Divine Providence and the Problem of Evil

By | November 18, 2006

Does open theism have any advantages vis-a-vis other theories of divine providence, in particular, theological determinism (hereafter ‘Calvinism’) and theological compatibilism (hereafter ‘Molinism’), with respect to the problem of evil? The answer, I think, is a clear ‘Yes’. Before stating my case, let me briefly define my terms.

By Calvinism I mean the view that God has, as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, meticulously decreed “whatsoever comes to pass”. In other words, everthing that happens ultimately does so because God sovereignly willed it to happen, and there are no limits, other than those coming from God’s own nature, that contrain what God can bring to pass.

By Molinism I mean the view that God has meticulously decreed whatsoever comes to pass, but that there are limits apart from God’s own nature, that constrain what God can bring to pass. Specifically, according to Molinism, God’s creative decision is based on his pre-volitional knowledge of so-called (would-) counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCF’s), over which he has no control. Thus, according to Molinism, God knew, for any possible free creature S placed in any possible free choice-situation C (with circumstance-relative options A and not-A), either that If placed in C, S would freely do A or that If placed in C, S would freely refrain from doing A (i.e., do not-A). Because God has no control over which of these counterfactuals are true, his creative options are narrowed from the class of all possible world to the class of all feasible worlds (i.e., those possible worlds that are compatible with the true CCF’s).

By open theism I mean the view that God has not meticulously decreed whatsoever comes to pass but rather has left some aspects of history ‘open’, to be determined by the free decisions of his creatures.

Finally, the problem of evil is a standard challenge to theism to reconcile the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God with the existence of extensive, and often apparently gratuitous, evil in the world. Theists generally try to meet the problem, at least in part, by developing ‘theodicies’ that try to explain how God is justified in allowing various kinds of evils in the interests of promoting various kinds of goods. There are many theodicies that have been proposed, but it is generally agreed that the most useful and plausible theodicies center around what is known as the Free-Will Defense. The basic idea is that giving creatures free will, so that they can genuinely choose between good and evil, is a really good thing because it makes possible things like genuine loving relationships that would not be possible otherwise. But, so the idea goes, God could not have given creatures free will and also have guaranteed in advance that they never misused it. Thus, God is justified in giving us free will (because it is such a good thing), but when creatures do misuse it to do evil, it is they, and not God, who are to blame.

Of course, the Free-Will Defense is not a complete theodicy on its own. In particular, it says nothing about the suffering resulting from ‘non-moral’ evils like earthquakes and tsunamis. But it does seem to go a decent ways toward reconciling ‘moral’ evil with theism.

Now, let’s look at our three theories of divine providence.

Calvinism as I’ve defined it seems clearly more limited in its theodical options because it has to eschew the Free-Will Defense. After all, if theistic determinism is true, then God can be 100% assured of getting exactly what he wants. Hence, if such a God exists, then it follows that God does get exactly what he wants. If the Holocaust happened, then God must have specifically wanted it to happen. Why? God only knows.

Furthermore, Calvinism implies that God has created either the best of all possible worlds, or, if there is more than one such world, then one of the class of best possible worlds, or if there is no precise standard for determining a class of “best” possible worlds, then one of the class of “pretty darn good” possible worlds. It is far from clear, however, that this is such a world.

Molinism seems to fare better. The counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCF’s) that it posits possess their truth values independently of God. Thus, if God creates Adam and puts him in a certain situation, then God can be certain ahead of time that Adam will freely choose to sin, and God can do nothing about it short of either not creating Adam or creating him but not allowing him into any situation in which he would freely choose to sin. So God can’t be sure of getting anything he might want because the truth values of CCF’s limit his options.

In addition, the Molinist can make some use of the Free-Will Defense, for if Adam freely sins, then God is at least partially exonerated because Adam is the one who sinned, and nothing God could have done could have prevented Adam from freely sinning in the very conditions in which he does freely sin.

But, one wonders, why didn’t God do something different if he was sure that Adam would freely sin? One suggestion is that Adam, along with every other free creature God could have created, possessed “trans-world depravity”. In other words, no matter which free creature God could have created, eventually that being would have chosen to sin if allowed into any significant range of circumstances. I must admit that I find this idea of trans-world depravity highly implausible. Surely, one would think, given the trillions upon trillions of possible free creatures that God could have created and the unknown multitudes of circumstances he could have situated them in, surely at least a few of them wouldn’t have done what Adam did. And if so, then why didn’t God create that kind of world instead?

Furthermore, Molinism implies that God has created either the best of all feasible worlds, or, if there is more than one such world, then one of the class of best feasible worlds, or if there is no precise standard for determining a class of “best” feasible worlds, then one of the class of “pretty darn good” feasible worlds. Again, it is far from clear that this is such a world.

What about open theism? Open theism rejects the meticulous providence of both Calvinism and Molinism. So we don’t have the problem of God eternally decreeing evils or of God’s willing to create a world that he definitely knew ahead of time would contain all the evils that ours does. According to open theism, God has sovereignly decided to create a world with libertarianly free creatures and, since there are no true (would-) counterfactuals of creaturely freedom for God to know and since, according to open theists, libertarian freedom is incompatible with meticulous foreknowledge, God could not know for sure ahead of time what kinds of choices his free creatures will make. God would seem to be less blameworthy for not preventing evils that he didn’t know in advance would happen.

On the open theist view, an all-good God would be expected to create not the best of all possible worlds or the best of all feasible worlds, but the best of all possible means to the best of all possible worlds. Or if there is no unique best means, then one of the class of best possible means. Or, if there is no precise standard for determining a class of “best” possible means, then one of the class of “pretty darn good” possible means. Or, qualifying the goal as well, a “pretty darn good” means to a “pretty darn good” possible world. And now, I think, it is not so clear that our world is not such a world. Not knowing in advance what choices his free creatures would make, the God of open theism would have to govern in accordance with general policies to maintain a high probability of things staying on track.

But surely God knew in advance that it was possible for egregious evils to happen? Why, then, didn’t God “head them off at the pass”, so to speak? One possibility is this: If God curtails our freedom to do egregious evil, then this would also curtail our freedom to do extraordinary goods. Perhaps any general policies that could have ensured that there be no Holocaust would also have ensured that there be no individuals like Mother Theresa.

Okay, but could the God of open theism be guaranteed to defeat evil in the end? In short, Yes. Despite what some critics have charged, God never surrenders his sovereignty in the open theist model. The world remains exactly as open as God wants it to be, no more and no less. Thus, if God wants to put an end to evil once and for all, all he has to do is call “time up” and judge the world. If he has decided to put up with evil for the time being, that is presumably because he thinks that the chances are high that much of it can still be turned for good.

In summary, then, I conclude that open theism does fare significantly better vis-a-vis its two main competitors with respect to the problem of evil. Of course, this is not to say that the problem of evil is not a serious problem for the open theist, just that the problem is somewhat more tractable.

6 thoughts on “Divine Providence and the Problem of Evil

  1. Tom

    Alan: On the open theist view, an all-good God would be expected to create not the best of all possible worlds or the best of all feasible worlds, but the best of all possible means to the best of all possible worlds.

    Tom: Precisely. Nice summarized, Alan.


  2. derek

    you know alan as a glanced over your post i can’t help but see Molinism as a clever reinvigorated form of Calvinism. I have heard someone call molinism “calvinism for catholics,” b/c they obviously didn’t want to adopt a view from Calvin.

    Here is the problem with molinism i see in summary form: all they have done is to ultimately push the questions posed to calvinists (why would God do this, create this world, predestine me to sin, etc, etc) a step further back. Since God has any # of possible worlds he can create, molinists avoid the questions calvinists can’t deal with: why did God create this world knowing adam would sin?

    However, when you realize that God in his “providence” chose this world with sin, molinists are thrown back into the calvinist’s predicament. My question to them would be: why did God choose this possible world?

    They would answer that this is the most feasible world, or one of the best class of feasible worlds, but then we have regressed into either a situation where God’s hands are tied by some outside metaphysical entity (dualism?) or that God’s “best” plan included sin. At that point we have fallen baqck into calvinism, with all of the scary implications for God’s character and the sacred “mystery” arguemnt.

    Sounds like Augustine to me.

  3. Alan Rhoda

    Hi Derek,

    Yeah, Molinism is a perplexing position. It’s been several years now, but I used to be a Molinist. What finally drove me to give up the position was a question posed by William Hasker: How does God come by his knowledge of the CCF’s? It can’t be because he willed them, because his knowledge of them is supposed to be prevolitional. It can’t be grounded in God’s nature, because that would reduce middle knowledge to natural knowledge. It can’t be grounded in the choices of actual free creatures because God has to know which CCF’s are true before it is determined which creatures will be actual. And it can’t be grounded in creaturely essences because then the CCF’s would not be contingent truths, as they have to be if they are to reflect libertarian free choices. In short, there seems to no way to explain how God could possibly know what the Molinist says he does. And now, of course, we’re back to the old “punt to mystery” maneuver.

    As for the Molinist’s view on providence and evil, it really is hard to see how they can do better than Plantinga’s woefully implausible “transworld depravity” idea. How come every possible free creature has this kind of depravity? Punt to mystery.

  4. leon

    First off Swartz has shown that God’s knowlege of future contingents doesn’t preclude liberty nor charge Him with Guilt of sin. I have absolute foreknowledge(epsitemically) of the future contingent “if I have a son, he will sin at least once by the time he turns 21” yet I am not guilty of his sin. Secondly, God knew before He created the world that the Hitlers would arise; He is not ignorant and by mere induction, He would have known with great certainty(since His knowledge is infinite or limitless). The OV is an overly complicated way of defending free will which is unnecessary.

  5. Alan Rhoda

    Hi Leon,

    Swartz has shown nothing of the sort. He’s successfully rebutted one type of incompatibilist argument – one that no one with any sophistication on these matters defends.

    I’ll grant you your example of conditional foreknowledge. All it shows (the incompatibilist will say) is that (fallen) individuals do not have libertarian free will with respect to whether they sin.

    And your point about Hitler is simply question-begging in this context. We both agree that God’s not ignorant – that’s not the issue. The issue is whether there was at the foundation of the world a “fact of the matter” re Hitler for God to know. If you think God comes by this knowledge through induction, then you’ve got to give up divine infallibility (b/c inductive arguments are essentially fallible).


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