What Does God is Omniscient Mean?

What does it mean to be all-knowing?

Omniscience, also sometimes known as being all-knowing, refers to God’s ability to know absolutely everything. This characteristic is usually treated as a consequence of one of two ways in which God exists: either because God exists outside of time, or because God exists as part of time.

God Outside of Time

If God exists outside of time, then God’s knowledge is also timeless — this means that God knows the past, present, and future simultaneously.

One might imagine that God can directly and simultaneously observe the past, present, and future, and this perception of events is what allows God to know it all. If, however, God exists within time as well, then God knows all of the past and present, through direct perception; knowledge of the future, however, is perhaps dependent upon God’s ability to infer what will happen based upon God’s total knowledge of all factors which lead to the future.

Omniscience as God's Only Attribute

If omniscience were God’s only attribute, the logical limitations might be sufficient; however, other limitations have been found to be necessary because of other attributes which people tend to assume that God has. 

For example, can God “know” what it’s like for God to play soccer? Some conceptions of gods in the past allowed for them to be able to play sports, but classic philosophical theism has always postulated a non-material, disembodied divinity.

Such a god cannot possibly play soccer — an apparent contradiction to omniscience. Any direct experiential knowledge of this sort would thus be problematic — at best, God can know what it’s like for others to do these things.

Does God Suffer?

To consider another example, is God capable of “knowing” suffering?

Once again, some theistic systems have imagined gods capable of all manner of suffering and privation; philosophical theism, however, has always imagined a perfect God who is beyond such experiences. It is inconceivable to believers in such a god that it would ever suffer — even though humans are obviously quite capable of it.

As a consequence, another common limitation to omniscience which has developed in philosophy and theology is that God can know anything which is compatible with God’s nature. Playing soccer is not compatible with the nature of a non-material being. Suffering is not compatible with the nature of a perfect being. Thus, God may not be able to “know” how to play soccer or “know” suffering, but those aren’t “really” contradictions with divine omniscience because the definition of omniscience excludes anything contradictory to the nature of the being in question.

It is argued that God’s omniscience doesn’t include procedural knowledge (knowing how to do things, like ride a bike) or personal knowledge (knowledge derived from personal experience, like “knowing war”) — only propositional knowledge (knowledge of true facts). This, however, seems to reduce God to a type of computer storage bank: God contains all facts that exist, but nothing more interesting.