The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most moving of the parables of Jesus that have come down to us in the New Testament Gospels. Unfortunately, the depth of meaning in the parable, especially as it relates to the character of God, is blocked from many Christians and other theists saddled with false ideas about God. Many Christians and other theists, for example, believe God is omni-determining, which is to say, God has determined and thus necessitated from eternity every single thing that occurs in his creation. Whether it be Hitler’s holocaust or the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation, all of it is determined by God from eternity. Such a view of God completely eclipses how Jesus presents God in the parable of the prodigal son. For what sense does it make to depict God as overjoyed, filled with compassion, when his prodigal child returns if God has determined both the prodigal child’s departure (sin) and return? All has simply unfolded exactly as God determined it would unfold. Both the sin and the repentance God has necessitated, decreed, from eternity-“according to his good pleasure.”
But it is not only determinists (or “Calvinists” as many determinists call themselves after the Protestant Reformer John Calvin) who are blocked from seeing truth about God presented by Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son. Also the many Christians and other theists who hold that, while God does not determine all things, nevertheless he foresees all things-they too miss much of the depth of what Jesus tells us about God in the parable of the prodigal son. For on the presupposition that God foreknows all things, it makes no sense to speak of God as uncertain whether a wayward child will return home, and thus it makes no sense to regard God as overjoyed and filled with compassion when one of his prodigal children does return to the fold. God has known from eternity, according to these Christians and other theists, which children would return and even precisely when they would do so. All things may not be occurring precisely as God determined they would, as in Calvinism, but all is occurring precisely as God knew it would. Thus there is no uncertainty or anxiety in the heart of God. He knows how all will play out. He is watching the movie he already watched back in eternity in his privileged “sneak preview” so to speak.
The truth, which is being recovered today in the so-called “open theism” movement, is that according to the scriptures as well as good reason, God does not determine all things, nor does God foreknow all things. God determines some things, and he foreknows a great many things. But some and many are not all. And this is true to Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son as dramatized beautifully in the video above. Since God does not determine the return (much less the departure, that is, the sin!) of his prodigal children, and because he does not even foresee whether a given child will return or not, then it makes perfect sense that he is overjoyed, filled with compassion, when one of his wayward children returns to him, just as Jesus depicts God in the parable:
But while he was still being very far distant, his father saw him and was filled with compassion (εσπλαγχνισθη). And he ran to him, and he fell upon his neck, and he covered him with kisses (κατεφιλησεν) (Luke 15.20).
Freed from the false control belief that God determines all things (Calvinism) or the less objectionable, but still false, belief that God foreknows all things (including precisely which of his children will return to him and when they will return), we are able to hear Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son with new ears and see with new eyes the Father depicted in the parable. Just as the father in the parable is overjoyed and filled with compassion when his prodigal child returns, and so he runs to greet the child, falls upon the neck of the child, and kisses the child all over; so also according to Jesus, his God and Father is filled with the same compassion and responds with the same unbridled joy when one of his prodigal children comes back to him. And this is precisely the reaction we would expect from a God of love (1 John 4.6) who does not determine all things, including all sins, nor even foreknows whether a given prodigal child will return. Such a God of love, the heavenly Father of Jesus Christ, would react precisely the way Jesus in his parable depicts the father reacting to the return of his lost son. Filled with compassion, this God would run to his returning child, fall upon the child’s neck, and kiss the child all over. What a portrait of God Jesus paints in this parable. But how many really see it, stuck as so many are in the traditional dogmas of Calvinism and exhaustive divine foreknowledge they presuppose as a matter of course?