God Can’t: A Review

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“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.

Why in the Hell does Hell Matter? Moltmann helps us think the bad place

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Christianity is a religion of hope, unless of course your hope is in hell, in which case hell is your hope as the binary opposite of its cohort heaven. Hell is necessary because heaven is; one is not intelligible without the other.

But what is that really animates this our idea of hell and why do we hold onto it so tightly, a refined idea of the “afterlife” or “punishment” handed down to us via the logic of ancient peoples who lived in a 3 tiered universe?
Hell is currently such a flippant idea for so many. Millions believe in it, yet they do not live as if it’s a pending reality. But this is the incredible thing about belief: We can believe and that belief makes it real, even if the idea of the belief makes no material difference in our daily lives. Or perhaps, our actions discloses our true belief and we should learn what in the hell we believe in at all, as our mind says one thing and our hands say another.

Because lets be real. If people, millions of Christians, really believed in an “eternal” torment known as hell and they really really really wanted their loved ones to avoid it, how could we not quit our jobs and make a full time effort of warning others? If this was a firm belief, one of which we were thoroughly convinced, then surely we could not continue to meander through the distractions of modern society with all those going to hell without rushing toward them in great fear and trembling at the destruction and eternal pain that awaits all those that do not make the right choice of belief!

Seems to me, if Hell were a reality, then we would have no time to spare or energy to waste but in convincing everyone we can of this horrible horrible place.

Fact is, we don’t. 

We shake hands and nod at one another at church. We believe what the “bible says” (whatever that means) and we carry on, as if hell is this distant land that will never matter in the here and now.

So what animates our obsession with hell and our fantastic ideas of it? Why do we NEED this logic, a logic of separation, punishment, a peculiar idea of the character of God? Why in the hell is hell so important and is our logic of it illogical at best?

For many ancient peoples, Hell was a means of talking about destruction, particularly to the fiery elements that would eventually destroy creation.  The early church picked up on this wonderful usage of fire and used fire to burn heretics, returning the elements of the body very literally into the elements of the earth.  This process purging creation and punishing the victim simultaneously.  Hell, at its end, contained the idea of final separation from God, a reality that was somehow conscious to those without a consciousness at that point.

Yet, all the ideas of hell that we seem to possess and the flippant way in which we praise or ponder over this opposite of where none of us are headed, are really only possible because of our historical amnesia. We talk about hell like children and pissed off preachers because we have never lived it, so we have to contrive it to be what we “think” it to be and somehow buttress those ideas with our religious language and quotes of Jesus. But for people that actually live hell, like Christians in Mosul, Iraq, they have no need to invent wide eyed galleries of fire, men and women screaming in torment as they suffer burns from the bodies they don’t have and ponder endlessly how they did not make the right “choice.”

These Christians live hell; they have no need to imagine it.

As Moltmann suggests in his brief discourse on hell, there is no denying the reality of hell. Hell is understood as a total annihilation. In ancient times, fire was the ultimate annihilator from which nothing returned; in modern times, we have found hells in gas ovens in Europe, Christians in Rwanda having their children chopped up and tossed into rivers and Christians in Chile being tortured under the regime of Pinochet in the 70’s.

 Hell is…but it is so conveniently full of hope for many of us who believe in its opposite, for no hope in hell means no heaven to gain.

We hear sermons on hell and we are so calloused against all the hells on this earth because of our misunderstanding of some greater hell that even those experiencing hell today should consider as greater than being decapitated, their wives raped and their houses burned.

That’s a hell of a way to make the point that we care nothing about what hell really is, only what we want it to be during our benign bible studies.

For People who are awaiting the Hell of a tribulation period in the Book of Revelation, they have never known hell, seen it, and have no business talking about tribulation. Just because it hasn’t happened to us doesn’t mean we can confiscate this idea and doctor it up with the fanciful opposite of the Roman Road to salvation. Give me a break people…what the hell are we doing? This is Gospel?

At its end, Hell is illogical. It makes no sense because at its bottom, as Moltmann tells us, hell is not the logical end of the end; it is the logical end of human free will.

The logic is as follows. God who is love, preserves our human free will as a loving act. God has also, via love, went to the furthest ends to save humanity (from ourselves presumably) and give us the choice to save ourselves from destruction via Jesus the Christ. Even though God wants all people to be saved, there is a chance that our free will can reject God. Thus, the loving thing for God to do is to offer rescue, continue to maintain our free will to choose God, or we choose our own destruction in the place we have never seen but seem to know so much about.

Yet Moltmann presses us. He asks, “Does God’s love preserve our free will or does it free our enslaved will, which has become un-free through the power of sin? Does God free men and women, or does he seek the men and women who have become lost?”

For people who believe in an uber depraved nature of humanity, it is surprising we have so positive a view of free will, as if our depraved selves know a good “decision” when we see one, especially a decision of eternal consequences.

For Moltmann this logic of hell crumbles under two pressing points, which also open up a more biblical and theologically responsible way of considering the origination of the idea and necessity of hell.

First, for Moltmann, this logic of hell is inhumane and illogical. Inhumane because there are too many universal contingencies that seem to remove free will from the equation of folks being able to save themselves with their “choice.” Think handicapped people, jungle tribes, babies who die early (yes I know evangelicals have domesticated these answers with the mysterious “age of accountability” but the church historically took it seriously, making sure to baptize people who clearly could not make a choice like dying folks, physically impaired folks and babies). Also think God’s “chosen people” who are unable to choose Christ yet are bearers of the promise of God. How is this problem solved without tumbling into supercessionism?

The logic is illogical because as Moltmann points out, “there are not many people who can enjoy free will where their eternal fate in heaven or hell is concerned.” In others words, it’s not really a choice. It’s the choiceless choice that we mask as a choice to feel good about the choice we made and excuse all the sinners to be damned for their bad choice.

Really, those of who live by a logic of hell suspend two ideals in balance that are contradictory.

We want to hold in the balance God’s power, providence, love and desire to save us because we are depraved and cannot save ourselves. By grace we are saved through faith. Yet we hold to the idea that we are not really deprived as badly as we would like because we can really make a good decision concerning our salvation, so there is an element that is not “corrupt” known as a our will, that can affect our reason to supersede our deprivation. Thus we are doomed to God’s provision, but God’s provision is held hostage to our unfallen will and the ability we have to enact it. How strange for a people that believe in sin and the total otherness that is the reality of God.

Or in Moltmann’s questioning it sounds like this, “How firm must our own decision of faith be if it is to preserve us from total non-being? Anyone who faces men and women with the choice of heaven and hell, does not merely expect too much of them. It leaves them in uncertainty because we cannot base the assurance of our own salvation on the shaky ground of our own decisions. If we think about these questions, we have to come to the conclusion that in the end not many will be with God in heaven…or is the presupposition of the logic of hell an illusion- the presupposition that it all depends on human free will?”

In other words, how resolute must our decision be if it is so monumental that it carries with it such metaphysical implications? Is there any human anywhere with that kind of resoluteness? And if not, then the idea of salvation is not necessarily negated but is it thoroughly rested in the idea of God and God’s salvific purposes which are too heavy for the weight of human will but perfectly comfortable in the relation of God in Christ that negates free will in a later descent into hell, a descent that does not ask our will to participate in it and a descent that properly orders our idea of hell.

Second, the logic of hell is incredibly atheistic accordingly to Moltmann. For in this idea and transaction of hell, the human is her own Lord or God because only in using that will is God’s power enacted, making God subject to the depraved nature of a human will. God has no power here. God is impotent; here God is merely the genie in the lamp that is powerless unless we rub its side and tell him our wills desires. “If I decide for heaven, God must put me there; If I decide for hell, then God will put me there.”

God, who is providential and almighty, is bound to our decisions, impotent in the face of the human mind. We create our own reality or we make our own hell, all through a singular cognitive process. As Moltmann writes, “Humans do not just dispose over their lives here; they decide on their eternal destinies as well…after God created us free as we are, he leaves us to our own decisions. Carried to this ultimate conclusion, the logic of hell is secular humanism, as Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche already perceived a long time ago.”

But all of this was not the originary nature of the idea of hell. Neither must we be content to live with a full blown humanism nor an illogical idea of faith that believes contradictions and calls them biblical.

Christian ideas of hell are intimately linked to the separation of reality from God, but not as we would like. Hell is important because Christ descended into it; it is not important because of our bastardization of the concept in modern times. Hell has no need to fill it with our ideas of it, for hell is. It is not there, or far; it is here and near. We can marshall all the metaphysical arguments we want against hell and the pagan ideas that germinated alongside Christianity, and we may be correct in our arguments, yet reality tells hell is still felt by many today. It is experienced. It is real. It is the place into which Christ goes.

Hell needs Christ, and Christ needs hell, not because Christ needs a destination for our bad choices, but because Christ passes over the gulf of fire and annihilation to dwell with us there as long as necessary, emerging victorious.

Moltmann accentuates this activity when he writes, “it is pointless to deny hell. It is a possibility that is constantly around us and within us. In this situation, the gospel about Christ’s descent into hell is particularly relevant: Christ suffered the inescapable remoteness from God and the God-forsakeness that knows no way out, so that he could bring God to the God-forsaken. He comes to seek that which is lost.”

Christ, therefore, brought hope where there was none. Christ came to the place where all hope has been abandoned and made it hopeful, providing a means of overcoming its isolation.

Hell is not some place in the netherworld where bad people go when they die and it defies reason to think that God needs binary rewards to give to his good kids while he tosses his bad kids out to pasture. For those of us who have kids, we understand how dangerous it would be to allow them to make choices of such import and consequence. Hell matters because Christ experienced it and brought hope into it, destroying its finality, ensuring that is it no longer the final word that so many Christians wish it to be.

God’s graceful act toward the world is not dependent on the efficacious acts of our choosing. In a world of rampant consumerism, surely the banality of choice can make sense to us. No, God’s universal grace is not grounded in hell, or heaven, or the grounding of both of those in humanism (even if it’s a humanism affirmed by your local preacher).

God’s grace is grounded in the cross that eclipses hell, rather than firmly establish its possibility.

While I mourn that so many of us want the final last words of God to be those of condemnation and judgment, feeling that our right choice should be rewarded (think older son in the prodigal narrative here), scripture tells us a different story. In the Bible, judgment is not the final word. Hell is not the final abode of the world. The earth does not burn and turn to a cosmic bowling ball being hurled by God across the Milky Way.

No, the final word is not Hell and God doesn’t need your choice to make it happen.

Get over yourself.

The final word is, “Behold I make all things new”…and from this the Bible exempts no one.

*Source for the Moltmann material for this blog is: “The Logic of Hell” in God Will Be All in All, ed. Richard Bauckham (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 43-47.