God is Not All-Powerful, and the Bible Tells Us So

by Christopher Fisher

Chariots of Iron. In the beginning chapter of Judges, God is with the people of Israel, wishing to give them the Promised Land. God helps Judah defeat many enemies, but whenAuthor Photo they finally reach the plains, cutting-edge military technology is encountered:

Jdg 1:19 And the LORD was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.

Judah was not able to defeat an army of chariots. Where was God? Did God suddenly withdraw protection? Can God be defeated by chariots?

This isn’t an isolated instance. In 2 Kings 3 there is an interesting section where God promises Israel victory over the Moabites, saying it will be an easy win. Things do not turn out that way.:

2Ki 3:18 This is a light thing in the sight of the LORD. He will also give the Moabites into your hand,

2Ki 3:26-27 When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him… he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.

What is going on in these passages? Was God unable to instantly kill the attacking army? Why does God promise to easily give Moab to Israel and they fail so dramatically? Isn’t God omnipotent?

God, it is said, has the ability to do anything possible. God has “all power.” Admittedly, there are innumerable texts describing God’s potency, yet this has been challenged by critics of Christianity. They often point to these curious passages throughout the Bible describing God’s defeats. The claim is then made that Yahweh was historically a local cult god, rather than the omnipotent God of the universe. Is there an alternative way to understand this?

In his book The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord proposes a system known as essential kenosis where God’s power is limited by His non-coercive goodness. While Mr Oord might take issue with combat illustrations being used to discuss essential kenosis (a system rooted in love), this article is merely interested in examining the contingent quality of essential kenosis which might offer a better way to understand existing Biblical narratives.

Oord asserts God gives free will and does not revoke it:

First, this model of providence says God necessarily gives freedom to all creatures complex enough to receive and express it. Giving freedom is part of God’s steadfast love. This means God cannot withdraw, override or fail to provide the freedom a perpetrator of evil expresses. God must give freedom, even to those who use it wrongly.

Oord elsewhere describes God working synergistically with human beings:

God can be the mightiest without controlling others. God can exert power upon all creation without unilaterally determining any. God can be the ultimate source of power—empowering and enabling others—without dominating any creature or situation entirely. Almighty is not coercive.

From Oord’s perspective, God neither forces events to happen nor interferes to ensure they occur. This certainly would explain why God would promise one thing (an easy victory over Moab) but another thing entirely takes place (a retreat of Israel). This would also clarify other odd passages of the Bible.

In 1 Kings 22, the prophet Micaiah describes a scene in God’s courtroom. The angels gather around God, who is wondering how to convince the evil king Ahab to go to war. He invites the angels to give suggestions. Each angel presents their own plan until God endorses one He prefers. It is not God who will accomplish this plan; God empowers the angel to take the lead: “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so” (1Ki 22:22).

The courtroom scene has parallel in Job when God engages in speculation with an angel (traditionally identified as “Satan”). This angel likewise becomes the empowered creature in the text. This agent is again seen in texts like 1 Chronicles 21:1 (contrasted with 2 Samuel 24:1) and in Numbers 22:23 (the incident of Baalam in which “Satan” intervenes on God’s behalf). God is operating through an intermediary. This seems to be standard practice in the Bible.

The question becomes: what happens when an intermediary fails? What happens when Israel decides to retreat although God promised to empower them? What happens when God prophesies against Tyre and Egypt, and then his emissary is unsuccessful (see Eze 26:7 and Eze 29:20)? God does not seem to follow up and right the failures of others, at least not as recorded in the Biblical text. Perhaps a better way to understand God, as posited by The Uncontrolling Love of God, is God working through people not in spite of them.

In the Biblical text God invites dialogue, as with Abimelech in Genesis 20. God invites and often takes council as happens in the discussion of Sodom in Genesis 18. God then uses creaturely agents to execute that council. Angels are common emissaries, although God empowers individuals like Moses or King David as well. God even uses pagan nations to do His will (Ezekiel 23:22-23).

In any case, it is readily apparent the God of the Bible is not a micromanager, hoarding power to Himself. God’s first act toward humans, after all, was empowering them to name the animals (a curious, hopeful, and loving action). God is hurt when people choose to do wrong (Gen 6:6). God continues working through free will creatures, even though sometimes they fail. When this happens, God does not abandon His desire to work through them. Perhaps God’s nature of love leads to valuing collaboration at the risk of a failed outcome.


Christopher Fisher is a blogger at RealityisNotOptional.com and the lead editor of GodisOpen.com. I also administer the God is Open facebook group. My background is in economics and theology. I graduated from the University of South Dakota in 2006, Cum Laude with both Computer Science and Political Science majors and both Mathematics and Economics minors. My honors thesis was on the Platonic influences in early church history.



  1. We’re talking about the Creator of the universe here. The idea that a being who can speak entire galaxies into existence would be thwarted by the difference between iron and wooden chariots is exceedingly silly. Maybe God’s power has limits, but the kinds of things going on in the stories you cite surely have some other explanation than claiming God is just barely powerful enough to win some but not all battles between Iron Age armies.


      1. You (and Tom Oord) want to say that God in principle never “forces events to happen nor interferes to ensure they occur,” but the stories you site in this article are also consistent with the traditionally orthodox idea that God can and does exert his power to influence events sometimes but in other cases chooses not to. Your characterization of these stories as portraying some kind of weird arbitrary limit to God’s power that needs to be explained by claiming that God actually never exerts his power at all is silly.


      2. Some reading compensation questions:
        Do I think God can act unilaterally?
        What is the overall point of this article?
        How does the evidence interact with this point?
        How does Oord’s work interact with this point?


      3. Your headline is “God is Not All-Powerful, and the Bible Tells Us So” and then cite a couple stories in which Israel does not win some battles. But this is merely a special case of the problem of evil; sometimes stuff happens that does not appear to be what we think God would want to happen. Whether these events imply God’s power is limited by God’s ability, by God’s character, by God’s choices, or whether we perhaps misunderstand God’s desires and purposes, or there is some other explanation, all this has been argued for a long time.

        You appear to be citing these stories because you think that on their face they particularly portray God’s power as limited. “Can God be defeated by chariots?” But I think that’s a silly question. Who is it you think reads that story and wonders whether God can be defeated by chariots? Do you think the author of Judges believed that Israel’s God could be thwarted by iron chariots? You’re offering a solution to an incoherent view of God’s power that nobody actually holds. It’s a straw man.


    1. In common situations in which articles are submitted for publication, the title is chosen by the editor. Interestingly enough, this fascination with “All-power” is not a Biblical fascination, but one based on pagan Greek philosophy. I don’t “disagree” with the title. But you may be under the wrong impression as to what I believe.

      Here is a quick overview of Biblical Theology (Hebrew thought) verses Negative Theology (Greek thought):

      The Biblical positions is that God is “uber-powerful”. We have claims of God’s power being extensive (as stated in the very article you criticize… did you read the article?) and other gods and man both not being able to stand up to God’s power. We have the ascension Psalm, Psalms 82, in which God literally reclaims/claim power from derelict gods. God does not have “all-power”. In fact, within the Bible, plenty of agents both act independently of God and in opposition to God.

      The Calvinist idea is that God’s all-power is the same as God controlling all thing. If there is even one rogue atom, God is not sovereign. I don’t buy it.

      You say: “Do you think the author of Judges believed that Israel’s God could be thwarted by iron chariots?”

      Again, re-read the article. This time for comprehension. What is the thesis?


  2. Chris,
    I stumbled on your article through a friend of a friend on facebook. My intention isn’t to be a jerk or tear you down. And my intention isn’t to start an argument about the power of God…although I’d be happy to discuss that in private through email or whatever. But when I read your article and saw the scriptures you referenced in the beginning (Judges and 2 Kings), I decided to look further into them. In the Judges passage, verse 2 says, “The Lord answered, Judah shall go up; I have given the land into their hands.” The promise God gives is not anything more than that the land would be given into their hands. And as the verse you quoted says, that happened. To take that scripture and make it into an argument that God couldn’t have defeated the chariots is a misstep. God didn’t promise to do that. He promised the land. And he gave the land.
    In the 2 Kings passage, if you read the promise in verse 18:
    “This is an easy thing in the eyes of the Lord; he will also deliver Moab into your hands. You will overthrow every fortified city and every major town. You will cut down every good tree, stop up all the springs, and ruin every good field with stones.”
    Now look at verse 24:
    “But when the Moabites came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites rose up and fought them until they fled. And the Israelites invaded the land and slaughtered the Moabites. They destroyed the towns, and each man threw a stone on every good field until it was covered. They stopped up all the springs and cut down every good tree. Only Kir Hareseth was left with its stones in place, but men armed with slings surrounded it and attacked it.”

    Reading the whole scripture, God did exactly as God said he would do. God was not unable to defeat the Moabites. God delivered them into the hands of the Israelites just as was promised. The issue promised wasn’t possession of land. In fact, the issue was a rebellion led by the King of Moab. And he experienced defeat.

    I debated on whether to reply to the article. I don’t want you to think that my goal was to tear you down. But using tidbits of scripture to bolster a blog post and taking them out of context is a dangerous thing to do…especially when readers tend to ‘take your word’ on things.


    1. Thank you for the comments. I’ll respond more later, but salvaging prophecies through technicalities that would not be evident to the recipient of the prophecy… That’s a bad practice. I would appreciate you re-reading the article and then accurately representing my position. Thanks.


      1. Chris, I’m sorry if I misrepresented your position. I don’t understand the ‘technicality’ argument. In both cases, God did almost word for word what God said would be done. Once again, I don’t mean to create hostility. I’m just having trouble seeing the ‘failure’ in those 2 scriptures.


    2. We can definitely speak via email. Christopher.c.fisher@gmail.com

      A few questions about the Moab incident:

      2Ki 3:18 And this is a simple matter in the sight of the LORD; He will also deliver the Moabites into your hand.
      /// Did this happen? Did God deliver the Moabites into Israel’s hand? When? What about Kir Hareseth?

      2Ki 3:19 Also you shall attack every fortified city and every choice city,
      /// Did this happen? Did Israel attack every fortified city (the natural reading is that Israel is taking over every city)? When? What about Kir Hareseth?

      …and shall cut down every good tree, and stop up every spring of water,
      /// Did this happen? Did cut down every tree and stop all water? When? What about Kir Hareseth?

      …and ruin every good piece of land with stones.”
      /// Did this happen? Did Israel salt the land of Moab? When? What about Kir Hareseth?

      2 Kings 3:18-19 prophecies a complete destruction/subjugation of Moab. This doesn’t happen. In context, Israel is routed. I don’t see how this prophecy can be salvaged?

      Here is Biblical scholar Michael Heiser about Moab. He agrees with me:

      “Elisha had told the kings of Israel and Judah that God would help them. So why had He not? This situation isn’t the first time God promises but chooses not to deliver: God had told the Israelites that they would conquer Canaan under Moses and Joshua, yet they failed because of unbelief (Num 13; Deut 31: 1– 7; Josh 13: 1– 5; Judg 1: 27– 36). Yahweh was not defeated by the god of Moab. He was, and is, ready and able to help His people. But He will not do so if they refuse to believe and act on that belief.”

      Heiser, Michael S.. I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible (Kindle Locations 784-788). Lexham Press. Kindle Edition.

      As to the context of Judges, the pagan nations were never driven out of the land. Israel never took the land. Here is God, changing His mind about driving out the pagan peoples:

      Jdg 2:20 Then the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel; and He said, “Because this nation has transgressed My covenant which I commanded their fathers, and has not heeded My voice,
      Jdg 2:21 I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died,
      Jdg 2:22 so that through them I may test Israel, whether they will keep the ways of the LORD, to walk in them as their fathers kept them, or not.”

      Notice God is changing what He said He would do based on the actions of Israel. God says “I will no longer…”. You can view this text in a standard Open Theistic way, or in a way like Oord, but complete omniscience of the future or omnipotence (in the sense of absolute control of all things) is not an option. This might inform on texts such as Jdg 1:19, the alternative is the views of secular scholarship.

      //God’s power
      Nothing in my article makes the claim that Oord makes in his theology, that God is powerless to act. Instead, the thesis is “Perhaps God’s nature of love leads to valuing collaboration at the risk of a failed outcome.” There are failed prophecy in scriptures (and other odd events). If we want to hold onto inerrancy, then they need to be understood in a rational manner, one that makes sense in context.

      //Food for thought

      Jer 18:7 The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it,
      Jer 18:8 if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it.
      Jer 18:9 And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it,
      Jer 18:10 if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it.

      In Jeremiah 18, God states that He does not do both things that He SAYS He will do and things that He THINKS He will do, based on the actions of people. We need to consider Jeremiah 18 as a real possibility: that God does react, does change His mind, does revoke promises based on the actions of people. We cannot hold onto a picture of God not presented in the Bible, one of meticulous control of all things.

      Does that clarify?


      1. That does clarify. Thank you. I think some of your wording is difficult at the beginning…especially when coupled with the title (which I see was not yours?). I’m not one that believes that God controls everything. I would say that some of the answers to your questions above would be yes. But this does clarify quite a bit. Thanks for taking the time. I’m sorry if it came off that I was trying to be difficult. I absolutely wasnt.


  3. Chris – In one of your replies you seem to claim that I believe “God is powerless to act.” That’s not my position. I think God acts necessarily in all situations. You’d be correct if you said I think God cannot control others entirely. That may be what you meant, but I hope you can see that the statement “God is powerless to act” is radically different from “God cannot control others entirely.”


    Liked by 1 person

  4. One other minor point, Chris. You ask in a question above: “Can God act unilaterally?” I think God can, and I suspect you do too. The pertinent question I think should be asked in this way, “Can God determine creaturely events unilaterally?” I’d answer No to this question, because this would involve controlling others. But there’s an important difference between acting unilaterally and determining another person or situation unilaterally. When I asked my wife to marry me, I acted unilaterally. But our being engaged or not required her response, so I didn’t unilaterally determine our engagement.

    Liked by 1 person

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