The Binding of God: Genesis 22 as a Test Case for Open Theism in the O.T. (part 8) [Problem of Evil]

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.

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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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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).


[1]. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1940, 2001), 63, 65.

[2]. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God, 98-99.

[3]. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987), 81.

  • http://www.gentlewisdom.org.uk/ Peter Kirk

    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.

    I see a gap in the logic here. If a person knows that a great evil is about to take place, and has the power to stop it, should that person be blamed for the great evil? Surely not. The person might be blamed for not intervening to stop it, but I think that would be fair only if the person has the right and authority to stop it. For example, President Obama might have the power to stop President Assad of Syria from continuing to murder his own people, but (short of a UN resolution) he does not have the right to intervene in the affairs of another sovereign state, and so cannot fairly be blamed for not doing so.

    So there is another question we need to ask concerning the Holocaust: did God have the right to intervene to stop Hitler? If we take it seriously that God gave humanity rule over the earth (Genesis 1:26,28, Romans 13:1), then we might want to argue that God has abdicated his right to intervene and so cannot be blamed for not doing so.

    • Ryan VanderHelm

      You bring up a good and valid point.  However, your theory about God possibly abdicating His right to intervene has to be worked out more, otherwise it simply becomes Deism. For it is clear that God has intervened in the past, and possibly most clearly in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. So either there is a more subtle reason why God has no right to intervene, or He does, and Mr. Willem’s reasoning stands, though a step has been skipped, as you pointed out.

      • ddfskip

        God must intervene because of the Sin problem…He , because of His nature, cannot let it continue indefinitely…….He is merciful but also Just so Sin must come to and end and He has made a way for all those who choose to live eternally with Him

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      Good question, Peter, and in the Open View, the answer becomes “no…God knew Hitler *could* commit that horrible atrocity, and equally-importantly, God knew that all those *other* German and German-occupied/allied people would go along (remember that the Holocaust was a highly collective sin).  Nevertheless, throughout the evil times that happened, there were numerous opportunities for people, not only to choose the evil path, but also to reject it and choose the right path.  Sadly too few did the latter, though we have some inspiring stories from those who did.

      But  when all these things were only possibilities, it was not at all a settled fact that it would happen, God did not know it *would* happen, and God is not to blame…unless you blame God for ultimately creating a world with the choice between evil and good.

      That’s part of what makes the Open View far more intellectually-satisfying to me; the fact that it also appears to me (and to Kurt, it appears) to be Biblical is even better.

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      Good question, Peter, and in the Open View, the answer becomes “no…God knew Hitler *could* commit that horrible atrocity, and equally-importantly, God knew that all those *other* German and German-occupied/allied people would go along (remember that the Holocaust was a highly collective sin).  Nevertheless, throughout the evil times that happened, there were numerous opportunities for people, not only to choose the evil path, but also to reject it and choose the right path.  Sadly too few did the latter, though we have some inspiring stories from those who did.

      But  when all these things were only possibilities, it was not at all a settled fact that it would happen, God did not know it *would* happen, and God is not to blame…unless you blame God for ultimately creating a world with the choice between evil and good.

      That’s part of what makes the Open View far more intellectually-satisfying to me; the fact that it also appears to me (and to Kurt, it appears) to be Biblical is even better.

    • http://www.gentlewisdom.org.uk/ Peter Kirk

      Dan, I am aware of the Open position, but have trouble accepting it myself, and so I am exploring other options which avoid God getting the blame.

      Ryan, thank you for that. Yes, I agree that there is a danger that the position I suggested could slide into deism. And I agree that the Incarnation disproves deism. But perhaps much of the point of God becoming human was so that he had the rights on the earth already delegated to humans. I believe God does continue to intervene on the earth, but only where humans give him the authority to do so e.g. in prayer. But there are a lot more details to be worked out here.

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    Good post, Kurt.  What your argument here does not address…and frankly the part of theodicy for which I have the least satisfactory explanation myself even in the Open View, is the non-human horrors that happen.  Did God have to create a world that could launch volcanoes and tsunamis and similar mass destruction of an entirely natural sort, in order for us to choose to love him?  I just don’t see the basis for that.

    One theory…not entirely satisfactory to me…is that the rebellion against God is not only humans and principalities and powers, but also the natural order itself.  I sort of understand that, but unless we begin to anthropomorphize natural objects, which is also problematic, I don’t manage to square the circle.  What do you think?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @dwmtractor:disqus … I think I tend to agree with Boyd’s cosmic warfare thesis.  Somehow fallen powers are at work.  I’m not sure however that a cohesive biblical defense is as easy to come by.  I am still trying to wrestle some with this aspect, but I still feel fairly convinced.  God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil are convincing (in the parts of the books I’ve actually had time to read) but I would also be willing to go with the thesis put forward by Fretheim in Creation Untamed.  Not sure… but certainly lean towards Boyd.  I plan to revisit this topic in the near future and may blog about it if I have time…


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