Providence in Light of and Open God and an Open Future

Providence in Light of an Open God and an Open Future. Penultimate draft not for citation. Published in Divine Action: Challenges for Muslim and Christian Theology. John Sanders and KlausVon Stosch eds. (Brill, 2021). Pp. 3-18. Penultimate draft, not for citation.

Dr. John Sanders


Two Senses of Openness

Open theism, also known as the openness of God, is a model of divine providence that emphasizes God’s interaction with creatures.[1] There are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim versions of the view but I will focus on the features widely shared among proponents.[2] We can get at these by noticing that the metaphor “open” is used in two senses. First, God is open or receptive to creatures. Though God initiates creation and gifts creatures with many blessings, God does not only give, God also receives. Reciprocal, give-and-take, relations exist between God and creatures. This is contrary to what many renowned Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers have said. They have maintained that God only gives and never receives. They have made this claim for a variety of reasons such as God is fully actual and has no potential (following Aristotle) or that God is perfect and cannot lack anything so nothing can be “added” to God (following Plato). Yet, the Rabbinic tradition along with the consensus of Christian writers prior to Augustine held that, for some things, God is affected by creatures and that some of God’s decisions are contingent upon what creatures do. They held that nothing external to God compels God to be receptive but they strongly affirmed that what creatures do has an impact on God.

Such thinkers believe God is receptive to our prayers and actions and God is affected by what we do. God has not determined all events, including our prayers. Rather, what we pray and do can influence what God decides to do. In other words, God not only acts but also responds or reacts. It is like playing jazz together. Though God is the leader of the band, God does not play jazz alone. In jazz, one person takes the lead while the other members adjust what they play to follow the lead. God encourages and empowers other band members to take the lead at times and God is willing to adapt the precise notes that God plays in response to our music.[3] Of course, it is possible for us to mess up the music in a couple of ways. We may fail to follow God’s lead or we might take the lead in an unharmonious direction. In such cases God will seek to improve the music. Though the metaphor of jazz has its limitations, it does highlight that God does not do everything for us. Instead, God allows us to take initiative and innovate.

This is a very relational understanding of God widely affirmed in Jewish and Christian traditions. A majority of those affirming that God has reciprocal relations with creatures have also held that God knows everything that will actually occur in the future. God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge of future contingent events. The most widely accepted explanations of how God knows the future in minute detail are called simple foreknowledge and timeless knowledge. According to both views, God is somehow able to “see” all of history prior to creation. This approach explains how God acts providentially while humans have freewill. For example, prior to creation God observes Mary praying for her daughter to recover from an illness. God takes her prayer into account in deciding what God will do in response to the prayer. Many Christians have used this understanding to explain how God “elected” (chose) specific individual for eternal life prior to the “foundation of the world.” God simply “looked ahead” (so-to-speak) and observed that say, Caleb comes to trust in Jesus. On the basis of this knowledge, God decides to choose Caleb for eternal life. The goal here is to claim (1) that humans have genuine freewill and (2) that God knows exactly what will happen in what we call the future.

Open theists find agreement with some important aspects of this model. First, they strongly agree with this approach that God does not determine all events. Rather, creatures have freewill and that God, for some things, genuine responds to what creatures do. Second, they point out that according to this view some of God’s knowledge is dependent upon what creatures do. Prior to creation, God learns, acquires knowledge, of what creatures will do in history. For instance, God knows that Mary will pray for her daughter on a particular day because God “sees” her praying on that day. Some of God’s knowledge and decisions are dependent upon what we do.

Open theists also criticize the model on several fronts.[4] One is for failing to adequately explain biblical texts such as those where God changes the divine mind or tests people to “find out what they will do” (more on this below). If God has complete knowledge of how the situation will turn out then putting someone to the test is problematic, at best. A main philosophical criticism is that the view is logically contradictory: it is inconsistent to hold both that God knows that Mary will pray for X tomorrow at 9:00 and that Mary has the freewill to either prayer for X or 9:00 or not pray. This is the old “foreknowledge and freewill” debate.  A very different type of criticism is that foreknowledge or timeless knowledge are providentially useless to God. For example, let us say that God knows the entire future and what God knows is that Susan and David get married and that David eventually abuses her. When Susan asks God for guidance about marrying David God may want to advise her not to marry David since God knows that he will harm her. However, what God knows, according to this model, is the actual future and that future includes David’s abuse of Susan. Since God’s knowledge of the future is 100% correct, God cannot bring it about that they not get married. Once God knows the actual future, it is impossible for God to change anything.

Returning to the main point, the first sense of “open” is that God is open to what creatures do. On this point open theists agree with much of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Yet, due to the criticisms of the simple foreknowledge and timeless knowledge views, open theists believe the theological tradition affirming freewill must be modified to include the second sense of open: the future is open. What we call “the future” has multiple possibilities because it is open, not closed. It is not comprised of just one set of events. Rather, it is like a branching tree which can go in various directions depending upon the decisions people make. This means that the future is not an ontological reality like the present is and the past was. If what we call “the” future is really various possible future events and if God knows reality as it is, then God knows possible future events but not which ones will actually occur. The future is not a definite reality that exists to be known as actual so God does not have exhaustive definite knowledge of future contingent events. For open theists, God possesses what I call “dynamic omniscience.” God knows all that has occurred in the past and all that is happening in the present. As creatures make decisions some possibilities become actual and God acquires knowledge of them. At every moment God is fully omniscient. As new events occur the divine knowledge transitions from knowledge of possibilities to knowledge of actualities. This understanding of omniscience parallels a traditional definition of omnipotence: God can bring about any logically possible state of affairs. Logically impossible states of affairs such as a colorless blue chair are not “things” so it does not count against God’s omnipotence that God cannot do this. Open theists construe omniscience the same way: God cannot know what is logically impossible. Because the actual future is not a “thing” that exists, God knows it as indeterminate possibilities.


Some Attributes of God

These two senses of openness require that God grants genuine freedom to creatures and does not meticulously control them. God does not micromanage creation. God deeply cares for the well-being of creatures but will not override their freedom to ensure that what God would prefer to happen comes about. A teaching common to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures is that God is patient with us. God does not demand God’s own way, and, at times, has to tolerate us when we fail to do what is best for others. Because God does not tightly control us, history does not always go the way God wants it to go. By giving us freedom God takes some risks. Yet, God is incredibly competent and resourceful, working with us to transform situations and lives. Because God has dynamic omniscience God knows what is possible to occur but God does not know with certainty what we will do. In light of this we can say that when we fail to follow God’s will God hopes that God’s ongoing work with us will result in a better future. A God who is patient and hopes is not micromanaging all situation. Hope has expectations and longings but not guarantees.[5]

Some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have claimed that God is strongly immutable, meaning that God cannot change in any way, including changing emotions or thoughts. These folks have also said that God is strongly impassible: never affected or influenced by us in any respect. God is never affected by our prayers and never responds to us. However, many Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that God is sometimes affected by us and responds to us. Open theists agree with this latter way of thinking. God is receptive and responsive. Such ideas entail that God is weakly immutable: the divine nature does not change but God can have changing thoughts, plans, and emotions. This correlates with weak impassibility: God is affected by what creatures do but God is not overwhelmed or incapacitated by emotions. A good nurse is able to empathize with the patient and experience the suffering of the other. Yet, the nurse is not overwhelmed by the suffering and unable to help. God is like this.

That God can change in some respects means that God experiences one event followed by another. This mental experience is what we typically mean by “time” so open theists affirm that God is temporal rather than atemporal (timeless).[6] This sounds scandalous to some people because they conceive of time as a container and then accuse open theism of putting God “in” time (which makes time bigger than God). However, open theists do not think of time this way. Rather, time is the human experience of events and some events occur prior to, and some latter than, other events. Our experience of events involves the cognitive states of sequence and duration. God has changing mental states of thoughts and emotions as part of the divine experience.  None of this requires understanding “time” as an entity itself, a container with God inside it. Open theists do affirm what is called the dynamic (A-theory) of time as opposed to the stasis (B-theory) and they reject what is called the block theory of time or four-dimensionalism which conceives of time as an ontological reality. The block theory construes time as a container and all events are within it. However, this reifies the set of all events into an ontological entity and because all events exist, this results in determinism. It is helpful to distinguish the psychological experience of events from metric time. Metric time is the measurement between events such as the rotation of the earth on its axis and the speed of light. Metric time did not exist until there was a physical creation but the psychological experience of God existed before the creation of the universe. This leads to the question about the nature of God’s experience prior to creation. Open theists are not agreed on how to answer this. They do agree that at least subsequent to creation, God experiences the events of creaturely activities sequentially (temporally). To reiterate, open theists affirm that God has changing experiences and they reject some ways that “time” is understood.


Providence and Freewill

A well-known view of divine providence in the different monotheistic religions is called meticulous providence and is quite different from the openness view. It holds that God tightly controls and micromanages every detail of every action in the cosmos. Everything that happens does so at the specific time and way that God wants it to. Why does one person die of hunger when another has more than enough? Proponents of meticulous providence say it is because God wanted that one to die of hunger and God wanted the other to have plenty.[7] The world, at each moment, is exactly the way God wants it to be at that moment. According to this model of providence, God does not endure or put up with what creatures do because they do precisely what God has ordained they do in any given situation. God does not hope that people will enact love and justice because people love or act unjustly exactly as God wants them to in each and every situation. God never takes risk in this model because God has written the script and we do exactly what God has written.

Open theists reject meticulous providence and affirm “general sovereignty” instead. God establishes the broad parameters of creation and grants humans tremendous freedom—the freedom even to reject God’s love and guidance. Analytic philosophers call this sort of freedom “libertarian” freedom. Though not every decision is a libertarian one, those that are must be fully within the person’s ability to do or not do something. A person enacts libertarian freedom if she has the power to perform action A and the power to refrain from action A. For example, I could have decided not to purchase the book I just bought. A libertarian decision cannot be determined to occur and cannot be guaranteed even by God.

This understanding of human freedom is quite different from the one affirmed by proponents of meticulous providence. They hold to “compatibilistic” freedom which means that a person is free regarding a particular act if the person could have decided differently if she had desired something different. One is free if one acts on one’s desires. So long as there are no external constraints forcing her to choose A then she acts freely. Compatibilism means that divine determination of our desires is compatible with our acting freely. I freely chose A if my desire is for A and my decision is free even if God determined that I would have the desire for A. God can guarantee that we will do exactly what God wants us to do in any situation simply by ensuring that we have the appropriate desire.

The general sovereignty and meticulous providence views have existed in Christianity for thousands of years. In Christianity, the general sovereignty position is the consensus view until Augustine developed the meticulous providence approach in the fifth century. The majority view in the Christian tradition is general sovereignty. God does not tightly control everything and takes risks with creatures. This means that God cannot guarantee that a particular person will respond positively to God’s goodness and do what God would like them to do.


Openness Ideas in the Bible

Open theists believe that this understanding of God and providence coheres well with biblical depictions of how God relates to us. A few examples will illustrate this. God responded to the petitions of figures such as Moses (Ex. 32:14) and King Hezekiah (2 Kg, 20). The texts portray God as intending to perform action A but in response to the requests, does action B instead. God is portrayed as grieving over the actions of humans because things do not go the way God desired (e. g., Gen. 6:6). Sometimes the divine speech contains words such as “perhaps” and “maybe” indicating that the future is genuinely open or indefinite for God (E. g., Ezek. 12:1-3; Jer. 26:2-3). Also, divine speech contains conditional statements such as “if Israel does X, then God will do Y” (e. g., Jer. 7:5). On numerous occasions God tests people to find out what they will do. God tested Abraham and then declared “now I know that you fear me” (Gen. 22:12). God tests Israel to discover what they will do (Exod. 15:25; Deut. 13:3). There are around three dozen instances in which God changes the divine mind in response to something humans did (e. g., Exod. 32; 1 Sam 2; 1 Sam. 15). The idea that God changes the divine mind became part of Israel’s summary of what God is like: “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents [changes mind] from punishing” (Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). Of course, not all theologians care about what the Bible says but for those who want their view of God and providence to resonate with biblical teachings, open theism is appealing.



For some, the openness of God model is excessively anthropomorphic. Proponents of openness acknowledge that this understanding of God applies many human characteristics to God. They use a number of arguments to support this approach. First, even those critical of using anthropomorphisms tend to approve of biblical texts declaring that God cares for “widows and orphans” (Deut. 10:17-18). But seeking social justice for disadvantaged groups is, in fact, an anthropomorphic concept. Second, Jewish and Christian traditions have affirmed the biblical teaching that humans are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27) so we ought to expect some similarities. However, some theologians think of God as “pure act” or “being itself.” They claim they are speaking in non-anthropomorphic ways but the concepts “act” and “being” are human concepts and so do not escape being anthropomorphic. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, the “abstract concept of God is fundamentally much more anthropomorphic, just because it is not intended to be anthropomorphic, than childlike anthropomorphism.”[8] Jewish philosopher Hillary Putnam says, “The traditional believer—and this is something I share with the traditional believer, even if I don’t share his or her belief in an afterlife, or in the supernatural—visualizes God as a supremely wise, kind, just person. Although many intellectuals are afraid of this sort of ‘anthropomorphism’ . . . [it] is still far more valuable than any metaphysical concept of an impersonal God, let alone a God who is ‘totally other.’”[9]

Yet, some thinkers claim this undermines God’s transcendence because God must be understood as the totally other, the completely different. Because God is the opposite of any created entity, God has nothing in common with us. A key problem with this approach is that humans cannot understand the completely different and so this approach leaves us totally agnostic about God. This violates the core narratives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that God is an agent who created us and cares for us. The basic story of these traditions requires thinking of God in some human terms. Unless we affirm agnosticism, the debate is which human concepts we believe are legitimate to apply to God.

Elsewhere, I have argued that the only concepts humans have for God are “anthropogenic” in that they originate from the human cognitive tool kit.[10] The debate is not whether or not we are going to apply human concepts to God, but which ideas we believe are appropriate to use for God.  We can think of anthropomorphic concepts forming a continuum. Some people believe that it is grossly anthropomorphic to think that God cares for us or has changing experiences but believe it is ok for God to have knowledge. Others say it is too anthropomorphic to believe God has knowledge or is any sort of agent. Some claim it demeans God to conceive God as a being. Open theists are aware that the view will seem too anthropomorphic for some. Yet, we all have to decide where to stand in the continuum of anthropomorphism and open theists have reasons for taking the stand they do.[11]


Areas of Providence

There are many ways in which God “provides” for our well-being but only a few of these will be discussed.


Pope Celestine I (422-432) is reported to have said “lex orandi est lex crendendi” (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith). If you look at the content of the prayers of religious people it tells you what they believe about God. The openness model resonates with the practice of prayer of religious believers throughout the ages who believe that God responds to us.[12] God seeks to develop relations of interdependence and even “friendship” according to Jürgen Moltmann and Elizabeth Johnson in which God depends on us for some things and we depend upon God as well.[13] One means of fostering interdependence is by making some of God’s actions dependent upon our prayers of request. God wants us to reflect upon situations and request help. In the New Testament, James 4:2 says “we do not have, because [we] do not ask.”  The open view resonates with the piety and practice of prayer of many people.

This must not be construed to mean that people get whatever they request. Prayer is dialogue with God and biblical examples include times when God declines or postpones requests as well as times when God grants a request. God can work to persuade us that the request is unwise or that there is a better course of action that God may pursue as an alternative. Our praying adds a new element for God to work with in the situation. Also, in deciding what to do God takes into account untold variables that we may not be aware of such as the needs and prayers of others. In the open view, God takes our prayers seriously and is responsive to them.

A very different understanding of prayer arises from the meticulous providence view. A God of complete control is never affected by our prayers. What about biblical stories such as Moses praying to God and God is said to “change God’s mind” in response to Moses (e. g., Exodus 32)? Proponents of meticulous providence say that it “looks like” God responds to humans in such texts but we know that God is actually never impacted by what we say or do. Rather, God did not change the divine mind since God never intended to take action A as stated in the text. God had always ordained that God would say, “I’m going to do A” which would be followed by Moses asking God to do B instead (which God had also ordained). In fact, God always intended to do B. In this view, our prayers are the tools God uses to bring about the eternally decreed plans that never change. The prayer changed Moses, not God.



A common practice among religious believers is to seek guidance from God when making decisions. It is also common to think that a deity who knows everything that will occur in the future has the necessary knowledge to guide you into decisions that will be beneficial and away from circumstances that will be harmful. For example, say that Mary is considering accepting a job at a company. Let us say that in the future her supervisor will become abusive towards her and fire her when she complains about it. Her dismissal will lead to the financial ruin of her family. Mary believes that if God knows this will occur, then God will advise her not to accept the job at that company.

Proponents of openness, however, claim this is faulty thinking. The “uselessness argument” mentioned above shows that foreknowledge of an event cannot be used to change the event. If God knows each and every future event as definite rather than as possibilities, then God cannot change what God knows will actually happen. If God cannot change what God knows will occur, then God cannot guide us to a different decision from the one God knows we will make. In the example, Mary thinks that since God knows economic ruin awaits if she takes the job, then God will advise her to decline the job. However, since what God knows is the actual future, then God knows that Mary’s supervisor will fire her and that her family will experience terrible economic distress. God does not know this as a possibility, but as what will definitely occur so God cannot guide her to choose differently. If Mary declined the job, then God’s knowledge of the actual future would be incorrect. Hence, a deity with complete knowledge of the future cannot use that knowledge to change the future since that would nullify God’s knowledge. Knowledge of all future events is useless for God.[14]

Proponents of openness believe that divine guidance is based on God’s knowledge of what has happened and what is likely to occur. It is based on the best possible information available at the moment. A deity with dynamic omniscience may know that Mary’s potential supervisor is an abusive person and seek to guide her away from this job. On the other hand, there might not be any hint that he may become abusive when Mary applies. The ways in which God helps guide us is typically via other people who provide us with information and wisdom.

Many people believe that God has a “blueprint” for our lives that we are to follow in order to have a good life. They think that God has the optimum university selected for you to attend, the best career to go into, and the best spouse to marry. Of course, all of this is based on God’s supposed knowledge of the future but, as shown above, this will not work. Open theists reject the notion of the blueprint and hold, instead, that there likely is no single best decision in many cases. Rather, there are usually several good options each with different advantages and disadvantages. God is resourceful and competent to work with us no matter what we decide. If one has a penchant for the use of “omnis” we could say that God is Omni-competent. God does not have a detailed recipe for our lives about which job to take and where to live. Rather, God works with us to develop a recipe. Like playing jazz together, God encourages us to take the lead and develop new adventures.

Also, some people believe that God is in control of all circumstances so they seek to interpret things that happen to them as signs from God. Openness affirms that chance events occur such as lightning striking your house. Also, many chance events are the result of human decisions such as two friends unwittingly bumping into one another at a street corner. In fact, most events in our lives are brought about by the freewill of other people. Since chance events and free decisions are not under God’s control, we should generally not think that God is trying to tell us something when they occur. The openness approach should relieve the anxiety of constantly trying to discern a message from God in our circumstances.

Suffering and Evil

Dealing with moral and natural evil is challenging for any theology that affirms God’s involvement in the world.[15] Moral evil refers to the acts of moral agents who inflict harm on others such as murder or when companies release toxic waste into the environment. What is known as the freewill defense argues that not even God can guarantee the actions of beings with libertarian freedom. Open theists affirm that God cannot do the logically impossible which means that a person cannot perform a libertarian free act and that same act also be determined to occur. The freewill defense shows that if humans have libertarian freedom, then God takes risks because God cannot control what they do. Though not necessary to open theism, I have added that the freewill defense should be understood within God’s goals for creation—the intention to produce creatures capable of love. I prefer to think of this as the “logic-of-love defense.” Love is the primary aim and freewill is instrumental to achieving it. Love is vulnerable in that it may not be reciprocated by the other. Thus, though God wanted a world in which creatures always loved one another, God could not guarantee this result. In this view God is responsible for bringing about a world with the possibility of creatures committing moral evils, but God is not responsible for the creatures misusing their freewill. For instance, if a teacher gives students permission to speak in class, the teacher cannot then also guarantee that no student will ever say something that harms another student.

In addition to gifting humans with significant freedom, God has also delegated a great deal of responsibility to humans to care and provide for one another as well as care for the environment.[16] Humans are to care one another by feeding, clothing, and sheltering those in need as well as healing the sick. This emphasis on freedom means that humans are responsible for one another and the world.

Though some open theists allow that God occasionally overrides human freewill in order to bring about a specific situation, I reject this. God cannot recall the divine gifts or change the rules of the game. Instead, God is resourceful and competent as God works within the logic-of-love seeking to achieve the divine goals.

But one might object that just as a loving parent would override the freedom of the child about to harm someone so God ought to override our freedom when we are about to harm someone. The metaphor of the parent is powerful here. However, though God is in some respects like a parent, God is very unlike a parent when it comes to the unique responsibility for upholding the very structures of existence that make life possible. Even though parents are responsible for the well-being of their children they are not responsible for performing surgery on them. God has a unique role in upholding the structures of life and were God to revoke those structures it would undermine the very conditions that provide order and meaning to our lives.

Yet, someone may ask why God does not at least remove moral monsters such has Hitler and Stalin. Two points can be given in response. First, this would involve overriding their freewill. Second, the assumption that simply removing an individual or even a small group does not take into account that such people do not act alone but utilize networks and institutions to carry out their plans. The Rwandan genocide depended on longstanding blaming of one group and the habitual stereotyping and denigration of ethnic groups. Given the web of networks necessary for such atrocities to occur, in order for God to guarantee they not happen God would have to remove human freedom.

Open theists believe that God has the ability to bring about miraculous events such as, in the Christian tradition, raising Jesus from the dead. This raises the issue why God does not enact more miracles and heal everyone in need. There are no easy answers that get the open theist view off the hook but there are things to be said.

Some critics suggest that if God heals some but not all, people in need, then God either shows favoritism or acts arbitrarily. However, to establish this claim would require us to have access to all of God’s knowledge and intentions. Religious believers do claim to know some things about God such as God cares for the well-being of creatures. But this sort of knowledge is not sufficient to demonstrate divine negligence. Also, God does not override our freedom. So, for instance, we can eat the foods which may contain cancer causing ingredients such as pesticides sprayed on the plants. Another point is that just like when we make decisions to act on behalf of others we have to take different considerations into account, so God has many variables to consider. We may believe that simply changing one item in someone’s life will transform that life into something wonderful. Yet, it is usually not so simple since one change opens up possibilities for both good and bad and even God cannot guarantee what creatures with freewill will do in response to some new condition.  We are simply not privy to all that God takes into account. This response will not satisfy everyone but it does help those who have fundamental trust in God’s goodness.

In addition, God may be doing much to help someone that we are unaware of. God may be working to help but not in the ways we prefer. I may want a substantial raise in salary but that depends upon the freedom of other humans. What open theists can say, in opposition to the meticulous providence view, is that the world has miscarried and is not the way God wants it to be. It is not God’s intention for a young child to have bone cancer, for someone to be sexually abused, or for corporations to contaminate our rivers. The meticulous providence view holds that each and every one of these sorts of events is specifically ordained by God—the world is exactly as God wants to be at each moment. In contrast, proponents of openness hold that God does not desire these events to occur—they do not bring about a specific greater good. For open theists, the world, as it exists, is not the way it is supposed to be. There is pointless evil which servers no good purpose.[17] God grieves over such evils and seeks to redeem them.

Though open theists believe that God is actively working to bring good out of evil events, they do not believe God wants the evil events so that good may result. God is fundamentally opposed to evil and works against it. Open theists believe that when an evil occurs, God works to bring something good from it. Yet, God cannot guarantee that something good will necessarily come from an evil event. Though some people develop a virtue, such as patience in response to some sort of suffering, other people become resentful or despairing. Due to freewill not even God can guarantee that a greater good will develop out of each evil event.

One of the benefits of this approach to providence is that it allows us to say that a woman abused by her husband need not believe it is “God’s will” or “her cross to bear.” God wants her situation made better, not her suffering legitimized. Many people carry a huge burden because they were taught that their suffering is part of God’s blueprint for their lives and that everything that happens to them occurs for a good reason. Quite a few religious people are angry at God but they are not allowed to express it in their communities. They believe, for instance, that God ordained the death of their child or that they are unemployed because God wants them to be destitute. Open theists say that we are free to grieve such situations, even lament them, and seek to change the ones we can.

Even so, questions may still be asked. Biblical writers produced Psalms of lament and texts in which they cried out to God, “How long, O Lord?” Sometimes biblical writers, such as Habakkuk, even criticize or protest against God for not acting. Open Theism allows for these questions and cries of protest. Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov, says that God was wrong to give humans freewill because that freedom has produced too much evil. He says that if freewill is the price of admission to the theater of existence, then he respectfully returns his ticket. Ivan and some biblical writers question the wisdom of God in setting up the type of world with the possibility of both love and evil.

Christian open theists believe that God demonstrated divine love towards us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is what Ivan’s brother, Alyosha the novice monk, affirms in the face of Ivan’s questions. Though Open Theism excludes some explanations regarding evil and suffering, questioning God remains a possibility. We do not have all the answers we would like. Yet, we see in Jesus God’s way of dealing with evil. God stands with us, for love, and against those who undermine human flourishing. Jewish and Muslim open theists will find distinctive ways to frame God’s work to overcome evil in the world yet any open view will talk about the hope of a better future.

Natural evil

There are two ways that open theists talk about natural evil. William Hasker and Sir John Polkinghorne set forth the predominant view called a “natural law” approach in which the forces of nature are understood as necessary aspects of creation. God has instilled in nature a significant degree of autonomy to interact and produce events. These structures are not evil but can bring about human suffering. For instance, organisms need water but water can also kill. The molten core of the earth is necessary for life as we know it but this can produce volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Lightning has helpful benefits for the soil but it can harm us as well. The structures that foster life can also be the cause of suffering. Organic life, as we know it, simply is not possible without these structures of nature. We have no way of knowing whether a universe with different cosmic features could produce structures that foster organic life without those same structures sometimes harming physical life forms.

An important qualification to the natural law theodicy is to note that what we call a natural event was often the product of human actions or the suffering wrought by a natural event is exacerbated by human actions.  The current situation of global warming is a product of human activity and is greatly affecting the severity of hurricanes, floods, and droughts. Also, spraying chemicals on our foods to protect them from pests sometimes produces cancers in people. Another instance of this is when major earthquakes occurred in Haiti and Chile in 2009. The damage and suffering in Haiti was far more significant than in Chile due to decades of corruption, poor quality infrastructure, and virtually no building codes. Consequently, even natural events may be impacted by human freedom.

Gregory Boyd presents an alternative approach. He thinks that the natural law approach is helpful but it needs to be supplemented by a spiritual warfare theodicy.[18] He suggests that demonic beings corrupted the original creation of God which is why nature sometimes produces harmful effects such as birth defects, diseases, floods, and the like. This move seeks to use the freewill defense to cover “natural” events by rooting the cause in the freewill of demonic beings.

Benefits and Costs

Every theological model has pros and cons, costs and benefits. There is no perfect position that satisfies the concerns and needs of everyone. Open theism is no different here. There are different theological and philosophical ideas that shape our evaluations of what is religiously acceptable and beneficial. Consequently, open theism will not appeal to everyone.  It does resonate with many people due to the types of reasons given in this paper. Many have found the openness of God helpful in their lives because it provided a theologically and biblical sound alternative to the meticulous providence view they had been taught. Thousands of people have contacted open theist authors to express their deep gratitude, saying that open theism liberated them from thinking that everything that happens in life is specifically what God wants to happen.

The openness view appeals to some because it emphasizes human freedom and responsibility to care for the planet while also affirming that God acts in history. Open theism upholds traditional teachings such as creation. It affirms hope for the future without shirking human responsibility. Critics believe the questions that can be asked of the openness view are too great and so prefer other models of providence. For me, there is no model of providence that answers all of our questions to the satisfaction of all people. Sometimes we select a position because we are willing to live with the unanswered questions of that model and are unable to live with the questions inherent in a different view. There are models of providence, such as those that conceive God as the ground of being (e. g., Tillich) or process theology, that remove the possibility of asking why God did not act in a particular situation. In these views, God simply cannot do anything about the situations. But such views have costs as well in that they may reject much traditional piety and doctrines such as the resurrection of the dead. The open view affirms these sorts of traditional beliefs and also allows for the biblical tradition of protest against God and lamenting when horrible events occur. This tension appeals to some but is repugnant to others. Acknowledging this situation helps us assess the benefits and costs of the openness of God model of providence.[19]



Works Cited

Bayam, E. (2016). Acik Teizme Göre Tanri’nin Her Şeyi Bilmesi Meselesi. SBArD, 27, 195 – 208.


Bayam, E. (2015). Acik Teizmin Geleneksel Tanri Tasavvuru Ve Süreç Teizmi İle İlişkisi. SBArD, 25, 253 – 269.


Boyd, G. (2003). Is God to Blame? Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Boyd, G. (2001). Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Bonhoeffer, D. (1959). Creation and Fall: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1-3. London: SCM, 1959.


Brümmer, V. (2008). What are We Doing When We Pray? A Philosophical Investigation. London: Routledge.

Ellis, R. (2005). Answering God: Towards a Theology of Intercession. London: Paternoster.

Feldman, S. (1985). The Binding of Isaac: A Test-Case of Divine Foreknowledge. In T. Rudavsky (Ed.), Divine Omniscience and Omnipotence in Medieval Philosophy: Islamic, Jewish, and Christian Perspectives, (pp. 105-133). Boston: Reidel.

Harvey, S. (2012). Open Theism and Environmental Responsibilities: A Promotion of Environmental Ethics. Berlin: Verlag.

Hasker, W. (2009). Why Simple Foreknowledge is Still Useless. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 52, 537-544.

Hasker, W. (2008).  The Triumph of God Over Evil: Theodicy for a World of Suffering. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Hasker, W. (2004). Providence, Evil, and the Openness of God. London: Routledge.

Hasker, W. & Sanders, J. (2017). Open Theism: Progress and Prospects. Theologische Literaturzeitung, 142, 859-872.

Hunt, D. (2009). The Providential Advantage of Divine Foreknowledge. In K. Timpe (Ed.). Arguing About Religion (pp. 374-382). New York: Routledge.

Johnson, E. (1993). She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York: Crossroad.

Krump, D. (2006). Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.

Lodahl, M. (2009). The (Brief) Openness Debate in Islamic Theology. In T. Oord (Ed.), Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science, (pp. 53-68). Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick.

Mirsadri, Saida. (    ). “Iqbal’s Process Worldview: Toward a New Islamic Understanding of Divine Action.” In Klaus Von Stosch, Mouhanad Khorchide, and John Sanders eds., [need title and publisher]

Moltmann, J. (1993). The Church in the Power of the Spirit. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Putnam, H. (2009). Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.


Rhoda, A. (2011). The Fivefold Openness of the Future. In W. Hasker, T. Oord, & D. Zimmerman (Eds.), God in an Open Universe: Science, Metaphysics, and Open Theism, (pp.69-93). Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick.


Sanders, J. (2016). Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think About Truth, Morality, and God. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Sanders, J. (2006). The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence. Downers, Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Wolterstorff, N. (2001). Unqualified Divine Temporality. In G. Ganssle (Ed.), God & Time (187-213). Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.


Woodruff, D. (2011). Presentism and the Problem of Special Relativity. In W. Hasker, T. Oord, & D. Zimmerman (Eds.), God in an Open Universe: Science, Metaphysics, and Open Theism, (pp. 94-124). Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick.


Zimmerman, D. (2011). Open Theism and the Metaphysics of the Space-Time Manifold. In W. Hasker, T. Oord, & D. Zimmerman (Eds.), God in an Open Universe: Science, Metaphysics, and Open Theism, (pp. 125-157). Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick.

[1] For an overview of the debates and publications surrounding open theism see William Hasker and John Sanders (2017). For a comprehensive account of open theism on providence see Sanders (2006). A large amount of information on open theism is available at

[2] Some important Jewish thinkers who affirmed it are Ibn Ezra in the twelfth century and Gersonides (Levi ben Gerson) in the fourteenth. On Ibn Ezra see his Commentary on Genesis 22:1. On Gersonides see Feldman (1985), p. 114. A couple of notable Islamic scholars affirmed dynamic omniscience. For instance, some in the Qadarite school (eighth century) and Abd al-Jabbar, an important figure of the Mu’tazilite school (tenth century). See Lodahl, (2009), pp. 55, 59. Muhammad Iqbal (twentieth century) did as well (see the chapter by Mirsadri in this volume). Emine Gören Bayam (Mulsim) did her doctoral dissertation on open theism at Istanbul University and has published two articles in Turkish on the topic (2015, 2016).

[3] I prefer the analogy of producing jazz to the “grand chess-master” or “Persian rug-maker” analogies. The chess-master implies that everything is a foregone conclusion and the rug-maker analogy holds that the rug turns out great in the end no matter what humans do. I believe that world history and the eschaton are more challenging and open-ended for God.

[4] For more on these see Sanders (2006).

[5] In the Christian tradition, that God is patient and hopes can be based on the characteristics of love found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.

[6] For further discussion by open theists on God’s relationship to time see Sanders (2006), pp. 200-205; Wolterstorff (2001), Rhoda (2011), Woodruff (2011), and Zimmerman (2011).

[7] See, for example, Augustine, Enchiridion, chap. 24.

[8] Bonhoeffer (1959), 43.

[9] Putnam, (2009), 102.

[10] Sanders (2016), 243-275.

[11] I draw upon cognitive science to make a case that God is an agent. Sanders (2016), 267-273.

[12] For studies of prayer from an openness perspective see Brümmer (2008), Ellis (2005), and Krump (2006).

[13] Moltmann (1993) and Johnson (1993).

[14] David Hunt has sought to show that knowledge of the future could provide God with some incidental advantages but William Hasker has rebutted this claim. Hunt (2009). Hasker (2009).

[15] For open theist treatments of evil see Hasker (2008) and (2004) and Boyd (2003).

[16] See Harvey (2012).

[17] Of course, there is a general sense in which there is an overarching purpose: God’s goal of fostering relations of love which requires freedom.

[18] Boyd (2001).

[19] I wish to thank William Hasker, Ufuk Topkara, and Greg Boyd for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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