“We don’t need the bible to know evil sucks,” writes Tom Oord, who has now taken off the gloves in his forthcoming work, God Can’t. In what might be his most transparently honest work to date, Tom goes after the Golden Calf of Christian theology: the idea that God Can do anything. Hang on tight because this is a ride you do not want to miss.
For people of faith, there is little more polarizing than the statement “God Can’t.” In fact, those words do not make much sense. Isn’t part of what makes God God that God can do anything? If there is something God cannot do wouldn’t God be barely more than us mere mortals? Many people of faith hold to their faith precisely because the God they believe in can do whatever he needs to, when he needs to, to make their life better or save them from peril. This idea is the great security blanket of believers, for even though God may never do the many things ascribed to “him” it is comforting to know that he could. We may never meet a divine superman, but its good to know he’s in the building just in case.
But what do we do when we run head up against the inexplicable evil of life and superman doesn’t show up? When we pray, hope, trust in God, yet nothing changes, or worse, further bad things happen?
Does God become nothing more than the ultimate fudge factor by which we give reason for our suffering? Rather than God becoming a deliverer from our suffering, God becomes the cause and excuse of it, the way we rationalize it (“everything happens for a reason” or “God’s ways are higher than our ways” they say).
Yet, how does one make sense of God’s love, or the idea of God as a loving God, while also contending that God restrains his power to allow evil to happen to us for some “higher” purpose?
What higher purpose could come from the family whose child suffocates in their car from heat exhaustion, or drowns in the pool because the family lost track of 2-3 minutes, or allowed someone to be sold into sex trafficking and abused for a decade? Are these genuinely evil things really a part of God’s plan? Are these things that a loving God would allow if God had the power to change yet for some reason higher than human reason does not intervene?
Tom Oord’s recent book, God Can’t, tackles these tough questions with an emphatic answer: Genuine evil happens to us and there is absolutely nothing God can do about it by himself. It’s not that God chooses to not intervene or has limited his power in some way; it’s that God is metaphysically incapable of physically intervening in the world to prevent these random acts of evil. It’s not God’s choice to refrain from acting, God is limited by his nature and essential characteristics. To use Tom’s language, God is the God of Uncontrollling Love. God loves us but that love is never demonstrated in coercive ways, either for good or ill. Tom’s not letting God off the hook for bad things, he’s simply saying God was never on the hook to begin with.
In other words, there are some things God simply can’t do, but don’t lose heart because the acknowledgment that “God Can’t” do some things opens a whole host of things God can, and does, do to work in creation, it just looks different than the Godly superman we have all learned to adore.
Foremost, if one has become an atheist or left the church because of inexplicable suffering or evil that was glossed/excused by their pastor or by those who tell us “everything happens for a reason,” the goodnews that Tom presents is that you can still believe in God and love despite your suffering. You can still believe in God because God is not the source of all your suffering. You don’t have to abandon belief or faith. In fact, God suffers with you in your suffering and wishes the evil that happened to you had never occurred.
Tom’s starting point theologically, is Wesleyan, and as such his assumptions about God do not begin with the traditional categories of omnipotence, omniscience or Thomistic Simplicity. Unlike many theologians, Tom’s presupposition about God could be best labeled omni-altruistic: God is at all times, and all places, acting in love. And this is how we know where God is acting: God is present where love is found and incarnated, where creation flourishes anywhere in the universe love is found. Further, as creatures we can know what love is and need not be mystified or chalk up to mystery trying to understand evil that happens to us as God’s means of loving us.
While this may sound radical, it is a radicality grounded in experience, reason, scripture, and yes, even tradition. This radical rethinking of traditional ideas of God is staged in the Introduction as Tom illustrates for us the tensions found between believing in God while simultaneously witnessing the horrific suffering of hundreds via the recent Las Vegas shooting tragedy in which 58 people were killed and 851 others injured. Tom frames the problem like this
“Many people think God had the power to prevent the Las Vegas shooting, its deaths, injuries, and resulting trauma. They think God could have warned ofﬁcials, temporarily paralyzed the gunman, jammed the riﬂes, or redirected every bullet ﬂying 400 yards. They assume God has the ability to do just about anything…After the shooting, some “explained” why God failed to stop the tragedy. “There’s a higher purpose in this,” they said. Others appealed to mystery: “We just can’t understand God’s ways”
This, of course, begs the obvious question: If God is loving, and if God stands against violence and evil, and God also has the power to stop it, why doesn’t God stop it? It is little wonder many have become atheists over these questions.
What is at stake is nothing more than the morality of God.
Tom divides his argument into 5 ideas. They are necessarily disclosed in chapters but what’s really happening is the argument that God Can’t is presented in 5 clear ideas, each building on the other, until the reader has a coherent view of the Tom’s picture.
Idea 1: God cannot Prevent Evil. Tom illustrates why God can’t, rather than won’t, prevent evil and demonstrates the advantages to understanding God as one not responsible for evil as opposed to being a co-conspirator with evil.
Idea 2: God does not cause our suffering for a higher purpose or reason; God suffers with us. God does not create our suffering and God wishes it had never occurred.
Idea 3: God is working to heal us. So what of divine intervention if God Can’t? Miracles are the result of the right conditions for healing and God is always working at even the smallest cellular level to heal us and the world, but God does not singlehandedly change our biology because God’s love is Uncontrolling. You need to read this chapter.
Idea 4: God squeezes good from bad. God does not cause bad things to happen in order to bring good things about, but God can squeeze some good out of a bad situation. Many stories illustrate this.
Idea 5: God needs our cooperation. If God were all powerful in physical ways, we human creatures would be afterthoughts, hamsters on a wheel simply living out a foreordained divine play. However, since God’s love is Uncontrolling, God needs us to use our bodies to help him work in the world. The apostle Paul famously says something similar when he calls the Church the “the body of Christ.” In other words, we matter.
Of course, this thesis requires some heavy theological/intellectual lifting. God Can’t is not a heavy academic piece. It is the culmination of 20 years of theoretical work that has now taken practical shape. God Can’t is written to be widely read and is practical in its approach to the problem of suffering and evil. Therefore, Tom’s argument in this book will not please everyone because the theoretical space from which this argument is made is enclosed in the corpus of Tom’s work for the last 20 years.
From his earliest writings nearly 20 years ago, Tom has been working on the problem of evil because it too was the problem that for a short time turned him into an atheist. Thankfully, Tom continued in his theological journey and concluded that belief in God is more probable than not. This is how he describes it,
“I realized that if a loving God did not exist, I could not make sense of my deep intuitions about love. Without God as the ultimate love standard, I could not explain what love means and why I — or anyone else — ought to express it. These and related issues led me eventually to think it more plausible than not that God exists. But I did not and do not know this with certainty.” (198)
My first encounter with Tom’s work began in his essay “A Wesleyan Process Theodicy: Freedom, Embodiment, and The Almighty God” in the book he co-edited with Bryan Stone, Thy Name and Nature is Love: Wesleyan and Process Theologies in Dialogue. In this essay, we see early on that Tom was wrestling with the problem of suffering and evil, and beginning to re-conceptualize how God works in the world if one holds that a.) God is love and almighty yet b.) suffering and evil still occurs. This begs the questions: In what way is God Love and how is it expressed? How is God almighty if not in coercive power?
In that essay, Tom began to develop what has taken practical form in God Can’t but he had not quite come to his thesis of an uncontrolling love. At this point, he had set out the idea of essential free will theism in which creatures are essentially free (free in their essence) and God does not work in the world via coercive power, but via the bodies of others and through persuasion.
The academic theories behind these sentiments were the process theologies of David Ray Griffin and Charles Hartsthorne, the open theology of Clark Pinnock and the historical theology of John Wesley. Tom went on to express this same thesis in a book he edited for Nazarene Publishing House, Philosophy of Religion, in the essay “Divine Theodicy.” From here, the essays and books continued to take shape and be produced. Of key importance to his thesis in God Can’t is his more academic work, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific and Theological Engagement, in which he provides theoretical grounding for his larger thesis that God is a God of uncontrolling love, and therefore Can’t do some things. Of course, all of this work was brought together in his 2015 publication, The Uncontrolling Love of God. In addition, Tom has done exceptional work in the Wesleyan Theological Journal since the early 2000’s and his assorted essays here are must reads before one can engage his thesis in God Can’t with any modicum of credibility.
While there will be no shortage of critics looking to read the title of his recent release and discredit it for lack of theoretical justifications within its pages, they only do so as armchair theologians who have not engaged the entirety of Tom’s work. Their knee jerk attack will demonstrate their own amateur efforts.
Thus, what we have in God Can’t is not a knee jerk publication, a theological shock jock looking to be radical, but the practical import of years of theoretical work. Tom has produced here what all good academic work should eventually become: an honest attempt to make sense of the world around us and then offer that academic work to the every day person. Tom is not writing for the academic; he is writing, in his own words, for all of us:
“I wrote this book for victims of evil, survivors, and those who endure senseless suffering. I wrote it for the wounded and broken who have trouble believing in God, are confused, or have given up faith altogether. I’m writing to those who, like me, are damaged in body, mind, or soul.”
Upon release, this book deserves to be widely read, both for its clarity of presentation and for the ideas that could literally give someone back the God that bad theology has taken from them. It is a scary premise that maybe God Can’t, but it is also a premise, that if entertained seriously, may allow someone to believe in the God that never intended their suffering and has been weeping with them all along. I am certain there is no shortage of people who need to hear this goodnews.