Theological Suffering

This is the first post in a loosely-united series called A Theological View of Suffering.

As a grad student, I do a lot of fairly technical theological reading and study. As a minister, one of the things I try to do is talk about theology in an understandable way. Because, after all, no one really likes trying to wade through technical jargon, but anything that helps us to understand God better is a good thing.

When it comes to looking at suffering from a theological perspective, and specifically what God’s role in suffering is, it is important that we first have some understanding of how God interacts with the world. Put in a different way, does God determine all of the “bad” things that happen to us, or does He simply allow them? Or, is God surprised by some of the things which happen to us and unable to do anything about them ahead of time?

All of these questions are related to the nature of God’s providence, or how He interacts with the world. In this post, I want to look specifically at the issue of foreknowledge, or, God’s relationship to the future. To what extent does God possess knowledge of the future? Is His foreknowledge exhaustive, or does He only possess knowledge of those particular events which have been settled as part of His divine plan? And, does God know the events of the future because they will happen, or will they happen because God has determined they will happen?

These questions help to introduce some of the differences between the Calvinist/Reformed, Open Theist, and Arminian perspectives on God’s foreknowledge.[1] To be clear, thousands upon thousands of pages of ink have been spilt on this topic, so this post will, by necessity, abbreviate and oversimplify at times. But my hope is that I will still be able to do an adequate job of summarizing the different perspectives.[2]

Calvinist/Reformed

The Calvinist/Reformed perspective of God’s foreknowledge suggests that God himself determines everything that will happen, decrees every event, and thus, is the cause of all things. In other words, nothing that happens in life happens without God explicitly determining that it will happen. He directly causes all things by virtue of his decrees.

From this perspective, God’s exhaustive knowledge of future events is grounded in his determination of what those events will be. God knows everything that will happen in the future, not because He “observes” those events ahead of time; rather what will happen only happens because God has determined that it be so. As part of this idea, God specifically chooses which individuals will be saved and which will be lost.

Reformed thinkers generally acknowledge that there is tension between God’s foreknowledge and human free will, but ultimately hold that the relationship between these two things is mysterious, and they subordinate the idea of free will to the (in their minds) clear biblical teaching on God’s exhaustive foreknowledge based on His determination of all things.

Calvinist thinkers hold that this view of God’s foreknowledge provides great comfort for the sufferer: we may not know why God chooses the tragic events which unfold during life, but because He causes all things, we can trust that there is some divine purpose which is being worked out. Personally, I’m not so sure.

I think the Calvinist suggestion that God decrees every single event which happens is problematic for at least two reasons. First, it seems to necessarily make God the author of all evil in the world. God doesn’t just allow evil actions to occur; he actively causes them to happen. To be sure, the scriptures present God as someone who uses events which cause great suffering (the flood, for example) to bring about His purposes, but a Calvinist understanding of God’s determinism goes beyond this, and even places God as the cause for the evil actions of individual humans. To me, this raises serious questions about God’s love.

Secondly, the New Testament repeatedly depicts the results of final judgment being contingent upon the things we do (or don’t do) in this life. If ultimately we have no ability to choose what we do because God has ordained every single event of our lives, then the judgment is a sham. Why should we be held accountable for decisions we did not make? So, the Calvinist perspective also seems to raise serious questions about God’s justice.

Open Theism

On the opposite side of the debate is the Open Theist perspective, which holds that God does not possess exhaustive knowledge of the future. Two key arguments lie beneath this perspective.

First, as opposed to Calvinism, Open Theism affirms the reality and importance of human freedom. For Open Theists, God created out of love, and the only way that human beings could genuinely love God in return was for that love to be freely chosen. So, out of his love, God gives humans the ability to choose for themselves, and He honors those choices which we make. One popular Open Theist metaphor is that God’s providence is something like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where the future is partly settled and partly open: God determines the overall structure of the story, the different possible story lines, and even certain events which will follow if certain human choices are made. But within this framework, humans are given the ability to make choices which drastically effect the story. Compared to the Calvinist perspective, in Open Theism, God determines very little, as much of what happens occurs because of the choices of free creatures.

This leads to the second key argument, which is that divine foreknowledge inherently involves a determinism which undermines human freedom. In other words, Open Theists argue that if God were to know ahead of time which choices you would make, then you wouldn’t really be free to choose something else. Thus, Open Theists deny that God knows which free will choices we will make until we make them.

This might seem to undercut God’s omniscience, but Open Theists argue that God is omniscient in that he knows all things that can be known; God has exhaustive knowledge of the past and present, and knows those parts of the future which are settled. What He does not know are those parts of the future which are still open, because they are inherently unknowable. Unlike Back to the Future or all of those crazy Star Trek time-traveling episodes suggest, Open Theists argue that the unsettled future has no true existence; until free creatures make choices which bring the future into existence, there is simply nothing to know. Interesting stuff, right?

I should mention that the Open Theist perspective was largely developed as a response to the Problem of Evil (How can God be powerful and good and permit the existence of evil in the world?). From an Open perspective, suffering occurs because of the evil choices that people make from their own free will, and God does not know that these things will happen until they do. He is disappointed in them just as we are.

There are aspects of the Open Theist perspective which are appealing to me: I appreciate the emphasis on God’s love and the freedom of humans. I find the Open Theist understanding of the future (it is not a “thing” which exists) and the resulting understanding of the nature of God’s omniscience to be interesting, and even possible.

But ultimately, I think Open Theism fails to take seriously the degree to which the bible indicates that God does, in fact, know the events of the future (think for example, of Jesus predicting Peter’s denial and Judas’s betrayal). And in many ways, this seems to me to be indicative of the entire Open Theist approach: rather than starting with the text of Scripture and then determining how God acts providentially in the world, it begins with the desire to save God from the blame for suffering in the world and tries to shoehorn that desire into Scripture. For sure, that is questionable biblical interpretation but more than that, I’m not sure it works, either: if God is limited to the point that He is surprised by the bad choices we make and legitimately cannot do anything about them, how can we be certain that He will ultimately “win” in the end and defeat evil and death?

Arminian

Between the Calvinist and Open Theist points of view is the Arminian perspective, which upholds both the foreknowledge of God (unlike Open Theism) and the ability of humanity to make free moral decisions (unlike Calvinism). Arminians hold that God does possess exhaustive foreknowledge, but that God knows the future because it will happen. God’s foreknowledge of the future actions of people does not somehow mean that He causes those things to happen. For Arminians, God is not bound by time, and is simply able to see the future decisions that humans will freely make without determining those decisions in any way.

Reformed, Open, Arminian

Related to the issue of suffering, Arminians (like Open Theists) emphasize the importance of human freedom and argue that much of the suffering which occurs in our world is related to the bad choices that people make. However, since Arminians (like Calvinists) believe that God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of the future and that He is not caught off guard by the decisions we make, they can also believe that God can plan around the bad decisions that people make and work through those things to bring out good (Romans 8.28 comes to mind).

I think that the Arminian idea of simple foreknowledge makes the most sense and also best reconciles the biblical tension between God’s omniscience and human freedom. I struggle to understand the arguments which suggest that God’s foreknowledge necessarily implies determinism. In my own very limited foreknowledge, I can occasionally predict future events without somehow determining that those events take place. If I see a child take an egg out of a carton and drop it on the concrete floor, I can be confident that the egg will break without that “foreknowledge” somehow causing the egg to break. Based on my limited knowledge and experience, I can almost “see” it happen. How much more would an omniscient God who is not bound by time be able to look into the future and see the events which free creatures freely choose without that knowledge somehow determining the choice?

There are some questions which we simply cannot answer this side of eternity, and each of these perspectives have their weak points, but to me, Arminianism supplies the best response to God’s knowledge of the future, and also His relationship with suffering. God does not specifically cause every bad thing which happens (but certainly He causes some: the Flood), but He knows that they will happen, and is thus, best equipped to work through those things in order to bring about our good and His glory.

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[1]To be clear, the Calvinist/Reformed, Open Theist, and Arminian perspectives are not the only options, and we could talk about the ideas of Deism or Process Theology as well. Generally speaking though, those last two options are considered to be outside the confines of orthodox Christianity, and are not covered here.

[2]If you are interested in reading more, a couple of good resources are Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views, edited by Bruce A. Ware, and Four Views on Divine Providence, edited by Dennis W. Jowers. The essays presented in those books largely comprised the sources for the material I present in this post.