Review of Sigve Tonstad's "God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense"

As the title suggests, in his book, God’s Problem: How The Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer, Bart Ehrman argues that the Bible has nothing compelling to say about the problem of evil. Well, I just put down a beautifully written four-hundred and fifty page book that compellingly argues the exact opposite.

In God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense, Sigve Tonstad argues that the Bible is from beginning to end oriented around the question of why God does not intervene to prevent suffering. And the answer the Bible provides, he argues, is as beautiful as it is compelling. Unfortunately, this answer has been largely buried under theological “traditions of non-sense.”

Tonstad fleshes out aspects of the sensible answer that the Bible provides to the problem of evil by masterfully retelling key Bible stories while weaving in other literary and philosophical material. While I cannot begin to capture the richness and highly nuanced nature of Tonstad’s arguments, I’ll briefly outline four general aspects of the answer he finds in Scripture.

First, Tonstad reviews biblical stories that make it clear that biblical authors didn’t assume that God’s character and will were inscrutable. For example, the story of Abraham debating God about the justice of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18) presupposes that God’s sense of “justice” is congruous with our sense of “justice.” This perspective strongly contrasts with a theological tradition that dates back to Augustine and that holds that God’s morality is altogether different from ours and is therefore inscrutable. For example, theologians like Augustine, Luther and Calvin held that we must affirm that God is loving and altogether good, despite the fact that he predestined the majority of humans to eternally suffer in hell. There is no denying that God’s “love” and “goodness” are inscrutable (if not completely meaningless) in this view, but, according to Tonstad, this simply confirms that this view of God is not biblical and that this tradition is a “tradition of non-sense.”

Another closely related aspect of the sensible answer the Bible provides to the problem of evil concerns freedom. Tonstad does a great job demonstrating that the God of the Bible is a lover of freedom, for freedom is the premise of love, which is the ultimate goal of creation. For this reason, God governs the world not by coercion, but by means of loving influence. This was the uniform view of the early church, but as Tonstad powerfully demonstrates, this changed quite suddenly once the church assumed a role in running the state in the fourth and fifth century, for running a state requires the use of coercive power. It’s no coincidence that Augustine, who was the first to justify Christians using torture to coerce professions of faith, was also the first to defend the view that God coercively controls everything.

On this note, one of my favorite sections of this book was Tonstad’s brilliant analysis of “The Grand Inquisitor” in Theodore Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. This is a “poem” that Ivan Karamazov, who is an atheist, tells his brother Aloysha, who is a priest. The setting for this poem is Spain at the height of the Inquisition, when untold numbers of non-Christians and heretics were tortured and executed by the Church. Jesus suddenly appears amidst this horror, and everyone recognizes who he is. But the elderly man who is heading up the Inquisition has him arrested to interrogate him.

In the course of this interrogation it becomes clear that the Church of Christendom, as represented by the Grand Inquisitor, is opposed to Jesus because this Church wants to offer people a different kind of freedom than what Jesus offered. Tonstad summarizes this poem by saying,

Jesus empowers individual choice, freedom of conscience, and personal responsibility. The Church, as Ivan’s poem envisions it, offers humans the freedom not to decide for oneself. In a curious sense, the Church offers to take away from the individual precisely the freedom that Jesus extends to each person (p.330).

Tonstad makes the case that God has always been on the side of empowering people to make morally responsible choices while Satan has always been on the side of trying to control people, thereby giving them the freedom not to have to make morally responsible decisions. And he does an excellent job demonstrating that this battle has been waged not only throughout Church history, but also throughout the biblical narrative.

This brings me to the third aspect of the sensible answer the Bible provides to the problem of evil, according to Tonstad. It is the aspect that is the hardest to accept, but Tonstad correctly argues that it is absolutely indispensible for a proper understanding of Scripture as well as for an adequate theodicy. Throughout the biblical narrative, but especially in the New Testament, biblical authors reflect an awareness that our world is engulfed in a cosmic conflict, headed up by God, on the one side, and Satan, on the other. Tonstad makes an overwhelmingly compelling case that this conflict is a fundamental aspect of the biblical narrative and that this narrative cannot be properly understood if this conflict is neglected.

By contrast, while the Church has always affirmed the reality of Satan, his significance was completely undermined in the “tradition of non-sense” that conceived of God preordaining everything. Of course, theologians within this tradition have always claimed that Satan is significant, for God ordains what Satan does in such a way that Satan remains morally responsible for the evil that God ordained him to bring about. But this traditional perspective simply demonstrates why Tonstad is correct in labeling it a “tradition of non-sense.”

The fourth and final aspect of the biblical answer to the problem of suffering that I’ll discuss concerns the character of God and the deceptiveness of Satan. Tonstad stresses the importance of the fact that the serpent beguiled Adam and Eve by engaging in a character assassination of God (Gen 3:1-5). Rather than being a lover of freedom, the serpent suggests that God inhibits freedom and rules by manipulation. He is a God who can be feared, but never loved, which is why Adam and Eve feel the need to hide from him when he shows up after their rebellion. And, not surprisingly, this is how people have tended to view God or the gods throughout history. According to Tonstad, the entire biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation, should be read as God’s response to the serpent’s accusation.

The centerpiece of God’s response, of course, is Jesus Christ. In Christ, and especially in his self-sacrificial death, God reveals that he is nothing like the fearful manipulative monster that Satan has always deceived people into thinking he was. He is rather a humble God of self-sacrificial love who honors people’s free will to the point of allowing them to crucify him. And in doing this, God exposes Satan to be the deceiver that he is. But, true to his character, even this revelation is not something God forces on anyone. There is enough light for anyone who wants to see the truth, but enough ambiguity so that no one is forced to see the truth.

There is, in my opinion, only one shortcoming of this otherwise superb book. While Tonstad was usually surprisingly good at demonstrating how the biblical stories that he addressed make sense, at certain points I think he could be charged with whitewashing the biblical material. To illustrate, his extensive treatments of Moses and Elijah are full of insights, but Tonstad never addressed the darker side of these individuals. For example, what sense can be made of Moses’ instructions to slaughter all the Midianites except the virgin women, whom his soldiers could keep as spoils of war (Num 31:15-18)? And what are we to make of Elijah’s decision to slaughter the four hundred priests of Baal after he had beaten them in a spiritual contest on Mount Carmel (I Kg 18:40)?

Related to this, Tonstad never addressed the many Old Testament narratives that depict God in ways that don’t make sense and that seem to blatantly contradict the revelation of God in the crucified Christ. For example, what sense can be made of the portrait of Yahweh commanding his people to mercilessly slaughter every man, woman, child, infant and animal in certain regions of Canaan (e.g. Deut 20:14-20)? Or what sense can be made of the portraits of God causing parents to cannibalize their children (Lev 26:28-29; Jer 19:7, 9; Lam 2:20; Ezek 5:9-10) or ruthlessly smashing parents and children together (Jer 13:14)? I think Tonstrad’s work would have been strengthened had he not bypassed this material.

This omission notwithstanding, this is a superb book that is well worth reading. In fact, it is so packed with rich exegetical, literary, philosophical, and sociological insights that this review frankly feels rather paltry. I suppose this is inevitable for any review of a book that is this rich in content.

Greg Boyd is co-founder of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota where he serves as Senior Pastor. He is an internationally recognized theologian, preacher, teacher, apologist and author. His website, Re|KNEW is where this review first appeared. It is published here with the author's permission.

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You state “what sense can be made of the portrait of Yahweh commanding His people to mercilessly slaughter every man, woman, child infant and animal in certain regions of Canaan?”

The heinous horrific and hideous atrocities so graphically described in the Old Testament, would rate an X or R Rating if filmed and we would all run screaming from any such screening!

I think these Old Testament genocides were explicitly programmed by God to harden and inure the "universe " to all future atrocities.

That is why the Angels and the “universe” had a ho hum reaction to the Armenian genocide , the Holocaust, the Bosnian genocide, the Pol Pot genocide , and now the ISIS genocide of Christians and minorities.

The “universe” was long ago. tired and bored with these repetitive reruns of God’s overwjelming obsession to "vindicate " himself.

EGW informs us in her Great Controversy, itself an anthology of atocities, that this whole saga of human suffering is to persuade the “universe” that God is good and Satan is evil.

With each new famine, pestilence, genocide, war, plague or other misery for mankind, God chalks up another victory on His “vindication” scoreboard!

The " universe" is so concussed by this cascade of calamities, they have capitulated by going into a self protective " hibernation"

Otherwise why are they not CLAMORING for God to end the CARNAGE.???qq

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Sigve has seemingly done it again! As with his Sabbath book, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, he has provided his readers with a contemporary restatement of a valuable but almost forgotten dimension of Scripture. I look forward to many happy hours plumbing the depths of the cosmic conflict yet again.


The reviewer’s concern about (allegedly divine sanctions of) biblical violence is a recurring issue for many believers which will hopefully be addressed during Boyd’s meetings with forum members in Silver Spring, Md this Fall. One other concern (that may be addressed in Tonstad’s book) is how to interpret the time frame of human suffering on this planet in relation to the notion of the cosmic conflict? What contribution can the millennia of astonishing, mass scale brutality (as well as individual suffering and death) make to understanding God’s conflict with evil and suffering? This strikes me as perhaps the ultimate inscrutable challenge for any theodicy, even granting all the insightful things Tonstad’s book provides the believer,


This may be the case but…

Another compelling evidence to explain why this “awareness” resonates for so many is that this conflict is everyone’s individual battle beginning from birth when we are born into a conflict-free world, our perception of the “Garden of Eden,” and as we mature and develop, are expected to temper our biological disposition, wishes and desires to develop and maintain meaningful interpersonal relationships and for the benefit of society and thus have to struggle and conform with prohibitions and inhibitions, layer upon layers. It takes a life of its own and gets detached from our consciousness. Its residue is then projected into this grand scheme of “cosmic” battle between good and evil and because we have lived and experienced the emotional roller coaster that comes along with it, everyone can resonate with its themes. Thus a religion is born out of life’s conflicts. And like Don Quixote de la mancha who never saw the world for what it is but for what he imagined as a knight, we will never see the universe the way our Lord sees it but for the way we imagine given our life conflicts.


Baloney! What we won’t say to justify cruelty by the God of the OT!

The most logical conclusion for such cruelty is that these people were CRUEL. And, they still wanted the blessings of their God, so they attributed their natural tendencies to being the will of God. That happened over and over in history.


I hope Dr. Tonstad has given insight on the Eden issue: The honest deception of Eve coupled with natural hormonal love and commitment of Adam for his wife. Sure Adam had some free will, however most men are programmed to stand by their young beautiful wives. More especially Adam since Eve bore his rib, thus one flesh.

Does this crime (guileless sin) fit the enormous suffering that is pronounced on all living things, hour after hour, generation after generation, young and old alike?


Since when is it more ethical to allow freedom of choice to trump the prevention of suffering. Your choice to behave badly ends at the point where it causes suffering to me.

“Judge, I love my husband so much and I respect his freedom of choice; therefore I didn’t try to stop him when he tortured teens in the basement. I loved him enough to allow him to make his own choices, hoping that eventually he’ll see the error of his ways.”

“Parents, it is a violation of your child’s freedom, if you stop Johnny from hitting Sally. Love means freedom of choice, not coercion. Your child will fear you and can’t love you if you intervene in his behavior and stop him from harming others, even if you do it in the gentlest, most patient way.”

“Mrs. Jones, you trusted me to watch your kid, but I didn’t stop him from running into traffic because I can’t violate his freedom of choice. It is better that he dies than I do something as awful as violating his freedom of choice.”

It seems to me that the only reason we accept the argument that freedom of choice gets God off the hook for allowing suffering is because that’s what is actually happening - God is allowing suffering. We would never, ever accept that as an excuse for anyone else.


I have often heard people cite suffering as a concern. Thoughts like these are expressed: “Why does God allow suffering?”, or “Why do the saved still suffer?”, or “I can’t believe in a long earth chronology as that implies too much suffering and death”.

I’ve never been one to be concerned about this scenario. The first time I heard each of these questions/concerns I was flatly confused. They beg for answers that cannot be known, for one thing. Any “why does God…” question is similar.

But I think for me they never made sense because at least several things about your viewpoint have to be true in order for the concerns to arise. IMO it goes something like this:

  1. God is loving. Almost like a parent.
  2. God approves of and knows all things that happen, like a sort of gatekeeper. So whatever happens is what God wants to happen, in some sort of active way.
  3. So, If something that we determine is negative or bad happens, then God wants that to happen.
  4. In such a case, perhaps the bad is part of the greater good. Part of some inscrutable plan.
  5. The Jewish bible is a literal history of the Israelites. All the stories are represented exactly as they happened.
  6. Therefore, all of the horrid things in the bible actually happened and must somehow be OK with God.
  7. But those are terrible things, and so how is this possible?

I don’t see the issue. Using the same bullet points as above, this is why:

  1. The God of the Jewish bible was never portrayed as a loving God. The Israelite priests of that time professed to believe in one God, one Supreme being. (The people never really did, it seems.) They did not yet have the devil as a heavenly being, and they ascribed all things not caused by man to God. Therefore, as with the other gods around them, God was to be appeased or terrible things might happen. Sacrifice was a way to appease God, as was following the covenants/the law.
  2. God must allow for free will and so He cannot actually prescribe everything that will happen. He is said to know all things from beginning to the end of time. But knowing does not mean prescribing or participating.
  3. The stories of conquest and genocide are not likely to be historical-factual but instead fill out the story of Hebrew origins as a nation. This is likely the case because most of the cities in Canaan were abandoned at the time of the Exodus, and the few that were populated were not city-states, each with a king as the bible portrays them. Additionally, those that were occupied show no signs of a massacre and instead were likely peaceably overrun by the newcomers and absorbed into Israelite culture. This is based on archeology in the area, covered by the Biblical Archeology Review, and on other sources.

If you allow for hyperbole in the bible stories, allow for stores that embellish what really happened, as was the custom of the day, allow for the human need to prove that our God is better than your god (which still goes on today), and you combine hard evidence we have about those times, it allows for a different sort of reading of parts of the bible. The Jews treat their own scripture like this even today, trying to find the kernel o truth in each bible story to know what that story means for us today, to understand what is it trying to teach. They do this while accepting very directly that these stories are often not historical-factual. It is not what happens in the story, but what it means, that is important.


Why the need to constantly justify and rationalize what humans wrote to describe the god they believed in?

There are so many descriptions and beliefs about a supreme and transcendent being by so many people, why are the ancestors and succeeding Hebrew people the only ones who wrote the true story? We know that they used early stories from other cultures and added a few details with their rewriting, why are they accepted and all other rejected?

Non-believers do not try to explain death and disease, but accept they are part of our world and it is the only one we know. As someone wrote earlier, the Jews never tried to “explain” their god’s actions; it is only some Christians who endlessly try to convince themselves and others that “there is a plan” requiring divided rulers: Satan and God, something foreign to the Hebrew writers. While we cannot know why their original belief in God, we do know that Satan was adopted from other cultures and not at all originating with them.

Writing of God’s intent or reasons is a fool’s errand: there is no answer humans can give.


A question then is that theological constructs about a world made new without the possibility of sin may violate this freedom. Even if one posits the regeneration of human hearts coupled with lessons learned about the problem of evil, does this not involve at some level an eternal loss of freedom? Will the saved give up willingly their freedom? But, then freedom can’t also be “the premise of love, which is the ultimate goal of creation.” Neither is it the freedom that Scriptures’ first humans had.


In the Old Testament we have a REAL problem.
WHO told the stories orally? WHO remembered the oral Stories? WHO wrote them down on paper finally? Were they recopied as written, or did OTHER lines of oral stories of the same event get put into the mix, and so One Story became a compilation of the same story?
The Genesis story of Creation, Garden of Eden, the Fall, the First Death, The Flood are basically true, and these show up on Picture Writing of the very early Chinese. [Day 7 is a picture of a house with a kneeling stick figure].
It is my understanding, from reading THE BOOK OF J, that the Second Creation story was written by a high born woman of Rehaboam times.
It is also my understanding that much of the OT as we know it now was finally edited and put together in Babylonian Times. So what was added, what was left out, what was rewritten [made a modern translation to them] was created then. It is true, Eve does get more column inches than Adam does.
We also have various pictures of God. Some have already spoken of the Negative God Diety.
But a very positive picture of God is also illustrated. 1. Providing clothing to man. 2. The promise to man in Genesis 3:15. 3. No more Floods, and the Rainbow [with Rainbow around the throne in the New T.]
4.The command to Love God with one’s whole being, and one’s neighbor [NOT to just love one’s neighbor, but one’s neighbor as one’s self]. A pretty high standard. But God does not define “Neighbor”. THAT is a Theological Journey each has to take on one’s own. The 10 Commandments of Exodus 20 and Deut 5 telling How to love God and How to love one’s neighbor in concrete terms. 5. Ex 34 with God declaring to be merciful, gracious, longsuffering, overflowing with goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, sin. 6.Later says I do not want sacrifices, what I want are you to do [Micah 6:8] is provide justice, love mercy, walk humbly with Me. In Jonah He gives a word picture of how He HUGS and KISSES the evil people and king of Ninevah – Non Israelites, non-the chosen people. 7. However He never does answer the Question of Suffering in the Book of Job. Never apologizes to Job. 8. I dont recall anywhere where God apologizes for bad things happening to either the good or bad people. 9.If the bad suffer, we find the good people suffering right along with them. And, of course, this makes no sense to most of us.

Tom – forgot about the Hornets [maybe other bugs] to encourage them to leave and settle elsewhere. Like maybe back to Europe.
Using bugs, God shows he isnt necessarily interested in human destruction.

you overlook the two promises of God to clear the land with hornets as fast as the Israelites could occupy. but no they had the weapons of pharaoh and intended to use them. so God said if so they all must go. he gave them a chance to reconsider. they didn’t. Setting in motion a purge mentality that shows it ugly head even today. tom Z


aside from understanding the character of god, despite satan’s deceptions, understanding the advantage of what is good over what is bad is probably only possible when an individual hits rock bottom in something, and then somehow recovers…i believe that such an individual generally isn’t likely to see relativity in anything…because he’s been overwhelmed with the bad, it’s difficult for him to be enticed by the thought that what’s bad really isn’t, or that it just needs to be pursued in moderation…like the ex-drinker or ex-druggie who experiences financial ruin and almost kills himself, there is a settled, definite feeling about things that isn’t always understood on the same level of absoluteness and intensity by someone who never had a comparable experience…without the existence of the option to pursue what is bad, this type of rock bottom experience and subsequent knowledge probably isn’t available…

and i think this relates to the concept that god uses evil to perfect character in those who are in a relationship with him…they learn the value of obedience through the things they suffer, Heb 5:8, whether that suffering stems from sustained self-denial directed against the fallen nature they were born with; a debilitating disease; persecution from others; or total disaster, like war, or a natural calamity…i think this is the big lesson in the story of job: god can intervene at any time, but he doesn’t, because there is a purpose in our suffering, which is the attainment of character that cannot be achieved without it (implied in Rev 6:10-11)…

what i find comforting is the fact that although god doesn’t generally intervene when a believer suffers, he always calibrates what’s allowed to come the believer’s way in terms of what he knows the believer can handle, 1 Cor 10:13…this is a different reality from the case of the non-believer, who may live in pleasant prosperity or abject squalor, all alike to no purpose other than things are what they are…

in general, i think the problem of evil is multifaceted and complex…easy answers distort the fact that moving, inter-related components do trend towards an over-arching good over time, even when that good isn’t readily perceivable…

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The question of human suffering continues to loom as a mystery that defies our facile, Christian answers…the great controversy scenario not withstanding. Nowhere was the character of God displayed before his creation more clearly than at the cross and through the crucified Christ. Paul uses the imagery in Colossians that all the accusing and demonic powers were cast out of the cosmic court, and led as captives in Christ’s triumph through his death and resurrection.

How continued human suffering can make these issues more clear is something that eludes our reasoning, and seems beyond our neat meta narratives, the great controversy included. I don’t find easy answers for God’s non intervention in the Holocaust, genocides, and countless other atrocities, and disasters, this framework notwithstanding. To prove a point? About his character? That God in human flesh already revealed more fully then any human ever could?

We would do well like Job’s friends did in the first week they spent with him. They kept silent. When they began expounding theologically about his suffering, sin, and God, is when they got into all kinds of trouble. And when Job himself demanded answers from God, all he was given was more unanswerable questions.

The entire creation is groaning in labor pains waiting for the glorious revealing of the children of God. We are part of this groaning, at times not even knowing how to pray because of it. I think we need to humbly admit our inadequacy in our attempts to understand these issues. We see only in part. When the perfect comes, what is in part will pass away…only then.




All knowledge and cognition, including divine revelation, is historically conditioned. Divine revelation is a fluid phenomenon that accommodates itself to changes in culture and society. Divine revelation is as much a reflection of sinful humanity that God speaks to as it is of God Himself. God’s law is as much a reflection of those to whom the law is given as it is of the Lawgiver. This hermeneutical principle of historicism is clearly set forth in the biblical text. For example, we see that Jesus changes the law of divorce, arguing that because hearts are not as hardened as they once were divorce should not be the unilateral right of the man but allowable only in response to adultery. That God’s revelation (including His law) is ever-changing and imperfect does not suggest that God is ever-changing and imperfect, which of course He is not, but that we are. Accordingly, we commit serious hermeneutical error when we conceive of Scripture as setting forth absolute, transcendent, and universal truth. The truth set forth in Scripture is historically conditioned. This is not to deny that there is such a thing as absolute, transcendent, and universal truth but to deny that we can possibly know what it is. All divine revelation necessarily requires God to condescend to our historical situatedness. This condescension necessarily follows upon the existential differences, never to be obliterated, between the Creator and His creation. Pan can understand both the animal world and humanity, because he is part animal and part human. Hermaphroditus can bridge distance that impedes understanding between the genders because he/she is part male and part female. Hermes and Jesus can bridge distance that impedes understanding between God and humanity, because of their parents one was immortal and one was mortal. But we will never completely understand God, because we will never become divine.

The hermeneutical mistake Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists, make is the assumption that divine decrees to smash babies upon the rocks are solely a reflection of God and His character. The second hermeneutical mistake is the assumption that “the revelation of God in the crucified Christ” does not also present a perplexing and troublesome representation of God. You might think that Jesus presents a better picture of God than what you read in the OT, but if you try to imagine what alternative circumstances of life might cultivate within you a greater appreciation for how God is depicted in the OT, then you can begin to understand the hermeneutic of historicism.

There are hermeneutically sound ways in which the rough edges of historicism can be smoothed, but we should always remember that the thoughts of God and the words of God are two different things. Scripture is not a signified; it is a signifier. The great goal of hermeneutics lies in the verbum interius.