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Cartoon by Bill Watterson

Theological fatalism refers to the conflict in Christianity between God’s foreknowledge and human free will. It challenges whether God’s knowing in advance what His creations will do necessitates their activities, and thus eliminates the possibility of free will.

Theologians have debated the problem of theological fatalism for centuries. Well-known responses include Ockhamism, which hinges on a hard fact/soft fact distinction; and Molinism, which depends on counterfactuals of freedom and God’s middle knowledge. In the past few decades, a theological movement called open theism, which has a history stretching as far back at the 4th century, kick-started with T. Richard Rice’s The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will.

Contemporary open theist Gregory Boyd describes the tenets and justifications for the theology in his God of the Possible: “[W]e deny that Scripture teaches that the future is exhaustively settled. We hold that God determines (and thus foreknows as settled) some, but not all, of the future” (23). This limited foreknowledge is due to the nature of the future, which open theists consider partly open and partly closed. God knows the “open” part; the closed part no one can know, not even God, because it depends on the actions of free agents.

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Boyd likens a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book to the open theism view (acknowledging, of course, the oversimplification of the analogy). In such a book, the author “writes a number of possible plotlines and allows readers to create their own story by choosing between alternatives” (43). Similarly, God exercises His sovereignty over human decision while still allowing for free will by providing the structure in which people can act and create the open part of the future.

To support their view, open theists point to verses in which God “changes His mind”, in which God regrets a decision, or in which human action seems to surprise God. In Exodus 32, for example, God declared that He would destroy the nation of Israel for worshiping the golden calf. Because of Moses’s pleading, God “relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Ex. 32:14 ESV). The New Living Translation records that God “changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had threatened to bring on his people.”

In 1 Samuel, God told Samuel, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments” (1 Sam. 15:11 ESV). This remark suggests that God did not know what Saul would do; such knowledge fell in the open future. God’s frustration in Ezekiel about failing to find a man suitable for rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall has similar implications (Ez. 22:30-31).

past present future sign
Photographer unknown

The appeal of this answer to theological fatalism notwithstanding, critics of open theism point to the theology’s neglect of several orthodox Christian doctrines, prime among them that of God’s omniscience.

In my view, what separates the God of Judaism and Christianity from the gods of other religions is His perfect and complete foreknowledge. In Isaiah 41, the Lord dares the idols to “tell us what is to happen…Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods” (Is. 41:22a, 23a ESV). The implication is that Yahweh, as the true God and unlike the idols, knows the hereafter – the future. Later in the book God reminds the Israelites that “former things I declared of old” and announces the coming of “new things, hidden things that you have not known” (Is. 48:3a, 6b ESV).

Furthermore, belief in God’s openness entails the possibility for God’s incompetence. Christians know from Romans 8 that God makes “all things work together for good, for those who called according to his purpose” (v. 28 ESV). This verse encourages trust in God for one’s future. Consider the proof from 1 Samuel that open theists give, which gives the impression that God regretted His decision to anoint Saul. If God does not know the future, how can we have confidence in His direction?

Ultimately, open theism is an attempt to understand what humans cannot fathom, like the problem of evil. Somehow God’s foreknowledge and human free will co-exist. We may propose any number of explanations, but at the end of the day His thoughts and ways are far higher than ours.

"That's right, son. God knew everything before Google."
Cartoon by Martha Campbell

What are your thoughts on open theism?


See this page on the God Is Open blog for a selection of books for, against, and related to open theism.