Problems with Sanders’s View of Providence

July 21st, 2014 / 14 Comments

My friend, John Sanders, has written a powerful proposal for understanding God’s providence. As an open and relational theologian myself, I agree with much of it. But there’s a key problem with his view…

In a recent blog, I summarized Sanders’s version of open and relational theology. I agreed with all I put in my summary of Sanders, which comes from his immensely important book, The God Who Risks. My in-depth study of Sanders’s work is part of a book project of my own, made possible in part by a grant from the Randomness and Providence project.

I also want to say before noting our differences that John Sanders and I are good friends. I consider John a fine scholar and exemplary Christian.

My disagreement with Sanders is over theological points. We both endorse main themes of open and relational theology, and we agree on so much. But our disagreement is over an important set of issues: power, love, and evil.

According to Sanders, God Permits Evil

My central disagreement pertains to how Sanders views the relation between God’s love and power. I disagree with Sanders when he says God allows or permits genuine evil.

In The God Who Risks, Sanders often says God permits evil when it could have been prevented (all quotations in this blog come from that book). “Evil is allowed but not desired by God,” he says. “God permits things to happen, both good and bad, that he does not specifically intend.” General sovereignty “allows for pointless evil.” And “God has the power to prevent sin and evil from coming about.”

When Sanders talks about evil, he apparently means genuine evil. Genuine evils have no specific purpose; they are gratuitous. “Some evil is simply pointless because it does not serve to achieve any greater good,” says Sanders. “Horrible events happen that God did not want to occur.”

But God has a reason for not preventing gratuitous evil, says Sanders. The reason has to do with “the nature of the divine project.” The divine project involves what Sanders calls “general sovereignty.” God’s general sovereignty “does not allow for each and every such evil to be explained,” because “God is only responsible for the structures within which we operate and for those specific acts in history God elects to do.” God’s creational project makes possible the structures of existence in which evil and suffering could occur. But according to Sanders, God does not directly intend or cause evil.

God is ultimately responsible for evil, according to Sanders. “It may be said that God, in permitting significant others who have in fact done evil, takes responsibility for creating a world in which such evil could obtain. But God cannot be blamed for the actual evil of the creatures, since God did not intend it.” Here, Sanders seems to distinguish between God’s ultimate decision to create the universe and the belief that God did not want particular evils.

Is God Like a Parent or Teacher? No

A critic might respond that the God Sanders describes does not act like a loving parent, let alone a perfectly loving God. A loving mother would prevent pointless harm to her child, if she were able. She would not stand by and allow others to assault her child.

While God acts like a loving parent in some respects, says Sanders, God acts differently in others. “Unlike a human parent, God is uniquely responsible for upholding the ontological, moral, and relational structures of the universe.” In other words, God does not prevent genuine evil in specific cases, because God is concerned about the whole.

Sanders also believes God does not act like a teacher whom we might think should halt trouble in the chaotic classroom. For instance, we might think a loving teacher, if he were able, would prevent one student from bullying another. Bullying is an evil we would want to thwart.

In response to the classroom analogy, Sanders says the almighty God “could veto any specific act.” But if God “made a habit of it, then he would turn the beloved into an automaton and thus find himself alone,” says Sanders. “God cannot prevent all the evil in the world and still maintain the condition of fellowship intended by his overarching purpose in creation.” Again, Sanders believes God fails to prevent specific evils, because God has to manage the entire universe.

Notice that Sanders talks about God “making a habit” of vetoing specific acts. This suggests he believes God can and perhaps does occasionally veto acts by controlling others or situations. He says, for instance, “in the God-human relationship, God sometimes decides alone what will happen.” There are “specific acts in history God elects to do.” “Sometimes God unilaterally decides what shall be…” And “there are some things that the almighty God retains the right to enact unilaterally.” Assuming God acts in relation to creatures, the specific divine actions Sanders mentions in these quotations seem to require God to control creatures completely.

We might summarize Sanders’s overall explanation in this way: God decided to create a world in which free creatures might exist and enjoy unforced relationship. Sometimes, however, free creatures do evil. God has the capacity to determine specific acts unilaterally, thereby preventing genuine evil. But God does not usually do so, which means God voluntarily chooses not to prevent evil. God allows it. Controlling others too often would result in a world of robots instead of free creatures.

What Would Victims Say to Sanders’s Proposal?

If I have summarized Sanders’s view correctly, I wonder how the victims of atrocious evils would respond to it. How would the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing respond? What would parents whose child was born with severe disabilities think of it? Or how would victims of rape and murder respond to Sander’s explanation of evil?

I doubt any of these people would find satisfying Sanders’s view that God permits evil that God could have stopped. I do not.

Sanders’s view says God could prevent these instances of evil. But God chooses not to do so. God’s choosing to allow genuine evils is somehow for the good of overall creation. “God elects not to renege on the conditions he established,” to use Sanders’s words. Instead of preventing these evil events, God chooses to “maintain the conditions of fellowship intended by his overarching purpose in creation.” Sanders seems to believe God cannot maintain creation’s overall purpose and prevent individual evil.

We need to listen first to the stories of the victims.

Sanders Says God Voluntarily Restrains from Preventing Evil

Sanders believes God’s failure to prevent evil derives from God’s voluntary commitments. “God does not give up power,” says Sanders, “but he does promise to adhere to the creational structures he made.” And this “divine self-restraint should be understood as the restraint of love in concern for his creatures.”  

But this voluntary self-restraint does not sound loving to me!

I doubt God’s alleged self-restraint would sound loving to rape victims and others who endure genuine evil. I cannot imagine God, “I could have prevented your rape, but I voluntarily restrained myself from doing so. I didn’t stop those who violated you, because I am the perfect lover.”

I’m sure most victims of genuine evil think real concern would mean preventing the evil they endured, if prevention had been possible. And Sanders believes God could have prevented these evils, stopped their horrific suffering instantly. The sovereign and loving God who could enact some things unilaterally, as Sanders puts it, should avert pointless misery and death. The God who can veto any specific act should veto acts of genuine evil.

God sometimes “decides alone” or “unilaterally decides what shall be,” says Sanders. The God with the capacity to determine unilaterally, however, apparently has not believed the evil and suffering in the world and our personal lives were bad enough to prevent. Evidently, God’s preventing them would have been worse than allowing them.  In my view, however, God’s failure to prevent genuine evil doesn’t sound like God is, as Sanders claims, “fundamentally opposed to sin, evil, and suffering.”

Do Genuine Evils Occur?

At stake is whether rape and the other atrocities are genuine evils. Genuine evils are events that, all things considered, make the world worse than it might have otherwise been. Sanders believes God allows pointless, gratuitous, or genuine evils, so he apparently thinks such evils occur. And he would likely say many atrocities we encounter are genuine evils.

The version of open and relational theology Sanders offers, however, does not actually consider these specific atrocities genuinely evil. His view implies that if God were to intervene and prevent them, God would be unloving.

Preventing the Boston Marathon bombing, for instance, would have been wrong. Love would not have been expressed were God to have prevented the actual rapes, murders, genocides, and incest we have witnessed in our world. God’s loving activity, according to Sanders, entails upholding the ontological, moral, and relational structures of the universe.

Preventing these specific atrocities, on his view, is not the way of love.

Sanders Seems to Offer a Best of All Possible Worlds Theodicy

Sanders’s position ends up sounding like a “best of all possible worlds” defense to the problem of evil. According to it, God allows evil because preventing it would undermine the good of the overall project. Sanders admits that many atrocities are “pointless evils” and “God does not have a specific purpose in mind for these occurrences.” But he also seems to believe “some evils are justified for some greater good.”

I find it difficult to imagine how God preventing rape and murder in any particular instance would throw out of balance the structures of the universe. I am not convinced the creation project requires God to allow genuine evils – including the Boston Marathon bombing, the debilitating condition of severely handicapped infants, the rape and murder of innocent women, and countless other atrocities.

This doesn’t sound to me like God desires, as Sanders alleges, to “bless them with all that is in their best interest.”

Sanders believes open and relational theology supports well the idea that we each have a personal relationship with God. I agree. But in these powerfully personal stories of suffering, tragedy, and evil, Sanders believes God allows atrocities for the good of the whole. His position emphasizes the whole and undermines the personal aspect of open and relational theology he elsewhere embraces.

In short, Sanders fails to solve the problem of evil. And the result is that we should wonder whether God loves perfectly after all.


Without a solution to the problem of evil, we cannot make sense of numerous events in our world. Sanders’s overall version of open and relational theology is largely helpful, and I agree with the majority of what he proposes. But it fails to answer well this crucial question: “Why doesn’t a powerful and loving God prevent all genuine evil, especially specific instances of horror in our personal lives?”

In the final segment of my exploration of Sanders’s view, I’ll show the key difference between his version of open and relational theology and mine. I think readers will be surprised by what I say.  I’ll argue that Sanders’s doesn’t follow through when he correctly says love is God’s preeminent attribute.

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Michael Faber

Would God be more loving if he arbitrarily prevented certain evils, but allowed others, or prevented all evils?

And if the latter,  what is the impact to God declaring that men have free will?

It seems to me that if man has dominion in the earth as part of being made inge image of God, that preventing evil arbitrarily treads upon that image of God in us.

And if the image of God is tread in by God, can His purpose in creating be accomplished?


Tom, you present a challenging argument. I am not sure too many people will agree with you however about because God is able to stop evil then he should.  Your comment, “I wonder how the victims of atrocious evils would respond to it [Sander’s view].” I think most would find his does not go far enough. As I heard one of the relatives say about his brother’s death in the the shooting down of MH17 “God has a plan and purpose for this…”  I don’t think popular opinion is on either of your sides.

I have wondered what the world would look like if God did stop every act of evil, as you say he should if he could.  Would there be any genuinely virtuous acts? Would there ever be courage or generosity? What would creativity look like if there was not real risk?

Maybe we should say that God could allow minor evil but not gratuitous. But, I have to admit, I am not sure what is “gratuitous” and what is not any more. Is it gratuitous to let my child experience any pain I could alleviate? Is it gratuitous for God to allow one person about of hundreds to die or is it only gratuitous when large numbers die? Or are some injuries gratuitous and others not? 

But I also wonder if God ever could stop evil as you envision God. It seems to me you argue God can never coerce, not people and perhaps not nature (and perhaps coercing nature would coerce people somehow). So, as you have said, God simply cannot stop evil. But if this is true, then your entire discussion of what God would/should do seems mistaken. Can we ever say God should end evil is God could, since in your theology this would be like God creating a square circle? For God to stop evil would mean for God to be something other than God, yes? For the ending of evil is a coercive act. Yes? 

I have not found it, but I am still searching for that middle ground. 

Thanks for this post!

Tony Scialdone

In any in-house discussion of theology, it seems that Scripture should be considered prior to drawing a conclusion.

James Goetz

Hi Tom,

I have enjoyed reading your approach to theodicy and our previous communication about theodicy. I enjoy this post about your criticism of John Sanders view of divine providence because I have recently contemplated your concern about theodicies that propose that God allows genuine evil. Let me breakdown this debate.

You suppose that God would never allow genuine evil because that would make God guilty of evil. Since human history contains genuine evil, you suppose that God could not have prevented any of the genuine evil that occurred apart from more human cooperation to prevent evil, which did not happen. In your 2010 *The Nature of Love*, chapter 5, footnote 59, you refer to possible biblical miracles of nature that never involved coercion of nature. Evidently, you suppose that this divine ability of noncoercive miracles of nature could not have possibly prevented some of the genuine evil in human history because godly humans did not participate enough in the prevention of any of the genuine evil that occurred. I suppose that such a view of miracles is a bare minimum for the tradition of Charismatic Christianity and most other Christian traditions.

I hope that I correctly interpreted the logic of your argue. Please clarify if I misunderstood anything.

Assuming I correctly understand your view, then I want to outline two of my concerns about it:

1. Your view indicates that God would never possibly allow human agency to confront genuine evil while possibly failing to prevent genuine evil.
2. Your interpretation of possible miracles of nature might contradict your view that God would systematically prevent genuine evil before it ever arises.

I look forward to continuing our dialogue about divine providence and theodicy.


David Woodruff

I have several concerns with your analysis.  Here I want to address your, “best of all possible worlds” critique.  There is a key difference between Sander’s position and a best of all possible worlds view.  For Sander’s God is choosing to let humanity to take part in determining which possible world will be actualized.  As I understand John, in response God works with us to bring about the best, given the choices we have made.  Clearly that world falls short of being the best possible.  The world that has resulted from our choices is one where there are exceedingly better worlds where we have made better choices.  There may be a distant similarity, but it is pretty far from any ordinary ‘best of all possible worlds’ defense.  It is not, as that defense typically alleges, that for all we know this is the best possible world.  We have good reason to think otherwise.  As long as John grants that there is gratuitous evil, by definition he is not offering a best of all possible worlds defense. 

What it does seem is that God is always working to bring it about that the best possible thing comes from the evil at hand.  As you know my son has bone cancer.  We were faced with the difficult choice of what to do about the tumor.  It had to be removed, and as such his knee had to be removed.  What we asked with Peter was what was the best decision to make given the circumstances he faced.  None of the options were desirable, but we worked to choose the best.  This hardly constitutes choosing or bringing about the best of all possible worlds. 

Again, assuming I understand John’s position, what God cannot do is give humans freewill and also bring about the best of all possible worlds.  What God can do is work to respond to the choices humans make, where many are bad, to bring the best from that circumstance.  God cannot prevent the rape, without giving up on freewill.  Now it might be argued that freewill wasn’t a good that made the rape worth it, but you haven’t argued that here so I won’t try to respond to a point you didn’t make.

My son’s cancer does I think press John a but further.  From all appearances it was not the result of the free actions of any person.  So you might want to question John on what aspect of the overall project this would interfere with.  How ever he responds it seems significantly different from a best of all possible world defense.

Thomas Jay Oord


Thanks for the responses. A few quick thoughts:

Michael – I’ll answer one question: Problems emerge when we say God prevents some evil but not others. If this is so, God seems arbitrary, and those who affirm this typically appeal to mystery. I think the best solution says God isn’t in the business of picking and choosing which evils to prevent.

Curtis – Your comment about God squaring a circle gets at my solution: I’ll say God cannot stop genuine evil because doing so would mean God forsakes God’s loving nature that gives freedom, agency, and law-like regularities to the world. God cannot do these things, because they are expressions of God’s immutable nature of love. And so,  to use the Apostle Paul’s phrase, God “cannot deny himself.”

Tony – Good point. The Bible verse in the last sentence of my previous comment will play an important role in my solution to the problem of evil.

Jim – I’m not sure I understand your two questions. So please rephrase.

David – I think I need a different phrasee than “best possible worlds.” Your comments and my further reflection make me realize many people think of best possible worlds scenarios in rather static forms, as if there are an array of static states from which God chooses (ala Molinism). Maybe I should say John has a “best of all possible creation frameworks” or something. Wanna give me some suggestions for how to describe John’s view well? As for your statement about God bringing the best given what is possible, I agree entirely. I say God squeezes whatever good God can get out of what God didn’t want in the first place. I simply think we must say more than this about why God failed to prevent these genuine evils in the first place. Finally, my current book explores issues of genuine randomness and evil, which I assume would be the primary cause of your son’s cancer. (Genetic mutations?) If you think otherwise, let me know. I’ll be making what I think is a novel argument about God’s eternal nature of love shaping God’s interactions even with inanimate and simple organisms, thereby meaning God cannot interrupt the law-like regularities that govern what occurs at those more basic levels of existence. If God could interrupt them, God would be culpable for genuine evils caused by activity at those levels, which I’d argue your son’s cancer entails.

Keith Besherse

David Woodruff,
I think that Tom does not mean that God is creating “the best world” by allowing evil.
He is saying that John Sanders’ theology gives so much room to explain circumstances (the human observer can evaluate the situation and decide to describe the results as either the result of God’s interaction or lack of God’s interaction) that it fails to explain.
I am sure that if I have misconstrued the meaning behind use of “best of both worlds” Tom will correct me.
Very Respectfully,

David Woodruff

Here are two suggestions:
Best With All Possible Worlds
Best of All Possible Contingencies.  Nothing wrong with your suggestion.  I just figured I’d offer some other options.

I think randomness is currently the best guess as to why Peter has cancer.  On the face of it I’m not sure what to do with the idea that God cannot interrupt the law like regularities.  Randomness seems to say that “Law like regularities” don’t apply.  It also seems that you will have to argue that either there is only one set of Laws possible (something I doubt – but a few physicist are still holding out for) or that all the possible sets of laws include just the sort (nature and extent) of evil we find in this world.  Or did I miss something?

James Goetz

Tom, thank you. I actually did not ask questions but raised problems that I see with your view that counters John’s view. I’ll try to make myself clearer. For now, I will focus on my first concern.

“1. Your view indicates that God would never possibly allow human agency to confront genuine evil while possibly failing to prevent genuine evil.”

Your view supposes that God would always prevent genuine evil if God was capable of preventing the evil. You also suppose God would be guilty of genuine evil if God allowed genuine evil. This would logically necessitate that God would never allow humans to confront and attempt to resolve genuine evil when there is a possibility for the humans to temporarily fail in their attempt to confront and resolve genuine evil. This as well means that God would prevent humans from learning by trial and error when confronting genuine evil because that would allow some genuine evil. Likewise, if God were to allow humans to learn by trial and error while confronting and resolving genuine evil, then you would suppose God is guilty of any resultant genuine evil. If you understand what I wrote in the paragraph, do you agree or disagree with my analysis of your view? If I still did not make myself clear, then I’ll try again grin


john sanders


I don’t have time for a really careful read and reply. Sorry. Just a few comments. First, I thought I explicitly said that my view does not “solve” the problem of evil. My position is just a variation of the traditional freewill defense for moral evil and a natural law approach to natural evil. Views such as yours which “solve” the problem by taking a position on divine power that God cannot prevent any evil have a different problem: how to explain miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus. As you know, I do not find what you say in your two books on love at all plausible here and thus your view undercuts a central tenet of Christianity. Of course, you believe your view can uphold this. All views have strengths and weaknesses and I will live with the weaknesses of my view.

I agree with Woodruff that I do not affirm a best of all possible worlds approach. i like Hasker’s concept of “world type”. God creates a particular type of world with particular structures and part of that is libertarian freedom. It is not each and every act that somehow fits into a best of all possible worlds but the type of world God created. By the way, I really like Hasker’s The Triumph of God over evil. i think it is the most thorough treatment of evil from an open theist perspective.

Finally, you say”“in the God-human relationship, God sometimes decides alone what will happen.” There are “specific acts in history God elects to do.” “Sometimes God unilaterally decides what shall be…” And “there are some things that the almighty God retains the right to enact unilaterally.” Assuming God acts in relation to creatures, the specific divine actions Sanders mentions in these quotations seem to require God to control creatures completely.” In these statements I have in mind divine acts such as the exodus, incarnation, and resurrection. God unilaterally decides on the incarnation but even here God sought the cooperation of Mary and did not force it on her. Though I left open the possibility of God rarely overriding human freedom I actually never use that idea to explain any particular scriptural story or as part of addressing the problem of evil. Polkinghorne said that was the key point of disagreement between his view and the first edition of God Who Risks and I modified what I said about it in revised edition.
Thanks for the conversation.

Thomas Jay Oord

John – Thanks for this response (and a similar one on my facebook page). I appreciate your taking the little time you have available to sketch out a few responses.

I agree that you don’t try to solve the problem of evil in The God Who Risks. That is my central criticism of your version of open and relational theology. If I thought my alternative could not account for the resurrection and other miracles, I would consider my alternative weak. Of course, I think I can account for those activities. We obviously don’t agree on the relative strength of my alternative.

As far as best of all possible worlds language, I may go with “world type” or something David W suggests. As for Bill H’s book, I like it when he shows the weaknesses in various approaches. But his response to the reconception of divine power inherent in process thought is weak. In my view, he misunderstands the distinction between God being responsible for something and being morally culpable for it.

As for your last point, I had wondered this as I reread The God Who Risks. In fact, I vaguely remember talking with you about it, and you saying Polkinghorne’s comments were influential in your revisions.

But I finally decided that I could not imagine any of the activities you list as occurring completely outside any and all creaturely relations. This is especially true if we are to regard them as acts of love, which I believe are fundamentally relational. If God “enacts unilaterally,” that enacting would have to be in relation to others. And “unilaterally” suggests others don’t contribute, and they are therefore unilaterally determined.  So I plan to keep this criticism in my writing.

I believe it is important to say God can act unilaterally (which I affirm) but cannot determine unilaterally (which I deny). In the first case, nothing but God’s own nature prevents God from acting. But in the second case, the determination of an event in relation to others requires the causal efficacy of others too. To unilaterally determine others would be to coerce them, in the metaphysical sense.

Thomas Jay Oord

David – what do you think of “world types” as suggested by John S (and, apparently, Bill H)?

As far as regularities, two points:

The more I think about cancer, the more I think the primary causation at play is something like micro agency. So this would fall under my view that a God of love can’t override, withdraw, or fail to provide agency to entities capable of expressing agency.

To your main point: I think there’s a third alternative that says some law-like regularities obtain in any world God might create because they derive from God’s loving nature. Other laws-like regularities are contingent and found possibly only in our world as creaturely habits of existing have become ingrained over long periods of interaction with God and others.

Thomas Jay Oord

Jim – Thanks for restating. I’m sorry I couldn’t get a handle on your first pass.

Here are a few comments interspersed in yours:

“Your view supposes that God would always prevent genuine evil if God was capable of preventing the evil.”


“You also suppose God would be guilty of genuine evil if God allowed genuine evil.”

I would say God can’t be perfectly loving if God were able to prevent genuine evil but allowed it nonetheless.

“This would logically necessitate that God would never allow humans to confront and attempt to resolve genuine evil when there is a possibility for the humans to temporarily fail in their attempt to confront and resolve genuine evil.”

Your previous sentence early on talks about God “allowing,” and I’m saying this word usually presupposes God has unilaterally determinative power. I deny this.

“This as well means that God would prevent humans from learning by trial and error when confronting genuine evil because that would allow some genuine evil.”

In this sentence, you use “would prevent.” This is also a word that seems to presuppose God has the power to allow or prevent. I deny this.

“Likewise, if God were to allow humans to learn by trial and error while confronting and resolving genuine evil, then you would suppose God is guilty of any resultant genuine evil.”

See my previous two comments as they pertain to “allow” in your sentence above.

Perhaps I can summarize what I see may differentiate us: you seem to be presupposing that God has the ability to control situations entirely as you probe my position. But I’m denying God has that kind of totally determining capability.

James Goetz

Hi Tom,

I evidently still need to avoid ambiguity while expressing my concern. I need more clarity in my definitions and sentences. I’ll try again grin

I understand that you deny that God has unilateral force to prevent all genuine evil. Given that, you hypothetically propose that if God had unilateral force to prevent all genuine evil, then God would definitely prevent all genuine evil. You also hypothetically propose that if God had unilateral force to prevent all genuine evil and yet allowed some genuine evil, then God would be guilty of the genuine evil that occurred. These hypothetical proposals counter John Sanders’s view and also the view of many other relational theists such as myself.

I’ll define *HP1* and *HP2*:
HP1: If God had unilateral force to prevent all genuine evil, then God would prevent all genuine evil.
HP2: If God had unilateral force to prevent all genuine evil and yet allowed some genuine evil, then God would be guilty of the genuine evil that occurred.

I understand our differences. John and I accept the *if* parts of HP1-2 while you reject the *if* parts. Also, John and I reject the *then* parts of HP1-2 while you hypothetically accept the *then* parts.

My concern focuses on your hypothetical acceptance of the then parts. For example, your acceptance of the then parts of HP1-2 necessitates that God would never allow humans to learn by trial and error while trying to resolve genuine evil because that would allow the existence of some genuine evil. This would take humans out of any real important agent role for the resolution of genuine evil. The collateral damage of such divine micromanagement would never allow humans to reach their potential as divine agents. Likewise, God has justly divine prerogative to allow some level of genuine evil that allows humans to reach their potential as divine agents. Also, God has a justly long-term plan and inexhaustible love for all humans and never gives up on any human regardless of hell.

Do you understand my concern?

I suppose I might need to know more about your definition of *genuine evil*. For example, Do you suppose that there is some horrific evil that is not *genuine evil*?

Thank you for the dialogue.


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