Evil—it’s a problem that asks, demands, cries out for explanation. The psalmist grasps the nettle when he asks, “How long, O Lord?” In the Western philosophical tradition, the question has been, “Why?” If there is a God who is all-powerful and all-loving, then presumably he’d make sure there is no evil. Yet a quick Google search shows you that evil is there all the same.
Of course, the sensible atheistic option is to admit there is no God. Historically, Christian thinkers have tried to reconcile these tensions by appealing to the existence of free will or divine wisdom, or clarifying the nature of goodness and power. Some, though, have opted to radically redefine the terms of debate.
That’s what theologian Thomas Jay Oord does in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. Coming from the stream of recent theology called “open” or “relational” theism (which holds that God cannot predict or predetermine the choices we make), he’s not satisfied with traditional accounts of God’s providence. They don’t help him make sense out of life, especially the problem of “genuine” (purposeless, gratuitous) evil. At some point, they all have to appeal to mystery, and so they offer no “explanatory consistency.” In their place, Oord offers a winsome, clear, and charitable exposition of his own providential framework, drawing on philosophy, the sciences, and biblical wisdom to fill the gap.
In a nutshell, his thesis is that evil exists, quite simply, because “God cannot unilaterally prevent genuine evil.” Theologians have long recognized that God can’t do all sorts of things—like create a round square, or lie, or be faithless. Oord simply expands the list of divine “cannots” to the reality of controlling evil.
Building on his particular reading of the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2, he “considers the self-giving [kenotic], other-empowering love of God revealed in Jesus Christ to be logically primary in God’s eternal essence.” And that sort of love is, by its nature, uncontrolling. Putting those two claims together, he draws two conclusions: first, that “God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control”; and second, that it also prevents him from interrupting the “law-like regularities” of the natural world.
This means that while God can influence, persuade, call, and creatively work within the order he has made, he cannot stop the evil actions freely undertaken by human beings (murder, rape, warmongering, etc.). Nor can he halt natural processes that randomly result in pain and suffering (genetic mutations, rock slides, tsunamis, etc.). In either case, interfering with the way the world is would amount to revoking the gifts he has given.
And if we don’t hold people responsible for things they can’t stop, then God’s off the hook for evil and suffering.
Whatever you think of Oord’s proposal, you have to admire his consistency, at least compared to some other “open theology” advocates. He rejects their view that God doesn’t “decree, cause, or will” evil, but merely “permits” it. Because if this is true, then God is still, in some sense, to blame for those evils he could have stopped by his power but voluntarily chose to allow. Why prefer a God who permits pointless evil to a God who only decrees evil for good—if unfathomable—purposes? He’s still responsible on either account. Here, Oord sensibly agrees with John Calvin, who asks, “What else is the permission of him who has the power of preventing and in whose hand the whole matter is placed but his will?”
There are, however, a number of serious costs to trading in more traditional accounts of God’s providence for Oord’s theology of “uncontrolling love.” Ultimately, his attempt to square God’s goodness with life’s incomprehensible evils ends up being hard to square with the Bible itself.
For instance, Oord cites the story of the man born blind (John 9:1-12) to show how “chance can explain a person’s misfortune irrespective of anyone’s decisions.” It’s an example, he claims, of how “God can squeeze some good” from a situation outside his or anyone else’s control. But Jesus explicitly says that the man was born blind “so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (v. 3). The “so that” is a statement of purpose, of intentionality, not happenstance off of which God did a creative riff.
Within Oord’s model of providence, miracles are positive, special actions of God that are consistent with his empowering, maintaining, cooperative, non-coercive power over Creation. They are never negative, unilateral, or disruptive. But this completely ignores the great many miracles that function as curses. Consider Noah and the Flood, sending the 10 plagues of Egypt, blinding the Assyrians (2 Kings 6:18), striking Ananias and Sapphira dead (Acts 5:1-11), blinding Paul (Acts 9:1-7), or even Jesus cursing the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14). None of these qualify as acts of empowering, enabling love—at least not for all involved—and many involve God explicitly overturning “law-like regularities” in acts of destruction.
What’s more, Oord’s account of miracles yields conflicting propositions. It asks us to believe that God is able to raise the dead to life in Jesus’s resurrection—but also that, in this life, the “law-like regularities” governing cells, organs, and body parts can “resist” and “thwart” his healing initiatives. Such an account lacks both explanatory consistency and the ability to ground our long-term hope that God will make all things well.
Nor does God’s “uncontrolling love” account for the apostolic understanding of the human and divine agency at work in the Cross. As Peter preaches to the crowds in Jerusalem, “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23). Later, “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:28). Oord’s framework has no room for free human choices also being deliberately planned and foreordained by God.
One of the theological ironies of Oord’s account is that God must give human beings the kind of freedom he himself cannot exercise. They must have libertarian freedom, with significant choices to do otherwise in any situation, but God himself cannot help but create the world. Theologically, this account makes the world necessary to God in a way that threatens to slide into pantheism (and fits Oord’s rejection elsewhere of the belief that God created the world from nothing). This is troubling, not only from the perspective of God’s freedom and independence, but also when we consider the fact that God is triune.
Oord is right to say that God is necessarily, essentially love. But Christianity has always maintained that God’s love does not require the act of creation because it is already full and complete within the eternal realm of mutual self-giving between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To make creation necessary to God fails to do justice to his own triune goodness.
Allergy to Mystery
Ultimately, the major problem with Oord’s account is an allergy to mystery that fails to respect the gap between the Infinite Creator and the finite creature. Indeed, Oord’s God seems to operate much like a human actor, only holier and much bigger.
In other words, Oord misses the point of Job.
Job’s friends wanted a neat and tidy answer to the problem of evil. Job is suffering? He must have sinned. They couldn’t sit with the tension of watching a righteous man suffer. It had to be one or the other: either he’s righteous, or he suffers. (Their perspective, for what it’s worth, offers marvelous explanatory consistency.) Ironically enough, they failed to understand that it’s quite rational to believe many of God’s ways are beyond us. Oord’s logic is similarly tidy: Evil in the world? God must not be able to stop it. Either he can’t, or it wouldn’t be there.
In attempting to come up with one right explanation to account for everything, Oord ends up ignoring the Bible’s multiplicity of perspectives on evil, including the mystery of the God in the whirlwind (Job 38-41). This God is not neat or tidy. He does not give easy answers or submit meekly to our judgments.
Does this mystery render him ultimately untrustworthy? No, because the God of the whirlwind is also the infinitely wise God who unveils himself in the folly of the Cross. Oord is right to say that Jesus truly shows us God’s character, but he does so as the infinitely wise, sovereign One who proved his unfathomable love through the suffering and death of his own Son for us and our salvation (Rom. 5:8). This is God’s providence. This is the reason why all who call on his name—no matter what evil they’ve suffered—will one day be able to confess: “but God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Derek Rishmawy is a PhD student in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He blogs at Reformedish.