Changing God’s mind.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 May 2023

If you know your bible—heck, if you’ve seen The Ten Commandments movie with Charlton Heston—you know the Hebrews had a major lapse in behavior when they were at Sinai.

The previous month, the LORD handed down his 10 commandments, then Moses hiked back up the mountain to get further instructions, and while gone the people decided they wanted an idol. Whether this idol was meant to represent the LORD or some other god, we don’t know. What we do know is the idol violated the very command the LORD handed down last month. Ex 20.4-6 Understandably, the LORD was pissed.

Exodus 32.7-14 NRSVue
7 The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, and of you I will make a great nation.”
11 But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

That’s right. The LORD changed his mind. That LORD. The Almighty backed down. A lowly human got him to do it.

It’s far from the only passage in the bible where God changes his mind. There are dozens. Here’s a few notable instances:

  • God regretted making humans. Ge 6.5-7
  • God regretted making Saul king. 1Sa 15.11
  • God relented from destroying Jerusalem with plague. 2Sa 24.16, 1Ch 21.15
  • God showed Amos two visions that he immediately took back after Amos protested. Am 7.3, 6
  • If a nation repents, God takes back the disaster he had planned for it. Jr 18.8, 26.3, 26.13, Jl 2.13-14, Ps 106.45 Like Judah Jr 26.19 and like Nineveh. Jh 3.10
  • If a nation goes rogue, God takes back the good he had planned for it. Jr 18.8, 10 And gets really tired of doing this. Jr 15.6
  • We used to be God's enemies, but now we're his friends. Ro 5.6-11

Problem is, these changes in God’s intent flies in the face what many Christians believe. Because these folks don’t believe God changes his mind. Ever. At all.

The God whose will is set in stone.

So why don’t these Christians believe God changes his mind?

Part of it is how they imagine God’s sovereignty works. Part of it is how they imagine God’s almightiness works. And part of it is the doctrine of God’s immutability, the idea he doesn’t change. They figure if God doesn’t change… well neither does his will.

Part of this is the idea God’s omniscient—he knows all. Past and future, front to back, the deepest things in the darkest minds. Every possibility, too; every alternate universe in which this or that is different. There’s nothing God’s unaware of.

Most of the reason we humans change our minds, and frequently, is because there’s plenty we’re wholly unaware of. We’re working with partial information, most of the time. When we get more info, we change our minds. Or—let’s be honest—our emotions change, so our minds change: We don’t wanna follow through with our initial decision; we like another decision better. Or we lose our nerve and chicken out.

Whereas God never loses his nerve. Never lets his emotions sway him from doing the right thing. And if he knows all, he can’t possibly make decisions based on partial information: When he made the initial decision, he already had the complete, comprehensive information necessary to make the perfect decision. And he knew all the possible results of all the other courses of action he could’ve taken; he knows absolutely every angle. And he chose this one.

So he can’t possibly regret, repent, rethink things, nor change his mind, can he? I mean, he knows the perfect course of action… so why would he change it for another course of action, one that’s less perfect? Doing so would suggest he’s not really doing the best he can with this universe!

Now for sovereignty. Many Christians imagine God doesn’t change his mind because he’s in charge. It’s not that he has infinite knowledge and can always make the best decisions; it’s that he’s king and he always gets to make the decisions. Whatever he wants, he gets; whatever he decrees, is done. No force in the universe can stop him. Nobody can get him to change his mind. If anything, he’ll change our minds; never the other way round.

And now immutability. This idea actually originates in Greek philosophy. Aristotle of Athens (384BC–322BC) believed if something’s truly perfect, it wouldn’t change. Wouldn’t need to! It couldn’t become more perfect; it could only become less perfect, and we don’t want that; it’d have to just sit there and be perfect. And that’s kinda how Aristotle imagined the Highest God is: Just sitting there up in heaven, immobile, being perfect. Nothing affecting him ’cause nothing should affect him. (Not even our prayers, unfortunately.)

Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), one of the more prominent theologians in Christianity (yeah he’s Catholic, but loads of Evangelicals are fans of him too) was a huge Aristotle fan. Figured he was the brightest thinker in the world, apart from Jesus. Aquinas regularly tried to sync Aristotle up with the scriptures whenever he could. Aristotle’s immutability idea really worked for him… so he read it into the scriptures. Especially those passages which suggest God’s utterly unchangeable.

  • “I, the LORD, don’t change.” Ml 3.6
  • God neither lies, changes his mind, nor regrets. Nu 23.19, 1Sa 15.29
  • God’ll do whatever he says he’ll do. Ek 24.14
  • God doesn’t go through phases. Jm 1.17
  • Jesus the same yesterday, today, and forever; He 13.8 the one who is, was, and is coming. Rv 1.4, 8

The result is many Christians are pretty sure God is as Aristotle imagined him: He never changes. Ergo he never changes his mind. He’s perfect; why would his mind need changing? He’s omniscient, so his first decision is always his best decision, and he’d never need to second-guess himself. What God said he’d do, he’ll do. He doesn’t need any armchair quarterbacking from us fallible, self-centered humans. End of discussion.

I gotta agree their logic is sound. If God’s truly perfect, sovereign, omniscient, and immutable, it stands to reason he’d never change his mind.

Only problem: We’ve got scriptures which indicate he totally changes his mind.

So… maybe Aristotle’s definition of “perfection” isn’t the one we oughta follow. Maybe we oughta define God based on what he does, not what some old navel-gazing Greek professor imagined would be the bestest God ever.

A God whose will is not set in stone.

Back to that first great big bible quote: Moses, hardly a perfect man himself, talked the LORD out of blasting the Hebrews to ash and turning Moses into his chosen people. And Moses wasn’t shy about sharing that story with everyone. Dt 9.13-14 Makes him look like a hero. But the existence of this story demonstrates God can be talked into or out of stuff. Otherwise Moses was a dirty liar.

Calvinists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are two of the groups who insist God doesn’t change. How do they get around such scriptures?

Well, sometimes they edit the scriptures till they reflect their theology. The English Standard Version, a very popular translation, was produced by Calvinists. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own bible too; the New World Translation. Both of ’em simply take every instance where God changes his mind, and alters the text till he’s not really.

EXODUS 32.14 JONAH 3.10
NRSVue And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.
ESV And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
NWT So Jehovah began to reconsider the calamity that he had spoken of bringing on his people. When the true God saw what they did, how they had turned back from their evil ways, he reconsidered the calamity that he said he would bring on them, and he did not bring it.

I picked these passages ’cause they use the Hebrew word נָחַם/nakhám. Literally it means “he sighed,” but that’s an idiom for “he was sorry [for his own doings],” or “he changed his mind.” Funny; the ESV and NWT have no trouble translating it that way whenever it refers to humans

Exodus 13.17 NWT
Now when Pharaoh sent the people away, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was near. For God said: “The people may change their minds when they are confronted by war and will return to Egypt.”
Numbers 23.19 ESV
God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
Psalm 110.4 NWT
Jehovah has sworn an oath, and he will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever
In the manner of Melchizedek!”

To be fair, “relent” or “reconsider” are pretty similar in meaning to “change one’s mind.” But they’ve also got plausible deniability. One can argue—and many do—that “relenting” means God changed nothing; he simply dialed back the rhetoric or delayed his wrath. They insist his plan didn’t change, and never did. He didn’t destroy the Hebrews at that time, but he later let their generation die in the wilderness. He didn’t destroy Nineveh when he said he would, but did destroy ’em a century later.

Other Christians will simply argue against taking any of these passages literally. R.C. Sproul, fr’instance, when he wrote on Numbers 14.11-25, where God was again gonna destroy the Hebrews, and Moses and Aaron talked him out of it.

Using the word repentance with respect to God raises some problems for us. When the bible describes God for us, it uses human terms, because the only language God has by which to speak to us about himself is our human language. The theological term for this is anthropomorphic language, which is the use of human forms and structures to describe God. When the bible talks about God’s feet or the right arm of the Lord, we immediately see that as just a human way of speaking about God. But when we use more abstract terms such as repent, then we get all befuddled about it. Sproul, “In Numbers 14 it appears that Moses changed the mind of God. How can you explain this?”

Sproul recommends we just ignore the fact the authors of the scriptures used such words as nakhám/“changed his mind.” Because the authors must’ve known then, what Calvinists like him know now: God doesn’t really change his mind, and they only used nakhám because it was way easier than to describe God’s actual cosmic thought process. We should be wise enough to read between the lines.

Um, if God only appears to change his mind—so much so, the authors of scripture decided to describe it that way, but he wasn’t really—what’s he really doing? Acting? Psyching Moses out? Trying to push Moses’s buttons? Pretending, so he’d see how Moses might react? Doesn’t this kinda violate all the scriptures which insist God doesn’t lie?

We can try to explain this incident away as “anthropomorphism.” But to do so implies the scriptures aren’t an accurate description of God. That in fact our beliefs about God’s immutability, taken from Aristotle, take precedence over his less-than-immutable behavior in our bibles.

I’m a Protestant, so I’m gonna have to protest: This is not how we do proper theology. Our beliefs are derived from the bible. Not borrowed from Aristotle, then overlaid upon the bible. If the scriptures say God changed, he changed. If the idea bugs you, tough: You change. Not redefine the idea till it suits you better.

Is God immutable? And how much?

Like I said earlier, there are some proof texts which suggest God has a certain level of immutability. But I gotta repeat myself: A certain level. It’s not absolute.

Problem is, we humans are creatures of extremes. We like to imagine God’s never changes in any way. Or we go off the other deep end, and claim he’s changing constantly, and there’s nothing we can know for certain about him. Both ideas are wrong.

God’s immutable in some areas. Obviously not all. Applying immutability too widely, too liberally, is what’s creating a bunch of apparent—and unnecessary—bible difficulties.

God interacts with us humans. All the time! In order to do so, he’s gotta exist within spacetime. And time is change. Stuff grows more complicated, or more chaotic. Our relationships with God grow closer, or farther apart. You honestly think your relationship with God doesn’t affect him any? (If so, I can’t see how your relationship with him is gonna do anything but suck.) So, some things about God are changing. Do change.

Those who insist God’s immutable, also tend to insist God exists outside time. Time is change, and they prefer an unchanging God—as if that’s a good thing. Problem is, if God’s outside time, he’s not omnipresent, not everywhere. Space and time are one and the same, y’know. And a timeless God might work for Aristotle too… but the idea’s wholly inconsistent with all the scriptures which demonstrate him constantly interacting with time.

God likes music, fr’instance. Does music exist without time? Can it? Think about that.

When the author of Hebrews wrote Christ Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, He 13.8 obviously she couldn’t’ve meant his wisdom, age, and favor. ’Cause Luke states Jesus grew in these things. Lk 2.52 ’Cause Jesus lived in spacetime. Obviously stuff changed for him. He went from Baby Jesus to adulthood. He walked from place to place. Grew hungry. Grew tired. Gained, then lost, students. Got killed; got raised. Changed a lot.

So what is it about Jesus that’s the same yesterday, today, and forever? His character.

’Cause it’s Jesus’s character that makes him God. God’s character is immutable. He’s never not gonna be love. 1Jn 4.16 Never not gonna be kind, compassionate, peaceful, patient, forgiving, gracious. Never not gonna be himself. 2Ti 2.13

Same with God’s promises. They’re tied to his immutable character: He always fulfills them because of his character. He 6.18 It’s why the essentials of Christianity never change—and why the author of Hebrews warned her readers about strange new ideas, He 13.7-9 namely those which might lead us away from Jesus.

But to say God does nothing new? He regularly does new things. Nu 16.30, Is 43.19 Jesus’s covenant with us Christians is a new covenant, remember? He 12.24 The Holy Spirit consistently does new, unexpected things—though always with the goal of pointing us to Jesus. Always producing the same spiritual fruit, the overflow of his character—the truly immutable part of God.

Go ahead. Try to change God’s mind. He’ll let you.

Not only can God be talked into and out of stuff, Jesus went one step further and declared God’s cool with us talking him into things. Hence his Persistent Widow story.

Luke 18.1-8 NRSVue
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my accuser.’ 4 For a while he refused, but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Christian beliefs about omniscience and immutability clearly need to take prayer requests into consideration. Our picture of a perfect, all-knowing, unchanging God is clearly a deficient picture. Because God is perfect, is all-knowing… and yet still lets his kids talk him into stuff.

True, he’s not always gonna say yes, ’cause our motives are deficient too. Jm 4.3 In many cases our prayer requests really will lead to us changing, not God. But to say God’s will can never, ever change, no matter what? Then what’d be the point of boldly approaching God with our prayer requests? He 4.16 What’s the point of his even interacting with us, when he can simply decree how everything’s gonna go? What kind of relationship can we have with a God who’ll never deviate from his program? We’d have a more fruitful one with a frozen computer.