Christians have long affirmed that God is unchangeable. In recent years, however, advocates of a theory called open theism have argued that God can and does change and that we can cause that change. They find their support for this in passages such as Genesis 18, where Abraham intercedes before the Lord for Sodom and Gomorrah, and God seemingly changes His mind. They claim further support from passages like Jeremiah 18:7–10, Jonah 3:10, and Genesis 6:6, which speak of God repenting or relenting or being sorry.
The Flood: Was God Sorry for Making Man?
For example, at the time of the global Flood, Genesis 6:5–7 tells us that God was “sorry” that He had made man on the earth:
Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.
The fact that God is “sorry” that He had made mankind does not mean that He thinks His decision to create them was a mistake. Rather, the focus of God’s sorrow is the wickedness of mankind1 who not only bears His image, but was once without sin in His very good creation (Genesis 1:31; cf. Ecclesiastes 7:29). Though post-Fall, the intent of man’s heart was only evil continually, God’s heart is grieved because of this.
The Fall: Was God Taken By Surprise?
Not only do open theists argue that God changes His mind, but they also argue that He does not have exhaustive foreknowledge of future events.2 Naturally, for open theists, passages that seem to suggest that God “finds out” something are often cited to defend this point of view. In Genesis 3:11, for instance, it seems that God is unaware of what Adam has done. Does this mean God did not know that Adam would disobey His command (Genesis 2:17) or that He had to come up with a plan of salvation once Adam had disobeyed Him?
The question God asks Adam in Genesis 3:11, however, is not based on His ignorance but is rhetorical in nature:
These are not questions [Genesis 3:9, 11] of a Deity who has been taken by surprise. It is not as if he were ignorant of the events that have occurred. In fact, the interrogative of the second question has a special use here. Sometimes it is employed in Hebrew not of a question, but rather to express the conviction that the contents of the statement are well known to the hearer. Thus the question has a rhetorical aspect: God is saying, “Surely you have eaten of the tree . . .” And the purpose for such a statement is in order to elicit a confession from the man that he is culpable and in need of forgiveness.3
God’s announcement of a Savior in Genesis 3:15 was not just an afterthought in the plan of God. We should consider the fact that God foreknew4 that the Fall would happen, as the Bible tells us that He chose to redeem humanity through the death of His Son before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3–6, 3:11; 1 Peter 1:18–20; Revelation 13:8).
Interpretive Principles to Consider
These passages that talk about God changing His mind look and read (and are intended to be read) as though God is changing His mind. So if these passages claim that God changes His mind, isn’t it then wrong for Christians to claim that God is unchangeable?
If these passages claim that God changes His mind, isn’t it then wrong for Christians to claim that God is unchangeable?
There are several points to consider. Firstly, when Christians describe God as unchanging, this is to say that He is unchanging in His being and character. What is not meant is that He is static or paralyzed. He is not like the king or queen of the United Kingdom who reigns but does not rule. The God of Scripture is constantly acting. That God is unchangeable should not be misconstrued as meaning that He cannot and does not act.5
Secondly, while the above texts talk of God as changing, there are numerous texts in the Old and New Testaments that tell us that God does not change in His being (Psalm 102:25–27; c.f. Hebrews 1:10–12; Malachi 3:6; James. 1:17) and that He does not change His mind (Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 6:17–18). This is not to play different texts against each other but to know that we need some interpretive principles to help us understand the Bible. There are two reasonable interpretive principles that can help us understand these passages:
- Difficult passages should be interpreted in light of other clearer passages.
- Passages which are found in the historical narrative in Scripture should be interpreted in light of the didactic (instruction/teaching) passages (such as the epistles.).
Lastly, we also must understand that the Bible uses human ways to speak about God, the technical term for which is anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphic language represents God’s unchanging attributes in the changing circumstances and different moral conditions of His creatures. Passages such as Genesis 6:6 need to be taken into consideration with Numbers 23:19. In doing so, we will understand that from our human viewpoint God seems to change His mind about people, but He is only represented to us that way that we might relate to our omniscient God.
When the Bible uses human language to describe God, particularly in the narrative sections of Scripture, the didactic portions of the Scripture give us the corrective explanation.
Again and again the Bible describes God in human terms. Why? Because they are the only terms we have to communicate with. For example, the Bible speaks of the “arm of God” (Deuteronomy 5:15) with respect to His power while Psalm 50:10 says, “[God] owns the cattle on a thousand hills.” We know, however, that this is metaphorical language. The Bible isn’t trying to tell us that God is a cosmic cowboy who is in the cattle business. That God owns the cattle on a thousand hills is a human way of describing the vast riches that our Creator possesses. This language is perfectly useful to describe God’s activity among us; but when the Bible uses human language to describe God, particularly in the narrative sections of Scripture, the didactic portions of the Scripture give us the corrective explanation. This is not corrective in the sense of error, but in the sense of qualifying the meaning of the text so that we do not fall into serious error.
Does Prayer Change God’s Mind?
Nevertheless, people often ask whether prayer can change God’s mind. To ask this question is really to answer it. How could a prayer change God’s mind? Well, the best football coaches have game plans for their encounters with other teams. If things aren’t working in the first half, they make changes in the changing room at halftime where they move from plan A to plan B. God, however, doesn’t have a plan B. Do we really think that if we say to God, “Well, I know you’re planning to do this, but have you considered this . . . ?” that God is going to change His plans based on the wisdom we provide Him? In our prayers, God is not learning things He didn’t already know.
What is it then that would cause God in these texts to change His mind? Is it that when Abraham (Genesis 18:16–33) came to God, he came to Him with information that God lacked apart from what Abraham told Him? Obviously Abraham didn’t teach God something that He didn’t already know. In fact, God knew that Sodom would have fewer than ten righteous people, whereas Abraham did not. God’s mind doesn’t change because it doesn’t need to change. He knows everything, and He knows the end from the beginning. God has no plan B because there are no deficiencies or flaws in His plan A.
Does prayer change things? Yes. Does God use prayer as a secondary means to bring His work to pass? Yes. Does God not only invite us to pray but command us to? Yes. Does the effective prayer of righteous man accomplish much? Yes. But do these things change God’s mind? No. Why? Because God has never had to change His mind from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:11).
Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure.” (Isaiah 46:10)