Why Relational Theism Really Matters

by Tyron Inbody

“Nothing happens that is not the will of God.”

This is not only the reassurance offered by many Christian pastors, counselors, and friends in times of horrible suffering. It is the logical conclusion of Christian classical theism.

A friend dies at age 45 of uterine cancer, a teen aged daughter is killed head on by a drunk driver, a housing bubble pops and you lose your house and retirement plan at age 55, a plane crashes at 35,000 feet because of a mechanical failure, a genocide is carried out in Syria—these are horrible events. But for many Christians they are not meaningless because God willed them. Therefore, if spiritually mature, we should submit to God’s will and give thanks for these moments.

Why? Because they are not genuinely evil; the evils are only apparent. They are part of God’s plan. They have their place in the perfectly good will of God and so are not genuine evils (our lives would not have been better off without these). If we saw everything from God’s perspective, we would recognize this.

As hard as this assurance is to accept emotionally at the moment of suffering, we are assured these awful happenings are not meaningless. This, I am convinced, is the most powerful appeal of this hard to accept teaching of classical theism. The deepest threat to human existence, I believe, is not death but meaninglessness.

The problem is this: although divine determinism may be logically possible with belief in our freedom, it is not plausible if we believe in genuine freedom. Freedom is not just the absence of some external coercion (a gun to my head). Freedom means we are active agents in what happens in our lives along with God’s agency.

Consequently, many Christians are left with a dilemma: either give thanks for what it feels wrong to give thanks for, or conclude there is no God which is compatible with human freedom. This is the most powerful argument of most atheism. I agree with the atheists at this point. Why believe in let alone worship such a God? Indeed, with such a God, who needs a Devil?

Thankfully, there is another concept of God which avoids this dilemma. It is is more biblical, more theologically convincing, and more compatible with our lives as we live them day by day. It is called relational theism, and the tragedy is that most Christians are not aware of this more plausible concept of God.

My argument is that Tom Oord’s The Uncontrolling Love of God and other concepts of relational theism are genuine alternatives to our instinctive outrage. More than an alternative to classical theism, it is a matter of life and death in the practice of pastors, counselors, and members of the Christian community. What we believe makes a difference in our lives emotionally, spiritually, and practically. I claim this superiority to classic theism for three reasons:

First, relational theism is more consistent with the intuitions, beliefs, and practices of the Christian life. What possible difference could prayer make if God is eternal, impassible and controlling power? What real relationship is present if all things are already “real” and “willed” and “fixed” in the eternal life of God? Furthermore, what could love mean apart from mutually “response-able” relationships between God and us? Love by definition means reciprocity, so an unfeeling, unmoved being cannot love. The love of God would be empty of any meaning.

Second, relational theism is more faithful to the whole of the biblical witness, especially the christological focus of scripture, than is classical theism. To be sure, there are verses and stories which seem plausibly to imply an omnipotent controller of history and each life. The dominant views of God in the Bible, however, are images of God as repentant (changing direction), broken-hearted, filled with pain and sorrow, and above all, reciprocating love and desiring human well being in a context where creation is not yet shalom.

Most prominently, the life of Jesus, the incarnation, and a trinitarian understanding of God all imply relationships within God and between God and creation where God gives himself in unconditional love. This is not a God who is eternal (timeless) but is everlasting in love and faithfulness, luring and responsive to creatures.

Third, relational theism is conceptually superior to classical theism. Given the distinction between possibility, plausibility, and certainty, I admit classical theism is logically possible, at least if you can baldly assert the compatibility between divine omnipotence and human freedom. I find this to be nonsense, however, if human freedom is not simply the mere absence of external coercion but effective creatural agency that can have as powerful of an impact on the future as God’s own agency.

Few Christians want to argue absolute certainty concerning our concept of God. In this world at least only God knows for sure. A better question is, what kind of theism is most plausible given human experience? Traditional theism is simply beyond my boggle point!

That God acts to promote the well being of the whole creation is clear in scripture and consistent with a good and loving God. That God wills, causes, permits, or allows all the suffering of the world, being the only power to do so, seems to me to be conceptual gobbledygook. I find it most plausible that God and we create the future together.

Any theology that does not enhance that co-creation in service of the well-being of life is incompatible with God as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. It matters what kind of theists we are! Relational theism is not a theology just for professional theologians like Sanders and Oord, but for every Christian pastor, counselor, and member of the Body of Christ who loves God and seeks the well being of the whole creation in the midst of genuine suffering and evil. It matters what kind of theism we advocate.

All a Part of the Plan

by Graden Kirksey

We’ve all heard the sayings before: “There’s no way to understand because God’s ways areKirksey Author just higher than our ways,” “Everything happens for a reason,” and “It’s all just a part of God’s plan.”

These statements say a great deal about how we view God and God’s activity in the world. I do not deny God’s ways are higher than our ways; however, I would contend, what we do with this scripture is not its intended purpose.

These sayings paint a picture of God which says God literally has everything under complete control. Nothing goes contrary to God’s desires or “plan.” When something difficult or painful happens, we are expected to accept, even though we can’t see it now, God has preordained the event to happen to achieve His purposes.

The problem lies in what happens when we take this understanding of God and apply it to our lives. If everything is all a part of the “plan,” then my life does not make sense, nor do the other countless horrors occurring around the world each day.

Thomas Oord calls the experiences in question “genuine evils.” These are events with no redeeming qualities. He says, “some evils are character destroying rather than character building.”

Our challenge as Christians is not to tell a story existing on the pages of a book, no matter how holy the book may be. Our call is to spread the word given for our everyday lives; therefore, any belief we have in God must be able to live in agreement with the lives we lead and share together.

In the case of genuine evil, we don’t have the luxury of adjusting our lives. No one wants to experience hurt or pain or loss. Instead, we have to find a view of God which can live in agreement with what we experience day in and day out.

For me, it all started some eight years ago in 2008 while I was in seminary. This was the year we lost our son, Josiah, to a rare genetic condition. He was our miracle, our child of promise, and he was gone. In an instant, I was forced to reestablish my relationship with God and my theology.

The God I thought I understood vaporized and I wasn’t left with much. I knew facts and could quote verses; however, none of my understandings of God lined up with the very painful reality I had to face.

I would never suggest God wanted such a thing to take place, any more than I would suggest God desired the Holocaust. The Bible tells us, God is love, and there are countless events throughout history which simply cannot be attributed to God, if that is true.

Saying God is love is not a comment on how God has treated someone. It is a statement about His very being. God cannot choose when He loves and when He does not love. God always acts the way perfect love would act. Oord rightly states, “a perfectly loving individual would do whatever possible to prevent—not just fail to cause—genuine evil.” For a perfectly loving God, “even one instance of genuine evil is one too many.”

I’m convinced the root of all of God’s actions is love. How do we deal with the all-loving, all-powerful, omnipresent God who fails to deliver us from evil? That is the question resting on the lips of all who have walked the dark and lonely path of inexplicable pain or loss.

Church is not always the most inviting place when we question long standing beliefs, especially beliefs concerning topics as uncomfortable as this. The default reaction is to tread water as long as possible, hoping the barrage of doubts and questions will cease.

Fortunately for the church, the questions generally do cease, but at great cost. The hurt and damaged many times find themselves without a home, let down and dismayed. Many leave the church altogether. Others eventually fade into the background.

What if I were to say God is all-loving and all-powerful and all-knowing and omnipresent and He doesn’t have to control “everything?” It may sound scary to consider at first, but I believe it is the only way to reconcile our view of God with what we all readily know to be the common human experience.

In the church, we often fear anything other than complete control will in some way weaken God. We prioritize power because it is what impresses us and, in our extensive attempts to maintain everything is going according to “plan,” our brothers and sisters are plagued by the thought that God’s desire was for them to experience their nightmare.

Consider trying to explain the divine plan behind the loss of an infant. I can tell you from experience this endeavor does not end well. Try telling a young girl her rape was God’s desired path for her. The emotional and physical baggage she must carry with her the rest of her life is simply her lot as prescribed by God Almighty. Such things are unthinkable, but they are exactly the corner where we put ourselves when we hold to this traditional view of providence.

True love does not force itself on the beloved, nor does it force the beloved to do what it desires. That is what selfishness and hate look like. “A controlling God of love is fictional.”

Accountability and responsibility are real. How we live and the decisions we make affect us and those around us. We aren’t more important than God, but God, out of His unending love, has seen fit for us to live in such a way that matters, a way where we have the privilege to return and share His love or choose to oppose and possibly even stand in His way. A lesser god would shove us aside and show us who’s boss, but not our God. Instead, He is willing to risk the hurt and the likelihood what He desires will at times not be what transpires.

We need to understand God is not up in the clouds or on His throne with popcorn in hand awaiting His favorite parts of history to occur. He is here. He is with us. He is Emmanuel.
It is not impressive to consider God controls His creation. Anyone can do that; however, it is amazing to see the Creator being counted among and suffering alongside His creation. Truly, “Greater love has no one than this.”


God Cannot Do Evil

by John Daniel Holloway, III

There is a theist maxim of uncertain origin that states, “If God does not exist, Holloway Authoreverything is permitted.” Claimed here is a connection between theism and morality, so that morality cannot exist without God. As those like C. S. Lewis claim, our sense of morality is evidence of the existence of a moral God. Without God determining what is moral, we can have no concrete moral compass, and so everything is permitted.

Philosopher and sociologist Slavoj Žižek criticizes this maxim and reverses its proposal, saying instead that it is precisely if there is a God that everything is permitted! He demonstrates this with reference to violent religious fundamentalists, for belief in God gives such groups something beyond themselves to appeal to in order to justify their actions. As the instruments of God’s will, they can ignore the moral impulses they already have, and can justify heinous acts by appealing to their divine sanction.

While much less extreme than religious fundamentalists, the same kind of mannerism can be observed in many theologians who appeal to God or the Bible as justification for their negative or nonsensical beliefs.

Daniel Heimbach and Tremper Longman, in their respective responses to the violent actions of God in the Bible, say that for God to command genocide or act as a bloodthirsty warrior is totally moral, because God defines morality. If God does it, it is moral. It may not fit human ideas of morality, but our opinion is not the one that matters.

While the theology here is admirable in its emphasis on the divine-human distinction, it is ultimately inadequate. It is true that we should not make God in our image, or constrict God to our frame of reference, but to make God out to be arbitrary and capricious is to make way for the very idolatry that is trying to be avoided.

If God is entirely unpredictable in essence, God becomes entirely malleable. If God is capable of anything, God can be used to justify anything. The danger of this theology cannot be overstated. Not only has it been used throughout history to justify atrocities, but it can be (and if history is any indication, will be) used to do so again.

If killing a child is morally wrong, it should not be considered morally right if God does it. To say so is to relativize morality and render it meaningless, becoming a concept completely adaptable to human perversions. Suddenly, whether or not killing children is moral becomes a matter of interpretation. Suddenly, everything is permitted.

Thomas Jay Oord offers a more promising perspective on the issue. He claims goodness is necessarily part of God’s nature, so that God cannot do anything evil but can only do what is good. There is a standard of morality that God cannot violate precisely because it is in God’s nature to be good, and God cannot be something God is not. Morality, he says, pours out of God’s unchanging nature of love.

Thus, to speak of morality is not to speak of something meaningless. God is not arbitrary. God acts in accordance with the divine will, and the divine will is always and forever good, never evil.

This does not, however, answer the question of whether or not we can know the divine standard of morality. Indeed, as finite humans—not to mention sinful humans!—how can we arrive at a settled understanding of what comprises goodness? I dare say it is an impossible task (or perhaps an impossible possibility).

Oord offers a promising theological perspective on the problem of God’s relationship to the good, and we would do well to follow his lead. For God there can be no suspension of the ethical, no disregard for what is just and right. With God we can always expect goodness. But how we can know what is ethical, just, right, good, and moral is a question that still must be addressed. We must take seriously human frailty and its implications for moral understanding.

To speak of morality is to speak of God, but how can we speak of morality?

John Daniel Holloway, III is a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, NY. He is Secretary-treasurer of the International Society for Heresy Studies, and he holds a B.A. in biblical and theological studies from Regent University. Additionally, he is a musician, a reader, a beer-drinker, and a lover of film.

Stuff Happens

Owen Authorby Dr. Dyton Owen

Countless times my wife, Tammy, and I have talked about a statement we often hear. We hear the statement – or a variation of it – frequently after some tragedy. Usually it is spoken by well-meaning people – often Christians – who feel as though they must say something in the face of another person’s pain or grief. For them, silence is not an option.

“Everything happens for a reason,” they say. “This must have been God’s will.” Both statements imply God causes – or wills – everything that happens.

At first blush, this statement seems encouraging. Think about it. You or your family have just endured the news of the loss of a loved one. Word quickly spreads to your friends, community, church and neighbors. As any good person would do, many flock to your side to shower you and your family with love and support.

During the rush of people coming and going, offering to help in whatever way they can – perhaps by providing meals, watching your children, taking care of household things – someone sits next to you on your couch, puts an arm around your shoulders and, as you weep at trying to take in all you have just heard, says, “Everything happens for a reason. It’s all a part of God’s plan. You may not know what the plan is, but God never does anything without a purpose.”

The person means well. He or she is trying to offer comfort in what is the most painful time of your life. The individual may actually believe everything does happen for some reason we may not be able to see or understand in the moment, but will become clearer as time passes.

Such a sentiment is often offered as comfort. The truth is, it often comforts the one saying it more than the one receiving it. In other words, it is spoken so the one saying it is comforted because he or she was able to“say something.”

It would be better to say nothing at all.

Such an idea portrays God as uncaring, distant, aloof. It implies God willfully brings about tragedy. It is as if God’s hand is literally guiding a person toward misfortune.

When I was nine years old, my family moved to Tulsa where my father would serve as the senior pastor of an up-and-coming church. Three days after we moved in – boxes still unpacked – Dad walked in the front door and called for my mother who was in the kitchen making a grilled cheese sandwich lunch for my brother and me. He announced their oldest son – our brother – had been killed in an accident while serving in the Army. At that moment the world stopped. I was too young to comprehend what dad had just told us. My mother collapsed on the floor; Dad sat next to her. My older brother and I just stood there, not knowing what to do or say.

Somehow, word had gotten out in the church. Within minutes, leaders of the church were at our door. They had come to express their sorrow and offer any help they could. One of them was a physician. He had come to offer his condolences and, thankfully, administer a mild sedative to my mother. As my brother and I stood there, trying to take it all in, not knowing a single person who came into our house, I saw one of those people sit on the couch next to my mother and heard her say, “You may never know what God’s will is in all this….”

It was the first time I remember thinking to myself, “Did God really cause my brother’s death? Was the accident really not an accident, but something planned…by God?”

In his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord helps clarify why this is poor theology. In the chapter entitled, “Randomness and Regularities of Life,” Oord addresses the misguided and harmful notion that God’s hand guides every incident of every day in every person’s life. In other words, the chapter suggests it is erroneous to believe there are no accidents, only “incidents in God’s plan;” and to reject randomness, therefore, to presume “everything happens for a reason.”

At the same time, Oord reminds us there are regularities we cannot deny. If the regularities of nature were dominant, nothing new would ever appear. On the other hand, if randomness ruled creation, chaos would ensue (p. 43).

Oord’s idea, God is “essentially kenotic” opens a wide door and allows a fresh wind of understanding to blow on how God acts in relation to creation. If God’s nature is uncontolling love – i.e., because God is love, God provides creatures freedom to do as they choose – then God cannot control every action of God’s creation. Controlling love is not love.

Oord goes on to show, because God is essentially love, all the regularities of creation stem from God’s loving nature. Because of God’s essential love, God never controls creatures or creation. Randomness happens; however, God is always calling creation on to love, beauty and health even in the midst of tragedy.

The accidents we experience in life – the accident which took my brother’s life – are just that: random events. Because of God’s uncontrolling nature of love, God could not intervene to prevent it.

It was not part of God’s plan.

It was not a case of “everything happens for a reason.”

It was not God’s will.

It just happened.

There is more to it, as Oord reminds us. Simply because a random tragic event occurs – as devastating as it may be – does not mean good cannot come from it. The death of my brother serves as an example. Because of his death, my family was better able to minister to families who have found themselves in similar situations. We know what it is like to lose a loved one to random events with tragic endings.

God’s uncontrolling love means God does not will everything that happens, but in everything that happens, God wills good to come from it.

When tragedy strikes, perhaps knowing this will move us closer to the love, beauty and wholeness toward which God is constantly calling us.

Dr. Dyton L. Owen is a United Methodist pastor, author, church consultant and clergy coach.  He is also a family system theorist which he utilizes in his ministry.

Rethinking the Phrase “God Allows”

by Mark KarrisHeadshot

I am a pastor and therapist who works with those who have experienced trauma. I have recently come to the conclusion that “God allows,” in regard to evil and suffering, is a terrible theological phrase. I have discovered it often erodes trust in a profoundly loving and trustworthy God.

Deconstructing “God Allows”

The word “allow” is poison to the sensitive, God-seeking, and traumatized soul. It is poison for at least two reasons.

First, saying God “allows evil” makes God out to be a voyeur who arbitrarily jumps into time, willfully intervening in some people’s lives to save them from harm, and willfully not intervening in others.

Imagine, for example, what it must be like for God watching a disturbed psychopath begin to rape a helpless woman. The God most people believe in must say, “I planned this before the foundation of the world. I know I could stop this, but I am going to allow it to happen.” Although all-powerful, this God just watches and does nothing to stop the rape.

In another moment, God watches another psychopath begin to rape another helpless woman. But this time, God says, “I also planned this before the foundation of the world. But in this case, I will intervene and stop this man.” Perhaps God intervened by causing a neighbor to stop by the victim’s house. The perpetrator became startled, frantically running out the door.

I am among many people who are aghast at the God who allows some evil but prevents others. The God most people believe in is 1) in control of everything that happens in the world, 2) powerful enough to stop any evil act from happening but often doesn’t (which is monstrous), and 3) preordains these evils as part of some master plan.

There’s a second, related reason why I don’t think saying “God allows evil” makes much sense. If God “allows” something to occur, this means God could have done otherwise.

Let’s return to the rape example. If God “allows” the rape, God must have also been able to take His big metaphysical index finger and flick the rapist away. Or God could have acted like Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past by manipulating objects or people at the speed of light to keep the rape victim from harm.

But God doesn’t flex his metaphysical muscles in this way often enough. As we will see shortly, there are problems with this kind of interventionist and unilaterally controlling God.

God Is Not In Control

To say God “allows” evil events to occur means that God could have stopped it. I don’t believe that is so.

Contrary to popular belief, there are things God cannot do. For instance, the Bible tells us that God can’t lie. One thing God cannot do, which is important for this discussion, is unilaterally control people and events.

In his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord offers this comparison: “Mermaids cannot run marathons because a mermaid’s nature includes leglessness. [Analogously], God cannot create controllable creatures because God’s nature is uncontrolling love” (p.148).

The idea here is that God cannot unilaterally control events, because God’s loving nature is uncontrolling. God cannot control people and events in the world, and God’s agency competes with other variables, such as randomness, creaturely agency, and law-like regularities.

The point is this: If God’s love is uncontrolling, we should not say God allows evil or horrific events to occur. Instead, we should say it is impossible for God to control people and events. And this uncontrolling influence enables free creatures, randomness, and law-like regularities (e.g. gravity, weather systems, etc.,) that sometimes run amok.

Evil events occur precisely because a loving and uncontrolling God does not control all things.

God Is Controlling (Just Not Like We Think) 

Just because God is not in unilateral control does not mean that God is passive. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word control can mean “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.”

I suggest that God can lovingly influence us by inviting, empowering, inspiring, filling, convicting, leading, comforting, healing, and challenging us, toward ever-increasing experiences of shalom. God exerts this kind of “control.”

God is a Spirit, and God is love. God always does the most loving acts possible in every moment, in every nook and cranny of existence. Furthermore, God can be one hundred percent trusted, because God would never purposely or maliciously harm any person, especially for some grand Machiavellian purpose.

What I’m suggesting may seem a grand revelation. But it becomes believable without the cognitive dissonance-producing phrase “God allowed,” so typical of Christian responses to evil.

A Few Words for Moving Forward

Permit me to make a request to my fellow Christians.

Would you please stop saying things like, “God allowed your husband to die in that car accident?” Could you stop attempting to cheer traumatized parents by saying, “God allowed your baby to die as part of a plan?”

I propose we Christians get rid of the phrase “God allows.” If we did, I suspect fewer people would be confused or, worse, blame God for the horrific events that occur. Eliminating “God allows” could remove an unnecessary obstacle that prevents many from having a loving connection with their Creator.

Permit me also to say a word to spiritual seekers.

I get it. I also wouldn’t want to love a God who arbitrarily allows some evils and prevents others. But I hope my comments in this essay will prompt you to rethink what God does.

When you think about the abuse, pain, suffering, or flat out evil in your life, you don’t have to believe God allowed or caused it. Often, other people with free will cause evil. Sometimes evil occurs as an unfortunate random event. Sometimes we suffer because of our own unwise choices.

I hope that after some reflection, you will come to believe in a freedom-giving, uncontrolling God. This loving God seeks only what is good for your life.


Mark Karris is an ordained pastor, author, musician, licensed marriage and family therapist, and all around biophilic.