A new feature of this blog will be periodic essays responding to articles in the Watchtower (and occasionally Awake!), the official magazine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A regular review of this magazine’s articles is in order: the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society claims that it prints over 42 million copies of each issue of the Watchtower in 185 languages. Even if nine-tenths of these copies never get read, that is still a hefty circulation for any publication, let alone a religious magazine.
First up is an article in the January 1, 2011 issue of the Watchtower entitled “Did God Know that Adam and Eve Would Sin?” (13-15). The article answers its question in the negative. According to Jehovah’s Witness theology, God has the “capacity” to know everything ahead of time, including Adam and Eve’s sin, but “does not have to use this capacity” and “wisely uses his ability of foreknowledge selectively…when it makes sense to do so and fits the circumstances.” God’s ability to foreknow some things and to refrain from foreknowing other things is likened to a sports fan choosing to watch a prerecorded game from the beginning instead of jumping forward to see the end (14).
We agree with the theological premises to which the Watchtower appeals in making its case for this doctrine of selective foreknowledge. Specifically, we agree that God made everything good, that Adam and Eve before the Fall had the ability not to commit sin, that the first humans were not “preprogrammed to please God” (13), that God does not tempt people to try to get them to sin, that God is not to blame for Adam and Eve’s sin (14), that God is love, and that Satan “initiated the rebellion in Eden” (15). However, from these biblically correct premises it simply does not follow that God did not know that Adam and Eve would sin.
For example, from the premise that Adam and Eve had the ability not to sin it does not follow that God did not know they would sin. The truth is that Adam and Eve had the ability not to sin or to sin—that is, they had the ability to choose either path. Suppose that instead of choosing to sin, Adam and Eve had chosen not to sin. Would God knowing that ahead of time somehow rob them of their responsibility for making the right choice? Of course not. God could know what they were going to do without compromising their responsibility in doing it. Likewise, God could foreknow the fact that they were going to sin without causing their sin.
The Watchtower article reasons that it would have been “hypocritical for God to warn them against a specific sin while already knowing the bad outcome” (13-14). Assuming God is omniscient, however, the real injustice would have been for God not to have warned them ahead of time against committing the sin. God’s justice required that he give Adam and Eve fair warning of the consequences of disobeying him. It makes no sense to claim that he needed to be ignorant of the outcome in order to be righteous in issuing the warning!
The article asks if it would “make sense for a wise God” to make creatures that “he knew were bound to fail” if other creatures (the angels) were watching (14). This rhetorical question suggests that God would be restrained, as it were, by public opinion. God has the absolute right to make whatever world he chooses, even if he knows that some of his creatures in that world will abuse their God-given abilities.
Virtually the entire article consists of this sort of a priori reasoning about what would make sense for God to do or know. The one supposed example it cites of God not knowing something falls short of proving any such ignorance. The article points out (14) that after Abraham demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, God said, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12). Yet years earlier God had told Abraham, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years,” after which they would escape “with many possessions,” but that Abraham himself would be “buried at a good old age” (Gen. 15:13-15). How could God know all these things about Abraham and his descendants and not know whether Abraham would pass the test that was coming? Those future events depended on Abraham being the patriarch of promise. The traditional and best understanding of a statement like Genesis 22:12 is that God was accommodating himself to human language by speaking as a human parent would to his child.
The Watchtower’s notion of selective foreknowledge is completely unbiblical. The concept as explained in the article presupposes that it would always be immoral for God to know ahead of time about any specific acts of sin by his creatures. Yet the Bible is full of references to God knowing ahead of time that various individuals and nations would do all sorts of bad things. God knew that Abraham’s descendants would be enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years (Gen. 15:13-14), that Pharaoh would resist letting Israel go (Exod. 3:19-20; 4:21; 7:3-5; etc.; cf. Rom. 9:17-18), and that Israel would become corrupt after Moses’ death (Deut. 31:16-21, 27-29). Jesus knew that people would hate his disciples (Matt. 10:22; 24:9; etc.), that the authorities in Jerusalem would put him to death (Matt. 16:21; 20:18-19; etc.), and that Judas would betray him (Matt. 26:21-25). These are just some of the more prominent examples out of the dozens of such statements throughout the Bible.
Jesus’ foreknowledge of Judas’s betrayal is an especially interesting and important case study. Jesus chose Judas to be one of his apostles, knowing from the start that Judas would end up betraying him (John 6:70-71; 13:10-11, 18-26). Had Jesus not chosen Judas to be an apostle, Judas would not have had the opportunity to commit the infamous act of betrayal for which he will forever be remembered. Yet Jesus chose Judas, knowing what he would do. This example, which is associated with the core events of the gospel, refutes the pious reasoning that God would never put someone in a position to do evil if he knew the person would make that choice.
Selective foreknowledge is not only unbiblical, it is unworkable. If God did not foreknow that Adam and Eve would sin, then he could not have foreknown any of the subsequent events in world history, because that whole history is shaped by their act. The whole history of human conflict and struggle, of villainy and heroism, of sin and redemption, of death and resurrection—all of it presupposes the first sin of Adam and Eve. If God didn’t know that event would happen, he didn’t know anything else that would happen in human history. God’s “selective foreknowledge” would be limited to knowing the future movements of astronomical bodies and the times of sunrise and sunset for the rest of earth’s history.
The argument that it would be immoral for God to know about sin ahead of time has things backwards. Suppose God could have known, but chose not to know, that Adam and Eve would sin. Would God not have been negligent to blind himself to what was about to happen? We are not talking about a sports fan avoiding hearing the final score of a football game so he can enjoy the action. We are talking about the Creator of the universe supposedly avoiding knowing what would happen in the creation for which he was responsible.
The New Testament teaches that God knew that his Son, Jesus Christ, would die as a sacrifice for sins before the first sin was committed. Christ, as the “unblemished and spotless lamb” by whose blood we have been redeemed, “was foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:18-20). God also knew before the foundation of the world that he would redeem his people in Christ. God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). The names of believers in Christ have been “written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev. 13:8; 17:8; see also Matt. 25:34). The expression “the foundation of the world” in these passages refers to the creation of the world and thus to a time prior to the first sin (see Job 38:4; John 17:24; Heb. 1:10; 4:3). Obviously, for God to foreknow the sacrificial death of his Son for our sins, he needed to foreknow that sins were going to be committed.
We may confidently conclude, then, that God knew that Adam and Eve would disobey him and plunge the whole human race into sin. He knew, because he already had a plan in place for dealing with sin—a plan that would bring good out of evil (compare Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28) and bring glory to him because of his grace (Eph. 1:4-6). It is because God knows all things ahead of time that he is never caught by surprise and his plans for his creation can never be finally thwarted.