Post Author: Bill Pratt
Christians believe that God is omniscient, which means that God knows everything—past, present, and future. In addition, he knows the actual and the possible; only the impossible (the contradictory) is unknown to God, as the logically contradictory is unknowable to anyone.
But there are passages in the Bible that seem to indicate that God is ignorant of certain facts and that he needs to discover them. One of the best examples is in Gen. 18:20-33, where Abraham bargains with God to save people in Sodom. God says that he “will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached [him]” (Gen. 18:21). If this verse is taken in a strictly literal sense, it indicates that God does not know how bad is Sodom without first visiting himself.
So how do we deal with passages like this? The answer is that we must always interpret any passage in light of all the other texts in the Bible. They must all integrate together and they cannot contradict each other.
Reading the rest of the Bible, we discover a multitude of verses that speak of God’s unlimited knowledge. Consider Job 37:16, which says, “Do you know how the clouds hang poised, those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?” In Ps. 139, David speaks of God’s knowing everything about him, even his words before he speaks them. In Psalm 147, the writer proclaims that God’s “understanding has not limit.”
God announces things to men before they ever occur (Is. 42:9). Jesus teaches that God knows every person’s needs before they ever ask (Matt. 6:8). Every hair on your head is numbered (Matt. 10:30). Paul proclaims the “depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rom. 11:33). The writer of Hebrews reminds us that “nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight” (Heb. 4:13).
There is a strong theme of God’s unlimited knowledge running throughout the Bible. So, if we understand the Genesis 18 passage to be teaching that God does not know what is happening in Sodom, we run head-long into contradiction. How can the God who knows every hair on every person’s head not know what’s going on in Sodom?
The answer is fairly simple. Students of the Bible have traditionally understood passages like Genesis 18 to be anthropomorphic in nature. This means that the passage is written from a human perspective, rather than a divine perspective. God already knows how many wicked people are in Sodom, but he wants to teach Abraham something about the wickedness of the people. God must speak to human beings in terms they can understand, so he sometimes asks questions and expresses uncertainty to elicit appropriate human responses.
Recognizing anthropomorphisms in the Bible is extremely important. The person who claims that passages like Genesis 18 must be taken literally is knocking an infinite God down to a finite creature. In addition, once you deny the presence of anthropomorphic language in the Bible, you must admit that God has wings, arms, and eyes; that he repents and forgets things. The list could go on. The Bible, like any other literature, employs figurative and metaphorical language. Failure to recognize this leads a reader into all kinds of serious problems.