Foreknowledge and the Death of Christ

Robert E. Picirilli

Robert E. Picirilli, is Professor Emeritus (retired) at Free Will Baptist Bible College, is the author of Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (Randall House, 2002), and Teacher, Leader, Shepherd: The New Testament Pastor (Randall House, 2007), and Paul the Apostle (Moody, 1986).


The world of evangelical theology is in some ferment over what is being called open theism.  This movement, which we may characterize as “neo-Arminian,”1  has tendered a revision of classic theism that includes denying that God knows the future, free decisions of persons. Having said this, I should hasten to add that the denial of exhaustive foreknowledge, while essential to open theism, is not the primary emphasis of that movement.2   Instead, open theists are concerned to present a view of God as one who is in a dynamic, inter-personal, give and take relationship with truly free persons whom he has created to love and win to himself without coercion.3  Open theists believe—wrongly, I think—that for God to possess exhaustive foreknowledge of human actions destroys human freedom and contingencies. Within the Evangelical Theological Society, in particular, considerable attention has been given to the question whether open theism can be appropriately included within the evangelical camp, primarily because of the denial of exhaustive foreknowledge.  Some members of the society formally charged that the published position of members Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, on this score, is incompatible with the society’s commitment to Biblical inerrancy.  In the end, the society’s vote failed to sustain the charge; as a result further attention is being devoted to the adequacy of its formal statement.  The final outcome remains to be determined.  Anyone who is not well acquainted with the issues need simply read the numerous articles on the subject, from both sides, in issues of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) during the past several years.

It is not my purpose, in this essay, to review the fundamental issues involved in the denial of exhaustive foreknowledge, except to provide a brief summary as introduction. Instead, I will deal specifically with the question whether God, before the creation of the world, foreknew that Jesus would die as atonement for sin.  The point, I assume, is obvious: if he did, the basic premise of open theism, in denying that God foreknew human sin before the fall, is destroyed.

1. Summary: Foreknowledge and Open Theism

At risk of oversimplification, I summarize the essence of the open theists’ argument against exhaustive divine foreknowledge in this statement by one of its proponents: “In spite of assertions that absolute foreknowledge does not eliminate freedom, intuition tells us otherwise.  If God’s foreknowledge is infallible, then what he sees cannot fail to happen. This means that the course of future events is fixed, however we explain what actually causes it.  And if the future is inevitable, then the apparent experience of free choice is an illusion.”4

For a more thorough treatment of this I refer the reader to the numerous articles mentioned above and, in particular, to two of mine published in that forum.  One is entitled “Foreknowledge, Freedom, and the Future”5  and the other “An Arminian Response to John Sanders’s The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence.”6 In these I have attempted to show that the open theists’ conclusion, that absolute foreknowledge of the future eliminates human freedom, is both unnecessary and logically faulty.  I can only summarize my arguments here, acknowledging up front that I have attempted to express myself in terms that do not require philosophical sophistication.7

That the conclusion of open theists is unnecessary involves, among other things, understanding the difference between certainty, contingency, and necessity.  The certainty of an event is nothing more than its “facticity” or “eventness.”  Everything that happens (even in the future) is certain.  “Certain” events can then be subdivided into two categories. Necessary events are those that are the inevitable effects of prior causes (whether of natural law or supernatural activity), things that must occur the way they do.  Contingent events are those that may be one way or another, depending on the libertarian choices of persons.   The point is that, while the categories contingent and necessary are mutually exclusive, both contingencies and necessities are certain.

In other words, as our Spanish friends put it, Que sera, sera: what will be will be.  Indeed, this is nothing more than tautology, an equation with two equal sides: what will be = what will be.  To illustrate with a situation existing as I write this, if Judge Roberts will be confirmed for the U.S. Supreme Court, then it is certain that he will be confirmed (please note: if he will, he will!).  But this is a contingency, depending on the libertarian choices (votes) of the U.S. senators.  As a contingency, it really is open; the decision can be either approval or disapproval—not to mention other possibilities.  That God knows which way it will be has no effect on determining the outcome.  If Roberts will be confirmed, God knows that he will be.  But, equally true, if he will be rejected, God knows that to be certain.  The senators remain free to make their decisions when the time comes.  Certainty does not contradict contingency.  God’s foreknowledge of future facts does not cause those facts any more than our present knowledge of past facts caused those facts.  Though God knows the future beforehand, his knowledge of the facts of the future flows from the facts themselves.  Indeed, even if God did not know the future, it would still be certain!  A person who believes in libertarian freedom does not need to make the open theist’s move to deny exhaustive foreknowledge.

Furthermore, the open theist’s conclusion is logically faulty; it stands foreknowledge on its head.  Thus Sanders says, for example: “The problem [for traditional foreknowledge] arises because of the fact that what God previsions is what will actually occur.  Divine foreknowledge, by definition, is always correct.  If what will actually happen is, for example, the Holocaust, then God knows it is going to happen and cannot prevent it from happening, since his foreknowledge is never mistaken.”8

As soon as we say something like this, we realize that something is wrong.  Perhaps a counter example, using knowledge rather than foreknowledge, will help expose the error.  I know that Rocky Marciano retired from the ring as an unbeaten heavyweight champion.  Can I say, then, that he could not have lost any of his bouts or else that would have made my knowledge wrong?  Of course not; had he lost any, I would not have known that he retired undefeated.  Then neither can we say that God could not have prevented the Holocaust because to do so would have made his knowledge wrong.  Again, knowledge—even God’s foreknowledge—flows from facts, not vice-versa.

Once we speak of any future event as “foreknown,” we have assumed its “factness” and logically placed ourselves on the other side of that future; it is easy, then, to fall into the trap of arguing from the wrong perspective.  If Judge Roberts will be confirmed for our highest court, it won’t be because he will be (or because God knows he will be)!  It is helpful, I think, to understand that God knows necessities as necessities and contingencies as contingencies.  In other words, if Roberts will be confirmed, then God knows that; but he also knows, just as certainly, that he does not have to be confirmed and will be only through the free decisions of those involved.  Though the confirmation is certain (if it will occur), it is equallycertain that it is a contingency that depends on the exercise of libertarian freedom.

Recently, David Hunt has made some similar points, using an entirely different illustration: namely, the apparently random decay of a radioactive particle as registered by a Geiger counter.  One can easily say, after the fact, that “This Geiger counter emitted a click at time T.”  Then before that happened it would be equally true that “This Geiger counter will emit a click at time T.”  To ask how the latter could be true before it occurred is “confused: that’s just what it is for a statement to be about the future!....And because [it] was true, a being who failed to know [it] would not be omniscient.”9

Those of us who believe in libertarian freedom need not be swayed by the arguments of open theists against foreknowledge.  As Hunt concludes, “Because divine foreknowledge neither causes nor explains what it knows, it does not require us to adopt an attenuated understanding of free agency.”10   Foreknowledge of the future does not fix the future; the future is not closed until it occurs.

The most important consideration, of course, is what the Scriptures have to say.  Most of us would assume that the Biblical evidence for God’s exhaustive foreknowledge is overwhelming.  We could cite a hundred places where it seems clear that God sees and reveals the future with accuracy.  But the open theists have their response to such citations ready.  In their view, when God says something is going to transpire in the future one of three things may be involved: (1) he may be stating (unconditionally) what he has determined to do; (2) he may be making a prediction as to how people will act, reflecting his full knowledge of them, their circumstances, and their past actions; or (3) he may be promising to act in a certain way when his doing so will depend on human response—even if he does not always explicitly state the conditions. 11But in none of these is God actually seeing the future. As Clark Pinnock put this, “Decisions not yet made do not exist anywhere to be known even by God.”12

If I should cite, for example, the prediction of Jesus about Peter’s denial (and claim either that he possessed foreknowledge or that the Father by foreknowledge revealed this to him), the open theist can respond that Jesus knew Peter and all the circumstances in play well enough to make an accurate prediction as to the predicament he would find himself in and how he would behave.  Each of us, of course, will decide whether such a response convinces us; for me it falls too far short, if nothing else, of accounting for the detail.

2. Foreknowledge and the Death of Christ

It is not my purpose to survey the kind of Biblical material just referred to.  In this essay, instead, I will deal specifically with one key piece of Biblical evidence, represented by this question: Was the death of Christ foreknown as atonement for sin before the foundation of the world?  If, indeed, the answer to this question is positive, and this can be sustained by Biblical exegesis, then the position of the open theist falls.  If God knew for a fact, before he created human beings, that Jesus would die for their sins, then he had to foreknow that they would sin.13

The open theists are aware that this is a crucial matter.  Sanders, for example, clearly recognizes that his view of foreknowledge will not allow for the crucifixion of Jesus to have been taken into account in the plan of God, as a foreknown fact, before the world was created. That would mean that God foreknew the fall before he could have known it in Sanders’ system, and that would bring his structure tumbling down.  Consequently, Sanders spends significant space dealing with this issue.  I will interact with this, below, when I have come toone of the key texts, Rev. 13:8.

2.1. The larger Biblical picture

In order to focus on the major passages, below, I will forego an effort to develop what seems to me to be an important and pervasive Biblical view: namely, that the death of Christ as sacrifice for our sins was part of God’s eternal plan.

As part of this we could deal, for example, with the fact that Jesus appeared to have advance knowledge of his destiny as a sacrifice for sin.  His predictions on this matter were detailed: see, for example, Mk. 8:31; 9:9, 10; 9:31; 10:33, 34.  He appeared to know, whether by his own foreknowledge or that of the Father revealed to him: (1) that the Jewish powers-that-be would be responsible; (2) that he would be officially condemned by them; (3) that he would be mocked, scourged, and spit on; (4) that he would be delivered to the Gentiles for execution (by crucifixion, Mt. 20:19); and (5) that he would arise from the dead.

Or we could treat OT prophetic foreshadowings of the death of Christ, as in Gen. 3:15; Ps. 2214 ; or especially Isaiah 53.  This last makes clear that God himself planned for his Servant to die for sin (vv. 4-6, 10, 11); and the NT confirms that in at least some sense the passage pointed to the atoning death of Christ (Mt. 8:17; Lk. 22:37; Acts 8:32; Rom. 4:25; 1 Pet.2:24; Heb. 9:28).15

But these are not part of my primary argument and they do not prove that God knew that Jesus would die for sin “before the foundation of the world.”  I have mentioned them primarily to show how the open theist might deal with them.  With reference to Jesus’ predictions of his crucifixion, open theists can suggest, instead, that this did not require supernatural foreknowledge but demonstrated his ability to predict (not foresee as fact) the way the Jewish officials would handle his case upon his arrival in Jerusalem.  Sanders observes that “the initial disclosures were veiled, and the one that is quite detailed (Mk. 10:33-34) ‘contains no features which would not be generally known in capital proceedings in Palestine at the time of Christ’.”16   In this he is citing H. F. Bayer’s summary of Joachim Jeremias; he also cites Raymond E. Brown, who “concludes that Jesus did not have foreknowledge.”17   I may observe, in passing, that I do not think this can account for the details; Robert Gundry observes that “the progression from Jewish to Gentile hands, from a capital sentence at the hands of the Gentiles, is not so usual and therefore not quite so easy to foresee as this estimate [of Cranfield, who regards the details as “readily foreseeable”] makes it out to be.”18

As for Isaiah 53, the open theist may point out that this was revealed after the sinfulness of the human race was well known from history.  By that time God had come to realize that every human being would follow in the footsteps of Adam. By that time, then, he might well have determined that his own Son would have to be made an offering for sin in order to redeem mankind.  Such passages, therefore, might be explained by open theists as revealing what God had determined to do.  Jason Nicholls, though not dealing with these passages, has pointed out that open theism need not affirm that every human act is free; God might selectively pre-determine some events essential to his overall plan even if they involve human actions.19 The atoning death of Christ could be one of those, at least after sin was known to need atonement. Open theist Greg Boyd takes an approach something like this, suggesting that each of the persons who played their prophesied roles “had acquired a certain kind of character that made him a candidate for the providential use to which the Lord put him.”20 Probably most of us who believe in libertarian freedom will grant to God the liberty to override human will when his plan requires it.  Whether that alone will account for the prophetic implications of Isaiah 53, however, is a matter for discussion at another time; what seems clear is that such an approach will not account for the foreknowledge indicated in the passages to follow.

2.2. Passages showing that the atonement of Christ was foreknown before creation

Since the Biblical material referred to above, in passing, does not speak directly to the issue of this essay, I must move to other passages that indicate, specifically, that Jesus’ death as atonement for sin was foreknown before the creation of mankind.  This, of course, is the important point and requires the examination of several key NT texts.

2.2.1. 1 Peter 1:18-20

 In context Peter is pleading with his Christian readers to spend their “sojourn” on earth in fear (v. 17).  One consideration grounding that plea is the purpose of redemption. This leads Peter into a somewhat parenthetic digression about the nature (especially the cost) of our redemption (vv. 18-21), which is not by perishable things like silver and gold but by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.

Literally translated, we were redeemed “by means of the precious blood—as of a lamb without spot and without blemish—of Christ, foreknown before the foundation of the world” (v.19).  At least this is one way of reading the words, which are tightly packed and have no definite articles.  We might also read, in even closer conformity to the original, “by means of precious blood as of a spotless and blemishless lamb, Christ, foreknown before the foundation of the world.”

The first question is what “foreknown” refers to grammatically, and the answer is probably “Christ” but with equal possibility “lamb”; both are genitive nouns.  The tight expression probably puts Christ in immediate apposition with lamb, and that means that it makes very little practical difference whether we link the perfect participle foreknown with one or the other.21

The main question concerns what was “foreknown.”  Sanders, taking the participle to modify Christ, insists that it was his person and not his death that was foreknown.  As already noted, the open theist cannot allow that atonement for sin was foreknown as a fact before the creation of the world.  Thus Sanders is forced to the view that it was Christ’s incarnation that was pre-planned, not his atonement.22In his view, God could not have foreknown that the human beings he had decided to create, as free agents, would sin and need atonement. Consequently, that could not have played any role in God’s eternal plan. But he could have planned for the incarnation as a manifestation of his love, regardless whether mankind would fall into sin or remain holy.  In this way, the pre-planned incarnation would be one of those things God determined to do in advance, regardless of the human situation.

This is a highly unusual move; one doubts that many interpreters would follow him.  But that is not as important as the fact that the view seems totally to ignore the context of Peter’s words.  The Christ “foreknown” here is the Christ as he is identified. And two things are clear: (1) he is the Christ who is “a spotless and blemishless lamb”; and (2) he is the Christ by whose “precious blood” we were redeemed.  Surely this is part of what was foreknown before the foundation of the world; otherwise, the point of Peter’s statement is severely blunted.  I. H. Marshall includes this passage as one of those making the contrast between what God determined before the creation and what has been revealed in time, observing: “Thus the concept that God planned the work of salvation before creation in eternity is a widespread theological concept in the New Testament.”23 Elsewhere he affirms, “The reference to blood indicates that Christ’s was not just an ordinary death but rather a sacrificial death,” and the fact that he was “foreknown” before the creation of the world “means God foreordained him to carry out a particular task.”24   Peter Davids emphasizes, I believe correctly, that “the imagery is that of the Passover lamb” and involves a redemption “price” deliberately paid according to “a plan ‘chosen in advance, before the foundation of the world’.”25

One may argue, of course, about the exact relationship, grammatically and semantically, between “as of a spotless and blemishless lamb” and “Christ.”  My inclination is to regard the first expression as primary and “Christ” as the added appositive to make the identification clear: we were redeemed by precious blood as of a lamb, Christ, foreknown.  But one may regard “Christ” as primary and the other expression as secondary: we were redeemed by the blood of Christ, as of a lamb, foreknown.  In the end, this makes no difference.  Indeed, even if we omit the reference to a lamb entirely, we are left with this: “We were redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, foreknown before the foundation of the world.”  His atoning death “blood”) is so closely involved that it must surely be included in the “foreknowing.”  O. Hofius observes that Peter is expounding, here, “the eternal saving decree of God (cf. 1:1). Before the creation of the world Christ was chosen to redeem the lost by his atoning death (v. 19)”; he compares this “pretemporal election” to Eph. 1:4 (see below).26

Regardless how one looks at the grammatical implications, the language is that of sacrifice for sin, as is true whenever the blood of Christ is referred to, as redemptive, in the NT. And even if one could bring himself to put aside, for the moment, both expressions, we would still have, “we were redeemed by Christ, foreknown before the foundation of the world.” Surely that means that he was foreknown as redeemer, which must involve the foreknowledge of the human sin from which redemption delivers us.  Jobes observes, pointedly, that the foreknowledge spoken of here was “foreknowledge of Christ’s redeeming death (1:19-20),” and that it “corresponds to God’s electing foreknowledge of those who would be redeemed by it (1:2).”27

I indicated, above, that I doubt that many interpreters would follow Sanders in applying this to the incarnation and not including the crucifixion. Even Boyd says, forthrightly, “It seems that the incarnation and crucifixion were part of God’s plan from ‘before the foundation of the world’ (1 Peter 1:20; cf. Rev. 13:8). Hence, Scripture makes it clear that Jesus was not crucified by accident.  Rather, he was delivered up and crucified ‘according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23; see also 4:28).”28

Consequently Boyd takes these passages to mean that the event was predestined, but not the players: “It was certain that Jesus would be crucified, but it was not certain from eternity that Pilot (sic), Herod, or Caiaphas would play the roles they played.”29   But that misses the more important point: surely Boyd does not mean to suggest that God foreknew the crucifixion without knowing its role in redemption!  It is one thing to claim that God selectively determined the actions of persons like the Jewish Sanhedrin or Pilate or the Roman soldiers; it is something entirely different to say this about Jesus’ death as atonement for sin!  If God foreknew the crucifixion before the foundation of the world, he must have known it as the means of saving a fallen race from sin.  If there is any sin in human history that must be free, instead of being “selectively determined”—in the view of open theists and all who hold to libertarian freedom—it must surely be the fall.  If God could not foreknow that, before it occurred, neither could he foreknow Christ’s death as atonement for sin.

2.2.2. Ephesians 1:3-6.

In the passage just treated, a key phrase is “before the foundation of the world.” That phrase occurs again in Eph. 1:4.  The context is Paul’s great benediction of praise to God for our redemption, one long doctrine-filled doxology (vv. 3-14).  Paul looks back into eternity at the foreordaining counsel of God (vv. 3-6) and then shows how these foreordained blessings are experienced in temporal salvation history (vv. 7-14).  Space does not allow me to fill out the details.30

 For my purpose here, the crucial words are in vv. 4, 5: “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestinated us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself.”  The context makes clear that this refers to our redemption: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (v. 7).

Most readers will see this as referring to eternal election, regardless of the differences in their theology of salvation. Some Arminians will take it as corporate election; I am satisfied that it at least includes individuals.  Calvinists take it as unconditonal; I take it as election of believers.  Regardless, the fact remains that this is (1) an election of persons in union with Christ and (2) an election to redemption from sin.  It is likewise clear that the election is “before the foundation of the world.”

This means a number of things, but two are important for the purpose of this essay.  First, it means that God foreknew sin before the foundation of the world or else he would not have been concerned with redemption at that point.  Second, it means that the redemptive work of Christ was planned before the foundation of the world, or else the election described here would not have centered in him.

Nor is this last left simply to implication.  Verse 7 makes explicit that the election brings us “redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.”  “In him” we acquire this, and we were chosen “in him” before the foundation of the world.  Again, then, the death of Christ as atonement for sin (“his blood”) was clearly foreknown before the foundation of the world.

Sanders thinks to solve this problem by making this solely a corporate election, “whereby God elects a course of action and certain conditions by which people will be counted as ‘in Christ’ is the group—the body of Christ—that is foreordained from the foundation of the world.”31  Boyd takes the same approach, insisting that Paul is not referring to individuals but means that “whoever chooses to be ‘in Christ’ is predestined to be ‘holy and blameless before him in love’.”32   Both of them seem not to realize that this does not help their position on foreknowledge: if there was no sin foreknown when God made this election, there would be no election, even corporately, of a “group” to be in Christ, for there would be no need for redemption by Christ.  Election in Christ, whether corporately or of individuals, is election in respect to redemption from sin.  Sanders is forced, finally, to suggest that God knew the possibilities, namely that the race he was creating might remain holy or become corrupt, and “planned a different course of action in each case,” each of which included the incarnation33 —a contingency plan, in other words (to which I will return below).  This is most certainly not what our text says actually happened before the foundation of the world.

Instead, the text says, to quote Peter O’Brien: “That choice in Christ was made in eternity, before time and creation, as the phrase before the creation of the world makes plain,” and: “The divine purpose in our election” included “to repair the damage done by sin.”34  Harold Hoehner recognizes, correctly, that God’s choice is directly “in connection with the redemption accomplished in Christ.”35   This seems indisputable and it inevitably means that both the sinful condition of mankind and the saving work of Christ in whom we were chosen were foreknown.

2.2.3. 2 Timothy 1:8-11

Paul is encouraging Timothy in spite of his own suffering for the sake of the gospel.  He appeals to his younger partner in evangelism to share with him the affliction of a soldier of Christ, reminding him of the wonderful content of salvation in Christ   In summarizing this soteriological good news he says that God  “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ” (vv. 9, 10).

The expression “before time began” translates an unusual Pauline phrase: more literally, “before times of ages,” which Marshall identifies as “a Semitism for ‘before the ages’ act of God prior to creation.” 36  (For its two other occurrences see Rom. 16:25; Tit. 1:2.)  George Knight claims “a consensus among commentators and translations that the best understood here as ‘from all eternity’ (NASB, NEB) or ‘before the beginning of time’ (NIV, TEV).”37

Directly stated, it was God’s grace that was given to us in Christ before time began; surely the participle given refers to that specifically.  (It is feminine accusative singular in agreement with that noun.)  Marshall (who rightly compares Tit. 1:2, which I might also have included in this study) is confident that it “goes most naturally with ‘grace’...[and is] inappropriate with ‘purpose’.” 38  But even if one wishes to make the participle modify both nouns, purpose and grace (or even to take it as an instance of hendiadys, “his gracious purpose”), the grace is still included.  Marshall has it right, I think, when he says: “It links up well with the thought in Ephesians 1:4 that God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world.  In the act of determining to send his Son, God intended our salvation and in a sense the decisive gift of grace lay in that purpose.”39   Likewise William G. MacDonald: “God preplanned to grant grace, not abstractly, but ‘in Christ’ to the church.  He decided to do this ‘before the beginning of time’.”40

The grace referred to here is saving grace, needed only by sinners.  William Mounce observes, “Before time began, Timothy was the recipient of God’s grace.”41 It follows directly, then, that God saw sinful man’s need for grace before man was created and made us a gift of that grace in Christ even then.  Only a little more subtle, but nonetheless sure, is the fact that the appearance of Christ in time served to reveal that marvelous gift of grace in Christ that was determined in eternity.  This includes the idea that he is Savior, and this necessarily implies his atoning death as the basis for the gift of salvation by grace.

Boyd does the same thing with this passage that he did with Eph. 1:4, above: “Indeed, as a group we were given this grace ‘in Christ Jesus before the ages began’ (2 Tim.1:9).”42  But the gift of grace foreknown must by definition be a gift for sinners, foreknown as such, whether conceived corporately or as individuals.

2.2.4. Revelation 13:8

In this chapter John records a vision of two “beasts,” one rising from the sea with seven heads and ten horns (vv. 1-10) and another rising from the earth with two horns (vv. 11-18)—often referred to as the Antichrist and False Prophet.  But this is not the place to grapple with the interpretation of the Revelation in general or with the identities of these two in particular.

Whoever they represent, of the first it is said, “All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”  And there are enough references to this Book elsewhere in the Revelation to ensure that the words are broadly descriptive of the saved.  In the end, those whose names are written there are the ones with access to the glorious city described in the final chapters (21:27).  The verse, therefore, speaks precisely to our question whether the death of Christ as atonement for sin was foreknown before the foundation of the world.

There is a possible ambiguity of grammar, here, involving the linkage of the phrase “from the foundation of the world.”  The words can be construed either with the verb “written” or with the verb “slain.”  In other words, the text may say that the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world or that these names were written in the Book before the foundation of the world.  As I trust will become clear, either way, we have the death of Christ as atonement for sin foreknown before creation.

Sanders apparently prefers to read Rev. 13:8 so that the clause “from the foundation of the world” connects to the words “whose names have not been written” rather than to the words “the Lamb slain.”  Thus: “All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written, from the foundation of the world, in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain.”43

This is a possible reading of the words.  The English versions are divided on the point.  The AV, NKJB, NIV, REB and others connect the words with “slain.”  The NASB, NEB, RSV and others agree with Sanders.  The same can be said for the commentaries: some link the words with “written” 44 and others with “slain.”45

Though not necessary to my argument, we may ask which is the more natural reading.  Several interpreters suggest that reading the phrase with written would never have been considered if it had not been for the supposed difficulty in representing Jesus as “slain from the foundation of the world.”  Even some interpreters who side with Sanders agree that the other linking is more natural, at least at first glance.46

The reason it is more natural to take “from the foundation of the world” with “slain” is fairly obvious.  Nearly all the time, in the Revelation, prepositional phrases adverbially modifying a verbal form go with the verb closest to them, either before of after. Less than one time out of every hundred (and there are several hundred such adverbial prepositional phrases in the Revelation) does such a prepositional phrase look back across an intervening verb to an earlier one; and that happens only when there is an intervening subordinate clause or phrase.

This should not be understood as proof.  The fact that this can happen at all means that it can happen here also.  Statistical incidence is not good evidence for interpretation or usage of language.  Even so, this suggests that a reader would probably be more likely to link the phrase with “slain.”

Like others who take the less natural linking, Sanders points out that the only other time “from the foundation of the world” occurs in the Revelation is in 17:8, and there it definitely refers to those “whose names are not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world.”  That fact must not be ignored, and though it also does not prove the point for 13:8, it serves to make us more open to that possibility.

More important, however, is this: even if we take the phrase with written, the open theist’s cause is not helped thereby.  The reference to names written in the book of life from the foundation of the world leaves us with election of persons to salvation, and elimination of others, as a matter of foreknowledge before creation.  And the phrase “from the foundation of the world” takes us back to “the absolute beginning” with a meaning close to that of “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4)47.   Greg Beale, who like Sanders links the phrase with written, speaks of this Book as “a metaphor for saints whose salvation has been determined: their names have been entered into the census book of the eternal new Jerusalem before history began, which is explicitly affirmed in 21:27, though the pretemporal phrase is omitted there, unlike 13:8 and 17:8.” 48  Surely he is correct.

I have spoken to this already in commenting on Eph. 1:4, above.  Once we deny divine foreknowledge of the fall, as a fact, there cannot logically be any eternal knowing, on God’s part, who will and who will not be saved, or even that a “group” will be.  If he cannot foresee sin, he cannot foresee salvation from sin.  Indeed, he cannot know that any will be saved at any time before they live and make their own choices.  If Sanders’ views are correct, there can be no book, written from the foundation of the world, containing the names of the redeemed.  Even if election were corporate, it must necessarily include the idea of redemption from sin and therefore must mean that human sin was known before creation.  It is difficult, then, to fathom that Boyd (who thinks in terms of corporate election, as indicated above) would acknowledge that “if any event was settled in the mind of God from the creation of the world, it was that the Son of God was going to be killed (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; Rev 13:8).” 49For Boyd to be consistent, this must mean that God did not know why he would be killed!  I repeat: if the crucifixion was foreknown as sacrifice for sin, so was its redemptive purpose as deliverance from foreknown sin.

Regardless how much we strip from the passage, we cannot finally get around the fact that the crucifixion was taken into account in the planning of God before creation.  Consider carefully, here, that the very book in which the names were written from the foundation of the world (taking it Sanders’s way) is, in fact, “the book of the slain/slaughtered Lamb.”  The slaughter of Him for sacrifice was already, from the creation of the world, the basis for the existence of such a Book.

Indeed, the other references in the Revelation to “the (Lamb’s) Book of Life” (3:5; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27) include this idea by implication.  For that matter, the mere reference to Jesus as Lamb necessarily includes the idea that he was the sacrificial Lamb; cf. Rev. 5:6, 12 for example, along with Jn. 1:29.
It is clear, then, that Rev. 13:8, regardless how the words are read, means that the crucifixion of Christ, as the basis for redemption, was taken into account, as a settled fact, in the planning of God “from the creation of the world.”  Grant Osborne, who calls the Book referred to here “the divine register for true believers,” observes that the sentence refers to “God’s redemptive plan that has been established ‘from the foundation of the world’.”50

2.2.5. Can “contingency planning” satisfy these Biblical affirmations?

I have noted, in passing, that open theists might attempt to explain these passages as referring not to foreknown facts but to God’s contingency plan in case the race should

fall.  Sanders prefers the explanation that the incarnation, not the crucifixion, was planned in eternity.  But, almost as a “fall-back” position, he suggests the possibility that “perhaps” God made plans both ways, in case the race fell into sin or in case it remained sinless.51   Can the passages be satisfactorily explained as merely planning for a possibility without knowing it as a certain fact? 
I am satisfied that this will not work.  Some of the passages speak of specific things that were “foreknown,” not of possibilities considered; indeed, all of the passages

iterate things settled before the foundation of the world.  They affirm that Christ as redeemer and sacrificial lamb was foreknown before the foundation of the world; that we were chosen for redemption in Christ before the foundation of the world; that God gave us grace in Christ Jesus before time began; that before the foundation of the world our names were written in the Book of the slain (sacrificial) Lamb.  Singly and together the passages speak of definite facts settled before creation.  The burden of exegetical proof will rest on anyone who wishes to regard them otherwise.

 Implicitly or explicitly the death of Christ as atonement for human sin serves as one of the things that tie the Scriptures together.  Four NT passages—1 Pet. 1:19; Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9, 10; Rev. 13:8—demonstrate that the redemptive death of Christ as atonement for sin was known and incorporated in the plan of God before time began.  No textual or grammatical ambiguities mitigate this conclusion.  The very least that can be said of these passages is that provision for salvation from sin was taken into account, as settled fact, before the foundation of the world, and that this provision centered in Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God.
At this point, open theism is especially vulnerable, given that the position requires that God not foreknow the morally free acts of his creatures, especially the fall.  The passages we have examined, however, make clear that, before he created the first humans, God both knew about our sins and knew his Son as our Redeemer by virtue of his death on the cross.


1.  For convenience we may mark the beginning of this movement with the publication of Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1975), althoughthe denial of foreknowledge was not explicit in that volume and many who contributed to it are not open theists.  Something of a sequel was The Grace of God, The Will of Man, ed. Clark Pinnock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), in which the denial of foreknowledge began to take shape.  Both were primarily intended to make “A Case for Arminianism,” as the subtitle of the second indicates.  Though I subsequently began referring to the movement as “neo-Arminian” before seeing or hearing the term used elsewhere, others have independently characterized the movement in this way; see, for example, Daniel Strange, “The Price of Internal Consistency?” in TynBul 51(2000), 139-150.

2.  Though I will speak of open theism’s denial of “exhaustive foreknowledge” in order to be more irenic, I am satisfied both that there is no such thing as selective foreknowledge and that the open theists I am familiar with do not really believe that God foreknows (in its traditional meaning of prescience or intuitively foreseeing what will happen) anything in the future at all.  But this is not essential to my argument: their understanding of what is involved when God speaks of the future is outlined below.

3. I will not attempt to provide a bibliography of open theism.  For the genius of the movement, in addition to sources cited in this article, I recommend Clark H.Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001).

4. Richard Rice, “Divine Foreknowledge and Free-Will Theism,” in Pinnock, The Grace of God, 127; cf. Rice’s God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Freewill

(Minneapolis: Bethany, 1985).

5. JETS 43/2 (June 2000), 259-271.

6. JETS 44/3 (September 2001), 467-491.

7.  For a more sophisticated, philosophical defense of the fact that divine foreknowledge does not negate libertarian freedom, see David Hunt, “The Simple-Foreknowledge View,” Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 65-103.  In some(but not all) ways his position is similar to mine, though mine is aimed more at the popular reader.

8.  John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 201.

9.  David Hunt, “A Simple-Foreknowledge Response,” in Beilby and Eddy, Divine Foreknowledge, 49.

10.  Hunt, “Simple-Foreknowledge View,” 102.

11. See, for example, Richard Rice, “Biblical Support for a New Perspective,” in Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice et al, The Openness of God (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 50-53.

12.Pinnock, Grace of God, 25.

13.An open theist might hold that the cross was considered by God, before creation, as a “contingency plan”—in case the humans he was about to create were to fall into sin—rather than as a foreknown fact. 

14.Sanders, 101, is confident that Ps. 22:16 can be disposed of by observing that the Hebrew text reads “like a lion at my hands and feet” rather than “they pierced my hands and my feet,” blaming the latter on a “subtle change” in the Hebrew text.  In light of the 5/6HevPsalms Scroll found at Qumran, one might not be so quick to dispute the traditional rendering; see Conrad R. Gren, “Piercing the Ambiguities of Psalm 22:16 and the Messiah’s Mission,” JETS 48/2 (June 2005), 283-299. 

15. Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter (ECNT: Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 117, is one of many who observe that Peter’s first epistle, for example, intentionally “echoes” the Servant Song in Isa. 52-53. 

16.  Sanders, 134.

17.  Sanders, 306.  See H. F. Bayer, “Predictions of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 630-633; Raymond E. Brown, “How Much Did Jesus Know?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 29:1 (1967), 9-39.

18.  Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 575.  Gundry speaks often of Jesus’ “predictive power” as demonstrating a supernatural foreknowledge that Mark emphasizes as part of understanding who Jesus is; see 10-11, 428, 504, 571-572, etc.

19. Jason A. Nicholls, “Openness and Inerrancy: Can They Be Compatible?” JETS 45/4 (December 2002), 629-649.

20.  Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 38.

21.  Various translations render the participle in different ways, ranging from the AV and NKJV “foreordained” to “destined before” (NRSV) to “chosen” (NIV); the NASB has “foreknown.”  This may be one of those times when foreknowledge carries the additional sense of pre-determination, though that is not certain. Translators would be well advised to stay with “foreknown”; that way, it becomes the interpreter’s responsibility (as it must finally be) to decide from context when it means more than mere prescience and exactly what more it means.  This issue has no direct bearing on the subject at hand, however, since predestination would certainly include foreknowledge.

22. Sanders, 101-102.

23. I. H. Marshall, “Universal Grace and Atonement in the Pastoral Epistles,” in Pinnock, Grace of God, 67.

24.  I. H. Marshall, 1 Peter (IVPNTC; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991) 55-56.

25.  Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 72-74.

26.  Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (hereafter EDNT), ed. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 2:255.

27.  Jobes, 119.

28.  Boyd, 45.

29. Boyd, 45.

30.   See my treatment of this passage in Grace, Faith, Free Will (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 66-71, or (more fully) in The Randall House Bible Commentary: Galatians through Colossians (Nashville: Randall House, 1988), 132-144.

31. Sanders, 102.

32. Boyd, 46, 47.

33.  Sanders, 102.

34.  Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 100.

35.  Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 177.

36.  I. H. Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Pastoral Epistles (ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), 706.

37.  George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 375.

38.  Marshall, Commentary, 706.  Knight, 375, agrees that this is “more likely.” 

39.  Marshall, “Grace and Atonement,” 68; emphasis mine.  Interesting that this piece occurs in a volume edited by Pinnock; see the reference in note 1.

40. William G. MacDonald, “The Biblical Doctrine of Election,” in Pinnock, Grace of God, 208.  Compare the preceding note. 

41.  William D. Mounce, Word Biblical Commentary: Pastoral Epistles (WBC 46; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 483.

42.  Boyd, 47.

43.  Sanders, 102.  He makes allowance for the other reading.

44.  See, for example, David E. Aune, Word Biblical Commentary 52B / Revelation 6-16 (WBC; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 746-748.

45. See, for example, G. R. Beasley-Murray, New Century Bible Commentary / The Book of Revelation (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 213-214.

46  Among some who side with Sanders there is an acknowledged suspicion that the text of Revelation is not original at this point, and that the words “of the Lamb slain” do not belong there.  But there is no manuscript evidence to sustain this suspicion.

47. EDNT, 2:256.

48.  G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 701-702.

49.  Gregory A. Boyd, “The Open Theism View,” Bielby and Eddy, Divine Foreknowledge, 31. 

50.   Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (ECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 502-504.

51.  Sanders, 102.


copyright 2008 Robert E. Picirilli