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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.


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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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