God is Not All-Powerful, and the Bible Tells Us So
Guest Post 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 when 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.