If God Can Be Surprised by His Creation, Can Calvinists Really Claim Unconditional Election?

A friend recently indicated his doubt as to whether God is suprised by anything. I’d previously come across Gen 6:6 which says, “The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and His heart was filled with pain.”  My only consideration of this verse and passage was that God knew what was going to happen and when sin fully engulfed man that created a separation between a holy God and a sin-filled man, God was grieved about this. 

Thinking back to my elementary school years, I knew my report cards were going to be full of failing grades and for what it’s worth, I ended up having to repeat 6th grade. Still, I hated the anticipation of those report cards. I would dread being handed the report card by my teacher. I was fearful of having to show that report card to my parents. Yet, when I was actually handed the report card and looked inside, the reality of those bad grades hit hard and I felt much worse than I had beforehand. 

The thought then occurred, how would I have felt if I wasn’t expecting those bad grades? Would I have been “surprised” even if I may have had some inklings that all was not well?

It seems to make sense that God would know everything because He’s omniscient and not constrained by time. How could God possibly be surprised at anything?  Well, seek and ye shall find – as I stumbled upon these verses while digging through a concordance for words such as “grieve” and “regret”:

1 Sam 15:10-11 Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel; “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” 

Num 14:11 The Lord said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous sings I have performed among them?” 

Jer 19:5 (I’m pretty sure God is speaking here) They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal – something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. 

Given that these verses don’t appear to be spoken/written in hyperbole, they do appear (at least to me) to indicate that God can sometimes be surprised as to the exact outcome of something.  Could this be true?  Can God be “surprised” – at least in regard to things He hasn’t predetermined? These verses alone certainly don’t constitute a full defense of Open Theism.  Nevertheless, the question that comes to my mind is: if God can be surprised, can Calvinists claim unconditional election with absolute certainty?


Author: Bob

I’m an upper Midwestern guy who has recently entered the "Buick stage" of life and decided to migrate to Florida. This blog is an attempt to rectify discordant aspects within my Christian faith ... or what often feels like my lack of Christian faith. Things which make life more enjoyable include strong black coffee, charcoal grilling anytime of the year, putz'ing at a table saw, playing chess, a good orthopedic surgeon and an occasional IPA. Please feel free to poke around and comment as you wish. I welcome discussion and the insights of others.

15 thoughts on “If God Can Be Surprised by His Creation, Can Calvinists Really Claim Unconditional Election?”

  1. here’s a word that you might find useful: “anthropopathism.”


    note that right next to one of your quoted verses is this:

    1sam15:29And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.

    it’s just to be understood as an expression of disappointment and sadness. saul was given great blessings – he was put in a position where a righteous person should have obeyed in gratitude…just like num14:11 or a number of other verses. God is pointing out that He deserved better. the point is the wickedness of men – how deserving we are of judgment. He holds out His hands all day long yet people refuse Him (yet surely you don’t believe God must literally have hands based on isa65:2. :) )

    regarding jer19:5, we have a similar word in the english language when we say an act (like child sacrifice) is “unthinkable.” again, it’s a comment on the wickedness of the act…if you try, you can actually think about acts we describe as “unthinkable” (but it’s not necessarily a good idea to spend a lot of time doing so.)

    none of that requires that God not know the future, or is only a local God unaware of what’s going on a few miles away, as your interpretation of jer19:5 suggests.

    a similar issue comes up in exod32 – God says He will destroy the people and moses talks him out of it. was moses really wiser than God? did God really need moses’ counsel? (should you be worshipping moses in that case?)

    if you see a 4 year old on top of his father…obviously the winner of a wrestling match…do you suppose that the 4 year old is that strong or that the father allowed it? despite what i’m sure is a deepseated notion of yours that calvinism=fatalism, i am convinced that God invites us to wrestle with Him. (luk11:5-13; 18:1-8; gen18) but to take that notion to the point of bringing God down to a human level (that His emotions exactly reflect ours and that He really has “hands” for example) and concluding that He must really not know much more than we do or makes silly, rash decisions and needs us to straighten him out…is pushing it A LOT, IMO.

    but before you join the chorus of open theists who say “How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?” (psa73:11), just make sure you’ve tested the notion that God is actually surprised, disappointed or uncertain – or whether these cases are just an example of anthropopathism – against the rest of scripture to see how it holds up…

    Psa139:16 Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

    jam4:13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

    Dan4:35 All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing.
    He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?”

    Isa46:10 I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’

    Prov16:4 The LORD has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil. (NASB)

    Prov16:9 In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.

    Prov16:1 To man belong the plans of the heart, but from the LORD comes the reply of the tongue.

    Matt10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s will.

    Psa33:10 The LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. 11 But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.

    Psa135:6 The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths.

    Dan5:23 …You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.

    job14:5 A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed.

    1. Greetings Charles, and thank-you for your detailed and considered reply. I appreciate the discourse and the gentle challenges from the likes of you, Jeff (Lighthearted Calvinist) and Scott – open, candid, honest, and heart-felt. Thanks for spending the time here that you do.

      Whether right, wrong, good, bad, or indifferent, sometimes thoughts creep into my mind. I like the exercise of writing but perhaps I put a little too much time and effort into something may actually lead nowhere. That is perhaps a fair criticism of me. In this case, the thought of being surprised at something (related a negative connotation) magnified the intensity of feelings and emotions experienced.

      I have to claim ignorance regarding the word anthropopathy; “the assignation of human emotional characteristics to a non-human subject” according to the link you provided. I need to put more time into your thoughts – but at least for now, I have to claim confusion as to the relationship of 1 Sam 15: 10-11 (The word of the Lord came to Samuel: I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instruction) versus what you point out in verse 29 (He who is the glory of Israel does not lie or change [His] mind; for [He] is not a man, that [He] should change [His] mind. Was God grieved? Did God know ahead of time the end result and still grieved? I’m missing something. Sorry.

      Regarding Isa 65:2, I agree that God, being spirit, doesn’t have hands (as we might think of them) and that this is a figure of speech. Yet, is every reference to God “experiencing” emotions or feelings a figure of speech or does God actually experience a range of emotions?

      Are we not created in God’s image (Gen 1:27)? So, if we as humans can (perhaps sometimes) act as rational beings, apply logic, have an awareness of our surroundings, exercise free will (well, I think we can), a sense of morality (the basis for guilt?), and a whole host of feelings i.e. love, joy, peace, patience, fear, surprise, sadness, anger, frustration, disgust – does it not stand to reason that we have those emotions because they are intrinsic to God?

      Ps 7:11 – God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses His wrath every day.

      Put another way, if God’s creation can both hate and love, can we not conclude that God can also both hate and love – because, after all, we have been created in His image? If anything, believers are commanded (Col 3:8) to do away with anger (and I suppose other negative emotions as well) and per Phil 4:8, think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy.

      The sad truth is that I’m not smart enough to discern whether God can actually be surprised, disappointed or uncertain – but I take your point (or at least what I think is your point) to heart that all of scripture must be consistent and that we can’t just willy-nilly determine for our own self justifications what a particular verse or passage means. And therein lies the difficulty for me as I can be convinced of the rightness of Calvinism just as I can be convinced of the rightness of Arminianism – or (perhaps sadly for you) even Open Theism for that matter. I freely admit (and have for perhaps too long) – if only because I can’t bring closure to the various arguments) that I am more comfortable with Arminianism because that is closer to what I understand to be more consistent with the nature and character of God. And yet, experientially, Open Theism makes sense if only because I have limited knowledge about some decision I have to make and I don’t necessarily know the outcome of a given activity or event.

      I need to spend more time in the verses you referenced. They certainly seem to imply God’s sovereignty and control over everything. Frankly, I struggle with that for if my Arminian friends are correct, that kind of thinking seems to invoke God as the creator of evil. But I suggest let’s tackle that one another time.

  2. Hi, Bob,

    Thoughtful post, as usual.

    I just want to comment on the one notion here regarding God’s emotional expressions concerning Saul and how that might factor into God being surprised.

    One of the things I really appreciate about your posts/replies is that you are usually pretty good at contextualizing passages of scripture. In this case, we have to go all the way back to chapter 8 where the elders of Israel come to Samuel and demand an earthly king-figure like the surrounding nations. Recall that God tells Samuel, “It’s OK Samuel. They’re not rejecting you, per se, as much as they are me and my Kingship over them.” Then he lays vss. 10-18 on them about all that is going to happen to them through the establishment of earthly kings.

    So, God grants them their selfish, sinful request with a warning as to what is to come. Was God surprised by Saul’s behavior? That seems doubtful (to me at least) in light of His prophecy of chapter 8.

    And, if Is. 46:10 is an accurate self-declaration of God by God (and I believe it is), I’m not sure how he can be surprised–in our sense of the word–by anything.

    Keep thinking Bob. It makes us all think.



  3. “I have to claim ignorance regarding the word anthropopathy…I have to claim confusion as to the relationship of 1 Sam 15: 10-11…versus what you point out in verse 29…?”

    “anthropopathism” is just the big word that might be useful if you wanted to do more research on this later. you certainly wouldn’t be expected to know it…

    1sam15:11 is connected to v29 by the hebrew root “nacham” – v11 says God was “grieved” – literally it says that He “repented” of making saul king, that He “regretted” doing it. v29 reminds us that while God was grieved and sorrowful in saul’s case, God does not “grieve” or “repent” or “regret” like we do…so to conclude that if i were feeling that way it’s because i never saw it coming, therefore God must have never seen it coming is pushing the analogy too far.

    we are made in the image of God – and there is the reason for the analogy of God’s emotions, that God reveals Himself in ways we can understand – but if the rest of scripture tells you that God is not like a man: He knows exactly what is coming and more than that, accomplishes what He intends…then it would be unwise to throw that out.

    i do think that is the appeal of arminianism and open theism – that God is more like us. in their theology, He’s not as scary and “terrible” (in the old sense of the word)…He means well but He’s limited and people can understand that. The question remains whether that notion fits better with the scriptures.

    i don’t see God telling job “it’s really not My fault, I just allowed it.” He says “who are you to question Me?” the same thing in rom9:20. scary stuff. but we’ll tackle that later if you like…

    but here are more cases just so you know:


  4. “Predestination is God’s eternal purpose to rule his universe, just as he does rule it. If any man is satisfied with God’s ruling, as he does; I cannot understand why he should have any dissatisfaction with his pre-determination to rule just so. His pre-determination is only the eternal plan of his government,—only his eternal decree.

    “The decrees of God are rules for his own action,—not for ours. They are nothing more than his own wise plans, eternal and unchangeable, according to which he chooses to act. If he had no such plans he could not be wise; he would be acting at mere hap-hazard, not knowing why he made the world, or what was going to be the result! If he has formed his plans or changed them since time began, then he is a changeable Being, his dignity is sunk, and all security to the universe is sunk with it. For he may change again; and what will come yet, or what he will become, no mind can conjecture! So far as government is concerned, it is nothing to you whether he forms the plan for his day’s work every morning, or formed it from eternity. Plan he must have before he acts, or else he is the least wise of all intelligent beings in the universe! Until ho acts, you know nothing of his plans, his predestination; and therefore, so far as plan or execution of it is concerned, it matters not to you whether he is now foreordaining moment by moment, or from all eternity foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. His decrees are not laws for his creatures, but rules for himself. They are not statutes, addressed to will, and demanding obedience, or compelling it. They are only his wise, holy, and eternal purposes, wherein he has determined beforehand what he will do, and how he will do it. You may not like the method by which he makes the sun burn, the ocean heave, or the lost Pleiad go out,—by which he directs the earthquake, the storm, the death-wing of the pestilence, or manages his angels, men, and devils. But he has a way of his own, he has considered it well, he has not asked your advice; and you would do well to pause a little, before you venture any more criticisms upon ‘ that high and lofty One who inhabiteth eternity!’ Just consent to let God be God.”

    “Do you say,” said he, “that the decrees of God affect only his acts? do they not affect ours also?”

    “I say, that they are rules for only his own acts, and do not affect ours directly. How can they affect ours? They are even unknown to us. They are his secret purposes, locked up in his own mind, and never known to an angel in heaven, till he chooses to make them known. A secret purpose in my mind cannot affect you. You do not see it, feel it, hear it, or know anything about it. It cannot affect you. You may think I have it, and the thought of it may affect you; and that is all. Just so it is with God’s foreordination. It touches nobody. No one feels it. It does not hit a man’s head, or feet, or fingers, or heart—it absolutely affects nothing at all; until God pleases to proceed to act upon it, and carry it into execution. It is this execution only, which affects anything. It is God’s government, and nothing but his government, which is felt, or which influences anybody.—If therefore, you must complain, shift your ground of complaining. Complain of God’s government, of his providence; and not of those secret decrees, which you know nothing about, and which never touch you.” — Ichabod Spencer, A Pastor’s Sketches, chapter titled “Election” (pp. 354-356)

    1. It is only those who are prepared that can see and capitalize the chance given. The people who always blame God that there is no chance are absolutely wrong! If they haven’t prepared, worked hard or though hard, how can they see the chance themselves? Even if they see the opportunity is right in front of them, they wont have the skills, connection, knowledge or experience to take advantage of it. How sad!

      [Note: Slight editing by MMM for grammar and spelling]

  5. I love how Christians always find away to get off topic.

    There are several pasages in the bible that express god feeling guilty or upset at the outcome situations. Yes this does seem strange that an omniscient being would express these things. The example of modern phrases such as something being “unthinkable” does not apply.

    When someone says, “It’s unthinkable that so and so did this”, it is usually from the self point of view that someone has. For instance, it’s unthinkable that anyone would harm a child no for no valid reason. The reason I find it so it because I would not harm a child for no reason. The shock of an outcome to a situation rests solely on how we view the actions of either party according to our own standards. The Christian god does not (according to apologists), does not abide by these same rules. The Christian god is outside of time and has all knowledge. Meaning that actions are not hidden from him. He know past, present and future and should not be surprised or upset about an outcome because he knows all. Couple that with the fact that within his “righteous” anger, god has comitted infanticide, geonocied and etc. (this is not a debate about the evil of god, just that those things are not new or against his persona as he has done them himself). Any time the bible states that god grieves or is upset or doesn’t understand human actions (to me) is a clear sign that the orignial biblical god Yahweh is not a deity that created man but a deity that man created to appease their sense of isolation with the world and universe. Perhaps they did not understand certain concepts. Once the bible was translated into Greek, there was more of a philosophical understanding and Yahweh was developed into a more powerful being.

  6. Are you familiar at all with how quantum mechanics works? If not, I’d suggest this video.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ImYXNcQGUc It goes real into depth and it’s made very easy to understand.
    Now, once you’ve gotten a grasp on it, here is my theory.
    The reason we seem to be in a fixed state, is because we are observing time–a measurement. The bigger something becomes, the easier it is to be observed, and therefore measured. And then we get relativity.
    We can see a grain of sand, so we can actively observe it right away, and it becomes fixed.
    Whereas with particles, they are not observable to the naked eye, which is why they would change (note the “waves”).*Time is a record keeper.*
    Atoms don’t actually want to be at one place at a single time, they want to be everywhere. A hydrogen atom can technically be everywhere in the universe at once, but once we observe it it stays at a certain place.
    And once something is recorded by time, it is measured, at that moment, and becomes fixed.
    Time is the key here, because time is a measurement. This is how we can record past events. (But if you think about it, those things don’t exist anymore. They have moved.) This is where will/choice also comes into play.
    It’s basically like a choose your own adventure book. There are many outcomes that pre-exist, but once someone chooses a path, that is recorded, and in reality, we cannot go back in time.
    This is how I believe God can know the future, knowing all outcomes, while also being surprised by a path we have taken. This is how God could regret something He has instituted.

    1. This is really interesting indeed. Very clarifying.

      Bob I believe that one of the most clarifying scriptures would be in Isaiah 5. Here, God express his disappointment in Israel, and it’s clear that this is NOT the outcome He desired:

      “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: “(Isaiah 5:3-5 KJV)

  7. The definition of grieve means to cause great distress to (someone). Synonyms: sadden, upset, distress, pain, hurt, wound, break someone’s heart, make someone’s heart bleed
    “it grieved me to leave her” This is not the same as being surprised. A person can be only surprised if they don’t know something is going to happen. Since God knows everything he cant be surprised. He can be upset or happy.

  8. I appreciate your thought that since God knows everything he can’t be surprised – but instead can be upset or happy. That in and of itself, however, would seem to imply that God responds to our actions. Perhaps to the point in which God may actually change his mind on something (2 Sam 24:17-25)?

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