John Sanders and the problem of suffering

I’ve been reading the book by Christopher Hall and John Sanders, Does God have a Future? The Debate on Divine Providence. (http://www.amazon.com/Does-God-Have-Future-Providence/dp/0801026040). It’s a debate between an open theist (Sanders) and a classical theist (Hall). Open Theism is, in part, the view that God does not know about all the events that will happen in the future, as many of those events are the result of free human choices, and it is impossible for God to know what humans will freely choose. If he did know all the decisions that we would make in the future, so the open theist’s argument goes, then those decisions are not really free. My comments here have nothing to do with whether or not open theism is correct.

In this book John Sanders claims that in open theism, God has to allow horrendous evil to occur. God, he says, did not know that horrendous evils would ensue when God created the world. “However,” he adds:

Does this really help, since God could have prevented each and every instance of human moral evil? Again, here the answer of openness is not any different from that of traditional Arminians. God could not prevent us from doing harm to one another without constantly violating the very conditions in which he created us to live. That is, God would have to habitually remove our freedom, rendering our lives a world of illusion.

I think that this badly misconstrues what freedom of the will really is. In more general terms, if I handcuff a man to stop him from attacking me, I am “taking away his freedom.” But in philosophical terms, I am doing no such thing. I am preventing him from carrying out a certain course of action, but I am in no way preventing him from willing such a course of action. He is still able to freely chose to try something or wish to do it, and this is what freedom of the will is concerned with.

Would God have to actually take away our freedom in order to stop us from harming each other? Clearly not. He would merely have to stop us from succeeding. Examples of humans doing this are easy to imagine. What if, for example, someone had erected an impenetrable shelter over Dresden just prior to the Allied bombing? The bombers would have been prevented from harming the civilians below, and nobody’s free will would have been interfered with. If God restrained the hand of the violent husbands, stopped the bullets of the school shooters, or changed the course of the planes that smashed into the World Trade Centre, nobody’s free will would have been harmed, and yet it seems pretty obvious to me that people would have been prevented from harming other people. So it’s not true that “God could not prevent us from doing harm to one another” without habitually removing our freedom.

I am not for a moment suggesting that Sanders can think of no reason why the God of open theism does not intervene to protect people from the harmful free choices of others. He has not given such a reason, but I do not know that he has none. I’m curious as to what it is, though.

Glenn Peoples

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16 thoughts on “John Sanders and the problem of suffering

  1. I’ve always thought he was a bit of a nitwit.. but then, those theologyonline.com dudes love him, and they’re all heretics 😛

    The problem always remains, no matter how “free” you will is, you still can not choose to change your own nature.
    So, then I guess, you have to redefine nature – which OT’s do as a matter of course.

  2. But if God were to continuously limit/curtail our “freedom of action” when our acts-of-will would result in harm to others (or ourselves), could we ever *learn* the evilness of our rebellion?

  3. BTW, the “open theists” posit such a small God in claiming that God does not (cannot) know what humans will freely choose.

    The real God is so much bigger than that — he not only knows what humans will freely choose, he knows what we might freely choose: he knows *all* the potential histories of the world. For instance, he knows the potential histories which might have been had Cain not murdered Abel.

  4. GP:I think that this badly misconstrues what freedom of the will really is. In more general terms, if I handcuff a man to stop him from attacking me, I am “taking away his freedom.” But in philosophical terms, I am doing no such thing. I am preventing him from carrying out a certain course of action, but I am in no way preventing him from willing such a course of action. He is still able to freely chose to try something or wish to do it, and this is what freedom of the will is concerned with.

    I wonder, can you see that you’ve just shown ‘Calvinism’ to be unnecessary? And, since it’s false, anyway, why stick with it?

    What I mean about ‘Calvinism’ being unnecessary (and false) is, among other things, that doctrine of total depravity — that no one has the ability to will/desire to stop rebelling against God. And from this that God saves those whom he will, will they or nill they.

    But, in fact, everyone has the ability to will/desire to stop rebelling against God. To deny this is to assert that God is irrational or dishonest. It is also to deny that human “free will” is a reality. For, after all, God is constantly offering us the choice to stop rebelling, and God is constantly warning us of the death in store for those who choose to continue in rebellion. Is God irrational, or dishonest … or stupid?

    In truth, all humans have the ability to will/desire to stop rebelling against God. What we lack, absent God’s grace, is the ability to carry out that act-of-will. And, what we lack is the ability to save ourselves: only God can save us, but we only we can freely desire/will to be saved.

  5. Ilion, you’ve merely misrepresented Calvinism. The doctrine of total depravity does not involve the claim that nobody has the desire to stop rebelling against God. That has nothing at all to do with the doctrine.

  6. GP:Ilion, you’ve merely misrepresented Calvinism. The doctrine of total depravity does not involve the claim that nobody has the desire to stop rebelling against God.

    You’re misrepresenting what I wrote. Or, perhaps you misunderstand “will” and “decide” … and “total.” Or, perhaps you misunderstand logical implication?

    John Piper & Bethlehem Baptist Church Staff: Total DepravityIn summary, total depravity means that our rebellion against God is total, everything we do in this rebellion is sin, our inability to submit to God or reform ourselves is total, and we are therefore totally deserving of eternal punishment.

    Mind you, I do not present the above as an “argument from authority” (like, who is “John Piper,” anyway?), though, I could find the same statement from any number of authorities.

    This is what “total depravity” means … and it means, were it true (as it is not, thank God), that we cannot even choose to *stop* rebelling against God.

    And yet, contrary to the inescapable implications of “total depravity,” God calls and expects us to stop our rebellion; and we can chose to stop rebelling against God. But, because we are enslaved to sin (similarly to the man you’ve handcuffed), we cannot effect the decision to stop the rebelling; we keep falling back into the sin. We can, and must (the decision must be ours, freely made), decide to stop rebelling against God, but we cannot carry out the decision without God’s grace.

  7. Ilion says: “What I mean about ‘Calvinism’ being unnecessary (and false) is, among other things, that doctrine of total depravity — that no one has the ability to will/desire to stop rebelling against God.

    I replied: “Ilion, you’ve merely misrepresented Calvinism. The doctrine of total depravity does not involve the claim that nobody has the desire to stop rebelling against God. That has nothing at all to do with the doctrine.”

    Amazingly, Ilion, you replied by saying that I was misrepresenting you. This is obviously false. I noted exactly what you said, as I just showed. What’s more, you quoted John Piper, but that quote also does not say that people cannot desire to stop rebelling against God.

    Total depravity is, once again, NOT the belief that we cannot desire to stop rebelling against God. It is the belief that we cannot actually stop rebelling against God.

    It’s painful to see you make such large errors and then to imply that I’m somehow failing to understand logical implication.

  8. Sanders may not have articulated what he said in the best way (yet it is a reasonable way to put it). Sure you could have free will restricted to mental events but that results in a drastic reduction of the depth of responsibility which free will was to make possible to begin with.

    Responsibility in the libertarian view is not just a matter of free will. Yes, with the origination of the necessity of an act or thought that libertarian free will accomplishes, we do get an important part of responsibility. But the other part, the depth to which we are responsible has to do with our power to bring things about in the world, not just anything but matters of serious gravity.

    Make responsibility the focus (of course, responsibility as envisioned by libertarians as I have described above) of Sanders’ argument and I think this criticism dissolves.

    As for the insult leveled against Sanders in the comment section, I have personally known Sanders in the past who is a gracious and intelligent man with an authentic love for the Lord and he does not deserve these sorts of belittling comments.

  9. Rob, but responsibility isn’t the point of his argument at all. His point is that God doesn’t stop us from harming each other, so the harm happens. His concern is why God doesn’t “prevent us from doing harm to one another.”

    My point is that God can do this without touching free will at all, and yet still rotect people from harm. This means that it’s as much of an issue for Sanders as it is for Calvin.

    And as for free will: Actually it is restricted to the mental. Stopping a person from doing that which they will to do doesn’t take away their free will, because they still will to it. But Sanders’ argument is definitely about preventing harm without violating free will, and not about responsibility. And it’s a bad argument.

  10. While away doing other things I thought this might be a better way to put it:

    There exists a problem: People decide to do awful things and people get harmed as a result.

    If a Christian rejects libertarian free will, then the challenge will be: Why doesn’t God control what people will? If one accepts libertarian free will, this argument might not be all that impressive because one might embrace the free will defence: Yes God allows torture, rape, and the holocaust, but the evil of taking away libertarian free will is more evil than rape, torture and the holocaust, so God permits free will in spite opf these consequences. This argument (from free will) isn’t the argument Sanders is addressing here. He addresses the enxt argument in the section I have quoted.

    If a Christian accepts libertarian free will, the problem will move past this hurdle and on to the next one: Why does God let people get harmed? Why all the suffering? Surely a divine act of curbing a person’s will is neither more nor less difficult for God than sheltering people from bombs, for example. So why let people harm others?

    Sanders specifies that this is the problem he is addressing, yet he fails to address it. He says that God allows suffering so as not to override free will. But that’s not the issue here, so his response to the problem just fails.

    He actually has a problem on his doorstep no less than a determinist. It’s just a problem that requires a different solution.

  11. Free will and it’s significance for free will theists really is generally discussed in terms of a full package, in terms of not just our deliberations but the actions that result from those deliberations and our responsibility for those deliberations. Furthermore, our actions born out in concrete reality has an intensifying effect on our deliberations, free ones included.

    The point of free will isn’t just to have a will that’s free. It is a necessary aspect of our responsibility, of God creating serious creatures who’s conduct has serious implications. It’s about creatures who’s relationships with each other and the world and to God is so deep that it extends to the point of the vulnerability (hence the potential for harm).

    Even if I or Sanders granted that you are right though, that God could indeed prevent harm without removing our free will (because we are being sticklers on free will here and I am mistaken to think that it is a broader package here that is in mind), there is no reason that we cannot adapt and point out these very things that I have just pointed out. Sure we could still have free will with all potentially harmful results curtailed, at the price of this deep relationship making serious responsibility. It is that price which is inconsistent with God’s purposes in designing us as we are.

  12. The thing is, if God stepped in and protected other people fromt he consequences of your wicked free choices (I say “you” in the generic sense of course), it would not interfere with your responsibility either. You would still be guilty of “attempted X” where X was the harm in question.

    So I don’t see how bringing responsibility into the mix changes anything.

  13. I geuss we disagree on the nature of responsibility.

    It wouldn’t take our responsibility away, but it certainly would reduce it.

    The seriousness of rebellion is indeed drastically reduced if the consequences are always curtailed.

    Responsibility also describes our relationship to states of affairs. here we are only responsible for the intention (or counterfactual of unintended) harmful state of affairs. It hardly seems to me that this is an equivalent responsibility to one that produces actual results where you are responsible for due both the intention and the gravity of it’s results.

    Rebellion surely becomes a more flippant and rebellious thing. If it grieves the heart of God, we would not have the same understanding of the gravity of that grief. Well, we could if God rewired our psychological makeup, but the present system is just more authentic where our intentions and ensuing acts are drawn out in concrete reality.

    Our acts may have less serious implications for others as they do no lead to harm to others, but here, if harm is always curtailed, then rejecting others, indifference to others become more frivolous. Perhaps they would still experience emotional harm, but we are very much wrapped up in our physicality are we not? And we live in a more serious world where there is no solid line between emotional harm and concrete events and physical harm. If we are allowed the greatest extents of emotional harm, I don’t know why allowing this to be born in concrete reality is a worse picture.

    In other words, where do we draw the line in a reasonable curtailment of harm. Truly if God simply removes the concrete from our emotional matrix, we’d still have the earth shattering grief of the sort that feeds and informs the problem of evil. but if this harm too is curtailed, then so is our understanding of the value and importance for responsible living and the value of others. The gravity of grief is a reflection of the importance of something after all. Parents may have unspeakable grief in response to the death of a child because that child is of unspeakable worth.

    In our context of redemption, a world where horrible things happen, the great harm provides opportunity to see the depth of value of individuals and our relationships with them. The depth of the tragedy of harm is a fitting reflection of the grievousness of rebellion that works against that extreme value and worth. In light of that, it is very difficult for me to see that a reduced picture would still amount to an equal degree of responsibility.

  14. Exactly where we draw the line in regard to the curtailment of harm will need to be explained, I suppose, by those who argue that harm is a problem for theism.

    It’s not that we disagree on the nature of reponsibility. We just disagree that reponsibility is actually the issue in the problem Sanders addresses.

    Oh well!

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