Open Theism: Is God’s Limited Knowledge a Solution to the Problem of Evil and Suffering?

From Chapter 16 of If God Is Good, by Randy Alcorn

Most proposed solutions to the problem of evil and suffering have been around for a long time; “open theism” is recent.

Open theists believe that God does not and cannot know in advance the future choices that his free creatures will make. A leading proponent of open theism, Gregory Boyd, writes, “The open view, I submit, allows us to say consistently, in unequivocal terms, that the ultimate source of all evil is found in the will of free agents rather than in God.”[1] Since Boyd includes suffering in the category of “all evil,” he believes God never sends us suffering.

A loving God took a calculated risk, open theists suggest, but had he known the horrible things that would occur—the rapes and killings and tortures and abuse—he might never have created this world as he did. Hence, proponents of open theism argue, God cannot be held responsible for his creatures’ evil, since he could not foresee it.

Years ago when I first read an open theist’s article, it surprised me, but it didn’t deeply concern me, because I thought this view would never gain traction among evangelical Christians. How wrong I was! Both in research and in conversations with suffering people, I’ve discovered that open theism has become surprisingly influential—and its popularity continues to rise.

It is difficult to oppose a doctrine that suffering brothers and sisters, including some of my friends, find comforting. I do not question the integrity of those who embrace this viewpoint. Still, I must try to explain why I reject it and why this question is so important.

Open theists argue that our free choices preclude God’s knowledge of future circumstances.

Boyd writes,

In one correspondence my father asked me why God would allow Adolf Hitler to be born if he foreknew that this man would massacre millions of Jews. It was a very good question. The only response I could offer then, and the only response I continue to offer now, is that this was not foreknown as a certainty at the time God created Hitler.[2]

While God can know in advance what he has planned to do, open theists claim he cannot know what his free creatures will choose to do. They believe this distances God from evil human choices and the consequent suffering they bring. Clark Pinnock said, “The future is really open and not available to exhaustive foreknowledge even on the part of God. It is plain that the biblical doctrine of creaturely freedom requires us to reconsider the conventional view of the omniscience of God”[3] (italics added).

Process theology has long taught that God grows in knowledge, learning more, becoming more knowledgeable as events unfold. Events can surprise him. While Pinnock denies he is advocating it, he admits, “I am sympathetic with a number of motifs in process theism.” He claims his view harmonizes with Scripture’s portrayal of God.[4]

Open theism stands in contrast to the biblical and historical teaching that God knows absolutely everything.

God is “perfect in knowledge” (Job 37:16). He “knows everything” (1 John 3:20). “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name” (Psalm 147:4). That’s countless trillions of stars, each named by God.

Jesus says, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” and, “Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 6:8; 10:30). Even of plentiful sparrows, he says, “Not one of them is forgotten by God” (Luke 12:6).

“Yes,” an open theist will say, “I believe the passages that teach God’s vast knowledge. But while he knows everything that can be known, future choices of his free creatures can’t be known.”

What does Scripture tell us?

David says, “O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.... Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O LORD, you know it altogether” (Psalm 139:1–2, 4, esv). From eternity past, God knew everything that will happen on every day of our lives: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16, esv). God knows all the choices, free or not, we will ever make and all the consequences they will ever produce.

When David asked God questions about the future, God gave him detailed answers about what Saul would do, revealing that the men of Keilah would surrender to him (see 1 Samuel 23:11–13). Saul and these men would make specific choices, and God knew them in advance.

God doesn’t only know what choices his creatures will make, but what would have happened (what philosophers call middle knowledge) if his creatures made different choices. God reveals to Elisha what would have happened if King Joash had struck the ground five or six times with arrows (see 2 Kings 13:19). To Korazin and Bethsaida Jesus states, “If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago” (Matthew 11:21).

The charge that they don’t really believe in God’s omniscience offends open theists. Nevertheless, Christians throughout church history have believed that God’s omniscience encompasses all knowledge—past, present, and future. Both Arminian and Calvinist theologians have consistently taught this. A. H. Strong’s definition of omniscience is typical: “God’s perfect and eternal knowledge of all things which are objects of knowledge, whether they be actual or possible, past, present, or future.”[5] A. W. Tozer wrote that God “knows instantly and with a fullness of perfection that includes every possible item of knowledge concerning everything that exists or could have existed anywhere in the universe at any time in the past or that may exist in the centuries or ages yet unborn.”[6]

Bruce Ware points out, “The open view has not been advocated by any portion or branch of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant church throughout history.”[7]

For open theists to insist on using the term omniscience while departing from its historical, not to mention logical, meaning is unfortunate and misleading.

Open theists claim God knows all possible future events, but not the actual ones that will result from human and demonic choices.

If that’s true, given the number of free beings and the quantity of daily choices they make, this leaves countless billions of choices, and events coming from those choices, that God cannot know with certainty since they haven’t yet happened. If people make meaningful choices to turn to Christ, as open theists believe, and God doesn’t know such choices in advance, then how could their names be “written in the book of life from the creation of the world”? (Revelation 17:8). (Open theism contradicts both the Calvinist perspective of God’s elective or causative foreknowledge and the Arminian perspective of his simple or non-causative foreknowledge.)

How much does it help God to know future possibilities, but not future actualities? “By analogy, if one is working on a mathematics problem, how will it help to know all the possible answers that might be given—all of which are wrong, save one—yet not know which answer, of that infinite list of possible answers, is the correct answer?”[8]

Open theists believe that a partially unaware God brings greater comfort than a God who knows everything that’s coming.

In Is God to Blame? Boyd calls the traditional definition of God’s omniscience both misguided and harmful.[9] He tells the heartbreaking story of a woman who came to him for pastoral counsel, wondering why God had taken her only child, who at birth strangled on her umbilical cord.

I asked, “Does that seem like something a loving God would do? Can you picture Jesus doing that to someone?” Melanie was completely stunned by my reply.... I felt such grief for the tormented state her theology had put her in.[10]

Boyd told Melanie that God didn’t know in advance that her baby would die. He writes,

We have no reason to assume God put Melanie and her husband through this tragic ordeal. Rather, we have every reason to assume God was and is at work to deliver Melanie and her husband from their ordeal.... Does Melanie see the hand of God at work in the death of her child, or does she interpret it in some other fashion? It all depends on her picture of God. It is most biblical and most helpful not to see God involved in the evils in this world but to interpret it in some other fashion.[11]

The key to Melanie’s spiritual health, Boyd believes, lay in accepting that her child’s death remained beyond God’s knowledge and therefore was not part of his plan.

If Boyd is right and God has knowledge only of the past and present, not contingent future choices and events, then God wouldn’t know the baby was going to suffocate until it was actually happening. But how does that solve the problem? Once God knew, why didn’t he intervene?

Open theists believe that God’s limited knowledge showcases his unlimited power.

In another book Boyd tells of a different woman, Suzanne, who asked God to provide a husband with whom she could serve on the mission field. She met a man at college and sensed God’s leading to marry him. Tragically, he turned out to be an unrepentant adulterer. After she became pregnant, he left her to raise the child herself. Boyd recounts Suzanne’s bitterness toward God and says,

I suggested to her that God felt as much regret over the confirmation he had given Suzanne as he did about his decision to make Saul king of Israel.... Not that it was a bad decision—at the time her ex-husband was a good man with a godly character. The prospects that he and Suzanne would have a happy marriage and fruitful ministry were, at the time, very good. Indeed, I strongly suspect that he had influenced Suzanne and her ex-husband toward this college with their marriage in mind.

The woman found comfort in Boyd’s viewpoint. He concludes, “By framing the ordeal within the context of an open future, Suzanne was able to understand the tragedy of her life in a new way. She didn’t have to abandon all confidence in her ability to hear God and didn’t have to accept that somehow God intended this ordeal ‘for her own good.’ Her faith in God’s character and her love toward God were eventually restored and she was finally able to move on with her life.”[12]

But why should it help Suzanne to believe she could still hear God and sense his leading? God might have a well-meaning prediction of a happy future, only to be proven wrong again. Shouldn’t she think, Since God directed my paths toward the wrong man the last time, how can I now lean on his understanding, instead of mine, in view of his limited knowledge? He already led me into a terrible marriage; who’s to say he won’t lead me somewhere worse the next time?

Scripture calls upon Suzanne to trust God. Isn’t part of God’s trustworthiness based on his total, not partial, knowledge of the future?

Boyd dismisses as naive the notion “that somehow God intended this ordeal ‘for her own good.’” But is it really cruel of God to permit evil and intend it for our good, as he did with Joseph? Romans 8:28 suggests that God does intend life’s ordeals for our good—but there’s a difference between immediate good and ultimate good. Seeing that difference requires faith.

The God of historic orthodox Christianity is a God who cares deeply about us, but also has a purpose and plan even for the bad things we encounter. Open theism interprets this viewpoint as cruel and tries to persuade us we can love God more because he doesn’t have a purpose and a plan in our suffering. God may seem more approachable and lovable, but at what expense? His greatness.

Believing in God’s limited future knowledge does not solve the problem of God withholding justice or allowing evil in the present.

Open theism sacrifices God’s future knowledge, but what does it gain in exchange? Whether God has known a child would die from eternity past, or has figured it out only in the last two minutes, either way, he still allows the child’s death when he could have prevented it.

Boyd’s claim that God brought Hitler into the world only because he didn’t know Hitler would commit great evils does not solve the problem. Why not? Because God did not intervene when he knew Hitler was doing evil things. Discerning human beings predicted the harm Hitler would do if left unhindered, so why couldn’t God see it coming?

Just by eavesdropping on Hitler’s private conversations with his henchmen, God could have known of the coming Holocaust. So if God could have stopped Hitler from murdering the Jews, why didn’t he? A car accident, a heart attack, or a successful assassination attempt all could have fixed the problem and saved millions of lives. Wouldn’t a God with limited knowledge of the future bear the same responsibility for failing to restrain the adult Hitler, as a God with complete foreknowledge would have for bringing the infant Hitler into the world?

Open theists suppose we should find comfort in believing God has not ordained our suffering from eternity past. But open theism’s answer to the problem of evil is an illusion. The only way to fully defend God’s goodness would be to believe that God not only lacks knowledge of the future, but also of the present. I find it easier to trust a God who has known all along and planned how he will use the tragedy for his glory and our good, than one who just found out about it but chose not to stop it anyway.

Open theism is not only biblically wrong; it’s a shallow answer to the problem of evil.

Open theism portrays God as making mistakes.

While open theists try to avoid stating that God can make mistakes, John Sanders candidly asserts that Scripture “does leave open the possibility that God might be ‘mistaken’ about some points.” He acknowledges, “The notion that God could be dismayed or wrong about anything may not sit well with some people.”

I agree; I am one of them. (The question is whether it sits well with God.)

Sanders then offers some qualifications about the meaning of the word mistake and says, “Even if we affirm that God is sometimes ‘mistaken’ in the sense that God believes that something would happen when, in fact, it does not come about, there is a question as to how often this happens. The biblical record gives a few occasions, but we are in no position to judge just how many times this occurs with God.”[13]

Apparently, while God sometimes make mistakes, we can’t know how often. I don’t find that the least bit comforting. Do you?

While people have found comfort in open theism, I see no logical basis for their comfort.

Compare Melanie’s and Suzanne’s situations from two perspectives. In the traditional view, God knew from eternity past what would happen, and allowed it or ordained it (either theological perspective works), and did so with a good purpose informed by his foreknowledge of all its consequences. In the open view, God knew not in advance, but only at the time as it was unfolding, yet he still permitted it. He had the power to stop it but chose not to. He had no purpose and plan in it, and still cannot know all that will come from it.

What is there to feel better about in the open view? That God has known of the evil and suffering a shorter time? It seems to me that in addition to contradicting Scripture, this viewpoint gives us much to feel worse about.

We might compare the God of the Bible to a gifted surgeon who has studied a patient’s case in advance and has planned a specific procedure to accomplish a particular purpose. He operates with a detailed foreknowledge of his patient’s condition.

The God of open theism is more like an emergency room physician, also highly knowledgeable and skilled, but because he doesn’t know his patient’s condition when that patient gets wheeled in the door, the doctor must improvise—sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

Any surgeon will testify that surgeries planned and prepared for in advance have a higher success rate than emergency surgeries done on the fly. Which physician would give you greater comfort?

Some open theists claim that when God created the world, he didn’t know evil would follow. But this shrinks the gospel by reducing it to God’s Plan B. The unfolding drama of redemption is seen not as God’s best plan, just the best he could do once creatures derailed his original plan.

To suggest that if God had known in advance the evils and suffering of this world he might not have created it is to say that an uncreated world would have been better than the world in which Christ did his redemptive work. Such a viewpoint is utterly foreign to Scripture. The gospel of redemption was not an afterthought; it was an all-knowing God’s plan from the beginning.

Because God knows the whole future, he can be good while allowing pain that a good human being would try to stop.

John Stuart Mill argued that God should live under the same moral expecta­tions he places on us; if it is wrong for us not to save the innocent, then it is also wrong for God. Mill’s statement sounds rational until we think through its implications.

God knows everything, including every contingency, and he knows what is ultimately best in ways we cannot. God can see ultimate purposes and plans that we can’t. He can know it is better for someone to die now rather than later: “The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil” (Isaiah 57:1).

We have no way of knowing, for instance, whether a disability might be used to cultivate personal qualities that would more profoundly honor God and bring the person greater eternal reward in Heaven.

Because God knows all things in the past, present, and future, God is uniquely qualified to know when to ordain or permit evil and suffering and when not to.

God’s foreknowledge of future events does not necessarily cause those events.

Clark Pinnock states, “If God now knows that tomorrow you will select A and not B, then your belief that you will be making a genuine choice is mistaken.... God can surmise what you will do next Friday, but cannot know it for certain because you have not done it yet.”[14]

Open theists claim that human freedom and divine omniscience are mutually exclusive. If God knows you will drink a white chocolate mocha at 3:00 p.m. tomorrow, then you are not free to abstain from drinking that mocha. You can’t make any other choice, because if you did, then God would be wrong. This argument may sound plausible—but is it? (Though foreknowledge sometimes has a deeper theological meaning involving God ordaining or predestining, doctrines Scripture also affirms, I am here referring to God’s foreknowledge only in the sense of prescience, his simple knowledge of an event before it occurs.)

Of course, God causes many things he knows about, but he can also know about something without causing it. He knew in advance of Satan’s fall and Adam and Eve’s sin, but he did not cause it, for God neither tempts people to evil nor causes them to commit evil (see James 1:13). Yes, he could have kept them from sinning, and yes, he is accomplishing an ultimate plan of redemption that will glorify him through his conquest of sin and death. But knowledge is not the same as causation.

Suppose I travel to the future and see a certain quarterback throw the win­ning touchdown pass with two seconds left on the clock. Would my knowledge mean that this quarterback will not freely choose to throw that pass? No. What I know is that he will choose to throw that pass. My knowledge doesn’t cause anything—it is a simple awareness of the quarterback’s future choice. He would make the same choice whether I knew about it or not. Freedom to choose is not incompatible with God knowing our choices in advance.

God sees the future with the same fixed certainty that we see the past. (That’s why Jesus is called the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world, not merely the Lamb God knew would be slain.)[15]

Some theologians believe God knows future events because he has ordained that they will happen, through the willing choices of his creatures. Others affirm that God knows the future even though his creatures’ willing choices are not all part of his plan. In either case, what God knows will happen “must” happen because God is never wrong, not because people cannot make meaningful choices.

Open theism credits Satan with too much power and God with too little.

In Satan and the Problem of Evil, Boyd says, “Where free agents are involved, some outcomes cannot be guaranteed.... The God of the Bible is not a God who has or needs ‘inside information’ on what is going to transpire.”[16]

But if human and demonic free agents can choose differently than what God supposes they will, couldn’t they derail God’s promise to work “all things” together for the good of those who love him (see Romans 8:28)? How can he make such a promise if he did not know what “all things” would entail?

Open theists offer many examples of bad things God supposedly did not anticipate. How can God keep all his promises if so much remains uncertain in his mind? What promises of Scripture would God now want to edit or retract? If he could rewrite Romans 8:28 now that he’s seen the Holocaust, how would it read?

God could still promise, “I will try to make everything work together for your good.” He might even have a high success rate. But Romans 8:28 isn’t about God trying, it’s about God actually working together all things for our good.

The warfare against demonic powers depicted in Scripture is very real but does not put God’s power or knowledge in doubt.

Boyd believes that spiritual warfare implies that a battle’s outcome must remain in doubt. And Scripture’s use of warfare terminology does indeed indicate that rebels can resist and violate God’s will. But though angels can fight God, they cannot overpower him:

And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. (Revelation 12:7–9)

This passage should keep us from three errors. First, we shouldn’t believe that everything that happens pleases God. What ruler is gratified by his beloved subjects turning against him?

Second, we should never believe that the conflict between good and evil is only figurative, not real. This passage vividly shows its reality—Michael and his angels fight in a great battle, with much at stake.

Third, the passage should keep us from believing that anyone can thwart God’s ultimate plan. The rebellion is real, the warfare is real—but Satan “was not strong enough” to stay in Heaven. God accomplished his will by casting out the devil.

We, too, war against these evil beings: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). We should take up our armor yet not fear the future, for the outcome is certain: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8).

Job recognized that regardless of Satan’s role, God remained in charge.

When everything Job had, including his children, was taken from him, he said, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD’” (Job 1:21). Under divine inspiration, the writer comments, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (verse 22, esv).

Satan did appalling things, but Job saw them as coming from God’s hand. Job did not say, “The LORD gave and Satan has taken away.”

Open theists argue, as in Boyd’s example of Melanie whose child died at birth, that we shouldn’t view God as taking away our loved ones in death. Yet after he’d lost ten children, Job said God had taken them away—and still he blessed God’s name. So the psalmist can say, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15).

Contrary to the claims of open theism, God does not change his mind or learn and grow in understanding.

Open theists cite 1 Samuel 15:11 to prove that God changes his mind. God says, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me” (esv). The word translated “I regret” is also rendered “I am grieved” (niv) and “I am sorry” (nlt). Similarly, verse 35 tells us again, “And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel” (esv).

Open theists argue that when God says he “regrets” something, he implies that he didn’t know what would happen. After gaining further knowledge, God changes his mind. God acted on the best knowledge he had at the time, but the bottom line is, regardless of the terminology used, God made a mistake.

Throughout history Christians have understood that in 1 Samuel 15 (and similar passages), God accommodates his language so that we can better understand him. To say he “regrets” making Saul king is to communicate powerfully that he grieves over sin. God is not saying, “If only I had known then what I’ve learned since...” (Even among finite beings, a mother can feel sorrow about disciplining her child, still knowing she’d repeat her actions in a similar situation.)

Remarkably, between the two verses about God “regretting” making Saul king, another verse warns us against wrong conclusions about God: “The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (verse 29, esv).

Here we find an emphatic statement that God does not regret as humans do. We couldn’t ask for a clearer interpretive guideline. Knowing in advance our tendency to misunderstand, God sovereignly places this clarification in the immediate context, using the same Hebrew word from verses 11 and 35, warning us not to conclude exactly what open theists do conclude: that God regrets in the same way humans do.

On the contrary, he directly tells his people, “I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3:6). He is a God “who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). Jesus Christ, the very “image of God” (1 Corinthians 4:4), “is the same yesterday and today and tomorrow” (Hebrews 13:8) —and doesn’t that seem to rule out constant change, whether in knowledge or anything else?

I agree with Bruce Ware, who argues that the proper interpretation of 1 Samuel 15 about God “regretting” is this: God never regrets in the strong and ultimate sense, but he does regret in a weaker and more immediate sense.[17] He is not uncaring (he does regret), but he remains unchanging (he does not regret).

How do we explain passages such as God promising judgment on Nineveh (see Jonah 3:4), then deciding to withhold judgment when the Ninevites repent (see verse 10)? Wayne Grudem says, “These instances should all be understood as true expressions of God’s present attitude or intention with respect to the situation as it exists at that moment. If the situation changes, then of course God’s attitude or expression of intention will also change.”[18]

Such change does not indicate an inconsistency in God’s being; he remains true to his unchanging nature by responding to repentance differently than he responds to evil.

God knows the end from the beginning; if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be God.

Fulfilled biblical prophecies are not good guesses on God’s part but proof that God knows the future in detail. Isaiah 40–45 demonstrates that false gods make faulty predictions. Why? Because false gods are either human projections or demons, and therefore finite. Demons and false prophets may be able to guess certain aspects of the future, but they err on some points because finite beings can’t know everything about the future.

In contrast, the Creator says, “I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Isaiah 46:9–10). God can make known the end from the beginning only because he knows the end from the beginning.

When God said through the prophets that Messiah would be born in a certain place and be crucified between two evildoers, he was not speculating but stating what he has always known. When he prophesied that Judas would betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and throw the money back to the priests, he knew exactly what choices people would make (see Zechariah 11:13; compare Matthew 27:3–7).

That’s why God can say, “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken” (Deuteronomy 18:22). God absolutely knows the future. In contrast to the god of open theism, God doesn’t merely predict the future with a high degree of accuracy; he sees it all in advance and cannot make a mistake.

Jesus told Peter that before the rooster crowed, he would deny Jesus three times (see John 13:38). A specific rooster at a specific place will crow at a specific time, after Peter (at that same place and time) will deny Christ not just twice, not four times, but three times.

Earlier, Jesus had said to Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32, esv).

Notice that Jesus knew Peter’s future choices, both that he would turn away from him and turn back to him. If he knew those details about Peter’s future choices—not only denials and repenting, but the number of denials and the place and time down to when a particular rooster would crow—why wouldn’t he know the details about all our future choices?

Some argue that Jesus knew Peter well enough to accurately predict what he would do. But if prophecies about human free choices can never be certain even to God, was Christ merely making lucky guesses about the details? Might Peter have chosen differently and Christ have been proven wrong? If so, what else might Christ have been wrong about?

Those who believe that God doesn’t know about billions of future choices and the events that flow out of those choices must simply hope for the best. Those who believe in a God who knows “the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10), however, can relax because even though they don’t know what lies ahead, their sovereign God does.

We can find great assurance in believing God knows the future and that he works even evil and suffering together for our good.

Twenty years ago, on nine occasions I participated in peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience in what was (particularly in my home state of Oregon) an extremely unpopular cause—speaking up for the civil rights of unborn children. I briefly went to jail, and abortion clinics brought lawsuits against me and others. It seemed possible that if the lawsuits succeeded, the abortion clinics might take away our house and a good part of our monthly income.

In the several years we found ourselves in the middle of this stressful situation, Nanci and I would talk with our daughters—eight and ten when the legal problems began, and ten and twelve when they culminated—assuring them that God remained in control, that he knew everything that would happen, and that we could trust him to use it for good. True, I was no longer able to serve as a pastor or make more than minimum wage, but God would take care of us.

Our daughters believed this and prayed with a kind of trust in God that still brings tears to my eyes. One night when an abortion clinic tried to drop us from a lawsuit (they required our permission to do so, but our agreement would have appeared to help their case), we asked our daughters, “What do you think God wants us to do?” Though they understood their answer might mean losing our house and leaving the private school they loved, my twelve-year-old daughter said, as her sister and my wife nodded agreement, “Daddy, if the abortion clinic doesn’t want you there, I think God does.”

We prayed together again; I called our attorney and spent the next month in court in one of the most difficult experiences of our lives. While there were no actual damages to the clinics except the money lost for abortions prevented, the jury found our group liable for $8.2 million in punitive damages.

My family faced this situation with the firm belief that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, and that no matter what happened, he would work things out for our ultimate good. That is exactly what he did. The fact that we lost the case was irrelevant. We’re fortunate not to have to wait for eternity to see how God worked it for good. We’ve already seen it in countless ways, though no doubt we’ll learn more when we’re with him.

Now suppose we had believed in open theism. Our conversations with our children would have gone in a remarkably different way: “Girls, we don’t know how this lawsuit is going to turn out. We don’t know if we’ll lose our house. We don’t know if you’ll be able to continue in school. And God doesn’t know either. God wishes the best for us and he’ll do what he can to help, but he doesn’t have a definite purpose or plan in this and there’s no assurance that this will work out for our good. So don’t blame him if the choices of demons, abortion clinic owners, a judge, or a jury ruin our lives. God must respect their free will.”

I cannot express how radically different our children’s prayers, lives, and peace of mind—as well as our own—would have been, had we believed that. Instead, we believed what Scripture teaches, and God helped us trust him and his purpose to work for our ultimate good, despite the evil intentions of demons and people. I am eternally grateful for that.

God, because of his comprehensive knowledge of the future, can bring eternal value out of evil and suffering.

God saw what would happen in a world of human beings, all able to choose. He saw the horrors that would come with the Fall and millennia of evil and suffering. But he also saw, from the very beginning, exactly how the ultimate good of man­ifesting his love and revealing the wonders of his grace would bring an eternal richness to the universe. He does not hope this to be the case. He knows this to be the case.

We may imagine that, on balance, it’s not a fair trade. We feel less happy than we’d like to. But God looked ahead at the benefits and saw they outweighed the costs, even the incalculable cost to his Son on the cross.

If God had to do it all over again—knowing what he knows and has always known—he would create the same world and permit the same evils. And if the world’s suffering (and his own) is worth it to God, then in the end without end, surely it will be worth it to us too

Attempts at limiting God’s omniscience or other attributes have far-reaching consequences.

I don’t believe in picking fights about secondary doctrinal issues. But I’m convinced there’s a great deal at stake in the issue of open theism. God does not need us to rescue him from the problem of evil, and particularly not at such great cost.

Justin Taylor writes, “Open theism is not just another intramural squabble among evangelicals. It is not a debate about second-order doctrines, minutiae, or peripheral matters. Rather, it is a debate about God and the central features of the Christian faith.”[19]

I have noticed a domino effect in books that promote open theism. When someone diminishes or topples one of God’s attributes, other attributes inevitably start to fall. Deny God’s omniscience, and you deny his immutability. In the cases of Melanie and Suzanne, God’s lack of knowledge produced a lack of power to lovingly protect them. Once we begin to dismantle God’s attributes, the God we wish to relate to ceases to be the only true God, revealed in Scripture. This cannot please him.

“You thought I was altogether like you,” God says in Psalm 50:21. “But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face.”

D. A. Carson says open theism “so redefines the God of the Bible and of theology that we wind up with a quite different God.” Wayne Grudem warns that open theism “ultimately portrays a different God than the God of the Bible.”[20]

If we feel free, no matter how well intentioned, to abandon the doctrine of God’s omniscience as presented in Scripture and reaffirmed by councils and creeds, then what other divine attributes will we redefine next? Is God really everywhere present, or are some places beyond his reach? Is he absolutely holy and just, or only 98 percent of the time? Whatever meager gains we suppose our revisions bring us, the losses pile up to Heaven.

Fortunately, God will always remain who he is. The question is, as we try to modify him, what will become of us?

[1] Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000), 98.

[2] Boyd, God of the Possible, 98.

[3] Clark Pinnock, “God Limits His Knowledge,” in Predestination and Free Will, eds. David Basinger and Randall Basinger (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 150.

[4] Pinnock, “God Limits His Knowledge,” 147.

[5] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Outlines of Systematic Theology, (American Baptist Publi­cation Society, 1908), 77.

[6] A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1992), 87.

[7] Bruce Ware, Their God Is Too Small (Wheaton, IL: Good News, 2003), 16.

[8] Bruce Ware, “The Gospel of Christ,” in Beyond the Bounds, ed. John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth (Wheaton, IL: Good News, 2003), 312–13.

[9] Gregory A. Boyd, Is God to Blame? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 11.

[10] Boyd, Is God to Blame? 13.

[11] Boyd, Is God to Blame? 16, 21.

[12] Boyd, God of the Possible, 105–6.

[13] John Sanders, The God Who Risks (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity 1998), 132–33.

[14] Pinnock, “God Limits His Knowledge,” 156–57.

[15] Revelation 13:8 may be speaking instead of names written in the book of life before the world’s foundation; if so, the notion of the absolute certainty of Christ’s eventual redemptive work is still apparent in passages such as Acts 2:23; 4:27–28; 1 Peter 1:20.

[16] Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 112, 115.

[17] Ware, Their God Is Too Small, 32–34.

[18] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 164.

[19] Justin Taylor, introduction to Beyond the Bounds, 13.

[20] Grudem, quoted in Beyond the Bounds, 13.

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries