By Peter Amsterdam
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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 knowledge1; He knows everything.2
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,3 or if He has need of a counselor.4 It’s a rhetorical question, and the implicit answer is that He doesn’t need counselors or teachers. His knowledge is infinite.5
Unlike God, we gain knowledge by learning—we take in information 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 doesn’t have to call up information from His subconscious. His is perfect knowledge. His knowledge and ways of thinking completely transcend ours.6
As theologian Kenneth Keathley explains,
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.7
God’s knowledge of Himself and His creations
God isn’t only a repository of knowledge, like a giant computer that 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.”8
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.9 Nothing created is hidden from Him.10 He knows everything that exists and everything that happens.11
He knows everything about everyone—past, present, and future. He knows what we are going to say before we say it.12 Even before a person is born, God knows all about his or her life, including how long each person will live.13
God knows our every action and deed. The Bible tells us that He “looks down from heaven; He sees all the children of man … and observes all their deeds.”14 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.”15
God’s 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. 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.16
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.’”17
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 again18; when He told Peter to go to the sea and catch a fish in order to pay the tax19; when He stated that Judas would betray Him,20 and that the disciples would be thrown out of the synagogues and be persecuted and killed.21
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.”22 So Saul summoned his people to war in order to besiege David and his men. 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 that if the miracles performed by Him had been performed in Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, they would have repented and Sodom would still be standing.23
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.
William Lane Craig gives a helpful illustration of hypothetical 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—and 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. … 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.24
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.
Originally published May 2012. Adapted and republished November 2019.
Read by John Laurence.
1 Job 37:16. Unless otherwise indicated, scriptures referenced are from the ESV.
2 1 John 3:20.
3 Job 21:22.
4 Romans 11:34.
5 Psalm 147:5 NKJV.
6 Isaiah 55:8–9; Romans 11:33 NAU.
7 Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 16.
8 1 Corinthians 2:10–11.
9 Matthew 10:29–30.
10 Hebrews 4:13 NAU.
11 Job 28:24.
12 Psalm 139:1–6.
13 Psalm 139:13–16.
14 Psalm 33:13–15.
15 1 Samuel 16:7.
16 Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce Demarest, Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 231.
17 Isaiah 46:9–10.
18 Mark 9:31.
19 Matthew 17:27.
20 Mark 14:18–20.
21 John 16:2.
22 1 Samuel 23:7.
23 Matthew 11:21–23.
24 William Lane Craig, “The Doctrine of God, Lecture 7,” June 24, 2007.