The Heart of It All: The Nature and Character of God

May 29, 2012

by Peter Amsterdam

God’s Omniscience (Part 1)

Audio length: 20:43

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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

Because God is the infinite and supreme Being, His knowledge is unlimited. He knows absolutely everything. The common theological terminology for this is omniscience, which comes from the Latin omni, meaning all, and sciens, meaning knowledge. Scripture tells us that God’s knowledge is perfect knowledge; He knows everything.

Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of Him who is perfect in knowledge?[1]

Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and He knows everything.[2]

God’s Infinite and Innate Knowledge

God is different in being than we are, and as such, the nature of His knowledge is different from ours. He inherently knows everything. His knowledge isn’t learned; it doesn’t come from outside sources or from observation or experience, or through the process of reasoning. God doesn’t learn, because He knows everything. The Bible asks if anyone will teach God, or if He has need of a counselor. It’s a rhetorical question, and the implicit answer is that He doesn’t need counselors or teachers. His knowledge is infinite.

Will any teach God knowledge, seeing that He judges those who are on high?[3]

Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor?[4]

Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite.[5]

Unlike God, we gain knowledge by learning—we take information in from outside of ourselves, one thing after another, and this information is added to our knowledge base. We know much more than we are conscious of at any given time, as most of what we know lies in our subconscious, and when we need it, we mentally access it and it comes back to mind. God’s knowledge is different in that His knowledge is always before Him. He doesn’t have to recall it. God knows all things and is always conscious of all He knows, so He doesn’t have to call up information from His subconscious. His is perfect knowledge; He knows all. His knowledge and ways of thinking completely transcend ours.

My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.[6]

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways![7]

Theologian Kenneth Keathley states:

Since God is omniscient, He innately knows all things—this means He does not go through the mental processes that finite beings do of “figuring things out.” God never “learns” or has things “occur” to Him. He already knows all truths. The fact that God is omniscient does not merely mean that God is infinitely more knowledgeable than us, but that His knowledge is of a different type and quality.[8]

Theologians Lewis and Demarest express God’s omniscience as follows:

Transcendent to all else, God’s intellectual capacities are unlimited by space, time, energy, laws, things, or persons.[9]

William Lane Craig speaks of it in this way:

Suppose there were two beings who each had the appropriate self-knowledge as well as all of the propositional knowledge in the universe, but suppose that the second being only acquired his knowledge because the first being told him everything that the first being just knew innately. Now clearly I think we would agree the second being who had to be instructed, who had to be told everything, is not as intellectually excellent or as great as the first being. So God, since He doesn’t have to learn anything from anyone but simply knows all truth innately, must be maximally excellent intellectually.[10]

God’s Knowledge of Himself and His Creations

God isn’t only a repository of knowledge, like a giant computer which contains all the information of the universe, but has no knowledge of itself and thus can’t knowledgeably act on the information it has. He’s far more than that.

God knows all things about Himself, as Paul implied:

The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.[11]

He also knows all things outside of Himself, all about the universe and His creation, as expressed in His knowledge of the death of every sparrow and the number of the hairs of everyone’s head. Nothing created is hidden from Him. He knows everything that exists and everything that happens.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.[12]

There is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.[13]

He looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens.[14]

He knows everything about everyone—past, present, and future.

O Lord, You have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.[15]

The preceding passage expresses that He knows what we are going to say before we say it. Even before a person is born, God knows all about his or her life, including how long each person will live.

You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.[16]

God knows our every action and deed.

The Lord looks down from heaven; He sees all the children of man; from where He sits enthroned He looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.[17]

His eyes are on the ways of a man, and He sees all his steps.[18]

The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.[19]

O God, You know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from You.[20]

Does not He see my ways and number all my steps?[21]

I keep Your precepts and testimonies, for all my ways are before You.[22]

Besides knowing our actions, God also knows our intents. His knowledge of us isn’t limited to our outward actions. He knows the reasons we do what we do. He knows the deepest thoughts of our hearts.

The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.[23]

Hear in heaven Your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart You know, according to all his ways (for You, You only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind).[24]

You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.[25]

I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.[26]

Hell and Destruction are before the Lord; so how much more the hearts of the sons of men.[27]

All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.[28]

Implications and Applications

God’s knowledge is infinite, and that infinite knowledge includes knowledge about every person, both what is in their heart and what they do. This knowledge makes God’s judgment of people true and accurate. Nothing is hidden from Him. Individuals may be able to fool others (or even themselves) as to their deeds or their intentions, but before God all is laid bare. Such knowledge is connected to God’s righteousness and justice. He judges righteously because He has perfect knowledge both of people’s actions and intentions, of the good and of the evil.

Lewis and Demarest express God’s infinite knowledge in this manner:

God knows all of nature’s energy—matter, laws, animals, and finite spirits. God also knows living people. He knows not only their physical characteristics, but also their inner thoughts, struggles, motives, volitional decisions, and expressions of those determinations in words, acts, events and happenings. God knows all things.[29]

God knows not just the past and the present, He also knows the future. The book of Isaiah expresses that one of the characteristics of the true God is His complete knowledge of the future, and being able to make future events known.

I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all My purpose.”[30]

Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no other god besides Me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides Me.[31]

The former things I declared of old; they went out from My mouth, and I announced them; then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass. Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass, I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you, lest you should say, “My idol did them, my carved image and my metal image commanded them.” You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it? From this time forth I announce to you new things, hidden things that you have not known.[32]

The Incarnate Jesus also told of things to come when He told His disciples that He was going to be delivered into the hands of those who would kill Him and that He would rise again; when He told Peter to go to the sea and catch a fish in order to pay the tax; when He stated that Judas would betray Him and that the disciples would be thrown out of the synagogues and be persecuted and killed.

He was teaching His disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And when He is killed, after three days He will rise.”[33]

Go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for Me and for yourself.[34]

As they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me, one who is eating with Me.” They began to be sorrowful and to say to Him one after another, “Is it I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with Me.”[35]

They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.[36]

Hypothetical or “Middle” Knowledge

The theological term for God knowing all things that happen—past, present, and future—and the thoughts and intents of the hearts of human beings is knowing all things actual. God knows all things actual. God also knows all things possible, meaning that He knows things that would or could happen in certain circumstances, but don’t—things that are conditionally possible. Some refer to this as hypothetical knowledge.

One example is when David was on the run from Saul. At one point he was told that the Philistines were fighting against Keilah, so he inquired of the Lord and He told David to fight the Philistines and save Keilah. He and his men did so and saved the inhabitants of Keilah.

Saul eventually heard that David was in Keilah and said, “God has given him into my hand, for he has shut himself in by entering a town that has gates and bars.”[37] So Saul summoned his people to war in order to besiege David and his men. When David heard this he prayed:

“O Lord, the God of Israel, Your servant has surely heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city on my account. Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as Your servant has heard? O Lord, the God of Israel, please tell Your servant.” And the Lord said, “He will come down.” Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the Lord said, “They will surrender you.” Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the expedition.[38]

God knew, and revealed to David, what would happen if David and his men remained in Keilah. He knew that in that situation, the men of Keilah would give David over to Saul. It didn’t happen, because David left Keilah; but had he not, then he would have been handed over.

Another example of God knowing all things possible was when Jesus denounced the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, because they did not repent after He had done so many mighty works there. He said:

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.[39]

Jesus was saying that if the miracles which were performed by Him had been performed in Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, they would have repented and that Sodom would still be standing. Of course the miracles and mighty works that Jesus did weren’t done in Tyre, Sidon, or Sodom; however, God knows what would have happened in those cities had the situation been different.

These examples show that God not only knows what happens and will happen, but also what would happen in situations had other factors been in play. He knows all things actual and all things possible. He has hypothetical knowledge, which is also known as middle knowledge.

Wayne Grudem states:

The fact that God knows all things possible can also be deduced from God’s full knowledge of Himself. If God fully knows Himself, He knows everything He is able to do, which includes all things that are possible. This fact is indeed amazing. God has made an incredibly complex and varied universe. But there are thousands upon thousands of other variations or kinds of things that God could have created but did not. God’s infinite knowledge includes detailed knowledge of what each of those other possible creations would have been like and what would have happened in each of them. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6). “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).[40]

William Lane Craig gives a helpful illustration of hypothetical, or middle, knowledge.

I think one of the greatest illustrations of this is Charles Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge is confronted with the spirit of Christmas yet to come. The spirit shows Scrooge all of these horrible things––Tiny Tim’s death, Scrooge’s own grave. Scrooge is so shaken by these visions, these shadows, he falls at the spirit’s feet and says, “Tell me, spirit, are these shadows of things that will be or are these shadows of things that might be only?” What the spirit was showing Scrooge was not shadows of things that will be. We know from the end of the story that Tiny Tim does not die, that Scrooge repents. So the spirit was not showing Scrooge shadows of things that will be; he wasn’t showing him the future, that’s clear. But neither was he showing Scrooge the things that might happen. He wasn’t showing Scrooge just possibilities. I mean, anything is possible. Scrooge might have opened a flower shop in Covent Garden; that’s possible. What the spirit was showing Scrooge was hypothetical knowledge of what would happen if Scrooge were not to repent. That’s what he was giving him. He wasn’t giving him foreknowledge of the future; rather the spirit was imparting this hypothetical knowledge of what would happen if Scrooge were not to repent.[41]

William Lane Craig further explains that:

In philosophical terminology, the spirit was revealing to Scrooge a bit of counterfactual knowledge. Counterfactuals are conditional statements in the subjunctive mood: for example, “If I were rich, I would buy a Mercedes” ...“If you were to ask her, she would say yes.” … Counterfactual statements make up an enormous and significant part of our ordinary language and are an indispensable part of our decision making. For example, “If I pull out into traffic now, I wouldn’t make it.” Clearly life and death decisions are made daily on the basis of the presumed truth of counterfactual statements.[42]

God’s omniscience, like other attributes of God, isn't completely comprehensible to our human understanding. His thoughts are higher than ours, as would be expected since He is the infinite Being, the one who created the world and all that is in it, who dwells in eternity, who knows the past, present, and future.

The next article on God’s omniscience will cover the question of man’s free will and how that works in relation to God’s omniscience. Does the fact that God knows the choices we each will make in the future mean that we must make those choices? Does God’s omniscience do away with man’s free will? (To be continued in part two.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Other versions cited are The New International Version (NIV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), The New Revised Standard Version (NRS), The New King James Version (NKJV), and the King James Version (KJV).

[1] Job 37:16.

[2] 1 John 3:20.

[3] Job 21:22.

[4] Romans 11:34.

[5] Psalm 147:5 NKJV.

[6] Isaiah 55:8–9.

[7] Romans 11:33 NAU.

[8] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty (B & H Publishing Group, 2010), 16.

[9] Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966), Vol. 1, p. 231.

[10] William Lane Craig, The Doctrine of God, Defenders Series, Lecture 6.

[11] 1 Corinthians 2:10–11.

[12] Matthew 10:29–30.

[13] Hebrews 4:13 NAU.

[14] Job 28:24.

[15] Psalm 139:1–6.

[16] Psalm 139:13–16 NAU.

[17] Psalm 33:13–15.

[18] Job 34:21.

[19] Proverbs 15:3.

[20] Psalm 69:5.

[21] Job 31:4.

[22] Psalm 119:168.

[23] 1 Samuel 16:7.

[24] 1 Kings 8:39.

[25] Luke 16:15.

[26] Jeremiah 17:10.

[27] Proverbs 15:11 NKJV.

[28] Proverbs 16:2.

[29] Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966), Vol. 1, p. 231.

[30] Isaiah 46:9–10.

[31] Isaiah 45:21.

[32] Isaiah 48:3–6.

[33] Mark 9:31.

[34] Matthew 17:27.

[35] Mark 14:18–20.

[36] John 16:2.

[37]1 Samuel 23:7.

[38] 1 Samuel 23:10–13.

[39] Matthew 11:21–23.

[40] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press 2000),  191–192.

[41] William Lane Craig, The Doctrine of God, Defenders Series, Lecture 7.

[42] William Lane Craig, The Middle Knowledge View, chapter from the book, Divine Foreknowledge (InterVarsity Press, 2001), 120.