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NOTE: There is a lot in this article from every perspective. Read meditatively and move on if stuck because it will likely get cleared up elsewhere. We have added links to many extra articles for those wanting to dig deeper. After this introductory section, John M. Frame has a section, and this is followed by a section by Edward D. Andrews.
Open theism, also known as openness theology and free will theism, is a theological movement that has developed within Christianity as a rejection of the synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian theology. Open theism arises out of the freewill theistic tradition of the church, which goes back to the early church fathers. Open theism is typically advanced as a biblically motivated and logically consistent theology of human and divine freedom (in the libertarian sense), with an emphasis on what this means for the content of God’s foreknowledge and exercise of God’s power.
Exposition of Open Theism
In short, open theism says that since God and humans are free, God’s knowledge is dynamic and God’s providence flexible. While several versions of traditional theism picture God’s knowledge of the future as a singular, fixed trajectory, open theism sees it as a plurality of branching possibilities, with some possibilities becoming settled as time moves forward. Thus, the future as well as God’s knowledge of it is open (hence “open” theism). Other versions of classical theism hold that God fully determines the future, entailing that there is no free choice (the future is closed). Yet other versions of classical theism hold that even though there is freedom of choice, God’s omniscience necessitates God foreknowing what free choices are made (God’s foreknowledge is closed). Open theists hold that these versions of classical theism do not agree with:
- the biblical concept of God
- the biblical understanding of divine and creaturely freedom
and/or result in incoherence. Open Theists tend to emphasize that God’s most fundamental character trait is love and that this trait is unchangeable. They also (in contrast to traditional theism) tend to hold that the biblical portrait is of a God deeply moved by creation, experiencing a variety of feelings in response to it.
Comparison of Open and Reformed Theism
The following chart compares beliefs about key doctrines as stated by open theists and Calvinists after “the period of controversy” between adherents of the two theisms began in 1994. During this period, the “theology of open theism… rocked the evangelical world.”
|Scripture (the Bible). “In the Christian tradition, the Old and the New Testaments are considered Holy Scripture in that they are, or convey, the self-revelation of God.”||“Committed to affirming the infallibility of Scripture”||Scripture is “the infallible Word of God.”|
|God’s Power. “God’s power is limited only by God’s own nature and not by any external force.”||“God is all-powerful.”||“God is all-powerful.”|
|God’s Sovereignty. “God’s ultimate Lordship and rule over the universe.”||Portraying God as ordaining whatever happens reduces “humans to robots.”||“Nothing that exists or occurs falls outside God’s ordaining will. Nothing, including no evil person or thing or event or deed.”|
|God’s Perfection. “God as lacking nothing and free of all moral imperfection.”||Believes in “(because Scripture teaches) the absolute perfection of God.”||Believes that because “Scripture says” it, God “will always do what is right.”|
|God’s Foreknowledge. “God’s knowing things and events before they happen in history.”||“God is omniscient” about “settled” reality, but the future that God “leaves open” can be known only as open “possibility” without specific foreknowledge.||Classically Augustinian-Calvinist view: “God knows the future because he preordains it.”|
|The Fall. “The disobedience and sin of Adam and Eve that caused them to lose the state of innocence in which they had been created. This event plunged them and all mankind into a state of sin and corruption.”||God “does not unilaterally and irrevocably decide what to do”. God’s decisions are influenced by “human attitudes and responses.”||“Ultimate reason” for the Fall was “God’s ordaining will.”|
|Free Will. “The term seeks to describe the free choice of the will which all persons possess. Theological debates have arisen over the ways and to the extent to which sin has affected the power to choose good over evil, and hence one’s ‘free will,’”||Promotes incompatibilism, the doctrine that “the agent’s power to do otherwise” is “a necessary condition for acting freely.”||Promotes compatibilism, the doctrine that “freedom” of the will requires only “the power or ability to do what one will (desire or choose) to do” without constraint or impediment, even if what one wills is determined.|
|Free Will and God’s Sovereignty. A “caustic debate” began about 1990 over “God’s sovereignty and human free will.”||Saying that God governs human choices reduces “angels or humans to robots in order to attain his objectives.”||God governs “the choices of human beings”, but without “cancelling [their] freedom and responsibility.”|
|Theodicy issue. “The justification of a deity’s justice and goodness in light of suffering and evil.”||To meet the “conditions of love”, God exercises “general rather than specific sovereignty, which explains why God does not prevent all evil.” Also, God “does not completely control or in any sense will evil” because the world is “held hostage to a cosmic evil force.”||Because “Scripture says” it, God “will always do what is right.”|
Contemporary open theists have named precursors among philosophers to document their assertion that “the open view of the future is not a recent concept” but has a long history.
The first known post-biblical Christian writings advocating concepts similar to open theism with regard to the issue of foreknowledge are found in the writings of Calcidius, a 4th-century interpreter of Plato. It was affirmed in the 16th century by Socinus, and in the early 18th century by Samuel Fancourt, and by Andrew Ramsay (an important figure in Methodism). In the 19th century, several theologians wrote in defense of this idea, including Isaak August Dorner, Gustav Fechner, Otto Pfleiderer, Jules Lequier, Adam Clarke, Billy Hibbard, Joel Hayes, T.W. Brents, and Lorenzo D. McCabe. Contributions to this defense increased as the century drew to a close.
The dynamic omniscience view has been affirmed by a number of non-Christians as well: Cicero (1st century BC) Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd century), and Porphyry (3rd century). God’s statement to Abraham “Now I know that you fear me” (Gen 22:12) was much discussed by Medieval Jewish theologians. Two significant Jewish thinkers who affirmed dynamic omniscience as the proper interpretation of the passage were Ibn Ezra (12th century) and Gersonides (14th century).
Sergei Bulgakov, an early-20th-century Russian Orthodox priest, and theologian advocated the use of the term panentheism, which articulated a necessary link between God and creation as consequence of God’s free love and not as a natural necessity. His sophiology has sometimes been seen as a precursor to ‘open theism.’
Millard Erickson belittles such precursors to open theism as “virtually unknown or unnoticed.”
The term “open theism” was introduced in 1980 with theologian Richard Rice’s book The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will. The broader articulation of open theism was given in 1994 when five essays were published by evangelical scholars (including Rice) under the title The Openness of God. Recent theologians of note expressing this view include: Clark Pinnock (deceased as of 2010), Greg Boyd, Thomas Jay Oord, John E. Sanders, Dallas Willard, Jürgen Moltmann, Richard Rice, C. Peter Wagner, John Polkinghorne, Hendrikus Berkhof, Adrio Konig, Harry Boer, Bethany Sollereder, Matt Parkins, Thomas Finger (Mennonite), W. Norris Clarke (Roman Catholic), Brian Hebblethwaite, Robert Ellis, Kenneth Archer (Pentecostal) Barry Callen (Church of God), Henry Knight III, Gordon Olson, and Winkie Pratney. A significant, growing number of philosophers of religion affirm it: Peter Van Inwagen, Richard Swinburne (Eastern Orthodox), William Hasker, David Basinger, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Dean Zimmerman, Timothy O’Connor, James D. Rissler, Keith DeRose, Richard E. Creel, Robin Collins (philosopher/theologian/physicist), J. R. Lucas, Vincent Brümmer, (Roman Catholic), Richard Purtill, Alan Rhoda, Jeffrey Koperski, Dale Tuggy, and Keith Ward. Biblical scholars Terence E. Fretheim, Karen Winslow, and John Goldingay affirm it. Others include writers Madeleine L’Engle and Paul C. Borgman, mathematician D. J. Bartholomew and biochemist/theologian Arthur Peacocke.
Open theists maintain that traditional classical theists hold the classical attributes of God together in an incoherent way. The main classical attributes are as follows:
- All-good: God is the standard of moral perfection, all-benevolent, and perfectly loving.
- Simplicity: God has no parts, cannot be differentiated, and possesses no attribute as distinct from His being.
- Immutability: God cannot change in any respect.
- Impassibility: God cannot be affected by outside forces.
- Omnipresence: God is present everywhere; more precisely, all things find their location in God.
- Omniscience: God knows absolutely everything: believes all truths and disbelieves all falsehoods. God’s knowledge is perfect.
- Omnipotence: God can do anything because he is all-powerful and not limited by external forces.
Open theists and atheists alike point out contradictions in the traditional attributes. Atheist author and educator George H. Smith writes in his book Atheism: The Case Against God that if God is omniscient, God cannot be omnipotent because: “If God knew the future with infallible certainty, he cannot change it – in which case he cannot be omnipotent. If God can change the future, however, he cannot have infallible knowledge of it.”
Open theism also answers the question of how God can be blameless and omnipotent even though evil exists in the world. H. Roy Elseth gives an example of a parent that knows with certainty that his child would go out and murder someone if he was given a gun. Elseth argues that if the parent gave the child the gun, the parent would be responsible for that crime. However, if God was unsure about the outcome, God would not be culpable for that act; only the one who committed the act would be guilty. This position is dubious, as a parent who knows his child was probable, or likely, or even possibly going to shoot someone would be culpable; and God knew that it was likely that man would sin, and thus God is still culpable. An orthodox Christian might try, on the contrary, seek to ground a theodicy in the resurrection, both of Christ and the general resurrection to come, though this is not the traditional answer to evil.
Varieties of Open Theists
Philosopher Alan Rhoda has described several different approaches that open theists have taken regarding the future and God’s knowledge of it.
Voluntary Nescience: The future is alethically settled but nevertheless epistemically open for God because he has voluntarily chosen not to know truths about future contingents. It is thought Dallas Willard held this position.
Involuntary Nescience: The future is alethically settled but nevertheless epistemically open for God because truths about future contingents are in principle unknowable. William Hasker, Peter Van Inwagen, and Richard Swinburne espouse this position.
Non-Bivalentist Omniscience: The future is alethically open and therefore epistemically open for God because propositions about future contingents are neither true nor false. J. R. Lucas and Dale Tuggy espouse this position.
Bivalentist Omniscience: The future is alethically open and therefore epistemically open for God because propositions asserting of future contingents that they ‘will’ obtain or that they ‘will not’ obtain are both false. Instead, what is true is that they ‘might and might not’ obtain. Greg Boyd holds this position.”
Norman Geisler, a critic of open theism, addresses the claims that the Classical attributes were derived from the Greeks with three observations:
- The quest for something unchanging is not bad.
- The Greeks did not have the same concept of God.
- Philosophical influences are not wrong in themselves.
An open theist might respond that all such criticisms are misplaced. As to observation (1), it is not characteristic of open theists to say that the quest for something unchanging is bad. Indeed, open theists believe God’s character is unchanging. As to observation (2), open theists do not characteristically say traditional forms of classical theism have exactly the same concept of God as the Greeks. Rather, they argue that they imported only some unbiblical assumptions from the Greeks. They also point to theologians of the Christian tradition who, throughout history, did not succumb so strongly to Hellenistic influences. As to observation (3), open theists do not argue that philosophical influences are bad in themselves. Rather, they argue that some philosophical influences on Christian theology are unbiblical and theologically groundless. Consider John Sanders’ statement in The Openness of God (1980):
Christian theology, I am arguing, needs to reevaluate classical theism in light of a more relational metaphysic (not all philosophy is bad!) so that the living, personal, responsive and loving God of the Bible may be spoken of more consistently in our theological reflection …:
Opponents of open theism, both Arminians and Calvinists, such as John Piper, claim that the verses commonly used by open theists are anthropopathisms. They suggest that when God seems to change from action A to action B in response to prayer, action B was the inevitable event all along, and God divinely ordained human prayer as the means by which God actualized that course of events.
They also point to verses that suggest God is immutable, such as:
Malachi 3:6: For I, the Lord, have not changed; and you, the sons of Jacob, have not reached the end.
Numbers 23:19: God is not a man that He should lie, nor is He a mortal that He should repent. Would He say and not do, speak and not fulfill?
1 Samuel 15:29: And also, the Strength of Israel will neither lie nor repent, for He is not a man to repent.”
Isaiah 46:10: [I] tell the end from the beginning, and from before, what was not done; [I] say, “My counsel shall stand, and all My desire I will do.”
Those advocating the traditional view[who?] see these as the verses that form God’s character and interpret other verses that say God repents as anthropomorphistic. Authors claim this can be traced back to Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, Ambrose, and Augustine. Open theists note that there seems to be an arbitrary distinction here between those verses which are merely anthropopathic and others which form God’s character. They also note that the immediate sense of the passages addressing God’s inalterability ought to be understood in the Hebrew sense of his faithfulness and justice. In other words, God’s love and character are unchanging; however, this demands that His approach to people (especially in a personal relationship) be flexible.
In the early 18th century, an extended public correspondence flourished around the topic of open theism. Samuel Fancourt’s 1727 publication, The Greatness of Divine Love Vindicated, incited the debate. Over the next decade, four other English writers published polemical works in response. This led Fancourt to defend his views in six other publications. In his 1747 autobiography, in response to some who thought that this controversy had affected his career, Fancourt wrote, “Should it be suggested, that my religious principles were a prejudice unto me—I answer: so are those of every Dissenting Protestant in the [United] Kingdom with some, if he dares to think and to speak what he thinks.” Fancourt also names other writers who had supported his views.
In 2005, a “raging debate” among evangelicals about “open or free-will theism” was in place. This period of controversy began in 1994 with the publication of The Openness of God.
A group of thinkers known as “open theists,” such as Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Gregory Boyd, and William Hasker, seek to do justice to the give-and-take in Scripture between God and human beings. For example, in Exodus 32:7–10, God tells Moses He will destroy Israel for worshiping the golden calf and raise up a new nation from Moses himself. Moses intercedes, however, and in verse 14 God “changed His mind.” God also seems to change his mind in several places, such as in Isaiah 38:1–5, where Isaiah prophesies that King Hezekiah will die, but in response to Hezekiah’s repentance adds 15 years to his life. Another example is Jonah 3–4, where God retracts an announcement of judgment in response to Nineveh’s repentance.
From these and other such passages, the open theists infer that God is a temporal being (not “above time,” as in much traditional theology, but within time), that He changes His mind, that His plans are influenced by creatures, that He sometimes regrets actions that He has performed (as Gn 6:6), and that He does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future. In their view, God’s regretting and relenting come about because free human decisions are utterly undetermined and unpredictable. Therefore, God must adjust His plans to the free choices of human beings.
We should not ignore these “relenting” passages. On the other hand, we should also not forget the pervasive biblical emphasis on God’s sovereign control of the world and His exhaustive knowledge of past, present, and future. God brings about natural events (Ps 65:9–11; 135:5–7), even apparently random ones (Pr 16:33). He controls the smallest details of nature (Mt 10:29–30). He governs human history (Is 10:5–12; 14:24–27; Acts 17:26). If someone dies accidentally, it is because “God caused it to happen” (Ex 21:12–13). Contrary to open theism, God brings about human free decisions, even sinful ones (Gn 45:5–8; Jdg 14:4; 2 Sm 24; Is 44:28; Lk 22:22; Acts 2:23–24; Rv 17:17). He hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 4:21; 7:3), and others as well (Dt 2:30; Jos 11:18–20; 1 Sm 2:25; 2 Ch 25:20), for His own purposes (Rm 9:17). He is also the source of human faith (Jn 6:37, 44, 65; Acts 13:48; 16:14–15; 18:27; Eph 2:4–10; 2 Tm 1:9) and repentance (Zec 12:10; Acts 5:31; 11:18). So human freedom is not indeterminate as open theists maintain. We are free in that we do what we want to do, but behind our plans and desires are those of God (Jms 4:13–16).
In general, God “works out everything in agreement with the decision of His will” (Eph 1:11; cp. Lm 3:37–38; Rm 8:28; 11:33–36). And God cannot fail at anything He seeks to do (Ps 33:11; 115:3; 135:6; Pr 21:30; Is 14:27; 43:13; 46:10; 55:11; Dn 4:35; Rv 3:7).
Since God controls everything, He knows everything, including the future. Knowing the future is a test of a true prophet (Dt 18:22) and indeed of a true God (Is 41:21–23; 42:9; 43:9–12; 44:7; 48:3–7). Through His prophets God often predicts the future centuries in advance (as Gn 9:26–27). Contrary to the open theists, who think God cannot anticipate human free decisions, He often predicts human behavior in detail (1 Sm 10:1–7; Jr 37:6–10; Mt 26:34). He predicts the behavior and character of human beings in the distant future (1 Kg 13:1–4; Is 44:28–45:13).
How, then, should we understand God’s “relenting”? For one thing, God states as a general policy in Jeremiah 18:5–10 that if He announces judgment and people repent, He will relent; He will do the same if He pronounces blessing and people do evil. In other words, relenting is part of God’s unchanging plan, not a change forced on Him by His ignorance. Further, God is not only transcendent (beyond our experience) but also immanent (involved in our experience). He has dwelled on earth in the tabernacle and temple, in Christ, and in His general omnipresence (Ps 139:7–12). When God interacts with people in time, He does one thing, then another. He curses, then He blesses. His actions are in temporal sequence and are therefore, in one sense, changing. But these changes are the outworking of God’s eternal plan, which does not change.
It is important, then, to see God as working from both above and below, in eternity and in time, and not only within time, as open theists propose.
Exodus 32:27 For a discussion of justifications for taking human life, see note on 20:13.
Exodus 32:32–33 Does God keep a book with people’s names in it? Several verses indicate that God keeps written records (17:14; Ps 56:8; 69:28; 139:16; Dn 12:1; Mal 3:16; Rev 3:5; 5:1–9; 10:2–10; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12–15; 21:27; 22:7–19). But such expressions could be metaphors, using a human analogy—keeping account books—to symbolize the fact that God remembers what people do, just as biblical language regarding God’s eye or hand is figurative. The point is that every person will be held accountable for his actions and words (see Ec 12:14; Mt 12:36).
Exodus 33:11 If the Lord spoke face to face with Moses, why does the book later suggest that Moses never saw His face (33:20–23)? On three occasions the Bible states that God spoke “face to face” with Moses (33:11; Nm 12:8; Dt 5:4). However, it is also clear that this expression was not meant to be taken literally; in the book of Numbers, “speaking face to face” is equated with “openly, and not in riddles” (Nm 12:8). For a discussion of Moses’ seeing God, see note on 3:6.
Exodus 34:6–7 For a discussion of God’s punishing the descendants of a person who sins, see note on 20:5.
Exodus 34:14 The Hebrew word qannaʾ, translated in many versions as “jealous,” can also be translated as “zealous.” The term describes God’s expectation that human beings will make Him their highest priority in life, loving Him with all their heart, soul, and strength (Dt 6:4). As Creator of the universe and all life, God has the right to expect people to value Him most highly. This type of “jealousy” is not a bad thing. It is proper in a marriage; a wife or husband expects the spouse to be faithful in thought, word, and deed, and would be rightfully upset should the spouse prove unfaithful. The Israelite prophets sometimes compare God’s relationship to His people, in His covenant, to a marriage (Jr 3:20; 31:32; Hs 2:16).
Exodus 34:29–35 Does the Bible state that Moses’ face glowed, or that it grew horns? The Hebrew word translated in most versions as “shone” or “glowed” is based on a root which means “horn.” The Latin Vulgate translation depicted Moses as growing horns; as a result, the Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo carved a statue of Moses with horns. In the NT Paul stated that Moses’ encounter with God caused his face to become glorious (2 Co 3:7); this suggests that Moses’ face glowed (cp. Ps 119:130).
Exodus 35:2 For a discussion of why the death penalty for violating the Sabbath does not apply to Christians, see note on 20:8–11.
Exodus 37:1–9 Did the Israelites construct the ark after Moses returned with the second set of stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, or before (see Dt 10:3–5)? Moses received the command to build the ark and the directions for its construction (Ex 25:9–22) before his second journey up Mount Sinai. Deuteronomy 10 suggests that Moses built the ark, went up and down the mountain, and then put the Ten Commandments in the ark. This sequence of events would require that the events of Ex 35–37 take place before Ex 34:29. But, while these passages may be out of chronological order, it is not necessary to conclude that they are.
A harmonization of the narrative in Ex 25–37 and Dt 10 is possible if one understands that the process of building the ark began when Moses first received the command to make it. Even though the ark was not completed until later, Moses could reasonably speak of its existence earlier because it was a work in progress. Though the Ten Commandments were not placed in the ark immediately after Moses came down the mountain, they were put in it as soon as the ark was completed.
Exodus 38:24–25 It seems surprising that slaves in Egypt would have possessed the 2,200 pounds of gold and 7,545 pounds of silver needed for the construction of the tabernacle and its furnishings. However, the Bible suggests that the Israelites’ wealth came from the Egyptians, residents of the richest nation in the world at that time, and was gained in obedience to God’s command (3:22; 12:35).
No individual Israelite would have had to obtain a large quantity of gold and silver from the Egyptians. Each of the more than 600,000 adult males was asked to give only one-fifth of an ounce of silver to supply the amount needed for the tabernacle (v. 26). The gift of each of the adult male members of the community would have averaged less than one-seventeenth of an ounce of gold. Such limited quantities could have reasonably been obtained from ancient Egypt.
Exodus 38:25–26 The biblical record indicates that Moses had two separate censuses taken of the adult Israelite males during the first 14 months after they had left Egypt. The first of these, mentioned here, was carried out prior to the beginning of the second year after the exodus from Egypt (40:2) for the purpose of collecting contributions for the tabernacle construction. The second, conducted during the second month of the second year after the exodus, and described in Nm 1:1–46, was a military census intended to help the Israelites prepare for their planned invasion of Canaan.
Exodus 40:20 Did the ark of the covenant contain the Ten Commandments only, or manna and Aaron’s rod that budded, in addition (see Heb 9:4)? The Bible suggests that from the days of Moses at least through the time of Solomon (see 1 Kg 8:9), only the Ten Commandments were present within the ark. It is possible, however, that during a time of national apostasy—perhaps during the time of Manasseh (see 2 Kg 20:21–21:18)—an Aaronic priest tried to protect other sacred relics from the time of Moses by placing them in the ark of the covenant. God’s command to place the stone slabs containing the Ten Commandments inside the ark (Dt 10:2) did not prohibit the placement of other items alongside them. Their presence together underneath the Lord’s symbolic throne would symbolize three different dimensions of His gracious provision for His people: law, leadership, and sustenance.
The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007).
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE REALLY SAY: Does God Change His Mind?
Concerning God, the Bible says: “with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” And reassuringly, God himself said: “For I, Jehovah, do not change.” (James 1:17; Malachi 3:6) God is quite different, as one might expect from the humans we know that cannot be trusted because they are always changing their minds.
Some Bible readers are in denial of the idea of God changing his mind. An example, at one time God gave the first century Christians the power to perform miracles, but he let this peter out after the death of the apostle John in 100 C.E. Much further back in Bible times, God created one man and one woman, marrying them so that they became one flesh; then, later he permitted polygamy for four thousand years, but this he brought to a halt when Jesus came to earth. Under the Mosaic Law, God expected Sabbath-keeping, but after Jesus Christ nailed the Mosaic Law to the cross, God no longer requires it. Do these few cases evidence that God has changed?
First, the above examples are not really cases of God changing his mind per se, but rather his altering circumstances once persons with free will brought those altered circumstances about, so God could carry out his will and purposes. Second, draw comfort in the fact that we can be certain that God will never change his standards of love and justice, regardless of what created beings do with their free will. Furthermore, his “eternal purpose” to bless humanity by means of the Kingdom of God will not ever change. (Ephesians 3:11) Nevertheless, just as any of us might change our mind about someone who has altered the way they treat us, God does change in the way that he deals with humans to changing circumstances, situations, and conditions.
There are also times when God has changed his commands, his laws, his instructions according to the situation and needs of his people. We should not be astonished by this because God has foreknowledge, and he is well aware of situations that will come where he is going to have to change or alter circumstances. This is found in humans that are guides that get people from the comfort of their lodges to an intense trek through dense forest. If the weather changes, a person in the group has chest pains or an asthma attack, the skilled tour guide will alter his plans in order to deal with the changed circumstances. Just because God sees the need to alter circumstances, situations, and conditions in our trek toward the second coming of Jesus Christ, this does not mean he has changed his mind or altered the destination.
The Prophetic Judgment of Nineveh
Deuteronomy 18:20-22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
20 But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in my name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ 21 You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which Jehovah has not spoken?’ 22 When a prophet speaks in the name of Jehovah, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that Jehovah has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.
Jonah 3:4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
4 And Jonah began to go into the city a journey of one day, and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Jonah 3:5 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
Jonah 3:10 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
10 When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented[*] concerning the calamity which he had declared he would do to them, and he did not do it.
[*] Lit felt regret over
Based on Deuteronomy 18:20-222, does Jonah 3:4-5 and 10 not prove that Jonah was a false prophet. No, both Jonah and the Ninevites were aware of a principle that is often overlooked by the modern-day reader. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel give the answer or the principle that readers of that time would have understood about judgment prophecy. Jeremiah explicitly explains the rule of judgment prophecies, when he writes, “If at any time I say that I am going to uproot, break down, or destroy any nation or kingdom, but then that nation turns from its evil, I will not do what I said I would.” (17:7-8, GNT)
The opposite is true as well,
Jeremiah 18:9-10 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
9 Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; 10 if it does evil in my eyes by not listening to my voice, then I will feel regret over the good with which I had promised to bless it.
Yes, if one turns back from their evil ways, endeavoring to obey God’s Word, he will not receive the condemnatory judgment that he deserves. That a repentant, evil person’s previous wicked deeds will not be held against them, God states,
Ezekiel 33:13-15 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
13 When I say to the righteous one: You will surely keep living, and he trusts in his own righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous acts will be remembered, but he will die for the wrong that he has done. 14 And when I say to the wicked one: You will surely die, and he turns away from his sin and does what is just and righteous, 15 and the wicked one returns what was taken in pledge and pays back what was taken by robbery, and he walks in the statutes of life by not doing what is wrong, he will surely keep living. He will not die.
Regardless of all that one has done throughout their life, it is their standing in God’s eyes at the time of the divine judgment, which God considers. Therefore, God goes on to say through Ezekiel,
Ezekiel 33:14-16 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
14 And when I say to the wicked one: You will surely die, and he turns away from his sin and does what is just and righteous, 15 and the wicked one returns what was taken in pledge and pays back what was taken by robbery, and he walks in the statutes of life by not doing what is wrong, he will surely keep living. He will not die. 16 None of his sins that he has committed will be remembered against him. He has practiced justice and righteousness; he shall surely live.
Supposed Unfulfilled Prophecy
In the days when Micah was prophesying, c. 777-717, the king, the heads of the Jerusalem government, the religious leaders, the priests, and some prophets, were deserving of nothing but death. All were guilty of causing the life of their fellow countrymen, all for the sake of greed. They were guilty of false worship, bribery, lies, and wicked behavior. These leaders used false prophets, who were not true spokesmen of God. Therefore, the real prophet, Micah, shouted,
Micah 3:12 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
12 Therefore because of you
Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain[*] of the house as a high place in a forest.
[*] I.e., the temple mount
The destruction occurred in the late seventh-century B.C.E., just as it was prophesied. As we can see below, Micah 3:12 was quoted over a century later in Jeremiah 26:18.
Jeremiah 26:16-19 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
16 Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, “This man is not worthy of death; for he hath spoken to us in the name of Jehovah our God.” 17 Then rose up certain of the elders of the land, and spoke to all the assembly of the people, saying, 18 “Micah the Morashtite prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah; and he spoke to all the people of Judah, saying: ‘Thus says Jehovah of hosts,
“‘Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height.’
19 Did Hezekiah king of Judah and all Judah put him to death? Did he not fear Jehovah and entreat the favor of Jehovah, and Jehovah changed his mind about the misfortune, which he had pronounced against them? But we are committing a great evil against our own souls.”
Is this another unfulfilled prophecy? Did not Jeremiah himself say, “Jehovah changed his mind about the misfortune, which he had pronounced against them”? Verse 19 of Jeremiah [chapter 26] “indicates that Micah’s preaching may have been instrumental in the revival under King Hezekiah (see 2 Kgs 18:1–6; 2 Chron. 29–31).” (Barker and Bailey 2001, 82) The New American Commentary authors go on to say,
Lamentations describes the awful fulfillment of this prophecy (see Introduction, p. 30). It is ironic that those who thought they were the builders of Zion (v. 10) actually turned out to be, in a sense, its destroyers. The Lord, because of their breach of covenant, used King Nebuchadnezzar’s Neo-Babylonian army to raze Jerusalem and its temple. They were reduced to a “mound of ruins” (translating the Hb. word ʿîyyîn) similar to an archaeological tell and to Ai (see also comments on 1:6), foreshadowing the Roman destruction of A.D. 70. Jerusalem became a place suitable only for wild animals. And the temple mount that thronged with worshipers became as deserted as when Abraham almost offered Isaac there on Mount Moriah (Gen 22:2, 14). (Barker and Bailey 2001, 82)
Yes, there is no reason to view Micah’s words as an unfulfilled prophecy. What we have here is a following of the above rule, with a qualifying clause, so to speak. As God said through Jeremiah, “If at any time I say that I am going to uproot, break down, or destroy any nation or kingdom, but then that nation turns from its evil, I will not do what I said I would.” (17:7-8) However, “if I say that I am going to plant or build up any nation or kingdom, but then that nation disobeys me and does evil, I will not do what I said I would.” In other words, the king, the governmental leaders, and the priests heeded Micah’s warning, repented, and were forgiven for a time, with the judgment prophecy lifted. However, they fell back into their former ways, even more grievously than before. Therefore, Micah’s prophecy was reinstated. It is as Jeremiah said in 26:19, “But we are committing a great evil against our own souls.” Therefore, Jeremiah was saying, Micah prophesied, the people repented, God forgave them, and now Micah’s words will be carried out, because of the current generation of God’s people ‘committing a great evil against their own souls.’
As we can see from the above, judgment prophecies are based on a continued wrong course by those receiving condemnation. However, both the condemned and the one proclaiming the prophecy knew that the judgment would be lifted if they reversed course and repented. This was even expressed by Jonah himself. “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to Jehovah and said, “O Jehovah, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (4:1-2) However, it is also true, if one goes in the opposite direction after having repented, returning to the sinful ways, the judgment will be reinstated.
A God changing his mind
God is not man, that he should change his mind (Num. 23:19); God does not change his mind like a man (1 Sam. 15:29); the Lord does not take back his words (Isa. 31:2); the Son of God was not Yes and No (2 Cor. 1:19); I knew that you were a God who repented of evil (Jonah 4:2); change your mind about harming your people (Exod. 32:12); God changed his mind about harming his people (Exod. 32:14); God changed his mind (Amos 7:3; Amos 7:6; Jonah 3:9; Jonah 3:10); if the nation turns from evil, I will repent of the evil (Jer. 18:8); that I may repent of the evil I plan to do (Jer. 26:3); the Lord will repent of the evil he pronounced (Jer. 26:13); I will repent of the evil I inflicted on you (Jer. 42:10); the Lord repented of the evil he pronounced (Jer. 26:19); the Lord repented from the evil (2 Sam. 24:16); if it does evil, I will repent of the good (Jer. 18:10); I will turn my face from them (Ezek. 7:22).
What the Bible Really Says
Yes God changes his mind, but not in the way humans do. God changes his attitude when his created beings change their behavior. For example, God had sent a judgment message to his Israelite people, he said: “It may be they will listen, and turn every man from his evil way; and I will relent[*] of the disaster which I intend to do to them because of their evil deeds.”—Jeremiah 26:3.
[*] Or change my mind, feel regret
Older Bible translations render Jeremiah 26:3 so that it says God would “repent” over ‘the disaster which He intended to do to them because of their evil deeds,’ which some have misunderstood to mean that God had made a mistake. However, the original Hebrew word (נִחוּם nichum) has the sense “change of mind or intention.”
Genesis 6:6-7 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
6 And Jehovah regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 Jehovah said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the heavens; for I regret that I have made them.”
Feel regret over: (nacham) Or feel regret over. The Hebrew word (nacham) translated “be sorry,” “repent,” “regret,” “be comforted, “comfort,” “reconsider” and “change one’s mind” can pertain to a change of attitude or intention. God is perfect and therefore does not make mistakes in his dealings with his creation. However, he can have a change of attitude or intention as regards how humans react to his warnings. God can go from the Creator of humans to that of a destroyer of them because of their unrepentant wickedness and failure to heed his warnings. On the other hand, if they repent and turn from their wicked ways, the Father can be compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love; and he will “reconsider” the calamity that he may have intended.―Joel 2:13.
The English word “regret” means ‘to feel sorry and sad about something previously done or said that now appears wrong, mistaken, or hurtful to others.’ The Hebrew word (nacham here translated “regretted” relates to a change of attitude or intention. This could not be used to suggest that God felt that he had made a mistake in creating man.
However, returning to our Hebrew word behind the English word, we find that Jehovah had changed his attitude or intention toward the pre-flood generation of which he said, “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Gen 6:5) Since they had willfully rejected and disobeyed Him, it was now obligatory for Him to reject them in return. The change in their attitude mandated a resultant change in His attitude toward them. It is this change or altered situation that is conveyed by the Hebrew nicham (“repent,” “be sorry about,” “change one’s mind about”). The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament had this to say,
Unlike man, who under the conviction of sin feels genuine remorse and sorrow, God is free from sin. Yet the Scriptures inform us that God repents (Gen 6:6–7: Ex 32:14; Jud 2:18; I Sam 15:11 et al.), i.e. he relents or changes his dealings with men according to his sovereign purposes. On the surface, such language seems inconsistent, if not contradictory, with certain passages which affirm God’s immutability: “God is not a man … that he should repent” (I Sam 15:29 contra v. 11); “The lord has sworn and will not change his mind” (Ps 110:4). When nāḥam is used of God, however, the expression is anthropopathic and there is not ultimate tension. From man’s limited, earthly, finite perspective it only appears that God’s purposes have changed. Thus the OT states that God “repented” of the judgments or “evil” which he had planned to carry out (I Chr 21:15; Jer 18:8; 26:3, 19; Amos 7:3, 6; Jon 3:10). Certainly, Jer 18:7–10 is a striking reminder that from God’s perspective, most prophecy (excluding messianic predictions) is conditional upon the response of men. In this regard, A. J. Heschel (The Prophets, p. 194) has said, “No word is God’s final word. Judgment, far from being absolute, is conditional. A change in man’s conduct brings about a change in God’s judgment.”
The change in attitude and intention was going from the Creator of humanity to that of destroying them by means of an earth-wide flood. He was very displeased with their wicked heart condition but saved Noah and his family to continue with his plan of offering a future seed that would ransom humankind. (Gen 3:15; Matt 20:28) The evidence is that he only “regretted” those that had chosen to become so evil in their ways that they forced him to the course of destroying them. (2 Peter 2:5, 9) However, his choice to all some to survive means that his words are not applicable to His creation of mankind itself.
As a final thought, some may conclude that the “them” at the end of verse 7 is in reference to both animals and wicked mankind, but this is not the case. There is nothing in the text that would suggest that the animals had done anything to displease God. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to suggest that “them” is in reference to the animals as well. They were simply victims of man’s sin, and the flood would result in their destruction as well. The antecedent of “them” need not be the immediate referent but was to the preceding reference to “man” (Heb., ha adam), wicked mankind.
We have to keep in mind too, just because God can change his mind, this does not mean that he has to change it. Here are a few texts where we see that God has not changed his mind.
Numbers 23:18-20 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
18 And Balaam took up his proverbial advice, and said,
“Rise, Balak, and hear;
give ear to me, O son of Zippor:
19 God is not man, that he should lie,
Nor a son of man, that he should repent.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not make it good?
20 Look, I have taken the command to bless:
he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it.
1 Samuel 15:28-29 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
28 And Samuel said to him, “Jehovah has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. 29 And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”
Psalm 110:4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
4 Jehovah has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
according to the manner of Melchizedek.”
So Christians who have failed to dig deeper will point to verses that say God does not change his mind. “For I, Jehovah, do not change.” (Malachi 3:6) As we already saw, the Bible says “with [God] there is no variation or shifting shadow.” (James 1:17) However, this is not a contradiction in the Bible just because we also have texts showing us that God changed his mind. What we have is a God, who is unchangeable when it comes to his personality and standards of love and justice. (Deuteronomy 32:4; 1 John 4:8) Nevertheless, he can humans one set of at one particular time in history and the different instruction at other times.
Some Christians misunderstand translations that say God felt regret that he had made humans: “And Jehovah regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Genesis 6:6) We just simply need to understand that this Hebrew word can mean “change of mind.” We can understand God changing his mind about almost all of the preflood people because they were wicked. They were mentally bent toward evil. (Genesis 6:5, 11; 8:21) Yes, God was grieved in his heart that they chose to abuse their free will and follow a bad course, God had not changed his mind about the human race as a whole. In fact, he went to great lengths to save humanity by rescuing Noah and his family from the flood that killed all others.—Genesis 8:21; 2 Peter 2:5, 9.
 William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 104.
 Cf. Lam 1:1, 4, 6, 18–19; 2:2, 6, 9–10, 20; 5:17–18, etc.
 A. Colin Day, Collins Thesaurus of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009).
 Marvin R. Wilson, “1344 נָחַם” In , in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr. and Bruce K. Waltke, electronic ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 571.