In what follows, you will read an “academic paper” in which I explore some elements of open theism (the link is to a brief introduction to open theism). This is a view of God’s foreknowledge that is controversial, but still in the evangelical family of belief. The most well known Christian leader who holds to this view is Greg Boyd. This will be a nine part series.
Why This Discussion Matters
Discussions about free will and sovereignty often lead to theological abstraction and argumentation, which rightfully leads one to wonder: What’s the point? Why talk about what God may or may not know? Why create more division over forms of Calvinism and Arminianism? Do we not remember that it is discussions like these that lead to church splits? While these questions represent my initial instincts, I have become convinced that these issues truly matter for the people of God. “The binding of God” offers a test case for thinking about God’s knowledge of how events will turn out, and his reliance on people who willingly choose to carry forward his mission through their obedience. This leads to the primary practical application that God’s openness yields.
The Problem of Evil
Suffering in the world is perhaps the greatest mystery that any person, culture, or nation has to face. No one is exempt from the reality that our world is broken. Shalom is a distant hope, but certainly not a lived experience. As we observed earlier, shalom was lost because humans freely chose to rebel against God’s original ordering of the world. Freedom created a crisis that has not relented. Through Abraham God began the work of responding to the brokenness in creation and through Christ’s resurrection and eventual return, shalom will be realized once again. But between now and then, we must deal with the problem of evil in a concrete fashion. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Problem of Pain states the following about evil in the world:
Christianity asserts that God is good; that He made all things good and for he sake of their goodness; that one of the creatures, by its very nature included the possibility of evil; and that creatures, availing themselves of this possibility, have become evil… It would, no doubt, have been possible for God to remove by miracle the results of the first sin ever committed by a human being; but this would not have been much good unless He was prepared to remove the results of the second sin, and of the third, and so on forever…[this] would have been a world in which nothing important ever depended on human choice, and in which choice itself would soon cease.
What Lewis makes clear is that human freedom, not God, is the source of evil in the world. The problem with the question of suffering is that often a detached yet controlling God is attached as its source. Biblically speaking, God is not directly the source of evil, but rather he created the potential for evil in giving humanity free will (see also the above interpretation of Genesis 3). If God created humanity in any other fashion, we would be the equivalent of robotic androids that were preprogrammed for obedience to God. This would indeed have been a world in which choice and freedom would be nonexistent.
To take this issue to the practical level, we can examine one of the greatest evils in modern history, the Holocaust. Did God know with absolute certainty that Adolf Hitler would murder millions of Jews? If one holds to a view of classical foreknowledge, the answer to this question is yes. But if that is the case, it directs the blame on God. He is not off the hook. An intricate web of free will did not cause this atrocity, but God’s predetermined will did. Not only so, if such a theology leads to the belief that “there is a reason for everything,” then that leads us to the conclusion that God had a divine purpose in the execution of 6 million innocent people. Try having this discussion with a non-Christian; God inevitably comes out the bad guy.
Now if we believe that God only knew that the possibility existed that Adolf Hitler would choose an evil path, then the accountability is shifted mostly off of God and onto the individual. God’s resources are infinite but his choice to not coerce human volition leads to the natural consequences of rebellion. Such evil grieves the heart of God! Yet, he is committed to a free humanity so sometimes the natural outcome of a web of choices cause great devastation. And we should add that it was not merely Hitler who made the Holocaust happen, but there were hundreds of thousands of soldiers who enlisted and took part in a system of oppression. God certainly heard the cry of his people and felt greater pain than those who were burned in the furnaces of Auschwitz. Consider the following reflection on a God who suffers with people in the face of evil in the world:
For a long time I knew that God is not the impassive, unresponsive, unchanging being portrayed by the classical theologians. I knew of the pathos of God. I knew of God’s response of delight and of his response of displeasure. But strangely, his suffering I never saw before. God is not only the God of the sufferers but also the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.
If we believe that God suffers with us in the midst of evil, then we can be assured that God is not the pain inflicter. He enters into time and space, into our space of anguish. If this is true, then we might discover that we are more motivated to partner with God in confronting evil with love. This is an invitation to activism! As the prophet Micah proclaimed: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6.8).