Christians believe that God knows everything. But does that mean that he predetermines everything?
Dr. Michael Heiser says no.
In The Unseen Realm, Heiser explores a biblical account of David which suggests that while God has divine foreknowledge of the future, not every event is predestined.
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God revealed the future to David
In 1 Samuel 23:1–13, David repeatedly asks God to tell him what’s going to happen next. As 1 Samuel 23 begins, David and his men are hiding from Saul in the cave of Adullam, and they are faced with a difficult decision.
“Now they told David, ‘Look, the Philistines are fighting in Keilah and they are raiding the threshing floors.’ So David inquired of Yahweh, saying, ‘Shall I go and attack these Philistines?’ And Yahweh said to David, ‘Go and attack the Philistines and save Keilah’” (1 Samuel 23:1–2).
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God simply tells David to go, with no indication of what will happen when he does. Removed from the world and in the comfort of their hiding place, that might have been enough for David, but it wasn’t enough for his men.
“But David’s men said to him, ‘Look, we are afraid here in Judah. How much more if we go to Keilah to the battle lines of the Philistines?’ So David again inquired of Yahweh, and Yahweh answered him and said, ‘Get up, go down to Keilah, for I am giving the Philistines into your hand.’ So David and his men went to Keilah and fought with the Philistines. They drove off their livestock and dealt them a heavy blow. So David saved the inhabitants of Keilah” (1 Samuel 23:3–5).
Here, God told David what would happen if he and his men attacked the Philistines—and it gave David’s men the confidence they needed to overcome their fear.
Did David and his men still have the free will to decide not to do as God instructed, if God said that they would succeed? The next few verses seem to indicate that at least in some instances, God’s foresight can be based on potential choices and circumstances—if this, then that scenarios.
“Now when Abiathar the son of Ahimelech fled to David at Keilah, he went down with an ephod in his hand. When it was told to Saul that David had gone to Keilah, Saul said, ‘God has given him into my hand, because he has shut himself in by going into a city with two barred gates. Saul then summoned all of the army for the battle, to go down to Keilah to lay a siege against David and his men. When David learned that Saul was plotting evil against him, he said to Abiathar the priest, ‘Bring the ephod here.’
And David said, ‘O Yahweh, God of Israel, your servant has clearly heard that Saul is seeking to come to Keilah to destroy the city because of me. Will the rulers of Keilah deliever me into his hand? Will Saul come down as your servant has heard? O Yahweh, God of Israel, please tell your servant!’ And Yahweh said, ‘He will come down.’ Then David said, ‘Will the rulers of Keilah deliver me and my men into the hand of Saul?’ And Yahweh said, ‘They will deliver you.’ So David and his men got up, about six hundred men, and went out from Keilah and wandered wherever they could go. When it was told to Saul that David had escaped from Keilah, he stopped his pursuit” (1 Samuel 23:6–13).
“David asks the Lord two questions,” Dr. Heiser says. “(1) Will his nemesis Saul come to Keilah and threaten the city on account of David’s presence? And (2) will the people of Keilah turn him over to Saul to avoid Saul’s wrath? Again, God answers both affirmatively: ‘He will come down,’ and ‘They will deliver you.'”
Here’s where things get really interesting.
“Neither of these events that God foresaw ever actually happened. Once David hears God’s answers, he and his men leave the city. When Saul discovers this fact (1 Samuel 23:13), he abandons his trip to Keilah. Saul never made it to the city. The men of Keilah never turned David over to Saul.”
God’s omniscience doesn’t mean everything is predetermined
“Why is this [passage] significant?” Heiser asks. “This passage clearly establishes that divine foreknowledge does not necessitate divine predestination. God foreknew what Saul would do and what the people of Keilah would do given a set of circumstances. In other words, God foreknew a possibility—but this foreknowledge did not mandate that the possibility was actually predestined to happen. The events never happened, so by definition they could not have been predestined. And yet the omniscient God did indeed foresee them. Predestination and foreknowledge are separable.”
David used God’s divine foreknowledge to make a decision that altered the chain of events God predicted. God revealed what would happen if David stayed. And David was clearly not predestined to stay.
Heiser summarizes the point this way:
“That which never happens can be foreknown by God, but it is not predestined, since it never happened.”
So what about when God predicts something, and it does happen? As we saw in that same passage, God foresaw that David and his men would save Keilah, and it happened—so was it predetermined?
“Since we have seen above that foreknowledge in itself does not necessitate predestination,” Heiser says, “all that foreknowledge truly guarantees is that something is foreknown. If God foreknows some event that happens, then he may have predestined that event. But the fact that he foreknew an event does not require its predestination if it happens. The only guarantee is that God foreknew it correctly, whether it turns out to be an actual event or a merely possible event.”
How do we balance free will and predestination?
Dr. Heiser suggests that the difference predestination and foreknowledge have powerful implications for how we understand evil.
“This has significant implications for not only the Fall, but the presence of evil in our world in general. God is not evil. There is no biblical reason to argue that God predestined the Fall, though he foreknew it. There is no biblical reason to assert that God predestined all the evil events throughout human history simply because he foreknew them.”
There are certainly instances in the Bible where God influenced someone to make a particular decision (such as hardening Pharoah’s heart in Exodus), but free will is what offers the constant potential for evil, not God’s master plan for the future.
“There is also no biblical coherence to the idea that God factored all evil acts into his grand plan for the ages,” Heiser says. This is a common, but flawed, softer perspective, adopted to avoid the previous notion that God directly predestines evil events. It unknowingly implies that God’s ‘perfect’ plan needed to incorporate evil acts because—well because we see them every day, and surely they can’t just happen, since God foreknows everything. Therefore (says this flawed perspective) they must just be part of how God decided best to direct history.”
This line of reasoning can often get Christians into dangerous discussions of the purpose of evil. If Romans 8:28 promises us that all things work together for good for those who love God, doesn’t that suggest God uses evil for good?
Evil could certainly fall under “all things,” but God isn’t twiddling his thumbs, waiting for something evil to use for good.
“God doesn’t need the rape of a child to happen so that good may come. His foreknowledge didn’t require the holocaust as part of a plan that would give us the kingdom on earth. God does not need evil as a means to accomplish anything.”
Reformed systematic theologians will, no doubt, have a different perspective on this passage and its implications, and I’d encourage you to share your thoughts on free will, predestination, and 1 Samuel 23:1–13 in the comments below.
For more fascinating insights from Dr. Heiser, get your copy of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible.