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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Tom Oord about the things God can and cannot do and how that affects our view of the Bible and salvation as they explore the following questions:

  • Why did monotheism create the problem of evil?
  • Why does the problem of evil matter?
  • Can God be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving at the same time?
  • Are there genuine evils in the world or is suffering and pain part of God’s mysterious plan?
  • Does the Bible have a consistent theology on God’s character?
  • What discoveries did Tom Oord make when he looked at what the Bible said about God’s power?
  • Are words like “revelation” and “inspiration” helpful for talking about the Bible?
  • How do the ways we view God impact the way we read the Bible?
  • Can God communicate to humans in an infallible way?
  • What do we lose if we come to think God does not have control?
  • How does our concept of love get shaped by the concept of justice?
  • Why did Jesus die?
  • What is kenosis


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Tom Oord you can share. 

  • “Since I think love is inherently uncontrolling, this revelation and inspiration [of the Bible] can’t be controlling.” @ThomasJayOord
  • “God really needs our cooperation if love is to win. God really needs our cooperation to overcome evil. ” @ThomasJayOord
  • “God doesn’t need us for God to exist… but in order for God to get the kind of outcomes, consequences, results that God wants and given that those results are always framed in terms of love, God really needs our loving cooperation.” @ThomasJayOord
  • “I go so far as to say God simply couldn’t have given a clear message because to do so God would have to control the message and the messengers and I don’t think God can control.” @ThomasJayOord
  • “We as individuals and in society are consistently learning what love requires given where we are at in our time.” @ThomasJayOord
  • “What is loving is partly contingent on the context and who’s involved, you know? Maybe it is the case in some contexts that acting in some ways is loving but other ways is not.” @ThomasJayOord
  • “If God can’t deny God’s own self, and God is love, God must love. And maybe this love is self-giving, others-empowering, uncontrolling. That might then become a clue on how we might rethink God’s power in light of God’s love.” @ThomasJayOord
  • “I still think God’s powerful, I just don’t think that God has the kind of controlling or single-handed determination that many people have thought God has.” @ThomasJayOord

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript


Pete:  You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet.  Serious talk about the sacred book.  I’m Pete Enns.

Jared:  And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Pete:  Hey!  Welcome normal people to this episode of the Bible for Normal People.  Our topic today is “are there things God can’t do?” and our guest is…Jared.

Jared:  Tom Oord, otherwise known as Thomas Jay Oord.

Pete:  And that’s J-A-Y Oord.

Jared:  Yes.  Who was a professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University and said some things that we’ll talk about that are a little bit different from what you would typically hear.  He wrote some of this—we asked the question, “Are there things God can’t do?”  Tom Oord wrote a book called God Can’t.  (laughter). Spoiler alert—

Pete:  There’s—(laughter). There’s your answer—

Jared:  And another one that’s a little more descriptive, at least the title, The Uncontrolling Love of God.  We talk a little bit about how our views of God impact how we read the Bible, especially in the ways that Tom has developed his view of God, and, of course, relying on years and years of Christian tradition and history.  He’s not making this stuff up out of nowhere.

Pete:  Right.  And just living through maybe some frustration or crisis of faith earlier in his life about thinking through what God is like and how the Bible—how it’s oftentimes understood—doesn’t really help and maybe some reasons people give for why God does certain things in the Bible.

He didn’t find those things very satisfying.  He just went in another direction and he said, “Maybe there are some things that God just can’t do.  Not that he won’t.”

Jared:  Right.

Pete:  That God—and I shouldn’t say he—but that God can’t do.  That can raise hackles, right Jared, because we think about God as being powerful and all-powerful.  How can an all-powerful being not be able to do things—

Jared:  Evil.  Yeah.

Pete:  He’ll get to that.  But maybe there’s something about God that’s more fundamental than a god of power and sovereignty and that kind of thing, so—

Jared:  And I really appreciated—this could have been a hairy episode in terms a lot of weighty concepts and a lot of things that I feel like Tom navigated really well in terms of being able to articulate it for every-day people.  I think you and I fall in that camp of “this isn’t necessarily our world either.” 

Pete:  One term he said, “kenosis,” a couple of times and that’s—

Jared:  Yeah.  That’s good.

Pete:  Maybe just if people aren’t familiar with that.  It’s a Greek word.  It comes from Philippians Chapter 2 where Jesus “emptied himself,” so to speak, of His divine prerogative and didn’t take advantage of it.  That word “kenosis” refers to that.  There are theologians who talk a lot about God’s kenosis and emptying Himself—

Jared:  Or kenotic.  You might hear it that way—

Pete:  Kenotic.  The adjective.  That’s what he means by that when we get to that.

Jared:  Yup.

Pete:  So.

Jared:  All right.  Let’s let him get to that—

Pete:  Let’s let him get to that—

Jared:  Here’s—

Pete:  I can’t.

Jared:  Are there things God can’t do? (laughter)

[Jaunty Music]

Tom:  It’s not just that God is inviting us to participate, inviting us to contribute, but God just could get the job done single-handedly without us if we decide not to cooperate.  I’m saying God really needs our cooperation if love is to win.  God really needs our cooperation to overcome evil.  That’s gonna feel strange to a lot of people because they kind of like a god who could fix things single-handedly even if we don’t cooperate.

[Jaunty Music Ends]

Pete:  Hey Tom.  Welcome to the podcast.

Tom:  Hey.  It’s my pleasure to have this conversation with you guys.

Pete:  Yeah.  Great to have you here.  Well, listen.  Tom, why don’t you just take a couple minutes and introduce yourself to our listeners and a little bit of your spiritual biography and your career and even how you got interested in theology.

Tom:  (laughter)

Pete:  Most people want to do biblical studies, but when they can’t hack it, they do theology (laughter).  That’s the way I look at it.

Tom:  Well, I got to s—

Pete:  Jared’s told me not to insult my guests.  (laughter)  I shouldn’t do that.  I’m sorry.

Tom:  Well, I got to say I’ve been thinking about God stuff since I was a little kid in church and Sunday School and wrestling with the big questions.  Although, the questions when I was younger are a little different than they are today.

But I was one of those people who took theology seriously.  I was an evangelist.  I went in this thing really hardcore trying to convert people, get them into heaven, that sort of thing.  Then, I went through a crisis of faith in college and was an atheist for a short period of time, because the reasons I had for believing that there was a god and evangelizing about that god, those reasons no longer made sense to me.

I returned to faith based primarily on two things:  one, this search for meaning that I was engaged in; secondly, these fundamental intuitions that I ought to be a loving person and that other people ought to love and the view that there must be some kind of source for these intuitions.  And that source, most people call God.


For a while, I believed in a loving god.  I thought Jesus was pretty cool.  That was about the extent of my theology.  But over time, I developed various views and developed a kind of theology that eventually led me to grad school to get a PhD, to begin teaching philosophy and theology and I did so for a couple of institutions.

Not too long ago, I was forced out of my institution for having, we might say, too progressive of a theology for the President’s liking.

Pete:  Okay.  Well, we’ll probably get to that.  Some of the ideas that you have in your book.  Just, very briefly, since you mentioned it, you said you had a crisis of faith in college.  Again, a lot of our listeners have passed, including myself and Jared, through these things too.  What generated that for you in college?

Tom:  I was hard-core into evangelism.  I did a lot of studying of the Bible and studying of arguments.  But I took this philosophy/religion course and for the first time, I read things from really smart atheists, agnostics, those from other religious traditions.  It was really for the sake of intellectual honesty that I stopped believing in God.  It wasn’t like I was mad at the church or some youth pastor abused me or whatever.  It wasn’t some rebellion.  It was really an intellectual question and one that I kept at, which eventually brought me back to believing it was more plausible than not that there is a god.  I’m not certain there is a god.  I live my life based on this plausibility that there is a god of love.

Pete:  Coming back to a different kind of god?  Is that fair to say?

Tom:  I think so.  Yeah.  It wasn’t like I didn’t think God was loving before, but I did start rethinking some of my key views about God and I’m sure we’ll get into some of those as this interview goes on.

Jared:  Yeah.  I maybe just want to jump into the deep end with that a little bit, because Pete’s been saying, “recently,” and I would agree with this, that we keep talking about the Bible and it seems as though many of these conversations when we talk about how to read the Bible really hinge on this question of “what is God like?”  and that tends to impact how we come to the Bible. 

It sounds like you’ve gone through some shifts about what God is like.  Some of your books and writings and a lot of what you talk about has this perspective on God that maybe our listeners haven’t heard much about before.  Can you talk about some of those key elements or shifts for you about what God is like and how that’s impacted how you practice your faith?

Tom:  Sure.  Let me address three issues pretty quickly.  One, I used to believe the Bible had absolutely no errors because God is sovereign and God would make sure that we had a revelation of who God is that was error-free. 

Then, I actually read the Bible.  (laughter)  Turns out there’s lots of inconsistencies at least, if not outright errors.  That made me question how I should interpret the Bible, what kind of role it should play. 

Eventually, it made me change my view of God’s activity, God’s power even in the world.

Secondly, I started wrestling with questions of creaturely freedom and God’s knowledge.  So, this idea that if God could somehow know the future with absolute certainty, then how am I free to actually choose to do other than what God already knows is in the case.  There seemed to be an incompatibility in my way of thinking between what we might call “exhaustive divine foreknowledge” and my free will.

The third big thing and the one that I’ve been working on in the last few books is the problem of evil.  If there is a perfectly loving God who is incredibly powerful, then why wouldn’t this God prevent the genuine evils in my life, the lives of my friends and family and the lives even of those who don’t like me (laughter) more broadly.  Why wouldn’t this God prevent those evils?

I eventually came to believe I had to rethink God’s power.

Pete:  Rethink God’s power.  Okay.  Yeah.  Gee.  That’s interesting.  The problem of evil’s been around before the Bible.  (laughter)—

Tom:  Yeah.  (laughter)

Pete:  The ancient Babylonians wrote about this too—

Tom:  Since there was evil.  It was a problem—

Pete:  Ever since there was evil—  (laughter)  When you introduce a divine being into that—that is the problem.  That’s why you have this problem of evil.

Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  I remember hearing someone say a while back that when you have a pantheon of gods, when you have many gods, you can sort of chalk evil up to the gods are warring with each other—


Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  But once you have monotheism (laughter), that’s when you have a bigger problem, because why would an all-mighty and all-loving god blah blah blah and all that kind of stuff so.

Tom:  Yeah.  You know, there’s a—I’m sure many of your listeners know the New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, who wrote a book about ten years ago.  I think the title of the book is God’s Problem.  In this particular book, he goes through the various approaches to evil and scripture and concludes that the Bible really doesn’t give a precise answer to this big question and even is very biographical in saying that, for him, personally, this was the reason why he could—he’s either agnostic or atheist, but he’s not the theist that he was when he was younger.

I look at the Bible and see those same stories and see those same kinds of issues that Bart brings up.  But I’ve carved a different kind of answer than the kind of answer or quasi-solution that others have suggested that I think is actually aligned with Scripture, if interpreted or read in a particular kind of way.

Jared:  Before we do that, I want to back up.  I want to make sure everyone is understanding we’ve kind of throw out some philosophical concepts and I think—

Tom:  Sure.

Jared:  –there’s a loaded term in the problem, the problem of evil, which would be—you can even pile on, but traditionally, it would have been three things:  an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God and given the reality of evil, it seems improbably that we could have all three of those things.  The powerful, the knowing and the loving. 

Usually, in our response to this or a theologian’s—I think of Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, who kind of popularized this—

Tom:  Yeah.  Yeah.

Jared:  We’re usually kind of taking out one of those things and saying, “Maybe this is the response.”  Is there anything else you would say to set up what the problem of evil is and why it matters?

Tom:  I think you’ve identified it pretty well.  I think the other element of this that you’re assuming is when you look at the answers given by theists of various religions, but especially Christians, is the question of evil itself.  Are there genuine evils in the world or is everything that is painful, all suffering, actually a part of some mysterious divine plan meant for some greater purpose, meant to teach us a lesson, meant as punishment, meant as something that means that these painful events aren’t really genuinely evil from God’s perspective, just pretty difficult for us in our limited perspective.

Pete:  Boy.  That raises a lot of questions (laughter).  The problem of evil—I’d like to get into how you are approaching that and how you are handling Biblical texts.  Can you give us an example of how something in the Bible that you might read a little bit differently than a Bart Ehrman would read it?  That might get us into thinking about the Bible a little bit differently than maybe we’re used to.  Can you give an example?

Tom:  Sure.  Let me start generally and then I’ll go to an example.

Pete:  Okay.

Tom:  When I look at the Bible, I don’t think of the Bible as a systematic theology that’s coherent through and through.  I think of the Bible of a collection of writings, narratives, poetry, etc. that sometimes is in conflict internally.  But I see over and over again themes about divine love and God’s call for us to love.  We might say that love is, to use the language of John Wesley, the whole tenor and scope of Scripture.  In other words, it’s kind of the main theme. 

I think it’s especially witnessed to in Jesus Christ.  So, when I come across stories—let’s say in the Psalms when the Israelites believe God wants them to bash the babies’ heads against the rocks.  I don’t look at that and say, “You know, that’s really a loving thing from God’s perspective.”  I look at it and say, “Nope.  That isn’t loving and those folks who thought God wanted them to do such dastardly deeds simply get God wrong.”

I’m wiling to say some images and stories about God in Scripture are incorrect and I do that based upon a broader view of Scripture which says that I think the majority of passages or the broad scope of Scripture points to a God of love who calls us to love, who is most perfectly revealed in Jesus, who loves also. 

I’m willing to jettison, or at least think some stories and some ideas in Scripture are incorrect.


Pete:  Before we get now into maybe some more specifics, because you raised something, I just know the question people are asking and maybe you can riff a little bit on whether you think words like revelation or inspiration are worthwhile for talking about Scripture.  If Biblical writers get things wrong (by the way, I’ve said similar things so I’ve had)—

Tom:  (laughter)  Yes.

Pete:  By the way, you’re helping me answer the question.  (laughter)  How do you articulate those things or do you want to redefine those things or just think of different categories entirely?

Tom:  I like the words revelation and inspiration.  I think God inspired the Biblical writers and there’s a revelation of who God is in Scripture.  But often tied to those words is a particular view of God’s power which assumes that if God wanted to, God could give a crystal clear, unambiguous message that would be free from error in any sense.

In other words, a particular view of divine sovereignty that I reject.  When I use those terms, I mean them seriously, but I’m rejecting the idea that inspiration means that God controlled the process entirely to make sure that whatever we find on the text, which, of course, as you know, there’s lots of texts.  It’s not just one.

Whatever we find there isn’t necessarily exactly what God wanted.

Pete:  Okay.  I think you’re putting your finger on something that I’ve heard too, that a lot of notions of the Bible being inspired or revealed by God, it is sort of God is up there and the sovereign God—

Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  –is dictating these things will be written.

Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  Am I overstating or missing your point when I say that maybe you’re folding terms like inspiration and revelation into this over-arching theme of Scripture which is the love of God?

Tom:  Yeah.  That’s a nice way to put it—

Pete:  Okay.  Okay.

Tom:  Since I think love is inherently uncontrolling, this revelation and inspiration can’t be controlling.

Pete:  Wow.  All right. 

Jared:  I think that just illustrates the point beautifully we were making earlier where the Bible is impacted by what we think God is like.  So, if God is—

Pete:  Yes.

Jared: –inherently uncontrolling, then whatever mean by revelation and inspiration needs to have that view in mind as well.

Tom:  That’s right.  I even go further on this revelation and inspiration issue to distinguish my view from some other views you’ve probably heard, other views which say, “God could have given a perfect message and made sure it was put on paper and transmitted throughout the generations.  God could have done that, but God accommodated to the people in their time.  They didn’t know any better and God decided, ‘Well, I’m not going to fix this.’” 

Those kinds of views typically assume that God has the kind of power to give an inerrant message about who God is, but God decided for whatever reason not to give that clear message and accommodated to their ignorance or their views of the time.

I go so far as to say God simply couldn’t have given a clear message because to do so, God would have to control the message and the messengers.  I don’t think God can control.

Pete:  All right.  So, God can’t do things.  Thanks for being our guest today, Tom (laughter).  I think we’re done with this episode.

Jared:  We have our tweetable quote.

Pete:  I’m watching our graph go down in terms of people—(laughter)  I’m just kidding.  Obviously, I think I get what you’re saying.  Flesh that out a little bit more, that God—

Tom:  Sure.

Pete:  –God can’t communicate in an infallible way.  Is that what you’re saying—

Tom:  Yeah.  I am.

Pete:  Okay.

Tom:  I am saying that—

Pete:  Flesh that out a little bit more.

Tom:  I think that God is constantly communicating.  God is constantly acting, calling, inspiring, empowering.  This is not a God of deism.  This is a God who is always active all the time and always communicating.  But, I don’t think this communication is single-handedly imposed upon the world and that God has the kind of capacities to make sure we get it right every time. 

There’s always some kind of creaturely cooperation that’s necessary and even when cooperation is there, that doesn’t guarantee that humans get everything perfect.

Pete:  So, this is all relational.  Okay—

Tom:  Yes.  To the core.

Jared:  Yeah.  Yeah—

Pete:  Which is love.

Jared:  Yeah.

Tom:  Yes.  And—

Pete:  You’re sort of blowing my mind here, Tom.  But that’s all right—

Tom:  No.  (laughter)  In some ways, this shouldn’t be too shocking to your listeners, because if they grant that the Bible at least has inconsistencies, if not contradictions, and if they also still want to think that God had something to do with it, then they have to ask the question, “well, why wouldn’t a loving and powerful God make sure we got it right?”  (laughter)  “and make sure there were no inconsistencies?”  I’m saying, “Maybe we need to give up on the idea that God can control in that kind of way.”


Jared:  I think the flipside, and I wonder here what some people you’ve interacted with have said and how you’ve responded, because in the way I think about it, I’m often thinking of the flip side of power, which we recently in our culture with the politics and other things, we think of power negatively, but the flip side of that is that power can also bring comfort. 

We’re losing by saying that God is uncontrolling as well because if God’s not able to manipulate the situation in my favor and I put my trust in God’s ability to do that, then I feel like I may be floating in what I would call Jean-Paul Sartre, the “terrible freedom” is this sense now that I have to step up and cooperate and collaborate and be active in this process.

Pete:  Yeah.

Jared:  Do you run into that with people who are not always celebrating this uncontrolling God, but there’s a loss or a grief there too?

Tom:  Yeah.  It was John Calvin who called his view of predestination, “a comforting doctrine.”  I think some people who go through difficulties in their own lives find some comfort in thinking that despite the garbage and the pain and the suffering, that in some mysterious way, God is still in control. 

But lots of other people, and I get letters from these people just about every week, see that same God and say, “That gives me no comfort at all to think that God either caused or even allowed the horrible things that have happened to me and others.” 

There is an interesting issue here in terms of what’s comforting and what’s not to various people.

Jared:  For me, what it does is it helps me practically when I talk to people about the Bible, it’s important to recognize you are an active participant in this process—

Pete:  Yeah.

Jared:  —and our community of faith are active participants.  I think of “will of God” theology that I would have grown up with where—

Pete:  Right.

Jared:  —our only job, sort of like Indiana Jones with the invisible path, is to throw some dirt on it so that we can kind of see this path that God designed for us, but if we’re not careful, we’re going to miss it.  What I hear you saying is when it comes reading our Scriptures and enacting our faith, it’s a much more participatory process, which does come with some risk, but it’s also empowering.

Tom:  That’s exactly what I’m saying.  I’m even going further than many people would go who are into some kind of relational or participatory theology.  I’m saying it’s not just that God is inviting us to participate, inviting us to contribute, but God could just get the job done without us if we decide not to cooperate.  I’m saying God really needs our cooperation if love is to win.  God really needs our cooperation to overcome evil.  That’s going to feel strange to a lot of people because they kind of like a god who could fix things single-handedly even if we don’t cooperate.

23:35 (Producer’s Group Endorsement)


Pete:  Let me try to act like a theologian for a second.  (laughter).  Are you saying–  I want to try to understand what you’re saying.  Are you saying that God in God’s essence needs us or that God has set up the universe in such a way that we get to participate?

Tom:  I’m saying that God doesn’t need us for God to exist.  God exists necessarily, to use classical language.  But in order for God to get the kind of outcomes, consequences, results that God wants, and given that those results are always framed in terms of love, God really needs our loving cooperation.

Pete:  Because love involves risk?

Tom:  Yes.

Pete:  For God to love, He— God can’t control us.  Okay—

Tom:  Exactly.  Yeah.

Pete:  Hmm.

Tom:  The way I put it technically is this:  love is inherently uncontrolling and love comes logically first in God’s nature.  Which means that God can’t choose not to love, God can’t choose to control.  It’s God’s very nature to love in an uncontrolling way.

Pete:  Okay—

Jared:  And that’s inherently relational as well, because that’s built into the definition of love—

Tom:  That’s right.  That’s right.  Yeah.  Very relational.

Pete:  I don’t want to get into hyper speed here, but let’s see where this goes (laughter)—

Tom:  Okay.

Pete:  God’s judgment is one that you would feel is ultimately redemptive for all creation?  For all people?  I’m asking the hell question—

Tom:  Yeah.  Oh gotcha.  Okay.—

Pete:  Yeah.  Oh yeah.  That.  (laughter). Right?  Let’s say you need eternal punishment or at least maybe annihilation of creatures, I think people would say doesn’t seem to come from love, but from retribution.

Tom:  That’s right.  So, I don’t believe in the common—I almost said traditional, but I don’t traditional’s the right word—

Pete:  Yeah.  It’s not traditional.

Tom:  The popular view of hell.  I also don’t like the common view of annihilation because I think it presupposes that God gives up on some people, that God says, “Pete—he’s been evil for 80 years (laughter)—there’s no way he’s redeemable so therefore, he’s going to get annihilated.

Jared:  That is a true story.

Pete:  You’ve been talking to people.  (laughter)

Tom:  I think—I actually have a view of this that I call the relentless love eschatology that says that God never gives up in this life or the next.  God never sends people to hell, but there are natural, negative consequences that come from saying no to love, in this life and the next.  It’s not like God’s—it’s not maybe what we would call a classical universalist’s view which says, “Ally, ally, in come free.”  Then everybody goes to heaven even if they don’t want to be there. 

This is a god who always invites, always calls, never gives up, but we always have the free choice, in this life and in the next, to say no to that invitation.

Pete:  That’s not very evangelical.  (laughter).

I’m chuckling too.  I’m thinking of—that’s a different way of picturing God for a lot of people who have been raised in the western evangelical world—

Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  Right?  Because this seems to be giving something up of God that’s really cherished.  But I guess you would say you’re not really giving something up as much as gaining something.

Tom:  I think so.  Another way I’d say it is this:  what if we took the steadfast love of God as our primary starting point, the love that is everlasting, the love that never gives up, the love that never forces its own way, all Biblical phrases?  What if we kept that at the very center and thought about theology, including what happens after we die, in light of that idea?  We might come to some kind of view similar to the one I’ve tried to propose here?

Jared:  So, if—I want to come back to this notion that I think comes from the Bible itself around justice.  When we talk about some of these concepts, I keep coming back to how does love and justice interact, when we have the prophets and these notions that God is just.  How does that—because I think that’s one of the questions that comes up for people—it’s all fine and good to talk about love, but how does our concept of love get shaped by the idea of justice?


Tom:  Yeah.  Justice means many different things and one of the common ways to distinguish between two of the major ways to think about justice is to talk about justice as retribution, which is the divine discipline, God kicking your butt or whatever for doing something wrong—and justice as distributive and reconciling, which is the idea that we want to make sure people have equal access to what’s good and that any kind of negative consequences that come about are consequences that God tries to use to reconcile us in love to a right relationship.

The view I’m proposing rejects the retribution model.  It rejects the idea that God is a divine spanking machine that takes you out to the back woods if you sin, but it doesn’t give up on the notion that there are real, natural, negative consequences for sin, so it isn’t some sort of extreme relativism.  God is just doing nothing and anything we do has no consequences.  I retain that aspect.

Jared:  When you read the Bible—say reading Deuteronomy—there seems to be this retributive sense of “if you do these things, you’re blessed, if you do these things, you’re cursed”—would you say that’s talking about natural consequences or would that be one of those areas where you would say, “they just got God wrong” in that sense?

Tom:  I would say natural consequences.  The vast majority of passages along those lines, I can affirm—I can say, “There’s abundant life to be had when you follow God’s leading to love.”  It doesn’t mean everything turns out rosy all the time, because we also live in a world in which others don’t love and we sometimes reap the natural, negative consequences of their lack of love.

But there is joy, there is abundant life in responding to God’s call to love.  That’s what those passages are speaking of.

Jared: Would they have conceived of love, because it seems like, in the context, the framing of what love is in that context is to follow the covenant—

Pete:  Obey.

Jared:  Those laws.  Which for us—

Pete:  Yeah.

Jared:  —would seem strange.  I don’t think of not wearing mixed cloth clothing as a form of love today.  How does the law and following those covenant commands fit into that?

Tom:  Yeah.  Some of them might be set aside in my scheme.  Probably a better way to think of them is that what is loving is partly contention on the context and whose involved.  Maybe it is the case, in some contexts, that acting in some ways is loving, but other ways is not.  But another context, that changes.

It’s also the case, I think, that we, as individuals and as society, are consistently learning what love requires given where we’re at in our times.  Today, I think a lot of us believe that love requires that we care for the planet in a particular way that would have probably not crossed the minds of most people a hundred years ago.

Pete:  That increased consciousness is a work of the Spirit?

Tom:  I think so.  Yeah.

Pete:  Okay.  Yeah.  Which goes beyond the Bible.

Tom:  It does.  Yeah.  I th—

Pete:  I’m one of those people that doesn’t think that the Bible actually advocates earth care.

Tom:  I think it’s pretty hard to make that argument.

Pete:  Yeah.  But I think it’s right and think God cares that we do that.  I don’t believe you can get that from the Bible—

Jared:  I’m with—

Pete:  Okay.  Why did Jesus die?  Can we get the whole cross thing into this here (laughter)—I’ve got about 75,000 questions right now, but—

Jared:  I’m glad Pete is just lobbing you the softball questions tonight (laughter).

Tom:  That’s actually an issue.  My Christology is one that I’m working on at the time—

Pete:  Yeah.

Tom: —so I don’t have a full answer for you.  I can’t at least say the following:  Christ’s death is a revelation that God is one who suffers.  Christ’s death is a result of rebellion of people who act contrary to God’s call to love. 

I’m not a person who thinks that God predestined and predetermined the death of Jesus before the foundations of the world.  I do, however, think that God had in mind, from all eternity, that we ought to live a life of love.  And God could see that someone who loved perfectly is probably going to meet up with some pretty stiff opposition.

These kinds of things are in my mind as I work through my particular Christology and what the death of Jesus is all about.

Pete:  To push that a little bit—I’m with you that I don’t—I mean, who has Christology worked out?  You know what I mean?  (laughter)  Even things like, why did Jesus die is not…


Jared:  It doesn’t even seem like Paul has it worked out—

Pete:  Yeah.  That’s not the easiest question to answer—

Tom:  Good point.

Pete:  Something like—and I’m just riffing here—the whole insistence that blood is necessary—might that be the perception on the part of New Testament writers?

Tom:  I think that’s right.  Given—you know the Bible better than I do—given what Old Testament writers are saying, it’s very natural for New Testament writers to have that view in mind.

Pete:  Because of their Jewish tradition, their heritage.  It’s almost like the it’s the only—

Tom:  Exactly.

Pete:  —language they have to describe it.  I can hear the push back already and I would respect the pushback that this has been part of how the Christian story has always been told.  The question then becomes does—there hasn’t been one way the Christian story’s been told about the cross, but basically, blood’s been important.  That raises the issue of whether theology keeps moving and progressing and changing—

Tom:  It does.  I think there’s very strong evidence that it does.  It doesn’t mean that the Bible has changed, although there’s various versions of the Bible and interpretations and all that, but the way we have interpreted the Bible historically has definitely changed.  You’re talking to a guy who’s written a book that says, “God can’t.”  (laughter) That means I’m a person who thinks that there might be some better ways to think about God’s power than at least has been in the majority opinion.

I’m banking on the idea that there are better ways to think about God than maybe have at least dominated in the Christian tradition.

Pete:  Just a quick thought, here, Tom.  Do not go back to evangelism, because you’d really be bad at it.  (laughter) I’m just thinking.  It’s not going to work.  Door-to-door, doing this stuff.  There’s no pamphlet you can give them—

Tom:  Well, you know—

Pete:  There’s no chic tract you can give them.  There’s no pamphlet.  Nothing.  I mean, just—

Tom:  I know you’re joking, but the truth is I get tons of notes from people who say, “Your way of thinking about God allows me to believe in God again.”  It is common.

Pete:  Isn’t that interesting—

Tom:  Yes.

Pete:  The thing is—not to join the party here—but I get those, too, for different reasons and different angles—

Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  It sort of terrifies me that—I’m sort of an apologist and an evangelist and I never wanted to be either of those things and so are you—

Tom:  There’s no doubt. 

Pete:  You’re an apologist for a different way of thinking and people are tracking with it.

Jared:  Not to break up the pat on each other’s back—

Pete:  Jared, we’ll be back to you in a minute.  Can you— (laughter)

Jared:  Not to break up the self-applause—

Pete:  The mutual admiration society.  (laughter)

Jared:  I did want to draw us back to what we talked about at the beginning and maybe reframe it, which is to say, when we talk about the Bible, it really can’t happen—how we interpret the Bible is inevitably wrapped up in what we think God is like.  I would just make an extra step that I’m hearing in the theme of this conversation is that we can’t make judgments about what God is like without our own experiences—

Pete:  Yes.

Jared:  —and there’s a mixture—kind of an ad mixture of the Bible informs that, but our own experiences inform that—

Tom:  Definitely.

Jared:  —so there is that important part of our theology that has to accept and integrate that our experiences matter and they’re not just a problem to be solved, but actually are perhaps a Spirit-guided process in this shift and how theology can and must and necessarily change over the generations.

Tom:  Yeah.  I totally agree.  Let me give you an illustration of how my particular experience then allowed me go back to the Bible and see it and read it differently.  I was moving to this view that maybe God can’t do some things.  I thought to myself, “That’s obviously not in the Bible.”

Then I thought, “Hold on a second.  Let me read the Bible again.”  (laughter)  I started running across all kinds of interesting passages.  The writer of Hebrews says, “God can’t tell a lie.”  James says, “God can’t be tempted.”  The Psalmist says, “God can’t grow tired.”  There’s a really great passage in the Old Testament in which the Israelites are fighting against some other nation, (maybe you know it Pete) and they say that the other nations have these iron munitions of some sort and therefore, “the Lord can’t conquer them.”—

Pete:  Right.  Yes.  Exactly.

Tom:  —There’s all kinds of weird things going on.  But this one passage especially has been important to me.  It’s in Paul’s letter to Timothy.  Paul says, “When we are faithless, God is faithful because God cannot deny Himself.”  I have then begun to work with this idea, “Look, if God can’t deny God’s own self, and God is love, God must love.  Maybe this love is self-giving, others-empowering, uncontrolling?”  That might become a clue on how we might rethink God’s power in light of God’s love.

I still think God’s powerful.  I just don’t think that God has the kind of controlling or single-handed determination that many people have thought God has.


Pete:  Also, that God would lay down that power.

Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  I don’t want to get into this thing that you said earlier that you disagree with and I think you’re right that God just accommodates to different ways of thinking.  I’m thinking here of a book that I’m trying to finish by William Placker, I think is how you pronounce it—

Tom:  Oh yeah.  Yeah.  Yeah.

Pete:  Narratives of a Vulnerable God

Tom:  Yes. 

Pete:  —which is like, “God is laying down the prerogatives.”  It’s like a kenosis.  It’s an emptying of God’s self and to be vulnerable.  That’s the primary way, which I think is love—

Tom:  I know too.

Pete:  That’s a primary way for God to express God’s love.

Tom:  What makes my view different from Placker’s and many other kenotic theologians is that they think that God voluntarily gives up this power as if God could have retained it and perhaps, sometimes does.

My view says that God’s very nature is this self-giving love.  This very nature is kenotic.  In fact, I call my view “essential kenosis.”  That means that this self-giving is, we might say, involuntary rather than voluntary.  In other words, because God’s very nature is self-giving love and God must God, God can’t deny Himself to quote the apostle Paul, that means his self-giving limitation, we might say, is something God necessarily does because God is necessarily loving.

Pete:  Almost like a good parent.

Tom:  Yes.  Yes.  (laughter)  I use the parenting analogy a lot because some people say, “Well, your God is not in control.  That means your God is doing nothing.”  I say, “Well, you know, a good parent is neither manipulative or absent.  A good parent is influential.  A good parent is there, prodding you, calling you and even sometimes, commanding you to do what is the right thing, but not trying to control you like a helicopter parent nor also absent, never around.”

Jared:  Excellent.  Unfortunately, Tom, we are coming to the end of our time.  I really appreciate all of the new ways to think about the Bible and God and there’s a lot to chew on.

Before we go, are there projects you’re working on or things you can point people to, to learn more about some of your views.

Tom:  I’ve written quite a few things, but the book that’s probably most helpful is one that just came out in 2019 that I’m happy to say has been a best-seller.  It has this provocative title, God Can’t – How to Believe in God and Love After Tragedy, Abuse and Other Evils.” 

In this particular book, I lay out what I think are five aspects to wrestling with the problems of suffering and evil and still believing that there is a god who does stuff and whose loving.

I would recommend that book. 

If you’re more into the scholarly stuff, a previous book I wrote is called The Uncontrolling Love of God, which also addresses these issues.

Jared:  Are there ways people can find you online if they want to interact with you further?

Tom:  Definitely.  I have a website that’s my full name:  I’m on the various social media channels.  If you’d like to know more about this idea of a god is who is relational and who experiences time like we do, you might check out the organization called the Center for Open and Relational Theology, of which I’m a director. 

I love to engage with folks who have questions about these issues that I’ve been throwing at you today.

Pete:  Yeah.  That’s great.

Jared:  Well, thank you.  Thank you so much, again, Tom, for taking some time and explaining some complicated things to us in ways that I think everybody’s gonna appreciate.

Pete:  Yeah.  Really helpful.

Tom:  Hey.  It’s been my pleasure.

Pete:  Great Tom.

Jared:  All right.  See ya.

(Jaunty Exit Music)

Pete:  Hey folks.  Thanks for listening, again, to another episode of the podcast.  Hope you enjoyed it.  Hope you have a chance to check out Tom’s books and maybe find him online like he said.

Jared:  If you want to find us online, you can find a lot of things on Patreon.  We are still in the midst of our campaign.  We are less than 100 people from reaching our goal of 1,611 patrons.  So, go to the Bible for Normal People on Patreon:  Hope to see you there.  We’ll see you later.

Pete:  We’ll see you later, folks, as always.

Jared:  I wanted to say, “Check you later,” in a Matthew McConaughey “Dazed and Confused” style.

Pete:  We’re not that cool.

Jared:  Yeah.

Pete:  See you folks.

Jared:  All right.  See ya.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.