God Can’t!—and the Bible Says So

February 24th, 2010 / 50 Comments

I sometimes hear the argument that we should not speculate about the attributes of God’s nature. Overall, I don’t find this argument convincing.

A couple of the underlying assumptions of the argument seem on target, however. One assumption is that humans often overreach in their claims about who God is.  Finite minds should not pretend to grasp entirely the essence of an infinite God. I agree with this. There is always a role for mystery in theology.  Folks just don’t always agree about what that role is.

This assumption to the argument reminds us “we know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12).  We should remain humble in our words about God. After all, we occasionally realize in hindsight that our previous claims are not as helpful or accurate as we once thought.

The second assumption against speculating about the attributes of God’s nature is justified by the inadequacies of the ancient Christian tradition. This assumption says that many Christians today identify ancient theological claims they no longer find plausible. 

For instance, a good number of theologians today think the ancient Christian claim that God does not suffer (i.e., is not affected by creatures) is faulty. Although this claim was common among ancient theologians, the Bible suggests otherwise. Sometimes abstract speculation about God’s nature fueled ancient theological claims that most Christians now believe erroneous. 

As another example, take the issue of God’s power and creaturely freedom. Many if not most ancient theologians implicitly or explicitly denied that creatures are free.  Many if not most contemporary theologians argue otherwise.

Given these concerns, some Christians today say we should resist making any claims whatsoever about God’s nature.  We should restrict ourselves instead, they say, to descriptive comments about the way God has acted in history.

I disagree with the view that we should refrain from making claims about God’s nature. Instead, I think we ought to offer humble hypotheses about what we believe God’s nature is like.  In humility, we ought always be ready to modify our views. “We know in part,” not in full.

My primary argument for why we are justified in speculating about God’s nature comes from the Bible.  Biblical authors OFTEN make statements about God’s nature or attributes. They don’t just describe God’s actions.  Here are a few:

“God is love” (I Jn 4:16).  “God is spirit…” (Jn. 4:24). “The Lord our God is holy” (Ps. 99:9).

“The Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). “God … knows everything” (1 Jn. 3:20). “God is just” (2 Thess. 1:6).   “God is not unjust” (Heb. 6:10).

In God’s nature “there is no change or shadow of alteration” (James 1:17). “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33).

“Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20)

The last biblical passage I cite is especially powerful. Paul claims our observations of the world – not just the Bible – can tell us something about God’s invisible qualities and divine nature.

Most Christians also believe that Jesus Christ reveals important information about God’s nature. In part, this belief fuels Christians to claim that Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  The Bible witnesses to the revelation of God’s nature through the life of Jesus. 

Here are two passages from the many I could quote to support the idea that Jesus reveals God’s nature:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). The Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

“We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:20).

I mention the issue of speculating about God’s nature to get to a question I’ve been asking for some time: Is there something about God’s nature that makes it impossible for God to act in certain ways? 

To put it succinctly:  Should we say God CAN’T do some things?

A number of theologians are comfortable saying God voluntarily chooses not to act in certain ways.  God voluntarily self-limits, creates space for creation, and gives creatures freedom, say theologians as influential as Jurgen Moltmann and John Polkinghorne. This limitation is based on God’s free decision.

Instead of wondering whether God could or would do something, however, I’m wondering if God essentially CAN’T do some things. There’s a big difference between “can’t” and “won’t.”  I’m asking the can’t question.

The distinction between “God can’t” and “God won’t” is especially important for accounting for God’s action or inaction to prevent genuine evil. I try to account for this in light of the genuine evil caused by pain and suffering in our world.  The recent Haiti earthquake and the million or more people negatively affected brought the problem of evil to the fore of my mind again.

If God won’t prevent evil even though God could, we’re left with the same essential questions about evil. But if God can’t prevent the evil, a completely new way of thinking emerges.

For some people, of course, merely asking the question, “Should we say God CAN’T do some things,” is blasphemous.  For them, the Bible clearly indicates that God can do all things. 

A few passages – but not many – explicitly support the view that God can do anything. The most well known is probably when Jesus says, “with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26 and elsewhere).  In this passage (and the other gospels reporting the same conversation), Jesus seems to be saying that offering salvation is always possible for God. That would be different that saying literally nothing is impossible for God to do.

There are passages in the Bible that specifically say God CAN’T do some things. Notice: these passages aren’t saying God voluntarily chooses not to do some things. They say God simply cannot do them.  Here are four biblical verses as illustrations:

“It is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18).  See also Titus 1:2.

“God cannot be tempted by evil” (Js. 1:12).

“If we are faithless, [God] remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).

I personally think the statement in the last of these passages — God cannot deny himself — covers the others.  Paul seems to be saying that God’s own nature places limits on what God can do. God must be God, and God cannot be otherwise.

We must come to terms with the fact that the Bible says God can’t do some things. Christians like me who privilege the Bible on theological matters can’t ignore statements that seem to tell us something about God’s nature and God’s inherent limitations.

If we think about it a bit, however, these limitations based on God’s nature aren’t that big a deal. They shouldn’t shock us, even if we haven’t thought much about it previously.

Does it diminish our view of God, for instance, to admit that God can’t lie?  I doubt it.  And I doubt our view of God is diminished if we consider other attributes we typically think apply to God.

For instance, I doubt many of us worry that God can’t voluntarily decide to be 671 instead of triune. Most Christians assume that trinity is part of what it means to be God. (By the way, if to be three is to be triune, what’s the word for 671?!)

Or, for another instance, we probably don’t think it’s a significant limitation that God must be omnipresent rather than confined to one place or another. And we probably don’t worry about God being limited to leading an everlasting life instead of being able to choose to have a beginning or end. 

Upon reflection, the fact that God can’t do or be some things doesn’t seem so bad after all.

One of the most important biblical statements about God’s nature is that God’s eternal and unchanging nature includes steadfast love.  God cannot not love, to use the double negative.

Here’s where I wonder if thinking about God’s nature as love helps with the problem of evil. Here’s the love theo-logic I’m proposing: perhaps we are justified in speculating that part of what it means for God to love others is that God never controls others entirely. To put it positively, God’s love always involves giving freedom and/or agency to creatures. Because God’s nature is love, God cannot do otherwise.

I was reading the works of John Wesley the other day. I came across a line of argumentation from him that supports my view of God’s nature making God incapable of controlling others entirely.  Wesley writes, “were human liberty taken away, men would be as incapable of virtue as stones. Therefore (with reverence be it spoken) the Almighty himself cannot do this thing. He cannot thus contradict himself or undo what he has done.”

If God’s loving nature prevents God from controlling others entirely, we might have to rethink how we understand God’s mighty acts recorded in Scripture and evident in our contemporary lives. We don’t have to reject that God acts in mighty and miraculous ways.  God still acts providentially and miraculously. But we might need to think of God’s acts as not involving the entire control of others. 

Admittedly, looking at God’s power through the lens of God’s love and not total control is new to some people.  But I know of nothing in the Bible to suggest that thinking in this way does injustice to the overall biblical witness.  After all, most folk think God always acts lovingly – even when biblical writers report God being angry with sinners.

I don’t have it all figured out. I see through a glass darkly. And I admit there are a few biblical passages that aren’t easily explained by the idea that God always acts loving. They are the exceptions.

But I am trying to propose a biblically supported view of God’s nature that helps us make sense of why God doesn’t prevent genuine evil. God can’t prevent genuine evil, because God’s nature of love always gives freedom and/or agency to others.

My speculation is based upon the biblical witness that God can’t do some things. I have the Bible as my primary resource. I affirm with the Bible that God’s inabilities to do some things come from the truth that God “cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).

John Wesley, “On Divine Providence,” Sermon 67, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 2 (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1985) paragraph 15.

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Lori Ward

On a tangential thought . . . if “God cannot be tempted by evil” as James submits, what do we do with the God-Man who was tempted in the wilderness of his 40-day fast?  Was that not God?  Were his temptations not of evil?  Was he not truly tempted? 

I am convinced that Jesus, of one being with the Father, was in fact tempted by evil to do evil (perhaps this is a stretch of the term, “evil”?  Surely he was tempted to go against the “will of the Father.”). 

I also wonder then, was it impossible for Jesus to sin?  While among us would it be true to say, “Jesus CAN”T sin,” because that is outside his nature?  Is Jesus an exception to the “God rule”? 

I don’t necessarily disagree with your argument, but I am concerned about the implications it has regarding God in Christ Jesus.

Todd Holden

You write that, “God can’t prevent genuine evil…” What difference would it make if you were to say, “God doesn’t prevent genuine evil”? To me it does not appear that your argument would be interfered with in any meaningful way.

In addition, how do you define “genuine evil”?


“Many if not most ancient theologians implicitly or explicitly denied that creatures are free.”

Who?  I’m working on an article on free will skepticism, and would like to know who you are thinking of here.

Hans Deventer


I agree that God can’t do certain things, and that he cannot entirely control others. But like a prison warden who cannot entirely control his prisoners, he definitely can avoid them causing harm in society. In fact, that is part of the very purpose of the prison. God doesn’t, however (yet). I’m still left with the question why.



Very nicely stated. I make a similar argument in my thesis that creation (I know we disagree on the nature of this) was a risk and act of faith for God because once God created God would never be able to “uncreate.” That is, God would forever be different by God’s act of creation. God would for ever be a creator and unable to ever erase this fact. I also agree that God had no choice but to create humans to be free. God could have created a world full of nonrelational objects and creatures but to create a being in God’s image that was relational meant that God could not do otherwise than create them to be free. In other words, I don’t speak about the “gift” of free will but the necessity of it.

All this to say, very nicely said and I think I will share this with my class…assuming this is alright with you.

Mark W. Wilson

It is interesting that in I Cor. 13 Paul doesn’t simply tell us what love does, but what it does not do. Because God is love, there must be things He doesn’t or can’t do. Open Theists have insisted that creaturely freedom is a prerquisite for genunine love and relationship. Is this true of God? Does he choose to love us, or does he love us because his nature constrains Him to? Can he not love us? If his nature constrains him to love us, why couldn’t God have made our nature so we are constrained to love and obey him? Or must we ascribe to God the freedom to not love us? I fear I see through a glass even more darkly.

Michael Lodahl

Thanks for all your hard work, Tom. I agree with Kevin’s bewilderment, though. (I’m guessing Timpe.) What is striking to me is just how adamantly human freedom is affirmed and protected in early Christian theological writings, from Justin Martyr to Irenaeus to Athanasius to the Cappadocians, and many others. So I think you have more allies among the early theologians than you’re suggesting. And that’s a good thing!

John King

A very interesting topic.  From a more philosophical perspective is a paper by Phillip Clayton on “Can there be Theology after Darwin”, Prof Clayton has some interesting comments about what God can and cannot do.  However, he does not ignore the Bible entirely.  He relates his view to the ancient hymn found in Phil. 2 to present a kenotic theology.  The apophatic theologian from Harvard, Gordon Kaufman has some interestint ideas about the nature of God also.  I think Kaufman’s books “In the Beginning…Creativity” and “Jesus and Creativity” are very readable

Grant Miller

Dr. Oord, I love the tone of this piece and of the logical progression you take us through. I also appreciate your use of Scripture and your effort to acknowledge the necessarily humble attitude that any theory about God’s nature must be accompanied with.

However, I think I’d like to offer that God’s decision not to intervene in a “won’t” sense can be just as powerful as a God “can’t” understanding. I find this especially poignant in light of the idea of God’s active suffering. What could it mean if God is actively protecting human free will by refusing to interact with us in a way that jeopardizes it? How much more might God be suffering, especially when it could be theoretically in God’s capacity to act and prevent evil, but God can’t because our free will is the most loving thing God can offer us? Thank you for your thoughts here!

Gordon Knight

On determinism in the history of the Church: Augustine is a prime example of a theological determinist. Aquinas wiggles a bit but in the end a consistent Thomist has to adopt theological determinism (after all its one simple divine act that results in all of creation as its laid out temporally for us, but is, as it were laid out as a big banquet table before God.. fixed and determined. Remember that the Dominicans rejected Molinism not, as some of us do, because, even if it made sense, it would render God the greatest possible manipulator, but because they thought the existence of counterfactuals of freedom negated God’s sovereignty. I don’t need to mention Luther and Calvin (but I did anyway)
On the other hand the Greek Fathers—I have in mind theCappadocians and Origen.. were all about libertarian free will.

Tony Scialdone


I truly appreciate that you consider God’s nature an appropriate topic of discussion. I’m often surprised at what people avoid discussing. In my opinion, it’s perfectly acceptable that we ask, “What is God really like?”

As valuable as speculation can be, it should never trump revelation. The musings of a follower of Christ should be both constrained and tempered by Scripture. Along those lines, would you please clarify the following?

>> I disagree with the view that we should refrain from making claims about God’s nature…Biblical authors OFTEN make statements about God’s nature or attributes.

Here’s why I ask: you seem to suggest that, because the writers of Scripture ‘made statements’ about God’s nature, we should engage in the same kinds of activities. I may have misunderstood, of course…but you seem to have reduced Scripture to the musings of ancient men, subject to revision. I’d like to know whether I’ve misread you.

Thanks for making us all think. Have a great day!

Linsey M.

I would have to agree with your thoughts here. Because God is good and God is love (things I think most Christians are okay saying even if they suggest they don’t know everything about Him), would in essence suggest there is a long list of non-loving, evil, and bad things God cannot do. It is important we realize that the simple things we say God IS also imply there are certain things God IS NOT and therefore there are certain things He CANNOT do. Thanks for your thoughts.

Dustin J.

The idea of God not being able to do certain things has been growing on me since your Philosophy of Love class. This idea of God not being able to interfere with freedom in creatures which would violate some form of characteristics of God’s essential nature makes sense. The one question I do have is does this thought process somehow limit God’s ‘God’ ability? If we put a limitation which makes sense for us does it diminish the power of God?
I enjoy the idea that characteristics of God are boiled down to love. That which goes against the ultimate love God shares to creation cannot happen. Love always plays the role of final word or authority, if it goes against love, as holding authority of our free will would,  it cannot happen.

Jared Trygg


That was a very logical approach to why affirming God as able to do anything does not fit with biblical evidence as well as affirming that God can do all things in God’s nature of love. The verse that God cannot deny himself is crucial in defining that nature for God means complete identity. We often use the word nature for people as a way that they act most of the time, not necessarily all the time. For example, it may be in the nature of someone who has experienced entire sanctification to obey God but they are also able to sin. Sin is within their bounds as opposed to anything outside of God’s loving nature to be within God’s bounds.

Austin Lamos

As I read this blog post I thought of the children’s song I used to sing in Sunday School and at Children’s camp.
“My God is so great, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do…”
I think that this is a helpful way of thinking for a child, and even a new Christian. However, I think, and I believe that Oord thinks, that this avenue of thinking and believing are the equivalent of “spiritual milk” (Hebrews 5:12-14). It may be a helpful rubric as one explores the basics of Christianity.
However, as one grows and matures as a Christian one must move on to “spiritual meat” (see above scripture reference). One moves from a children’s bible to an adult bible; from cute pictures to the ugly reality of sin and the cross (not that it can’t be argued that the cross can be seen as beautiful in it’s message). One moves from the idea that God can do absolutely anything without reserve to understand that there are some things that God cannot, not just will not, do.
I believe that Oord illustrates this well.

Mary Forester

I think an interesting point that I feel you have brought to light, as I read this, is how it is in the way that we say things that makes a difference. You wrote, “Is there something about God’s nature that makes it impossible for God to act in certain ways?” I feel that this sounds different than a description of God which states that “it is impossible for God to act”. Clearly, the intention is the same, but the perception of the reader/hearer is different when comparing these ideas.

Your suggestion of why genuine evil exists makes sense to me when we consider that a loving God can’t interfere with the free will that He has given humankind.

Mark Mounts

I totally agree with the assumption that God cannot do some things because He is love and love just would not complete some of the actions of evil.  I also learned this week that God is, most likely, an isolated spirit that does not take human form thus, partaking in some human decisions would not be like God.  I do believe that God intensely wanted to have a relationship with all of humankind so He sent Jesus to suffer evil and relate to humankind in a more intense way. 

God also would never associate himself with evil and suffering as a choice to partake in that evil and suffering.  I am not sure we could totally say that there are things God cannot do, but things that do not match His nature nor would He associate with those decisions.  Does that mean He cannot do them or that He has never thought or even considering doing those things?

David Hater

This is an interesting perspective, and really was informative in certain ways.  I struggle with the idea of God cannot do something, because it seems limiting to say that, unless of course it is God who self-limits for the sake of his character.  In the essence of things that are evil, it is counter to God’s character to be or do any of those things, so I guess in a way that is that he cannot do those, as it is Biblical, it just seems like it could become a gray area if we are not careful to explain in depth the meaning when referring to God can’t.  This is an interesting thought that I need to look at more to hopefully understand on a deeper level.

Paul Darminio

Again, I think that Tom presents a very strong argument here.  When it comes to essential kenosis, I have no difficulty accepting that God is loving by nature or that God suffers with us.  As he notes, I share the struggle of many others in saying that there are certain things that God cannot do.  I appreciate his approach, and I agree with some of the assertions he makes.  For instance, I had not considered if God could be something other than Triune, but I guess I would be comfortable saying God cannot violate this part of his nature. 

The issue of necessary evil vs. genuine evil is one that I am still struggling with, and I am beginning to wonder if natural evil falls under the umbrella of necessary evil since it allows for the kind of world that we live in.  Either way, I think this essay does an excellent job of acknowledging the tension created by this perspective and relating it back to Scripture.

Jerimy W

The logic behind this argument makes sense: there are certain things that God cannot do because God said God cannot do them.  These certain things cannot be done because they would go against the very nature of God.  God, who creates in love, for love and out of love, created each of us with a free will.  In doing so, God granted each one of us the ability to choose, sometimes moment by moment, whether to seek God or seek evil.  If God is truly love, as the Scriptures point out, God cannot create in any other way.  And, if God is that love, I can understand how God cannot step in and change that which God created in and out of God’s own nature.
This, in my mind, does not diminish the power of God.  In fact, for me, it actually reinforces the character of God.


This was a very interesting piece.  The “can’t” and the “won’t” are so intertwined with each other it is almost impossible to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.  God won’t because He gave us free-will-His gift to us.  Because He values that, as do we, He will not intervene on certain levels, causing the “can’t” to appear.  It seems that one causes the other to take place.  Would it be different if God have not given us free-will?  Would “can’t” even be an issue anymore?  And if that is the case, could there actually be a “can’t”.  If we no longer had free-will; just woke up one morning and it was gone, would God change?  Would He become different and be capable of everything?

Kelli Simmons

I appreciate the fact that you are willing to ask “the hard questions” regarding Gods nature and the issue of evil. Overall, I would agree with your statements, especially when examined in the light of 2 Tim. 2:13. I am one of those people who have difficulty (or at least in the past)using the words “God” and “cannot” in the same sentence.  However, I am am of the opinion that the gift of free will that was given to us from a loving Creator plays a huge role in the circumstances, both good as well as evil, that we encounter in this world.  Thank you for this insightful essay.

Lisah Malika

There is a big difference between can’t and wont. When we think of God in terms of “He can’t” do a certain thing, then we are making the claim that He is limited by His nature. When we say that God can but simply will not, then we are emphasizing God’s will. This concept of God’s will versus His nature gets complicated when we start discussing certain topics like evil. The idea of saying God “cannot” was not something I grew up with; when I initially heard that I didn’t like it. I felt like it undermined the power of God. How can God be omnipotent if He “cant.” After I wrestled with this perception of who God is, and what He can and cannot do, I’ve decided that to say that God “cant” does not destroy my faith in who I believe Him to be.

Kristina Wineman

I believe that God does not suffer. He is not affected by our ways. I do believe that God sent Jesus his son, however, to fulfill the role of human suffering. I believe suffering is only worldly. Humans suffer, God does not.  I believe that each persons of the trinity has their specific role in salvation. And in John it addresses those roles. Because God is good, I believe that God can do anything but fail. Because of God’s nature there is only one thing that God cannot do because it would contradict who he is; to fail to his own nature. There are reasons why he cannot lie or do evil, it is against who he is. However, God can do everything else.

James Shepherd

This is an interesting thought. Is God self-limiting or not? The answer to this question may never be known, but it will be a question we try and answer throughout the ages. The reason I bring this up is because I think it is important when dealing with this question, the question of whether God suffers or not. I would say God suffers. I say this because I believe God is a relational being, and our actions as humans affect how God responds to us. This is way we have a relationship with God, not a God who foreordains our every move. I get this from Exodus 32, where Moses was able to change God’s mind. Many will disagree with this, but I am okay with that. This shows that God did have a relationship with the people, and thus was affected by what Moses had to say to him. Due to this, God is in relationship with humankind He has to suffer when we mess up. If God did not suffer then what would be the point of God being in relationship with humankind?

Valerie Wigg

I tend to struggle with the idea that God “can’t” do something because that does limit a traditional understanding of omnipotence. However, I do see how claiming that He cannot do something lines up with his nature as an omni-loving God. Bear with me as I think out loud (well, in typing). Many people would say that God can prevent evil and has done so. For example, we attribute the healing of a loved one to God or the redirection of a storm. I guess the question, then, would be if those things are controlled by God. I also wonder what the role of miracles is in the conversation about genuine evil. Being blind or lame obviously do not make the world a better place; thus, those handicaps are genuine evil but are overcome by the miracle of healing by Christ. I suppose that would imply that God is working in the midst of genuine evil rather than preventing it. Anyway, I do not know exactly where I stand on whether or not God “can’t” or “won’t” do things. I would like to think that God’s choosing to limit God’s self can be a characteristic of His loving nature but I do see where that is problematic to the problem of evil. This topic makes my brain hurt, but I am looking forward to future conversations about it.

Kaitlyn Haley

This conversation makes me think of the story of Mother Teresa’s call to form the sisters of charity. In her call experience she saw a vision of Christ asking her to “carry me into the holes of the poor, I can’t go alone, carry me to them.” Her whole ministry was based off of the concept of carrying Christ to the broken people who did not know him. The idea that Christ could not go to these people without a Child of God carrying him to them lead to one of the most well known ministries in the world. Perhaps God can’t do certain things. I am okay with that because it helps me to better understand my role and responsibility in bring the light of the Gospel to those living in darkness. I think the beautiful paradox in this is that God perhaps empowers God’s followers to do what could not have been accomplished without them. It is an interesting thought at least.

Daniel Parker

I wonder after reading this blog if it is reasonable to combine both can’t and won’t when talking about God. I don’t think that the two terms could end up as mutually exclusive when used together. I don’t know in which case of God’s attributes could or should be used with a con’t or won’t, but I do believe that doing so could potentially help in trying to understand the infinity that is God.

Nick McCall

Dr Oord,

I am very intrigued by your argument and it has got me thinking more about God’s limitations. It is clear in Scripture that there are things that God cannot do such as tell a lie or commit evil. Also, God’s nature is love and God cannot contradict his own nature, which means God cannot do anything outside of that love. The part where I get hung up on this argument is admitting there are things that God cannot do. The more I think about it, the more I am okay with the fact that there are things God can’t do. But, soteriologically, it does not make a difference whether God “can’t” or God “won’t.” At the end of the day, God won’t do those things which you talked about here.

This issue of whether God can or cannot do certain things is an interesting one, I tend to lean more on the side with Dr. Oord, mostly because it provides a good explanation of the problem of evil. There are just certain things that God cannot do or prevent from happening.

Derek Hunt

By giving a description of God that suggests his love reigns above all, and with that love creaturely freedom and the “God can’t” concept, will He never act outside of human action? I was wondering about this while reading the blog. It would seem to follow the line of thought concerning God not being able to control human life. If God cannot, will not, does not, would not, whatever kind of ‘not’ that could be used here, do certain things, and does not do them to preserve out creaturely freedom, to me this speaks to an extreme responsibility for humanity. Preventing genuine evil may not be God’s task because, as this blog suggests time and again, God is loving. God’s uninvolve-ment does not have to correlate with his lack of care for addressing genuine evils, but he has given his greatest creation a mind and able body to do it, with HIs help.

Amina Chinnell-Mateen

Dr. Oord,

What a case you have presented here in which I and most intrigued with. I think it is important to call attention to God’s nature and God’s qualities so that we as Christians can better understand who he is. In light of that I think it is important to also make the separation between what God cant do and what God won’t do, i’ve always believed in a God separate from evil and I’ve always lived my life not trying to blame him for the genuine evils that persist in the world. I feel it is unfair to blame a God who carries such qualities such as loving and righteous and associate them to this evil. In fact I believe that a lot of the genuine evil we see in the world stems from the sin that has entered the world. I don’t believe God is limited in anyway to say that God is limited as to say he’s holding back. Rather I do associate more of my opinion right now with the fact that God wont intervene on certain levels because of free will. I have a hard time saying God can’t do something. I believe you present this issue to in an interesting way. But I think it doesn’t answer all the questions that connect the ties between God and humans and free well.

Rachel Ball

I agree entirely with the notion that first off, we should not expect to understand an infinite being as finite creatures. With that being said, it is important we delve as deeply as possible into what we believe and why.

Rachel Ball

My previous comment accidentally got cut short!

It is important to decided whether we believe that God can’t or that God won’t. In most instances, He won’t because He chooses to give us free will. However, I believe that there are times that God can’t entirely based on who God is. Think about a time you yourself said “I can’t” but the reason was because you physically couldn’t bring yourself to do the thing. You couldn’t because you couldn’t bring yourself to do it, however, physically, you actually could have done it. I see this issue in a similar light. God can’t because of who He is.

Ryan O’Neill

I do enjoy this blog post, but I’m not sure if I am completely satisfied with it. This is because you mention things like the idea of God not suffering, and how that belief is now faulty, and most people today think that God actually does suffer, but no detail is mentioned on why that is. I am very interested in why they think that God suffers with us, in opposition to the idea that God doesn’t suffer. This is something that I frequently wonder about as well, so I would like to know both sides of the argument. This isn’t a complaint, however, just an observation. Off that topic however, I don’t think it’s too far fetched to say that God can’t do some things. The biggest example of this that got me thinking a lot is the notion of aseity. If God necessarily has to exist, God can’t kill himself. If God can’t kill himself, what’s to say He can’t do other things as well?

Oscar Diaz

Dr. Oord,

One particular line struck me to be the most thought provoking piece of information I have received since classes got out, “if God won’t prevent evil even though God could, we’re left with the same essential questions about evil. But if God can’t prevent the evil, a completely new way of thinking emerges.” This ongoing conversation of “Can’t” is somehow reflected in the the “won’t” aspect of the argument. For instance, I find it helpful, like Dr. Oord’s stand, to say that God will do what his will has allowed him to. Since humans have free will, God ultimately respects that.

Brian Troxell

Dr. Oord,

I know that trying to understand what God’s role is with the evil that exists in the world today is cumbersome. I know that as a pastor in a post-Christian world I am confronted with this problem. It’s a question that I don’t really have a great answer to. In fact, I feel like it exposes how great a faith we have to have to be Christians today. I think that my answer is directly connected to the problem of sin. I feel like in our Western mindsets today that we have forgotten how bad sin really is. Because we have forgotten this we have forgotten how deeply it really affects our spirits, bodies, relationships and our world. How can a loving God let this or that happen? How can a loving God allow starvation, wars, tidal waves, earthquakes, cancer, abortions, etc, etc, etc….
Maybe our loving God has to allow the consequences and affects of sin take it’s toll on the world and the people that He loves until the marked end of time?!? In some ways this kind of an answer feels like a cop-out, but in most ways it feels like the only answer that can start to makes sense to me these days.

Nicholas Carpenter

In reading your thoughts Dr. Oord, I appreciate your research and study of this issue. It would make sense that for God to be God (or at least a classic understanding of God), there are certain characteristics and actions that would not be consistent with the nature or character of God. And your use of scripture is great, even though it flies in the face of one of evangelical’s favorite verses to quote (Matthew 19:26). I would be interested in thinking about the different between God “can’t” and God “won’t” do something, and if it would be more in the nature/character of God to be naturally limited or to intentionally be self-limited. Lots of thoughts and questions, but good stuff all around.

Buford Edwards

Dr. Oord,

I agree wholeheartedly with you that we should not avoid making claims about God’s nature, but rather form our own humble hypotheses about who God is.  We should also recognize that God may manifest different to different people, taking into account their unique perspective on life.  For us to avoid any attempt to speculate about God’s nature would mean avoiding the search for a deeper personal relationship with God.  Even in our finite human terms, we strive to understand those who we love better.  We (I) am looking for a God I can know personally, not some unknown deity that is unknowable and untouchable. 

Additionally, your statements regarding God’s inability to do some things is very intriguing.  I agree with Wesley that God cannot be in control of all things for freewill to be preserved.  If God were in total control, then everything that happens would be dictated by God’s control and not a freedom of choice.  The old saying goes, “if you love someone let them go and if they love you back they will return to you.”  This is what I feel is at the essence of freewill.  God letting us go in hopes that we love God and return.

Raquel Pereira

As I read your post, Dr. Oord, I realized that a shift in my perception, and consequently the way I express it, in what concerns God and God’s control in the world, has been occurring within me. I have always understood and explained the events of life (mine and others) in terms of God’s absolute and God’s permissive (in the sense of allowing something to happen) will. That perception helped satisfactorily to explain why certain things, particularly bad ones, happen in the world or to specific individuals. Reflecting deeper on the subject, I recognize my pride in thinking that I had figured out a way to understand God, in the eagerness to have a straight answer to the problem of evil. In reality that perception does not “solve” the problem, because even when it is not God’s absolute will, why does God even allow certain things to happen? That does not fit the ground essence of God – love and goodness.
I feel privileged and humbled for the opportunity to have understood years ago that God’s essence is love, and all that God is and does flows from that. And again in realizing my finitude in grasping all of this, I realize how great God’s love is. Because it is again based on God’s essence, love, that I can have another perspective on the problem of evil.
Genuine love is the one that loves so unconditionally that sets the recipient of that love free. Part of loving someone is to set them free, to love back or not. It is in this way I understand God’s love. In order for the response to be truthful, it needs to be the result of choice: to return or not.
Although God continues to act “in mighty and miraculous ways”, God cannot contradict God’s nature, which implies not having total control over the world and creatures. In giving freedom to human beings, as it is implicit in God’s nature (love), God limits God’s power in acting/preventing evil. And so it is that God is in control, but not total control, because this is limited by the freedom God gave to human beings to choose between bad, good or best (which is the possibility that God is always persuading us to choose, though grace).

Rod Ellis

I can’t “not agree” with much of what is said here. It seems reasonable that God doesn’t mind if we speculate about God’s nature. After all, anyone considering God’s nature after the final pen stroke of Scripture has speculated. Anyone who pondered what the original authors meant was speculating. Given God’s intense desire for relationship it seems that speculation isn’t just something permissible, but something desirable. I believe I have just speculated.

It is also clear that there are things God cannot do. Defining the limits of these things requires speculation.

Speculation raises the issue of whether omnipotence is the power of compulsion. If compulsion means total control, I must agree that this is not the nature of omnipotence. Control is inconsistent with fundamental aspects of what Scripture says God is. Yet if compulsion means placing requirements or imposing some degree of initiative I cannot be as certain. God required specific behaviors and choices in Scripture. Paul was, for example, forbidden to go into Asia Minor. The key to my current understanding is distinguishing the degree of “compelling” God exerts. I do not believe that God controls. That, I believe, is something God cannot do.

jason newman

The idea that God is self-limiting because his nature is love is something that should not surprise us. Think about the following analogy.
A business man is travelling and and as he is eating at a restaurant a women strikes up a conversation with him. She propositions him to go to her hotel room. His response, “I cannot because I love my wife”
This is an active self-limitation that the man puts on himself. Motivated and coming out of the love he has for his wife. God does the same thing. The cannots and the will nots come from the very nature of who he is. He loves.

Amy Byerley

Mr Oord,
You had stated that their were specific scriptures in the bible that say “God CAN”T” do some thing. You even listed a few examples. My question is: Is it because God Can’t do these things or is it he can’t because he chooses not to. God created the entire world in 6 days and he even says for us that if we have faith in a mustard seed we can do a lot. God is so powerful. He can make the lame walk, he can rise people from their death. A God who is that powerful to do so much, I would imagine can if choose to be tempted by evil. Jesus who was God was even tempted. I know you had mentioned that the passages you gave aren’t saying God voluntarily choose not to do some things, but say he cannot do them. If we say that God cannot do some things, then are we putting limits on God?

Tara West

Illuminating!  This post cleared up so much about process theology. Focusing on God’s nature of love brings the issues into perspective in regards to evil and sin, as well as God’s omnipotence.  I am particularly thankful for the Scriptural background and support being given to demonstrate the truth of Oord’s statement, “God’s love always involves giving freedom and/or agency to creatures. Because God’s nature is love, God cannot do otherwise.” This brings to light that all of God’s actions and characteristics are encompassed by love because it holds priority; love is God/God is love has taken on more fullness of meaning. Jason’s phrase encapsulates all of this when he says “the cannots and the will nots come from the very nature of who he is. He loves.”  On this basis, I can embrace the thought that can’t do some things because they would go against the very nature of Godself. 
Yet, more than any other thought, the beginning of this post grabbed me. “One assumption is that humans often overreach in their claims about who God is.  Finite minds should not pretend to grasp entirely the essence of an infinite God. I agree with this. There is always a role for mystery in theology.  Folks just don’t always agree about what that role is. This assumption to the argument reminds us “we know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12).  We should remain humble in our words about God. After all, we occasionally realize in hindsight that our previous claims are not as helpful or accurate as we once thought.”  Thank you for clarifying this, Dr. Oord!  From this qualification, I was then able to better accept and reason out the rest of the post.

Tom Evans

This was an interesting set of statements.  I do feel that God feels suffering.  I base this on God being a relational God.  If God does not care about God’s relationship with us humans, then we would have been left to our own devices and never offer the chance for salvation.  However, God is loving God’s creation.  God created us humans in God’s image.  Therefore, we do have a free will just like God’s will.  Our whole purpose is to align ourselves with God’s will.  When we do not align ourselves with God, we sin.  God is always seeking goodness in everything God has created and in the world itself.  When the world goes against that design, evil or bad things happen. People have problems and I believe that God uses those problems to help build character within the person affected by the problem.  I have had many medical issues.  However, I have been blessed to have them because I have grown in my understanding and love for God.  God never deserted me throughout those situations.  I believe that most of my health issues came from my own abuse of my body.  These were sins caused by my decision in life style.  I could not blame God for these problems like so many others do in these cases.  God is not at fault.  God gave me the freedom to choose.  I made the wrong choices.  Evil is created by our choices or those choices of others.  Therefore, I believe that God cannot do certain things.  If God did intervene, then my freedom of choice would be compromised.  God would then be going against God’s nature.

Aaron Mednansky

Dr. Oord,
I believe that the problem of evil and the role that God plays in regards to evil is one that we will always have troubles reasoning. Using two of the passages of scripture I would like to purpose maybe a slightly different way of understanding God’s role in not chasing to act upon genuine evils in the world. The statements are, “God cannot deny himself” and “God is just”. Because God cannot contradict himself and God is just, is it not possible to say that God doesn’t choose to act because the consequence of sin is death and evil. I believe that God is love and there are attributes of God’s character that are unchanging, so in a way that would speak of things God cannot be or do, but I do not believe I can say that God could not stop an evil if God saw that it was acting in a just manner. What would make some evils just and other unjust I cannot expound upon at this time, but God is love and is not a God of disorder but of peace so everything that happens I believe happens for a purpose according to God’s will.

Leslie D. Oden

Accepting God from a perspective of what He cannot do, is not threatening. A God with boundaries reinforced by love is helpful! I think our restrictive language creates barriers that obstruct our understanding God. I find the relationship between God, love, and sin to be less influenced by God’s level of control or lack thereof. Sin is a consequence of freewill. From this blog post I would have to redefine love to include an acceptance of one’s freewill. I do accept that there are things that God simply can’t do; however, I do not understand why He can’t do them.


This is very interesting to think about. I haven’t thought that God COULD’NT stop evil. Instead, I’ve always thought that God chooses not to stop evil because of free will. I don’t know yet if I can fully accept that God cannot or doesn’t stop evil because of those instances within Scripture that talk about God preventing evil in terms of interceding on behalf of Israel when being attacked by the enemy – God routing the enemy, and other such characterizations. We know God provides and protects – but not always, sometimes we are not protected and we become victims of evil. Maybe God CAN’T prevent evil by interrupting or preventing free will because God’s nature of love always gives free will. But I wonder this. Does God speak direction into us that could prevent us from falling into evil hands? Does God use persuasion in these instances and then leave it up to us to act on, and listen to the leading? Does God set up detours or put up boundaries or confuse the situation to prevent evil actions from occurring? If so, then the question would be why would’t God do this ALL the time? I’m continuing to chew on this!

Topher Taylor

Dr. Oord,

The first thing I want to say is this blog post actually provides answers to nearly every question I had for this week. I think I am beginning to open up more and more when it comes to this approach on God’s nature. There is nothing new or concerning in this post, so it’s harder to reflect on the ideas when I’ve heard the argument before and tend to agree with it. Saying that God is all-knowing, or all-powerful doesn’t change with these assumptions because God can still know everything that can be known, which doesn’t mean that everything is knowable.

Michelle Borbe

Dr. Oord, I really enjoyed your introductory to this blog post. You started out by sating the importance of giving definitive attributes to God rather than relying in the mystery of God.  We can find false comfort in the idea of a God who is mysterious, that since God is, and should be, out of the box then we should know nothing of this God. However, this is dangerous because we then make our own assumptions and also are affected in how we respond to this God. Attributes are important to give to God, but also lead us into many debates into what those attributes should be. One of the main claims that you have in this blog is that God Can’t do everything in compared to Won’t do everything. With this view of God we are given comfort in the face of our theodicy questions that come up about God. If our God Can’t act because of God’s nature in love then we have a reason for bad things happening in the world. However, I do like this conclusion, but I also have concerns. With the false comfort that that some find in relying in the mystery in God can we also have false hope in simply stating that God Can’t do some things because of God’s nature. I wonder if we are just simply putting ourselves in another box?

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