Open Theism and Evil, Part I
I've gotten the sense that the problem of evil is the primary motivation for many who subscribe to what's commonly called open theism, i.e. the view that God does not know the future, takes risks, and changes his mind due to learning new information.
Some open theists take God to have voluntarily given up the right to have knowledge of the future for the sake of human freedom. The assumption is that divine foreknowledge and human freedom are incompatible. Other open theists take God's ignorance of the future to be a necessary fact about the nature of time, since there's no future to be known. This view assumes what I call a growing block theory of time. Some think it follows from presentism, i.e. the view that the present exists but the future and past don't, but if presentism is going to justify the view that there are no truths about the future, then it must also justify the view that there are no truths about the past. So it assumes a growing block view, according to which past and present exist but no future, since those truths aren't somehow sense "fixed".
I share neither of these assumptions, so I have little sympathy for open theism, but my concern here isn't to deal with those elements. I'm interested in a different motivation for open theism, the motivation that God's ignorance of the future can explain the kinds and amount of evil in the universe in a much more satisfying way than any other view. I just don't think that's true.
This post at Rebecca Writes has the beginning elements of the kind of argument I want to make here. She argues that the amount of evil explained by God's ignorance of the future isn't sufficient. Even if open theists are correct and God doesn't know what free human beings are going to do in the future, far too many cases of really bad evil could so easily have been prevented. I'd like to explore a couple cases.
Consider the Holocaust. It's true the Htler, his key leaders, and the average solider in the Nazi regime had the freedom to make the choices they made. According to a traditional free will + foreknowledge response to the problem of evil, God mostly allows people to go their way. Open theists motivated by the problem of evil don't see that as good enough, since they find it morally offensive that God might know people to be about to do something so wretched but still not prevent it, so they think God must not know it's about to happen. Yet look at how things went in the Holocaust. There was a steady period of building when the ideas became more and more accepted. People who anyone omniscient about the present could detect were willing to do what they were saying were saying all sorts of awful things about what should be done. These people made it into power. Then they started implementing those decisions, progressively getting worse. For open theism to add anything to the traditional free will response to the problem of evil, at least when it comes to the Holocaust, God must have been hoping for the best while realizing that things were pointing in worse and worse directions the whole time. At each juncture when Jews were being tortured, God would have been sitting back hoping that the people ordered to do things would refuse, even though he knew their psychological makeup and knew that almost everyone who had been put into those situations before had been doing it.
So I question the idea that not being sure of how things will go in any absolute sense gives any reason to absolve God of moral blame for allowing things to go the way they seem likely to go, assuming as they do that it's wrong for God to allow any evil that's foreseen. At this point, it seems that there's no way still to absolve God of some of the things open theism was supposed to absolve God of. Even in situations where someone still has to make a choice, and God can sti and hope the choice will go a way other than the last 50 or 500 times, it seems equally bad (if it's bad to allow a fully foreseen action) to allow an action that seems just pretty likely. If it's bad but not really, really bad then I can see giving room to let people make mistakes, but people who press the problem of evil see the Holocaust as one of the worst things God has to answer for. If the motivation of open theists is to answer that charge, I'm not sure how God's ignorance of the future would do the necessarily explaining. God would have had a fair idea of how likely it would be to keep going. After all, Churchill and Roosevelt did. Presumably God would be a better predictor of the future than they were, even if it's not the real foreknowledge of traditional theism.
Consider also American slavery. Such widespread mistreatment of people was going on that a God who is morally required to stop all evil that can be foreseen as much as possible would have to stop a lot more of it than actually happened, even if God didn't know for sure which locations and people would be doing it and to what degree. Open theism just doesn't have the resources to dodge the hardcore objections pressed by people like William Rowe. If Rowe is right, then even what God would consider likely should be headed off. I don't think Rowe's assumptions are right, and open theists might say the same thing, but then I don't think there's any motivation for open theism anymore. The motivation was to explain the kinds and extent of evil that other explanations didn't cover. If you question Rowe's assumptions then there's no more need for that, since his assumptions are the only thing driving the problem of the extent and amount of evil. I intend a followup post to explain the other explanations of evil traditional theists have offered along with the responses to William Rowe's argument that so motivates open theists. I will argue why those are both necessary even for open theism to respond to Rowe but as good without open theism as they are with it, which seriously undermines open theism's claim to have a better response to the problem of evil.
[If you want to see the comment thread from this post, you can see the Wayback Machine's archive of the original Prosblogion location for this post.]
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Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.