Christian Doctrines, Open Theism, theology

A God Who Risks… too much?- A Difficult Dilemma for Open Theists

gwr-sandersOpen theism is, briefly, the notion that God does not comprehensively know the future [edit: strictly speaking, the view is that there is no settled “future” to know to begin with, so it is not a lack of knowledge but rather the absence of such a thing as a future that will occur; see next sentence and thanks for a clarifying comment below]. The future, it is held, is in some sense “open” because it is undetermined, even for God. Most frequently, this claim is put forth in terms of denial of knowledge of free creaturely action. Representative is the claim of John Sanders:

God cannot know as definite what we will do unless he destroys the very freedom he granted us… The future is not completely fixed, but open, to what both God and humans decide to do, so there are numerous possible futures (not just one). God knows as possibilities and probabilities those events which might happen in the future. (Sanders, 206, cited below)

Thus, it is fairly central to the open theistic perspective that God does not (and indeed cannot) know the future exhaustively, and the parts God does not know exhaustively are such because free will is involved. For the open theist, then, the proposition: ‘God does not know the future free actions of creatures with certainty’ is true. Gregory Boyd, another prominent open theist, puts it this way: “open theists hold that if God is omniscient… and if the future is in fact partly comprised of ontological possibilities, then God must know the future as partly comprised of such possibilities” (Boyd, 195, cited below).

Because of this, we may fairly state the open theistic perspective as holding the following proposition to be true: “God does not know [future] counterfactuals of creaturely freedom [CCF].”

The Dilemma

I propose that open theism, because of its commitment to denial that God knows the future free actions of agents, raises an enormously difficult dilemma for those who hold to the position:

Either God possibly created knowing that it was possible no one would be saved or at least one counterfactual is true.

The dilemma draws its strength from propositions open theists, by their own writings, accept. Open theists, as demonstrated above, deny that God knows CCF. Thus, the following statement is unknown to God according to open theism:

If I (God) create the universe, at least one free creature will be saved.

Open theists must deny this statement as being known by God in order to maintain their stance that God cannot know the future free actions of creatures. But denying this counterfactual is theologically very problematic, because it means that the God who risks (to use John Sanders’ terminology) effectually risked so much that God decided to create a universe populated by moral agents without so much knowing that even one of these agents would be saved. Sure, one of the possibilities was probably that all such moral beings would be saved, but another possibility is that all moral beings would be damned. On open theism, God just didn’t know.

Now it could be that God was 99.999999999(repeating)% sure that at least one agent would be saved, but according to open theism, God could not know. I would suggest that any theological system which seriously puts forth the notion that God would create without knowing that at least one being would be saved is a theological system that cannot maintain the moral benevolence of deity.

The second part of the dilemma is also a serious problem for the open theist. Suppose the open theist embraces this part and counters “Very well, then God knew that at least one being would be saved.” But of course this would have been a CCF when God chose to create. Thus, the open theist would be forced to accept that at least one of these future counterfactuals is true. But if one is true, what possible grounds could there be for denying that others are true as well? It seems the open theist would either have to accept that CCF can be known without restraint (and therefore overthrow the philosophical framework of open theism) or simply engage in special pleading for those CCFs that must be maintained in order to not impugn the moral character of God.

Counter Arguments

Character Settled?

Greg Boyd has argued that free agents may have settled characters such that free will may not be a consideration (for the sake of space I’ve greatly summarized here; see Boyd 193-194 for one example). Perhaps at least one creature could have a settled will such that they are saved and thus God could know their salvific status without threatening to know CCFs. My response to this would be to note the highly controversial nature of this argument on a number of levels: 1) it suggests that humans are capable of, by their own free will, coming to such a point that they change their will into a form that will, with certainly, act according to God’s will, which is objectionable on a number of Scriptural grounds; 2) it holds to a view of human nature that both affirms and denies compatibilism; 3) the possibility of a “settled will” is difficult to establish or define; etc.

CCFs not Denied

Perhaps the open theist could respond by arguing that open theism need not deny that God knows CCFs. I do not think this would be possible while still maintaining open theism because it would mean God knows comprehensively the future including my future free actions.

God’s Character not Impugned?

Perhaps the most fruitful counter for the open theist would be to deny that God’s moral character is impugned by creating without knowing that at least one person would be saved. Perhaps such an activity is merely morally neutral, or God’s other reasons for creating could overcome the difficulty.

I think this is, as I said, the best avenue for open theists to pursue, but on reflection I think that the real possibility that God would create in such a way as to not know that the moral agents God brought into being would be saved–that they all might be damned despite that not being God’s intent–is extremely problematic.


I believe that the dilemma offered above is, frankly, lethal to open theism. I have read several works by leading proponents of open theism and think that many arguments against the same are off the mark because they often do not hit on the points open theists actually hold. Here, however, I have presented an argument derived from the core of open theistic thought. Thus, I believe that open theism is untenable. It either impugns God’s character or is self-referentially incoherent.


Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

The Consolation of Counterfactuals: The Molinism of Boethius– Boethius was an early Christian thinker who thought of a very insightful way to discuss counterfactuals of freedom.

Is God Just Lucky?: Possible Worlds and God’s Providence, a Defense of Molinism– I examine the set of possible worlds from a molinistic perspective.

The New Defenders of Molinism: Reconciling God’s Foreknowledge and Our Free Will– I present a general case for molinism, analyzing various positions and concluding that God does know what we will do without predetermining it.


John Sanders, The God Who Risks (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007).

Gregory Boyd “God Limits His Control” in Four Views on Divine Providence edited Gundry and Jowers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


16 thoughts on “A God Who Risks… too much?- A Difficult Dilemma for Open Theists

  1. As one who leans to open theism you have hit on what bothers me most. I haven’t found a solution either.

    Posted by Giles | November 10, 2014, 8:38 AM
  2. Have you read “What Does an Omniscient God Know about the Future?” by Van Inwagen? He brings up the issue that God promised that some people will be saved, but it is questionable whether God on open theism is in a position to make promises like that when there is a non-zero probability that it will not come true. He gives a response, but he’s not fully satisfied with it.

    Posted by Kyle | November 10, 2014, 10:10 AM
  3. Just musing…..3 possible defenses for an open theist:

    1. Why can’t an open theist use the same feasibility argument molinists use? Molinists say it’s logically possible God could have created a world in which everyone freely chose Christ but that it might not have been feasible to do so. Why can’t an open theist say it’s logically possible no one would choose Him but not feasible that it will happen?

    2. As Christians we say God is under no obligation to save anyone, it’s totally by grace we are saved. If that’s the case, why would not saving anyone impugn God?

    3. If one accepts annihilationism as their view of hell I’m not sure there’s any problem at all.

    Posted by Larry | November 10, 2014, 10:24 PM
    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

      Regarding 1: the problem with this response is that there is no way for God to know that this would be the case on open theism.

      Regarding 2: The impugning would be due to the fact that in this case God created not knowing what would happen and wants to save creatures but created knowing that it is possible none would be saved. This is a very brief answer but when one reads open theists like Sanders, it is clear that God does desire all to be saved and that evil is not part of God’s plan. Thus, in this case, God created knowing it is possible for evil to occur and knowing that God’s plan to save someone–anyone–might fail.

      Regarding 3: That’s a whole different rabbit trail and even granting annihilationism as a possibility, I don’t see how this somehow eliminates the problem.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 11, 2014, 5:52 PM
  4. “Open theism is, briefly, the notion that God does not comprehensively know the future.”

    Most Open Theists would disagree with this statement. Rather, Open Theists believe God knows the future to be partly open because the future is partly open.

    Posted by Jacob HuntJacob | November 11, 2014, 4:56 PM
  5. Open theists are not all in agreement about the nature of God’s creating. I personally believe God necessarily creates, because God’s essential nature is love that creates. This view of God overcomes the issues you raise. Your objection presupposes an entirely voluntary notion of divine creating, which you rightly not Sanders affirms. I reject this wholly voluntary view.

    Find my essay explaining this view at the conclusion of a recent book I edited, Theologies of Creation: Creatio Ex Nihilo and Its New Rivals (Routledge, 2014). A few other open theists have essays in the book, but they take an approach closer to Sanders’s.

    Thomas Jay Oord

    Posted by Thomas Jay Oord | November 11, 2014, 6:01 PM
  6. Why can’t God create a world that requires at least one creature be saved, without determining which creature that is? God could ensure that there would be someone in Noah’s position; whether it would be Noah or Jim would be the result of free choices. This doesn’t require God to know what actual choices will be made; instead, it is merely a restriction on the possible choices. Furthermore, it isn’t a restriction on any one creature, but a system of causality, whereby what creature A does impacts creature B. If creatures A–Y go evil, Z must be saved. Or perhaps it is A–P and R–Z which go evil, but Q is saved.

    It seems important that Christians not allow any credit to accrue to those who are saved, for being saved. And so, if you happen to be creature Z or creature Q, it is no credit to you.

    I’ve heard Arminian explanations of predestination as being a guarantee that an ekklēsia would be saved, but not with any particular individuals within it. That seems to work quite well with my first paragraph. Perhaps I am missing something?

    Posted by labreuer | November 12, 2014, 1:58 AM
  7. Your problem is not with Open Theism, your problem is with the concept of hell and eternal punishment, without which your collapses entirely. As you’ll no doubt be aware there are numerous positions on hell.

    Your article is based entirely on God being able to guarantee saving at least one person as if saving at least one person justifies the creation of humanity and you pay no heed to those assigned eternal torment. Open Theism compares favourably to the classic Arminian position “God always knew 90% of people were going to be tormented in hell forever and decided to create the humankind anyway”, or the classic Calvinist & Molinist position “God decided specifically which 90% of all people will be tormented in hell forever and thinks it is the best plan ever”. Frankly there is no providential position that deals at all with eternal torment in a way that is remotely satisfactory. Open Theism comes closest to be justified because there is genuine free choice for those that are then punished – the other positions do not have this.

    The big problem you have is eternal torment. There is not a single person who has ever lived that deserves eternal torment. My argument against eternal torment (and annihilationism) is based on the moral responsibility of the Creator to His creation. If I created a system where my children could make a decision before they were adults that would mean they were tormented continually for the rest of their lives (lets say becoming quadriplegics) then it would be me as a parent that would be at fault, and if 90% of them were choosing to do that then it’s me the police would rightly arrest and throw in jail. The problem is not open theism, the problem is that any form of eternal torment for any human is unjustifiable, and calls into question the morality of the creator.

    So like I said, your problem is not with open theism.

    Posted by Matt Parkins | November 12, 2014, 4:51 AM
    • Apologies for the lack of proof reading of that last comment.

      Posted by Matt Parkins | November 12, 2014, 5:07 PM
    • I think J. W. brings up a complaint against Open Theism that deserves addressing, but I agree that the underlying problem is an interminable doom (whether endless hell or obliteration) for created beings under the superordinate responsibility of God.

      Libertarian free will in general has clung like a lamprey onto endless hell in order to “excuse” God of it for over 1500 years. J. W. is rightly recognizing that even radical invocations of libertarian free will inevitably fall under the superordinate responsibility of God. Faced with the prospect J.W. finds abominable, where none are redeemed, one might shout, “Well, if all are damned, it was their own fault!” (It looks like at least one Open Theist commenter is indeed saying that here.)

      This is not satisfactory for J. W. (and properly so). But this dissatisfaction is predicated upon this recognition: Libertarian free will has no “excusing” power for endless hell because it doesn’t ABSOLUTELY uncouple a person’s fate from the arbitration of God, both at some distant past point, and perpetually at every point.

      The trick is that this recognition must be extended to any and all views of sovereignty and eschatology, and as soon as this happens, anything other than purgatorialism becomes very problematic.

      J.W., I hope you’ll excuse me externally linking, but I have two articles that are super-relevant here for further discussion.

      First, “The Big Three Sovereignties.” This discusses how even classical solutions to sovereignty and endless hell reduce to intractable problems, and how St. Isaac of Ninevah veered orthogonally — in the tradition of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Clement of Alexandria — to successfully resolve them.

      Second, “Incoherence Revealed by Nonsensical Tethers.” This article was written as a rebuttal of those who say purgatorialism precludes free will since all are eventually redeemed. J. W., you’ll notice that I use versions of arguments you make above (like knowledge about “at least one”). Even if you have no interest in purgatorialism, you might be interested in the line of argumentation I take against Open Theism here.

      Posted by stanrock | November 14, 2014, 10:17 AM
  8. I am an open theist and do not see what the problem is. What is the dilemma of God creating free moral agents who all decide to reject Him? That is their choice. One that God gave them. If everyone used their freedom to reject their Maker, then you have everyone God made rejecting their Maker. I don’t see the “lethal” problem here. And I don’t see where man’s free choices have anything to do with God’s morality. If God creates X individuals and X individuals reject Him, how is God’s character called into question?

    Posted by Will Duffy | November 12, 2014, 6:01 PM
  9. How about this “lethal argument” against Augustinism:

    If God created the world knowing 100% sure that my child would get leukemia and other children would be sold into sex slavery, then that God is evil. Someone who believes such thing does not maintain the “moral benevolence of deity”.

    Posted by christopher fisher | November 12, 2014, 7:11 PM
    • It’s absolutely vital here to define our terms re: “moral benevolence.” Christian philosopher of language R. M. Hare showed in the mid-20th century that such terms are notoriously error-riddled.

      “Omnibenevolence,” the term folks made up for the non-Biblical idea that God ought to be perfectly accommodating to all creatures at all times, cannot be a premise in any coherent theodicy. Open Theism, which seeks to preserve it by using the skeleton-key-like logical-bridge-breaker of libertarian free will — “He’s omnibenevolent! But, you see, free will jumps in…” — flails when grappling with raah (Hebrew’s “the bad stuff”) that Open Theism can’t excuse by means of that skeleton key, including:

      * Natural disasters that could be theoretically stopped by a powerful God.

      * Evils happening in-the-now that could be theoretically stopped by a powerful God.

      * Sins as a problem of irrationality or stupidity that could theoretically be averted through mere effective, intervening teaching by God.

      * Verses in Scripture that explicitly put “raah in the city” under God’s superordinate responsibility.

      * Jesus lauds the faith of the centurion who confesses Jesus’s arbitrary ability to remote-heal as like a soldier giving commands (which means he has superordinate responsibility for every instance of effective sickness and death).

      * The Book of Job, which has no hint of libertarian excuses in its theodicean exploration, instead going out of its way to laud his exhaustive wisdom, unfettered power, and superordinate responsibility. God proclaimed, “Yep, I’m in charge and can do whatever,” not, “Actually, SATAN is the one who messed with you, so I dunno what your complaint is, Job.”

      The solution is not looking for skeleton keys to make it so an “omnibenevolent” God’s hands are tied. The solution is to drop “omnibenevolence” and embrace a coherent benevolence, wherein God has a manifold interest set, with a pretty good Venn-style overlap with the higher-order interests of humanity in aggregate, but wherein one of the interests in that manifold set is, “Staying mostly hands-off and letting creation bloom forth naturally, with blossoms and thorns, fruit and weeds, unless it’s absolutely necessary to course-correct or build relationship through revelation.” You get the same “raah-catalyzing confounder” without flying in the face of so much Scripture.

      Google “Stanrock Author of Evil” for more exploration of this.

      Posted by stanrock | November 14, 2014, 10:50 AM

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