The Biblical word foreknowledge is confusing. I admit it can be difficult to figure out. It can be especially tricky when it is paired up with the notion of election—as in, “God elected someone to salvation according to his foreknowledge” (see I Peter 1:2 for instance).
A Common Explanation
Some say that foreknowledge simply means that God knows everything that will happen in the future. So when God elected someone to salvation according to his foreknowledge, he simply looked down through the tunnel of time, saw that person would someday choose to get saved, and then chose or elected that person based upon his/her future choice. He elected or chose someone to be saved because he saw ahead of time that person would choose him.
One of the reasons this idea is popular is it softens the difficult idea of God’s electing people to salvation. Some think it is fundamentally unfair that God would choose some people but not others to be saved. But that is what election would have to mean, unless God didn’t really choose people first. Instead, if we could believe that he looked into the future, saw who would choose him, and then chose them, we could accept that God gave everyone the same grace—the same opportunity to get saved. He only elected those who chose to take advantage of that grace.
On one level this does seem to remove some of the unfairness of the idea of election. However, it creates serious problems on other levels.
For instance, if God could know the future, then that would mean that the future would have to be fixed or unchangeable. If God himself did not fix the future or make it unchangeable (a better word is foreordain), then who or what did? There are really only two choices: 1) Either the future is fixed without purpose, or 2) the future is fixed with purpose.
Fixed Without Purpose
If the future was fixed without purpose then everything in time unfolds without meaning or purpose. Both we and God must constantly play cards as they are dealt randomly from the deck—an earthquake here, a flood there, a death here, a birth there. But ultimately God is not in control, and the best he can do is try to plan ahead. But since he cannot control the future, there must be something out there operating in the universe that is outside the power of God—let's call it purposeless chance. And if it is outside God’s power, then God risks being subject to its power. Not only this, but Purposeless Chance has a strange ability that God does not possess—the ability to fix time. If that is true, then God is not the only god. Purposeless Chance is just as much a god as God is, and perhaps more so, because Purposeless Chance can do something that God cannot do. And since Purposeless Chance has no existence as a being—it is just random nothingness after all—then perhaps God has no real being either. At best, God is not really the God the Bible says he is. He is not really the God we need him to be.
Fixed with Purpose
If God did not fix the future, the second choice is that the future is fixed, not without purpose (by Purposeless Chance), but WITH purpose. But then we encounter the exact same problem— something or someone other than God fixes the future according to his, her, or its own purposes, which again means that there is something operating in the universe that is outside the power of God. This something has a power that is greater than God’s, because it can foreordain a future that God is unable to. If this is true, then, once again, God is not really God.
A Better Explanation
There are two better explanations for foreknowledge. The first is that the word simply refers to God’s intimate, personal knowledge of the individuals that he selects. God didn’t just know someone’s name ahead of time, but he really knows them in a personal way that makes the selection a very special thing for the individual. According to this view, God indeed knew the person beforehand, but he regarded that person in such a personal way, with such love and care, that the choice of that person should be seen in terms of the immeasurable privilege of being the object of God’s love. I suppose the idea behind this view is that the privilege of personal attention from God overwhelms any sense of unfairness, at least on the part of the chosen.
I think this explanation comes from how the simple word know is sometimes used in ancient literature. It is sometimes used as a cover word for physical intimacy in marriage, as in "Adam knew his wife." If you put the prefix “fore” in front of it, that would make the idea even more intimate—maybe even spiritual. So the reason God chose someone (or elected someone) to salvation was because he intentionally and personally loved that individual in a deeply, spiritually intimate way.
You might be able to tell that I do not really favor this explanation, but I do think it is better than the first one. Unfortunately, the word for foreknowledge is just not used enough in the Bible for us to really know for sure whether it has this special meaning. So I think this explanation is more a case of people wanting to soften or distract from what is still a difficult idea—that God would choose some and not others. I suppose, if you are overwhelmed with the idea that God loved YOU so much, you might not ask too many hard questions.
The Best Explanation
What can be seen from the way the word is used in the Bible, though, is that the word foreknowledge definitely has something to do with knowing something beforehand. But that is something more than simply knowing the future.
I would argue that God does indeed know the future, but that is not by virtue of some special fortune-telling ability. It is because he fixed the future to make it unchangeable. More than this, he did it according to a plan. Ephesians 1:11 tells us that God works all things according to the counsel of his will. When this process refers to all things, we call it foreordination. When it applies specifically to salvation, we call it predestination or election.
So how does foreknowledge fit with foreordination? If foreknowledge is knowing something beforehand, what is it exactly that God knows? To put it simply, God's foreknowledge is God’s knowing beforehand exactly what he wants to do. He went into the business of creating the universe and unfolding time according to a very specific plan. We see this evidenced in Acts 2:23, which says that Jesus was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God. So, more specifically, when this foreknowledge refers to the predestination of individuals, it means that God knew beforehand exactly whom he wanted to save. He had a plan in mind, and he chose people according to that plan.
So I do not think foreknowledge is God’s simply knowing the future. I do not think it can be explained as only special, intimate love and care in the selection process (although it might include that). I think it is God’s knowing beforehand exactly what he wants to do. It is another way of saying that God formed a plan in his mind before time began. Foreordination and election are God’s way of making sure that plan is fixed and unchangeable. He doesn’t just see the future, he makes it happen exactly as he wants it to happen.
This does not resolve the problem of unfairness does it? No, by itself this explanation does not. But then again, I do not really believe there is a problem of unfairness because of what I believe about Total Depravity. But that is a topic for another post.