Does Jonah Teach Open Theism?

Open theism is the view that God does not exhaustively determine everything that will happen in the future.  He leaves at least some aspects of the future open where significantly free creatures can determine what happens themselves.  God’s omniscience in this view, just like any other, states that God knows all of reality, including the future, exactly the way it is, which means God knows the parts of the future he has determined and he knows the parts of the future that are open.  What he doesn’t know is what will happen during those open times, because, until free creatures actually make their free-will decisions, there is nothing to know about what they will do.  Free creatures determine what happens in the future because God gave them libertarian free-will, and until the moment they actually make those decisions, there is no fact of the matter of what they will choose.  That is why, according to open theists at least, this view does not go against God’s omniscience.  Omniscience means that God knows and believes all true propositions; he knows all the facts.  But if there is no fact of what I will do at a particular time in the future (until that time actually comes), then there is nothing for God to know.  Some theologians hold this view because they cannot see how creatures can have libertarian free-will if God exhaustively knows what we will do in the future.

I am going to look at the book of Jonah, a book that I usually see open theists cite as evidence of their view.  After that, I will show why I do not think that Jonah gives clear evidence for open theism.  This post is not a rebuttal of open theism.  I am simply arguing that Jonah does not give evidence for open theism.

After arguing that God’s omniscience means that he can know all that is logically possible to know, but the future actions of free creatures is not logically possible to know, Richard Swinburne states

My view is, however, implied, I believe, by certain biblical passages; it seems, for example, the natural interpretation of the book of Jonah that, when God told Jonah to preach to Nineveh that it would be destroyed, he believed that probably he would need to destroy it, but that fortunately, since the people of Nineveh repented, God saw no need to carry out his prophecy. (1)

Since reading this, I have heard other Christians on Facebook make the same claim.  Open theism implies that God can change his mind since he works with the free choices of his creatures.  In Jonah, God tells Jonah to speak out against Nineveh that it will be overthrown (1:1, 3:2-4), but when Jonah gives them this message they all repent and God “relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them,” (3:10).  It seems clear from these passages that God planned on destroying Nineveh, but after they repented he changed his mind and decided not to.

I think, rather than change his mind, God planned on relenting from the disaster on Nineveh the entire time.  The text suggests that it was God’s will that Nineveh not be destroyed, not that God decided not to destroy Nineveh after certain circumstances.  Right after God relents of the disaster on Nineveh, Jonah gets angry

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.  And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.  Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:1-4)

When God told Jonah to preach against Nineveh, Jonah knew that there was something else going on here.  He ran away because he knew that God was merciful and would likely save Nineveh rather than destroy it.  This passage seems to suggest that God planned the entire time to save Nineveh-and perhaps teach Jonah something-by using Jonah and the circumstances in his life to bring Nineveh to a state of repentance so that God would forgive them.

Because of this, it is not clear that this passage supports open theism.  In fact, it seems to suggest otherwise.

Update: I just thought of a way that an open theist could respond to this argument by showing that the facts I presented are consistent with their view.  Perhaps God was planning on destroying Nineveh for their evil, but was hoping to save them from that disaster, so he sent Jonah there to preach against them, hoping that that would bring them to a state of repentance.  Jonah suspected that God was hoping to save Nineveh rather than destroy them, so Jonah tried to avoid his call.  So God didn’t know that Nineveh would repent and that he would be able to relent of the disaster, but he knew that they may repent or even likely repent of their evil if he sent Jonah.  So on open theism, God may have planned to try to spare Nineveh the since the beginning even without a guarantee that he would spare them.


(1) Swinburne, Richard. Is there a God? 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 9. Print.

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