Open Theism and Evil

Many Christians intellectually and emotionally grapple with the seemingly contradictory notion that an all-benevolent God would somehow permit any evil in this world, especially if He foreknew it would happen. Some Christians have done theological gymnastics to avoid the slightest possibility of God having any part in permitting evil because they’re convinced that God would somehow be implicated in the authorship of the evil itself. This is a very legitimate concern and one that many have struggled with at some point in their own lives. It is a burdensome question that has overcome many Christians to the point of giving up on Christianity entirely. The real question at hand is whether God can justifiably permit evil while foreknowing it from eternity past without God being the author of evil itself.

A Sound Approach for Christians

The approach to answering this question must not turn into an irresponsible morphing of sound hermeneutical practices. Christians should not feel compelled to drastically alter reliable interpretations of scripture in a vain attempt to biblically reconcile the existence of evil with the reality of God out of a fear that God somehow authored evil. It is absolutely unnecessary. My attempt to bring clarity to this problem is not intended to insensitively diminish those that have experienced pain, suffering, and evil in their lives and have found solace in open theism. The thesis of this article is to show that open theism has a misguided, and frankly unbiblical, understanding of foreknowledge, which subsequently leads many Christians to a misunderstanding of how God interacts with evil.

Open Theism

Christians who sympathize with open theism believe that God would be to blame for evil if He permitted evil to occur while having foreknowledge of said evil. While this article is not dedicated to refuting all of the tenets of open theism in its entirety, I want to address the exegetical gymnastics that open theists perform to avoid the possibility of God being the author of evil by means of reinterpreting or seemingly ignoring scriptures related to divine foreknowledge. Open theists contend that God would never permit the existence of Hitler, Mao, Stalin, or Bin Laden if He foreknew what evil their free actions would cause. There are a couple of problems with this line of reasoning.

First, let’s take a look at some scriptures that unambiguously affirm divine foreknowledge as related to suffering…

Romans 8:28-32: 28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. 31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

In coordination with the above passage in Romans 8 concerning divine foreknowledge, read the following passages that illustrates how Paul’s suffering involved God (Verse 9 – “My [God] power is made perfect in weakness”) and Satan (Verse 7 – “to torment…to keep me from becoming conceited”).

2 Corinthians 12:7-10: 7 Because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

In relationship to the above passage concerning the relationship between God and suffering, the story of Joseph and his brothers is one that we can examine to provide additional clarification to God’s hand in foreknowing evil and using it to bring about greater things…

Genesis 45:4-8: 4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. 7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 8 “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.

Genesis 50:20: 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

Joseph looked back on this life and saw that God used the evil of his brothers to bring about an ultimate good. From what we can reasonably infer, it strongly appears that Joseph believed God knew the outcome of his brother’s evil from the beginning as demonstrated in his visions as a young man of his brothers bowing at his feet (Genesis 37:1-10).

Acts 4:27-28: 27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.

Ephesians 1:11: 11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,

After examining these few scriptures, the claim that God cannot foreknow evil without being the author of it seems to be an argument that cannot be substantively supported by the open theist. Keep in mind, this small scriptural survey is far from being an exhaustive treatment of the collective scriptural evidence that could be made for divine foreknowledge. God’s omniscience, defined as “complete or maximal knowledge”, doesn’t have to be redefined to only encompass past and present truths. Omniscience of all past, present, and future knowledge seems to fit seamlessly into the Biblical narrative.

For Christian skeptics of divine foreknowledge, I’d recommend Steve Roy of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School who conducted a biblical survey on the topic of divine foreknowledge. His survey was broken into specific categories of divine foreknowledge. He found 164 texts that explicitly affirm God’s foreknowledge, 271 texts that explicitly affirm various aspects of God’s omniscience (e.g. knowledge of past, present, or other possible states of affairs), 128 texts that offer predictions of what God will do through nature, 1,893 texts that predict that God will do something or will do something through humans, 1,474 texts that predict what humans will do apart of God and through God, 622 texts that predict what unbelievers will do or what will happen to them, and 143 texts that affirm God’s sovereign control over the choices of humans. With this many texts that overwhelmingly affirm foreknowledge, it’s difficult to dismiss this scriptural reality by saying that all Calvinists, Arminians, and Molinists are incorrect in their understanding of divine foreknowledge. While it’s agreed that consensus doesn’t necessarily make a position true but it does illustrate that open theism is on the fringe of Biblical scholarship and it doesn’t seem to have enough scriptural support to recruit too many adherents among modern day scholars.

Second problem, it is grossly presumptuous to think we can know what God’s moral reasons are for permitting evil in this fallen world. A Christian apologist and ethicist by the name of Joseph Butler (1692-1752) articulately illustrated our ignorance of the often mysterious ways of God in his essay titled, “Upon the Ignorance of Man”:

And as the works of God, and his scheme of government are above our capacities thoroughly to comprehend; so there possibly may be reasons which originally made it fit that many things should be concealed from us, which we have perhaps natural capacities of understanding; many things concerning the designs, methods, and ends of divine Providence in the government of the world. There is no manner of absurdity in supposing a veil on purpose drawn over some scenes of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the sight of which might some way or other strike us too strongly; or that better ends are designed and served by their being concealed, than could be by their being exposed to our knowledge. The Almighty may cast clouds and darkness round about him, for reasons and purposes of which we have not the least glimpse or conception.

Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” illustrates how incomprehensible God really is to our earthly minds. His ways are above our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). To proclaim that God wouldn’t have created Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Bin Laden if He had foreknown the evil and destruction they would have freely caused presupposes that He does not have a morally justifiable reason for permitting the evil of these individuals and presupposes that we somehow know better than God what moral actions He should take. These presuppositions are scripturally frail and unsupported. Through the Word we are told that God knows the beginning from the end (Isaiah 46:10), He knows every hair on our head (Luke 12:7), He knew us before He created us (Jeremiah 1:5), God loves us (John 3:16), and that God is just (2 Thessalonians 1:6). We may always be confounded by the specific details of this problem and how to come to a scripturally reliable conclusion. The fact that Calvinists, Arminians, Molinists, and now open theists, have been debating these issues for centuries without a definite consensus demonstrates that we may never fully agree on these theological matters.

Conclusion

This article does not do this delicate topic the justice it deserves. Many scholarly resources are available for a more thorough treatment on this matter. I’ve interacted with this topic of open theism on many occasions and have always enjoyed the discussions that come from tackling these issues. I was motivated to write this article because I find that the existence of evil is why many Christians are drawn to open theism. While I can sympathize with the motivation for embracing open theism because it allegedly takes God ‘off the hook’ for evil, I find that it simultaneously deflates the glory of God to nothing more than a deity who has been effectively stripped of his omniscience.

A buddy of mine who is sympathetic towards open theism told me a sad story about a child who went to his youth group years ago. This particular child lived a rough life and his upbringing wasn’t particularly conducive for a close relationship with Jesus. Before this child was able to begin a life in the Lord, he tragically died. My buddy said that “this boy never had a chance” to have a relationship with Christ. His point was that a loving God who could have foreknown this tragedy wouldn’t have permitted it to happen. I can easily see how this experience, and many others like it, can alter how we see God.

An open theist by the name of Greg Boyd describes how he had counseled a woman named Suzanne who wanted to marry a good God-loving man, start a life together, and become missionaries in Taiwan. While in college, she dated a guy for three years and was convinced that God had answered her prayers of finding the ‘right’ man. They ended up getting married and shortly thereafter she discovered that he was cheating on her with many other women. In response to Suzanne’s dilemma, Greg Boyd writes in his book titled “God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction of the Open View of God“,

“I suggested to her that God felt as much regret over the confirmation he had given Suzanne as he did about his decision to make Saul king over Israel…Indeed, I strongly suspect that he had influenced Suzanne and her ex-husband toward this college with her marriage in mind”

Instead of Boyd suggesting that God ultimately brings all things towards His perfect will as illustrated in the scriptures, Boyd suggested that God fallibly influenced Suzanne and her ex-husband towards each other with ‘marriage in mind’ but experienced ‘regret’ when He couldn’t foresee how big of a pig the husband would be. Does the God that Boyd speaks of in this example reflect the God of the scriptures? I’m confused as to how Boyd came to this conclusion and how he can so easily write off God’s perfect nature without substantive scriptural support.

The boy who tragically died in my buddy’s story is a sad consequence of a fallen world. Are we to believe that God would allow someone to needlessly perish before they were given the opportunity to become saved? We must examine the nature of God in order to successfully develop a theology that makes the most sense of the scriptures pertaining to this issue. If God’s nature is omniscient, all-loving and all-just, why are Christians fretting about justice not being served or God not creating a world conducive to producing the maximum number of saving relationships in a fallen world. As for this boy’s scenario, we must do what we can to bring light to a dark world and know that God’s justice has been and will continue to be perfectly served for eternity.

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4 responses to “Open Theism and Evil

  1. Boyd’s story is more an indictment of how the Church treats relationships. “Wait for God to tell you” they say, never acknowledging that such a thing is a presumption on God’s goodness and patience.

    “He gave you a brain, use it” seems to be advice the Church doesn’t want to give. In this thing too it appears that the children of this age are wiser than those of the kingdom.

    Meet a lot of people, go out with some of them one on one getting to know them a bit better, choose one who meets your expectations, marry early. It’s what our great grandparents did, they married early and stayed married for decades because they didn’t presume that God was going to do the work for them.

    • Boyd’s theological insights on his reflection with Suzanne were too specific and pointed to only be indictments on how the modern church treats relationships. However, I certainly align with you on the remainder of your comment. Thanks for taking the time to share your comment.

  2. Pingback: Greg Boyd’s World of Possibilities | Worldview of Jesus·

  3. Pingback: Is Open Theism Pragmatic? | Worldview of Jesus·

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