Kurt Note: Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian I respect. His work in open and relational theology is so helpful for understanding the nature of God in relation to space and time. In this short article, Tom gives us a bit of a peak at a new way of understanding why evil and suffering exist. He also looks at why God doesn’t always intervene as we’d like. Thought provoking, to be sure! This particular post is inspired by his new book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence which is available for pre-order now!
We all want to make sense of life. I think the stakes for Christians in the endeavor to make sense of life are as high as any stakes can be.
I’ve been thinking for some time about two major questions in my quest to make sense of life. The first is familiar to just about everyone, at least in some form. Here’s the form of the question I find most perplexing:
“If a loving and powerful God exists, why doesn’t this God prevent genuine evil?”
The vast majority of answers given to this question are unsatisfying. Most Christians I know ultimately appeal to mystery when proposing an answer. This question perplexes billions of people.
The second question is less common but I think equally perplexing:
“How can a loving and powerful God be providential if random and chance events occur?”
In my new book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Intervarsity Press Academic), I propose answers to these questions. Theology, science, Scripture, and philosophy inform my answers.
Unlike most Christians, I don’t appeal to mystery!
To get at my answers, I address a wide swath of issues Christians normally consider aspects of God’s providence. I address the randomness and chance we encounter in the world. I claim that it is real, even for God.
But I also acknowledge the rampant regularities of life, some of which have been called “the laws of nature.” Thinking carefully about God’s relationship to these law-like regularities is important for solving both the problem of evil and the problem of randomness in relation to providence.
In my view, too few Christians take free will seriously when thinking about providence. I believe the freedom we experience in life is real but limited. I’m a freewill theist.
I also think values are real. Some events are better than others. Good and evil are not simply a matter personal taste or individual perspective. A portion of my book addresses how we should define evil and why belief in God makes better sense than atheism for understanding good and evil. In this section, I also address the problem of good, which I think is an issue for atheists.
Of course, I’m not the first person to recommend a particular view of God’s action in relation to creation. A number of models of providence exist. It helps to get clear on these models if we can make progress in answering well the problem of evil and the problem of randomness. I identify seven major models in my book, pointing out strengths and weaknesses of each.
I’m an open and relational theologian. This form of theology comes in many varieties, but there are some common characteristics. People have come to embrace open and relational theologies from various paths. Some come primarily through their study of Scripture. Others by working out issues in the discipline of theology. Some come to open and relational theology through philosophical reflection. And others come as a consequences of their study of science.
The most common answer to the problem of evil and the problem of randomness, even among many open and relational theologians, is that God allows evil and randomness. God could control it but chooses not to do so.
I don’t find the “God allows it” answer satisfying. God cannot be perfectly loving if God allows evil and permits random events that God would anticipate having negative consequences. We don’t think people are perfectly loving when they allow horrific evils they could have stopped. Why think that God is loving for doing the same?
The common view of those who say God allows evil and permits randomness is that God is voluntarily self-limited. God could intervene to prevent evil. God could stop a random event that will likely have negative consequences. But for some mysterious reason, this voluntarily self-limited God doesn’t momentarily become un-self-limited to prevent genuine evil. The problem of evil is a problem for many open and relational theologies.
I offer a new open and relational model of providence I call “essential kenosis.” It says God’s love is always self-giving, others-empowering. God must love because God’s nature is love.
Unlike many open and relational theologians, I believe God’s nature of self-giving, others-empowering love conditions and shapes God’s sovereignty. To put it in philosophical language, divine love is logically prior to divine power. This means that God’s self-limitation is involuntary, because God’s nature of love limits what God can do.
In short: God can’t prevent genuine evil by acting alone and God can’t stop random events that produce evil.
To put in biblical terms, I think the Apostle Paul was right when he said that God “cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). In other words, God’s nature comes before God’s choice, and God cannot do that which is ungodly. Teasing out the implications of this can make all the difference for answering well the perplexing questions of our time.
Of course, there are much more to this book than what I’m offering here. I haven’t even mentioned my explanation of miracles, which gets a whole chapter in the book. I’m grateful to Kurt for allowing me to post this teaser.
I hope you consider ordering The Uncontrolling Love of God and pondering my arguments!
Thomas Jay Oord
Thomas Jay Oord (PhD, Claremont Graduate University) is professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. He serves as adviser or on the councils of several scholarly groups, including the Open and Relational Theologies group (AAR), Biologos, Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, Research Theological Fellowship, Wesleyan Theological Society and the Wesleyan Philosophical Society. Oord has written or edited more than twenty books, including Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement, The Nature of Love: A Theology and Theologies of Creation: Creatio Ex Nihilo and Its New Rivals. He is known for his contributions to research on love, open and relational theologies, postmodernism, issues in religion and science, and Wesleyan, holiness and evangelical theologies. Oord serves as an ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene and in various consulting and administrative roles for academic institutions, scholarly projects and research teams. He and his wife Cheryl have three daughters.