Tough Questions Answered

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Are There Things God Does Not Know?

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.


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  • kay

    Great. Enjoyed.

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    I guess I don’t see it. How exactly is God teaching Abraham “something about the wickedness of the people” by feigning ignorance of Sodom’s condition? Wouldn’t the same lesson be taught, and the omnipotence of God upheld, if He had said to Abraham straight away, “If there was but one righteous in Sodom, I would stay my hand, but alas, there is not.”

    Instead, we read what is essentially a negotiation, with God giving Abraham an impression there is hope for the city, when all along He knows there is none. Gen. 18 concludes:

    “(32) Then [Abraham] said, ‘Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak only this once; suppose ten are found there?’ And He said, ‘I will not destroy it on account of the ten.’

    (33)As soon as He had finished speaking to Abraham the LORD departed, and Abraham returned to his place.”

    If there is a lesson here, it’s that God can give you a false hope. Why? Just another of God’s mysteries, I guess.

  • kay

    I don’t think God ever gives false hope.

  • Bill Pratt

    “How exactly is God teaching Abraham “something about the wickedness of the people” by feigning ignorance of Sodom’s condition?”

    Abraham would learn that Sodom is truly and completely wicked when even 10 righteous people could not be found. Abraham additionally learns that God is merciful and that he will spare righteous people if they can be found. He also learns that God is just in his treatment of Sodom, and that he doesn’t sweep away the guilty with the innocent.

    There were many things to teach Abraham in the exchange, so for God to cut it short, as you wished, would have have also cut short Abraham’s learning.

    As for false hope, in my book that is deception, and the Bible repeatedly says that God cannot lie.

    God bless,
    Bill

  • James Rountree

    I believe that it is worth noting that God nor His angels are described in those verses as seeking out righteous men in Sodom after the conversation between God and Abraham. What does that mean? Did God lie to Abraham? Did the angels fail to do what God instructed them to do? Did the bible make a drawn out dialog that not 50, 45, 40, 30, 20 or even 10 righteous men was too few to spare an entire city from destruction.

    I can only conclude that God did not need to go down to know, he wanted to make the issue of finding righteous men the subject of the discussion with Abraham. Is there anything in the bible that suggest that two angels would be in danger from men, even wicked men? It becomes clear that the angels were sent to allow Lot to demonstrate that he was worthy of salvation from God’s wrath for Sodom? What that tells us is that even when an entire city is to be destroyed, that one righteous man can be singled out to be saved from the wrath visited on the wicked.

  • Robert

    Bill wrote,

    Abraham would learn that Sodom is truly and completely wicked when even 10 righteous people could not be found.

    But God knew there were not 10 righteous people in Sodom. All God had to do was inform Abraham of that fact, rather than conduct a negotiation that left Abraham with the impression Sodom could be saved. The farcical nature of the exchange is further reinforced by God’s saying he has to go down and see if all that wickedness in Sodom is really going on.

    As for false hope, in my book that is deception, and the Bible repeatedly says that God cannot lie.

    Not knowing God’s will, it’s impossible for you to say what actions He takes in order to bring glory to His name. Moreoever, while there are verses stating that God can’t lie, there are plenty of others which indicate He deceives (which is the same thing as lying, from our point of view): 1 Kings 22:23, 2 Chronicles 18:22, Jeremiah 4:10, Jeremiah 20:7, Ezekial 14:9, 2 Thess. 2:11. Thus, following the rule that “we must always interpret any passage in light of all the other texts in the Bible,” it’s fully possible – even likely – that God was deceiving Abraham. And if God can deceive Abraham, and other of His most trusted servants, what makes you think He doesn’t deceive you and me?

  • Robert

    James wrote,

    I can only conclude that God did not need to go down to know, he wanted to make the issue of finding righteous men the subject of the discussion with Abraham.

    “Finding righteous men” seems hardly to the point whether there WERE righteous men in Sodom. God already knew there were none, so having a discussion about “finding” something God knew didn’t exist is silly.

    And there’s still the problem of God saying He has to check out whether all that wickedness is Sodom is truly going on.

  • Bill Pratt

    Robert,
    You said, “All God had to do was inform Abraham of that fact, rather than conduct a negotiation that left Abraham with the impression Sodom could be saved.”

    There are many ways to teach people and just coming right out and telling them is only one way. Have you never heard of the Socratic Method? Often I find that when I am trying to teach somebody something, the teaching is more effective if I ask questions and let them discover the truth themselves. Sometimes longer conversations are necessary to teach. I have no idea why you think God can only teach using one method. That is truly odd. I can’t imagine what you think of Shakespeare…

    “Moreoever, while there are verses stating that God can’t lie, there are plenty of others which indicate He deceives”

    1 Kings 22:23 and 2 Chron. 18:22 are describing the same thing. In both cases, God is permitting lying spirits to lie, but He himself is not lying. God absolutely permits all sorts of evil that evil creatures desire to do, but he brings good out of all of it ultimately.

    In Jer. 4:10, Jeremiah is angry with God for allowing the false prophets to predict peace. It is the prophets who were lying, not God.

    As for Jer. 20:7, “The Hebrew word (patah) translated “deceived” by the kjv does not imply moral deception here. It can be translated “induced” or “persuaded” (nkjv and niv note). It simply means that God persuaded or constrained Jeremiah into a ministry of which he was not fully aware of all the consequences. But this is a good description of marriage. And who but the most cynical would insist that all romance and courtship are moral deception simply because the couple could not foresee all they were getting into.”

    In Ezek. 14:9, here again we have God allowing false prophets to lie and deceive. There is no doubt that he allows liars to lie, and that he even uses their lies for his good purposes.

    In 2 Thess, 2:11, God is merely confirming the choice of those who wish to be deceived. Just as God hardened Pharaoh’s heart after Pharaoh had already decided to harden his heart.

    “And if God can deceive Abraham, and other of His most trusted servants, what makes you think He doesn’t deceive you and me?”

    Robert, since you have misinterpreted all of the above verses and ignored huge swaths of the Bible that teach about God’s perfect moral nature, I do not find your comments persuasive. I am quite confident that what God has revealed to me from the Bible is true.

    God bless,
    Bill

  • James Rountree

    Robert,
    Thank you for being willing to discuss your perspective and to listen to mine. I pray that God will allow each of us to see the truth in this matter.

    Let us start be going back to the scripture to help clarify the issue.

    First we need to understand that Abraham has already had dealings with the King of Sodom before these events. This was a result of Abram (later named, Abraham, by God) going off to rescue his nephew Lot when Sodom was attacked. When Abram (Abraham) returned with the people and goods that had been carried off from Sodom by the invaders. The King of Sodom said “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.” and Abram (Abraham) replied “I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Let them have their share.”

    So we now understand that Abram (Abraham) is a covenant friend of God and is therefore allowed by God to know of God’s plans and even an opportunity to speak on behalf of the righteous. This is NOT to change God, for God is immutable (unchanging); however, it is in order to allow Abram (Abraham) to change.

    So we now understand that Abram (Abraham) had already made it clear that he understood that he was to have nothing to do with Sodom, and yet Lot had been living first near and then in the city of Sodom. It is in this context that we read: Then the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” but it does not stop there, it continues.

    “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

    So it is in the context that Abraham has been chosen by God to “direct his children and his household” to do what is right and just.

    So we see that scripture tells us that God is telling Abraham about what he is going to do to Sodom to instruct Abraham.

    Abraham responds to God, knowing that Lot his nephew is living in Sodom, by asking if a specific number of righteous men can be found, could the city be saved? God at this point has already sent his two angels down to Sodom, before Abraham pleads with God to rescue Lot from the destruction of Sodom.

    So the lesson learned by Abraham:

    1 – Human justice is to be decided based on direct testimony by multiple witnesses.

    2 – Humans should make every effort to determine the truth to avoid punishing the falsely accused.

    3 – Final judgement belongs to God.

    4 – God answers cries from helpless victims for justice.

    God uses anthropomorphisms (human characteristics assigned to non-human creatures and beings) to allow humans to relate and better understand His message. Once we understand that God is all knowing, but He wishes to instruct finite humans in ways that they can understand, we begin to understand that God was presenting the facts in a way that Abraham could understand. Indeed, also in a way that allowed Abraham to question God’s actions so that he may better understand the lesson he was being taught.

    I hope this helps you to understant that it was not God that needed to discover that there were not even 10 righteous men in Sodom. It was Abraham that needed to understand that evidence was required to make a judgement, that inoccent people should be spared, and that God is the final judge of all things.

    God Bless, James

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    Thank you for your reply, James. Unfortunately, however, it does not satisfy a number of questions I’ve raised. Before explaining why, allow me to take issue with one or two of your statements. You wrote,

    God at this point has already sent his two angels down to Sodom, before Abraham pleads with God to rescue Lot from the destruction of Sodom.

    This is not stated in the text. The way the story reads, first God says He will verify Sodom’s wickedness (18:21). How? By going down himself. Then there’s the negotiation over Sodom’s (not Lot’s) fate, followed by (in ch. 19), the angels appearing at Sodom’s gate.

    Abraham responds to God, knowing that Lot his nephew is living in Sodom, by asking if a specific number of righteous men can be found, could the city be saved?

    If Abraham’s intention was to save Lot, then it would be a simple request to God. Instead, the verses make clear Abraham is trying to save Sodom. Could the entire city be spared if there were but 10 righteous in it? The writer’s (or God’s) point in destroying the city was to demonstrate how reprobate it had become, such that not even 10 righteous people in it could be found (apparently, babies and little children are counted among the unrighteous too).

    The problem remains that God gave Abraham the misleading impression there were righteous people in Sodom, first, by falsely intimating He didn’t know the true depth of Sodom’s degeneracy (when He did), and, second, by holding a sham negotiation over Sodom’s fate (when He had already planned to destroy the city). If God really wanted to teach Abraham that “Human justice is to be decided based on direct testimony by multiple witnesses,” then all God had to do was to summon his angels to tell Abraham that Sodom was entirely wicked the moment Abraham began to question whether Sodom was spareable.

    The truth of the matter is, we can go back and forth debating this question for a long time. My point in discussing it is to show how your Bible looks from an outsider’s perspective. Non-Christians are not satisifed with any possible answer to a dilemma, as Christians are (and what their apologists strive to give). Sure, you can come up with some explanation that harmonizes divine omnipotence with Biblical verses like Genesis 18 and 19, but these explanations are extremely implausible to outsiders to your faith; they take too many mental gymnastics to reasonably believe.

  • Wes

    I don’t think the point of the story is whether God knew ahead of time how many people were righteous in Sodom, but how we should talk to God. Whenever I study this story in a class, people are always surprised at how Abraham keeps pushing the negotiation, and that God continues to listen patiently. He even tells Abraham that He will change His plans if Abraham’s request is met. Just because Abraham’s condition is not met does not mean God was not willing to change His plans. (Moses talks God out of destroying Israel when they build the golden calf in a similar story.) God reveals to Abraham His plans for Sodom; He does not reveal how many people are righteous. He lets Abraham set conditions and agrees to follow them. Whenever someone’s prayer is not answered, it does not mean they are deceived by God. There are lots of things people would like to know that God does not reveal.

    Another interesting story is when God promises Abraham and Sarah a son, but then it is years before the promise is fulfilled. I don’t think he was trying to deceive them or dash their hopes by waiting to fulfill that promise, but teaching them to be patient and faithful.

    I appreciate your willingness to discuss your differences, and I hope you keep examining the Bible.

  • James Rountree

    Robert,
    I know that you are not so simplistic as your statement seems to imply. I was careful to take you back to before the negotiation, when Abraham went to great personal effort to save Lot from invaders. I was also careful to point out the exchange between Abraham and the King of Sodom. Abraham wanted nothing to do with the King of Sodom. What other motivation can you provide for Abraham to plead for Sodom than for the sake of Lot who is living in the city of Sodom? I also find it difficult to believe that you miss the huge elephant in the room, if Sodom is so wicked that Abraham is negotiating down the requirement to save the city, that only 10 righteous men be found. If Abraham wanted nothing to do with Sodom when he was the conquering hero, and he believed that God would have trouble finding enough righteous men in Sodom avoid its destruction, how can you possibly think that it is Sodom itself that Abraham is pleading for?

    Robert, I pray that you will become a critical thinker and stop looking for any excuse to deny the truth of God’s word.

    God Bless,
    James

  • James Rountree

    Wes,
    I am pulling heavily from Norman Geisler’s “Systematic Theology” when I write:

    You need to look to the attributes of God.

    God is Immutable, He does not change. He is also all knowing, God knows everything – past, present and future.

    All of God’s attributes have solid support in scripture, history and philosophical theology. Despite many anthropomorphic expressions (speaking of God in human terms), the Bible has clear and repeated references to God’s immutability and omniscience.

    When you wrote: “Moses talks God out of destroying Israel when they build the golden calf in a similar story.”

    You make the fatal mistake of thinking that God changed. It is not God that changed, it was Moses.

    Here are some scriptures to help you build your confidence in this truth.

    Num. 23:19 – “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind”

    1 Sam. 15:29 – “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind”

    Ps. 102:26-27 – “They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment… But you remain the same, and your years will never end”

    Heb. 13:8 – “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”

    Not only does God not change, but it is also impossible for Him to change. If you believe that God is absolute perfection and pure goodness, then you understand that He can not change. For otherwise, God would become less than perfect and less than pure goodness.

    God Bless,
    James

  • Robert

    James wrote,

    What other motivation can you provide for Abraham to plead for Sodom than for the sake of Lot who is living in the city of Sodom?

    I gotta admit, such a statement is a bit scary.

    What other motivation? How about simple human empathy not to see fellow human beings, children and babies included, be blasted to oblivion?

    Biblegateway.com’s entry on Genesis 18 states it as well, “Abraham Intercedes for Sodom”.

    If Abraham wanted nothing to do with Sodom when he was the conquering hero, and he believed that God would have trouble finding enough righteous men in Sodom avoid its destruction, how can you possibly think that it is Sodom itself that Abraham is pleading for?

    As I said before, if Abraham really intended to save Lot, then why not simply ask God for that? Did Abraham believe it was beyond God’s power to spare Lot without sparing Sodom too?

    It’s clear that Abraham wanted Sodom spared, by both specifying the city itself, and negotiating down the conditions by which it could escape destruction. These actions are pointless if Abraham wanted only to save Lot, whom he does not even mention in his dialogue with God.

    Robert, I pray that you will become a critical thinker and stop looking for any excuse to deny the truth of God’s word.

    James, I can only hope that reason eventually punctures your unquestioning acceptance of the Bible, thereby increasing your exposure to values which are necessary for the survival of everyone, including your family and mine.

  • James Rountree

    Robert,
    If you don’t believe in the inerrancy of the bible, why do you bother to argue interpretation of verse?
    God Bless,
    James

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