaps this microscopic vagueness has no impact on the real world of persons, places, and things. The answer reveals another fascinating aspect of reality: the incredible nonlinearities of physical processes. To quote Lawrence of Arabia: “big things have small beginnings.” Chaos theory provides a way for quantum uncertainty to affect things further up in scale through a series of amplifying steps. Quantum uncertainty and chaotic interaction reveal God’s intention to create a world imbued with vagueness.
Of course, even if future states are unknowable from initial conditions, this does not preclude God from seeing the entire timeline to fill in the gaps. Here knowledge of future propositions becomes foresight rather than predetermination. But now, we have left predicting chains of events and have entered the realm of God and time. So even if it is intrinsically impossible for God to know how a set of initial conditions at the Big Bang would lead to me typing this 13.7 billion years later, He still might be able to foresee me doing it in the timeline. In other words, if God has always known what I’m doing now, it seems a tenseless B-theory of time is correct and that God is never surprised. He has already seen it all. But perhaps the tenseless view of God and time is incorrect. Maybe the tensed A-theory of time is accurate, and God is in time.
Unfortunately, theologians are all over the map regarding God and time. In the book Time and Eternity by William Lane Craig, he presents a case for divine temporality. Craig says God is timeless, sans the universe, and condescends into a temporal relationship at the Big Bang. This view resolves some significant theological problems but opens up a different can of worms. Divine temporality makes a personal relationship possible. We can have an actual back and forth in prayer with the Creator. But if God is in time, He must rely on the clockwork regularity of determinism to know future states from prior ones. That kind of determinism seems contrary to the world He made.
But what if, and I’m talking about a huge if, the Trinity resolves things? What if the Father’s relationship with creation is tenseless, but the Son’s tensed. Going further out on a limb, perhaps the Holy Spirit is the bridge between the tensed world of spacetime and the tenseless spiritual world we ponder in metaphysics. This perspective resolves a lot of theological issues! God is still personal and able to have an in-time (tensed) relationship with His creatures via the Holy Spirit and the resurrected Christ. But God the Father can see block-time and know me before I was born despite intrinsic vagueness in His creation. Jesus can experience the joy of surprise and share it through perfect communion with the Father. Nothing escapes the Father’s eye, including all future states, and yet experiences the pleasure of surprise through His Son.
Let’s return to earth and summarize. Either God can be surprised, or He cannot be. Scripture underdetermines the matter. Some say God cannot be surprised. A strict definition of omniscience leaves little room for God to choose nescience or to create a world with intrinsic vagueness and still be entirely in time. Accordingly, all future states are hard-wired into reality, or God has already seen everything that might be open to variation. Either way, no surprises.
Others say the joy of surprise is a great-making quality. He gave this joy to those created in His image. Why shouldn’t God enjoy the same gift? General revelation points to a somewhat open and vague world. If a particle decay is intrinsically unknowable in time, then not all future truths are knowable to an omniscient observer within time. And if some future states are unknowable, and if a person of the Trinity is in time, the door for a surprise is open.
We can surmise that if God is a scriptwriter, then every particle-decay and every creaturely free choice is predetermined. Every line cast in stone includes the Creator’s lines. Prayers have prewritten answers. Accordingly, the Writer is never surprised by any turn in the story because all turns exist before the world began. But if God is a gardener, we have an entirely different possibility. The gardener cultivates with care and expertise as he prunes and waters his work. Yet, as his efforts reach fruition, the ensemble of every petal and thorn remains open. And as summertime arrives and the flowers express in full bloom, the gardener is joyful over the expected and unexpected.
 Q&A interview on 1.6.2008
 The enterprise of middle-knowledge (Molinism) depends on determinism, where quantum uncertainty is merely an epistemic problem for man, not God. Accordingly, God knows all possible worlds that he could create. He knows from the set of initial conditions at the Big Bang, plus every predetermined divine act within history, that I'd be typing this in 2022. But on ontic quantum vagueness, plus chaos, it seems God would constantly be undoing aspects of His story that were affected to ensure I'd be typing away right now. That strikes me as odd. So on divine temporality, where God is in time and doesn't see the entire timeline, proponents of Molinism must rely on physical determinism for God to know future propositions using middle and free knowledge.