The Foreknowledge of God and the Crucifixion of Christ

Posted by Clark Bates
March 30, 2018

When I was growing up in a church I never really thought deeply about what I was taught.  God knew everything and nothing on earth would ever change that.  Jesus was crucified, but it wasn’t something God didn’t know was going to happen.  All of this used to give me a sense of security in the God that I had been taught about, but as I grew older and experienced a great deal of hurt from within and without the church, I left the faith entirely.  For roughly a decade I wanted nothing to do with Christianity, but when I came back to the faith I was a different man.  I had seen real suffering, death and tragedy in the military.  I had experienced the darkness of mankind in a real way and even seen it within myself.  I couldn’t just sit in a pew and be told that God knows everything and therefore you don’t need to worry, because God “knowing” everything sure didn’t seem to stop any of the bad stuff from happening.

When I think about it, the average Christian probably remains content in the place that I was growing up.  They don’t think too deeply about the nature of God apart from what they’re taught from the pulpit, but in the apologetics community we face these questions regularly, and usually from skeptics of the faith.  For some unknown reason, it seems that the only ones willing to probe the truths of Christianity are those who reject them.  This is something that I believe needs to change.

Foreknowledge

The doctrinal truth I’m referring to is formally known as God’s foreknowledge, and while there are several different avenues to approach this teaching, the most common is that it means God has the unlimited knowledge of all things that will happen, or even could happen, in the course of all existence.  What I struggled with as I returned to the faith was why, if God knew horrible things were going to happen, did He let them happen anyway?  And for this, I feel that the philosophical definition of God’s foreknowledge is still lacking.

Given that this website is devoted to biblical apologetics I would like to take a moment to examine what the Bible has to say about the foreknowledge of God, and since this is the resurrection season, how that effects our understanding of the crucifixion of Christ and our understanding of suffering in general.

Foreknowledge Through the Years

The Greek word translated as “foreknowledge” is πρόγνωσις (prognōsis); or in its verb form προγινώσκω (proginōskō), which means “to know beforehand or in advance.”[1]  A version of this word is attested as early as the Homeric Hymns with the meaning “to perceive beforehand,” similar to the English “foresee”. [2]  However, in the old Greek it tends to refer to human ability and never means a knowledge of the future in the way that it is often used of God.  Rather, it’s often an expectation that may be based on instinct or reason.  A good example of this is found in Isocrates, where he writes, “I think it is evident to all that to foreknow (προγιγνώσκειν) of coming events is not part of our nature.”[3]  He even goes on to say that the gods themselves debate the future.

The Greek philosophers known as the Stoics transformed this concept into a pantheistic combination of created order and destiny.  Yet, this and other uses do not indicate predictive power, but simply a prior evaluation of knowledge.  A good example of this can be found in our modern jargon when we speak of a doctor’s “prognosis” of an illness.  It isn’t as though the doctor knew the disease beforehand, but that his knowledge of disease in general has helped him to come to a conclusion before others.

In the Greek Old Testament, often called the LXX (Septuagint), we begin to see the term used in true foreknowledge fashion.  In the Wisdom of Solomon, the personified Wisdom is able to know the future and signs and wonders that appear.[4]  In the book of Judith, the books namesake credits God with knowing the future events that they experience presently.[5]  It is here, as it is used in Judith, that the New Testament use begins, for in Judith God’s foreknowledge is not spoken of as merely knowledge of what will happen, but is directly tied to his decrees.

Foreknowledge in the New Testament

In the NT, foreknowledge is only used 7 times; 5 as a verb and 2 as a noun.  All of the occurrences of the word group are found in Acts, Romans, and 1-2 Peter.  In Acts 26:5 it’s in reference to humans, wherein Paul states that they have “known me for a long time.”  However, when it is used of God, “foreknowledge” takes on an entirely different theological significance.

In Romans 8:29, following one of the most often quoted Scriptures for encouragement, we read that those whom God “foreknew, he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…”  In this case, God’s foreknowledge is combined with his predestination.  Following this, in Romans 11, Paul writes that, “God has not rejected his people, whom he foreknew.”[6]  The “people” in mind here are the Jews.  Could it be that God only knew in advance that there would be a people that would become the line from which Jesus would come and bring salvation to the Gentiles?  A brief examination of the OT reveals that this isn’t the case.  In Genesis, God states that He has “chosen” Abraham to be a great nation.[7]  In Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are said to be “chosen” by God to be His people.[8]  The place where they were to live was “chosen” by the Lord.[9]  The repeated refrain of the OT authors is that the nation of Israel was “chosen” by God to be His people, not that He was merely aware in advance that they would exist and made the best use of them.[10]

If there is any doubt about the necessary relationship in the NT between God’s foreknowledge and His predestination, the apostle Peter wrote in his first epistle that Jesus himself was “foreknown from before the foundation of the world.”[11]  In no way could it be argued that the Father’s foreknowledge of Jesus was only an advanced awareness.  This foreknowledge of Jesus is necessarily linked to His earthly ministry.

God’s Foreknowledge and the Crucifixion of Christ

It was this same Peter, that proclaimed the first sermon of the church after Jesus’ ascension.  In it he speaks of the crucifixion of Christ like this,

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”[12]

In the same way that God foreknew those whom He has chosen and the way He foreknew and chose His people Israel, God foreknew Jesus.  Not just the person of Jesus but the crucifixion and resurrection as well.  The crucifixion was not an accident to which God reacted, neither was it only an event which God knew was coming.  Rather, it was part of the predetermined plan of redemption established by God from before the creation of the world itself.  When we gather to celebrate the empty tomb this weekend, we celebrate God’s decreed plan.  The tomb is empty because God determined that it would be.

God’s Foreknowledge and Suffering

For some reading this, the idea that God’s foreknowledge is not just being aware of the future, but decreeing it, finds little benefit.  It might seem confusing how this could be any more comforting in light of suffering than simply being aware that God knows it will happen.  I can’t make you find comfort in these words, but I can tell you why I do.  In all that I have experienced and seen, nothing compares to the agony of the cross.  If God’s knowledge of the greatest suffering of all mankind was part of His greater plan of redemption, how much more does that make mine?  If God merely knows I’m going to suffer and does nothing to stop it, I can be led to believe that He doesn’t care for me at all, but if God’s foreknowledge is necessarily connected to His predetermined plan for creation, I know that my suffering fits into that plan, and a day will come, when it will not only end, but it will all be clear to me.

As we celebrate the resurrection of Christ this weekend, we bring many things with us; abusive past, suffering present, divorce, adultery, depression, disease, affliction of all kinds.  I often tell people that while many say bring your hurts to the cross, I prefer to say, “Bring them to the empty tomb” because it is the empty tomb that proves that God is making right all that is wrong in this world.  What’s more, it’s evidence that everything, including your pain, fits into that plan.  It means that He has included you and your experience in that plan.  And that plan means healing, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.


“He is risen.   He is risen, indeed.”


 

[1] BDAG, 703.

[2] Homer, In Cererem, 257.

[3] Spohocles, 2.

[4] Wis. Of Sol., 8:8, “If a man desire much experience, she knoweth things of old, and conjectureth aright what is to come: she knoweth the subtilties of speeches, and can expound dark sentences: she foreseeth signs and wonders, and the events of seasons and times.”

[5] Jud. 9:6, “Yea, what things thou didst determine were ready at hand, and said, Lo, we are here: for all thy ways are prepared, and thy judgments are in thy foreknowledge.”

[6] Rom. 11:2 (italics mine)

[7]Gen. 18:19.

[8] Deut. 7:1-6; 14:2.

[9] 1 Ki. 8:44-48; 11:13, 32.

[10] Ps. 33:12; 105:26, 43; 106:5;135:4; Is. 41:8, 9; 43:10, 20; 44:2; 45:4; 49:7; Zech. 3:2.

[11] 1 Pet. 1:20.

[12] Acts 2:22-24.

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