Is God Omnipotent?

Posted by on July 15, 2013 in faith, religion | 13 comments

Last week the three women who were held captive for a decade in a Cleveland house spoke out to thank people for supporting them as they recover from their ordeal.  You can watch them speak here.  I admire their courage in sharing their thoughts, even as I admit it was a little hard to watch the clip because it meant letting their horrifying story into my consciousness again.  I thought they were brave, poised, and insightful, and I hope their healing will be full.  One of the women, Michelle Knight, spoke about what is giving her strength and commented that “God is in control.”

This is a sentiment I’ve heard a lot, and it seems to give a lot of people comfort.  But I don’t know what it means.  In control of what?  Certainly not the behavior of humans, who consistently hurt one another.  In control of nature?  Maybe, but then what to make of natural disasters?  The statement assumes that God is benevolent, since a cruel and capricious God wouldn’t provide comfort, and it assumes that God is all-knowing and omnipotent, since how could God control what God is not aware of and has no power over?  There is the old theodicy problem again, and it all hinges on omnipotence.

In The Oxford Bible Commentary, John Barton and John Muddiman write, “The assertion of God’s omnipotence underlies all theodicy; if God controls human action, then human evil itself must originate in God.  Negating this conclusion requires a limiting of God’s omnipotence…The problem is as old as the book of Job an remains as intractable.”

Secular philosophers sometimes enjoy pointing out this problem.  In Timothy Ferris’s book on cosmology The Whole Shebang, he writes that if God is omnipotent, then obviously he has free will.  If so, he was free to make the universe in any conceivable way.  But, Ferris writes, if God was constrained in some way in making the universe, for example if He could only make it in the most reasonable way, or a way that promoted human existence, then God can’t be all-powerful.  The philosopher Keith Ward wrote, “The old dilemma – either God’s acts are necessary and therefore not free (could not be otherwise), or they are free and therefore arbitrary (nothing determines what they shall be) – has been sufficient to impale the vast majority of Christian philosophers down the ages.”

Well, only if you insist God is omnipotent.  Am I, as a Mormon, supposed to believe God is omnipotent?  The word appears only once in the Bible: in Revelations 19:6, “Alleluia, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” (Words made famous by Handel).  My recollection is that the “omni” attributes were assigned to God by post-biblical thinkers, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong, but does give me pause.  Omniscience, omnibenevolence, and omnipresence don’t present any problems for me (although, as a Mormon, I’d attribute omnipresence to the Holy Ghost).  But if omnipotence means God can make anything happen at any time this is troubling, because it can’t easily be reconciled with  omnibenevolence.

As it happens I don’t take Bible completely literally, and I don’t feel bound to the word omnipotent.  It sounds cavalier to say “I don’t think God is omnipotent.”  But, there it is.  In the Pearl of Great Price God tells Abraham that human spirits are eternal in nature.  Since they have no beginning, God couldn’t have pre-dated them, or created them.  According to Doctrine & Covenants 93:29, “Man was also in the beginning with God.  Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.  All truth is independent…to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.”

So if spirits/intelligences have an inherent ability to act, then agency is not a God-given thing, but is sovereign unto itself.  And if omnipotence means an ability to control everything, including the choices of other beings, then God is not omnipotent.

I also believe the physical laws of the universe are sovereign unto themselves.  I don’t have any authority to back me up, this is just my sense of things.  I don’t think God could have significantly varied in the way He made the universe and still have it turn out the way it did – able to support human life.  Our physical environment is too perfect to be arbitrary or random.  This is another thing that would limit God’s omnipotence, I suppose.  But to the salvation of His benevolence.  If the earth has a kind of agency, founded in the physical laws of the universe, then when natural disasters and illnesses plague us, we can’t blame God.  It’s the universe acting according to its nature.  God is a resource to us in difficulties like these, but not the source of our pain.

Finally, by rejecting omnipotence I don’t mean to reduce God’s power to nothingness.  It think it is real, and in relation to us, awesome.  Paul wrote in Romans 9:21, “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?”  The potter has power over the clay, and so it is with God.  We depend on the gifts he gives us to become the vessels we hope to be.

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13 Comments

  1. Hey Emily,

    Interesting post. It’s nice to see LDS explore the relationship between divine power and evil, and what happens if one removes the premise of omnipotence. At least this looks to be your main motivation for questioning divine omnipotence. There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, and there are Mormon scriptures/beliefs to back that, but the question I have is whether that strategy actually works. I’m not so sure of that. Omnipotence in the extreme sense would be the ability to create every logically possible state of affairs (it entails creation ex nihilo) at the least, and definitely follows from the ontological argument for the existence of God. Clearly the greatest possible being should be able to create/destroy anything to or from nothing. You can imagine this occurring in your head; it’s logically possible. Even if you reject the ontological argument, LDS scripture clearly ascribes to God incredible amounts of power (think of the natural disasters the Book of Mormon specifically says God causes before the advent of Christ to the Nephites). Omnipotence is not actually the problem, it is how much power a being has in relationship to the other extant beings. For God could still have all power to stop extant evils and yet not be omnipotent, so omnipotence isn’t necessarily what creates the issue for the Problem of Evil. As for this language of control, which you apply to humans and natural events, it appears your article doesn’t draw distinctions between permission and causation. God is often described as permitting people to act for themselves, especially in earth life (think of the day of probation language in the Book of Mormon, a lot in Alma), but not causing people to behave a certain way. However, God could constrain them if God wished. Another distinction often made is that qua divine power God could stop/create certain things, but God’s love constrains and directs how God actually does manage things. God, say, could have created 1+ universes with no intelligent life in them ever, but divine love constrains God to develop ones with greater aesthetic synthesis, with greater life, to share the joy of existence of intelligent living with them. Similarly, God’s love doesn’t seek to remove other’s individuality, which would happen if God over-intervened in people’s decisions, good or bad.

    Now, I’m not saying I agree with how those arguments can go, but they should be considered, so that one doesn’t simply think of God in terms of a power box. God’s love, and we might also add morals, keep God from applying divine power (omnipotent or not) in certain ways.

    Let me point out several other considerations, which persuade me at least, that suggest just removing omnipotence won’t work for the Problem of Evil:

    - I’ve already noted how scripturally God’s power is very vast, so that omnipotent or not, God should be able to stop most (if not all) of the world’s evils. Even if he couldn’t stop them all, shouldn’t God be able to warn people beforehand (“Hey, a tsunami’s about to hit your town” OR “That man around the alley is a serial rapist, stay away from him”)?

    If you dismiss scriptural accounts, I think you still have to deal with the fact that God has a resurrected body and should be able to stop some evils with it. If you deny that and only ascribe solely “persuasive power” to God in a process theist sense, I think you still have problems. The first is the coherence of solely persuasive power–persuasion seems to depend on coercion. To speak, for instance, I use language that constrains my body and shapes the air/space in very forceful ways to communicate my point to another person to get them to stop doing a certain action. This is weak coercion, but it is still a kind of it. More problematically, a purely persuasive God is not really worthy of our worship in my opinion. I’d rather worship my nice parents and ancestors whose agencies I can relate to, than a being that can only beam nice thoughts into others’ heads. I might even question that being’s ability to direct me, having no actual, experienced understanding of being able to coerce anything in the world. And even that being has an issue with not warning others of the evils in the world! We could remove that power too–the divine can only vaguely communicate this–and then we’ve got a pretty pathetic being. Why would we even bother praying to such a being? What does it mean to emulate them?

    - Free will defenses don’t necessarily work by just pointing out other co-eternal agents. God extended their spheres of influence through giving them spirit/physical bodies, correct? Couldn’t God have given them less powerful bodies, less developed brains so that they couldn’t create nuclear bombs? Couldn’t God just lock up the crazy ones in a cell, or freeze up their bodies right before they do a bad action (like right before they’re about to pull the trigger to kill an innocent person)? Clearly, we impede on other’s actions. Will we assume that God cannot simply do so due to a lack of power?

    I also question your reading of Abraham and your idea of coeternal agents with God. Abraham doesn’t say human spirits are eternal individuals. It doesn’t even mention humans in that passage for that matter, just some sort of spirits. A consistent reading of Joseph Smith and later prophets (especially John Taylor) is that human minds/intelligences emanated from the Gods’ own (which Joseph claimed Adam’s did in an 1832 revelation in the Joseph Smith Papers), like sparks from a flame. The divine intelligence is eternal, as is man’s intelligence that is rooted in the divine (“what is intelligence?” one might ask. Good question. Taylor often sees it as the faculty which allows one to recognize and gather knowledge and truth, which also emanate from God, the source of light and truth). Joseph uses the word “co-equal” to describe the relationship between God’s and man’s spirit in the manuscripts, not co-eternal. The former term suggests a relationship more of identity. Other rival theories to the intelligence question is that human spirits arise from a spirit matter that is eternal, some intelligent mass external to God, or that “man / the spirit of man is eternal” qua a collective, not individually. This is more along the lines of Brigham Young. Man has always been and always will be. The individuated, eternal acting intelligence was not really in favor until the time of B. H. Roberts, who was largely influenced by the American Personal Idealists that believed that very thing. I bring up these alternative theories merely to point out that Mormons have a broader spectrum for their idea of intelligences than is typically assumed.

    - Natural evils are not solved by a speculative panpsychic theory. The earth behaves pretty consistently if it’s free, or it happens to like coinciding with human predictions. Another problem is that God created a pre-existent world, an Eden of some sort so to speak, and God will be creating “new heavens and new earth” where these problems do not arise. You also have the millennial reign on earth. There seems to be me many environments that God can create without these natural evils, so one is still left to ask, why here? Again, if we want to use the scriptures, we have the issue of translated bodies that don’t experience pain except sorrow for the world, which God seems to be able to enact at any time, and God can also bring about resurrected bodies that don’t seem to experience physical pains either. God seems to have a greater influence over the natural realm than panpsychism gives God credit for.

    I bring these items up to point out that creating a theodicy is very difficult, and that removing omnipotence is a strategy that one can employ, but it doesn’t work on its own. Conversely, one can keep omnipotence and still create a satisfactory theodicy. Here’s one I can suggest: we could say that God creates all universes where the overall goodness of its existence outweighs the badness of its existence. God shares divine joy with as many creatures as possible where life is valuable. God never creates universes where the overall goodness of its existence is outweighed by the evil. Thus, while we exist in a universe that has evil in it, those other universes where strictly goodness exists or more goodness than ours also exist. Infinite numbers of them exist, as well do infinite numbers of ones like our own. God is overflowing with divine love and desire to share it. This seems to be a viable way out for the traditional theist that accepts divine omnipotence.

    I apologize that this post may appear rather negative. It is merely a topic that has interested me for the past 8 years! I do believe a satisfactory response to the problem of evil can be made for a “finite” God, and denying full omnipotence is an important step for formulating such a defense (though I don’t think theodicy is really about making defenses for God, but finding a useful way to handle and combat the evil one finds in life). But one should be careful with how much power they are willing to have God “shed.” Keep up the hard work that is involved in formulating such a solution!

  2. This is very good. The challenge of the “omnis”, and balancing them with the implications of ideas presented in such things as the King Follett Sermon – as well as just plain observation – is challenging. I, personally, would make one change to the above: I would have said “although, as a Mormon, I would attribute omnipresence to The Light of Christ” (D&C 88: 7-13). But since Spirit, truth, light, intelligence, wisdom, etc. are all interconnected (D&C 84:45-46, D&C 88:40) in a way that my little mind has yet to figure out, I really don’t know what’s up.

    • I am glad you brought up the King Follet discourse, because it seems relevant here. I am also glad you mentioned the Light of Christ. That is how I think of that omnipresent-emanation too.

  3. I’m actually one who fully embraces the idea of a finite, constrained God(s). I love the idea of a God who wills us to do good and to use our power to empower others, but who is unable or unwilling to force us down certain paths. This idea of a finite God works well to some extent with ideas from process theology — that we are all co-creators with God, shaping our own environment and experiences.

    Thanks, for the thoughtful post, Emily!

    • Thanks, Caroline. I need to find out more about process theology!

  4. Martin, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    You’re not the first person I’ve heard say we should be careful in how much power we’re willing to have God shed. I’m not sure what the peril is. To me claiming God is finite is very different from claiming God doesn’t exist, which I assume is where people fear this kind of thinking will lead, that is, to a loss of faith, or at least loss of faith in a God worth worshiping and attempting to communicate with. In fact the reverse is true for me – I’m trying to save my faith by reconciling a God who “allows” the horrors of this earth to exist while also being godly in ways that would prompt worship.

    If I understand your second-to-last paragraph right, you’re saying omnipotence isn’t problematic if good outweighs evil. I suppose that is satisfactory overall, but it’s very cold comfort for an individual for whom evil is overwhelmingly present in life. Or for others who witness that person’s life. I need a theology that will explain things in granular, everyday, individual ways rather than in broad strokes.

    Continuing in reverse order through your comment, I’m not familiar with panpsychic theory (I’m just a blogger, not a theologian!). But you raise a point that troubles me, which is how, given the laws of nature we’re currently aware of, do you get things like bodies that can’t die. I have no idea. I can only think it’s got to be a really different universe than ours. My mind can’t address that universe, but I think our universe acts according to its nature. And while it’s not exactly alive or sentient like human beings are, the idea that it has its own agency is one that tastes good to me.

    You ask if I assume God doesn’t impede on others actions due to a lack of power. No, not exactly. But I think in order for agency to mean anything it has to be fully and equally real for everyone. God can’t let the Mother Teresa types have free will while curtailing the free will of murderers and rapists. Or step in and curtail my free will at certain times while leaving it alone at other times. It would undermine everything. If God is about bringing about eternal life (which could be defined as becoming like God) then it’s about turning our hearts toward godliness rather than handcuffing us to the iron rod. I think God could not control our actions and have the project of bringing souls to eternal life actually work.

    Your bringing God’s goodness into the conversation is important and appreciated. It could be that God does in fact have the power to revoke agency (both of humans and of nature) but that God is restrained by goodness. If goodness limits omnipotence, is it still omnipotence? Is God’s power limitless but restrained? Or is the restraint part of what makes God God, and without it God would be less than fully godly, and thus weakened in all godly attributes, including power? I don’t know the answers to these questions, or whether they are even answerable. But evidently (at least to me) God is very restrained in the use of power on the earth. I can reconcile that restraint much more easily with a finite God than with a completely omnipotent one.

    • Hey Emily,

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply back. For me, the problem with giving up too much of God’s power is that God becomes irrelevant–God can’t answer my simplest prayers, offer me that wise of council, and clearly cannot ever bring an end to evil on this world or a world to come, with or without our help (even if all humans were nice, and the lamb sat down with the lion, we’d still have disease, sickness, and death). This God is clearly not the God of Christianity, and Jesus is clearly not the Christ in it. One wonders if this God might as well not exist!

      So a mere well-wisher, a purely persuasive God prompts as little worship from me as the fully omnipotent one that allows gross evils to happen. That’s the danger. One can always sacrifice divine power and say “problem of evil” solved by resorting to a weak God (this is simplifying the issue since I don’t know of any God–process or not–that actually solves the whole problem), but they need to be aware of the implications–God’s irrelevance. The real challenge of theodicy (for Mormons) is to find a God in between the process God and the traditional Mormon one; a middle ground where God is still our exemplar, our moral champion in combatting and resisting evil, but divine power is not so great as to make God seem culpible, lazy, or uncaring.

      The second to last paragraph was meant to illustrate a theodicy that accepts total divine omnipotence and, in my opinion, works to answer the logical problem of evil to the extent that it is not irrational for someone to accept it. It isn’t just that if good outweighs evil here, all is well for God. It is that God creates all universes, from those that have no evil in them (infinite numbers) down the scale to those where the good outweighs the bad (where it is better, all things being considered, for it to exist rather than to not). I definitely look at this world, and think that for all the evil in it, it is still better for it to have existed. I’m fortunate enough to even be able to say that of my own life. But many that cannot say that of their own lives, can say that of the whole and of others’ lives. They think it worth it that despite Hitler, Stalin, etc. there was Buddha, Christ, etc. And so given the argument, a perfectly good God with infinite power would also make a universe like the very one we inhabit, amongst the other universes. Of course, as your own response suggests, it still may not comfort a person who is struggling with the evil inflicted upon them–the “existential” versus say the logical problem of evil. But neither may the “broad stroke” of denying divine omnipotence; just ask many a traditional Christian. The existential problem is a different matter entirely, and differs from person to person. And for that, I’ve found that the only helpful thing has been the presence of God, as it was for Job. Not an argument; the divine alone can satisfy it. But maybe I’ll change my mind in a few years! Maybe you’ll persuade me! :).

      As for panpsychism, it’s the belief much like Orson Pratt’s, that all forms of mass-energy have a sort of mind, an element of agency (the prefix pan- refers to “all” and as you can guess with psychism, it refers to mind or psyche. You’ve probably heard of pantheism, that pan or “all” is God). Sorry that I used that weird word! Shame on me. I was very annoyed when people used those words in philosophy classes and now I use them myself. Sigh. Anyway, the “all things have a mind” theory is pretty, but I think it has no explanatory-predictive power in science, and so I would feel like is was trying to apply a theological band-aid (I feel much the same way with the traditional Fall). As for myself, when I feel like that’s all a theory has got going for it (or mostly all), I try to look elsewhere. So that’s the problem I have with applying it in the case of trying to give the earth or the universe an “agency” or brain, and make all natural evils an outgrowth of that agency. And it doesn’t seem that the world or universe wills death or suffering–what is it doing that does that? What would it do otherwise? What do we mean that the earth wills earthquakes or hurricanes? The natural evils go on: for it to will the existence of viruses? For it to demand that we must consume other living things to live? I can’t get any answers from the “all thing have a mind” theorem myself. Maybe I haven’t stumbled across the right one!

      I’m glad that you admit of other limitations on God’s power, such as your claims on God needing to be consistent on how he permits other agents to act. This has nothing to do with power, but some moral code of goodness in respecting all people. It also has something to do with the value of “free will,” which while flaunted as so precious in the western world, isn’t actually that intuitive. What’s so valuable about letting people be free? What actually makes freedom or agency a “good”? It’s a harder question than one might assume. Your implicit answer is an “ends-justify-the-means” (consequentialist) argument, that God should allow evil to happen so that God can bring souls to eternal life. Apparently, having souls achieve eternal life is a good end, and so permitting their freely chosen acts is justified, since that is the only way to do so.

      It should be noted that here you presuppose what you bring up in the last paragraph–that divine goodness limits divine omnipotence. You ask whether restraint is part of what makes God, God? I emphatically say yes. Limitless or not, divine power is definitely restrained. As is anybody who possesses a character, or a moral framework. Let me put it this way: My body has the physical capacity to murder other humans: pick up knives, guns, etc. However, I cannot, despite my physical capacity. There’s no way I could in this very moment. It’s not me. So my physical capacities are besides the point. This is not to say I could never do so, but I’d have to become a very different person beforehand. Think of our characters as almost the “momentum” of our decisions, they thrust it in a certain direction, and we cannot jump backwards in mid-air. God similarly, despite the logically possible applications of his power, cannot do certain things based on his holy character. It is an internal, self restraint, not an external one dealing with a lack of power. Traditional theists, like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, never thought you could consider God by his power divorced from his character, love, and wisdom. This is why questions like “Can God cause his own non-existence?” or “Can God make a rock so big/heavy that he can’t pick it up?” never bothered them. The answer was always no, given God considered as a whole person.

      It should be noted that you state God can’t “step in and curtail my free will at certain times while leaving it alone at other times. It would undermine everything,” but that is exactly what happens in scripture. God intervenes in the world at some times and not others. It should be added that this is not unique to scripture, but it also occurs in personal revelation and revelation to others (unless you deny all of those). People claim they were warned not to go somewhere due to some evil, but others are not and get murdered. There is inconsistency in the relationship between God and the world, which deserves thoughtful consideration. Another thing I have wondered is that we say God shouldn’t intervene on other’s agency, and yet we impinge on other’s agency all the time! Think of how we punish criminals. I am just curious about the intersection between our beliefs in theodicy and how that should inform our politics.

      Anyway, I have enjoyed this discussion. Don’t feel a need to respond back (unless you really want to!), as I am far too long-winded. Caroline has had to deal with this a lot from me recently. I’m quite insufferable. Let me apologize if it felt I was dismissing your point; that was not the aim. It was to offer a point of caution as one explores a certain path–the dangers, so to speak, of the road. Considering a finite God is definitely worthwhile (and not enough Mormons are willing to do so! Good for you), but to what extent do we make God finite is the question? For myself, if God cannot do what we can reasonably assume scientists to accomplish within the next thousand or so years, God’s too finite. It would be time to look to the human community for inspiration and help.

  5. This just appeared on my facebook feed and is relevant. It’s fantastic:

    https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/theologizing-in-the-presence-of-burning-children-from-theodicy-to-lament/

  6. Emily, I really love this post and the questions you ask. I do think that Mormonism offers some rather hopeful and compelling answers to the Problem of Evil (which is a real problem for a lot of people).

    David Paulsen, an emeritus philosophy professor from BYU wrote two wonderful essays explicitly or implicitly touching upon the issue. The first is Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil: http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=337.

    The second is The God of Abraham, Isaac, and (William) James: https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_speculative_philosophy/v013/13.2paulsen.html.

  7. I think I agree with you on much of what you express. Plus, you’ve articulated your thoughts well. Thank you. I absolutely love this post. At 5 AM with a little Nutella on crackers, it’s awesome!

    [By the way, I'm going to use the feminine form of Deity here, which may be harder to read, but it's good practice, so bear with me. Thanks.]

    One of the struggles I see with questions about the nature of God has to do with this, from 1 Corinthians 13:12 –For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

    Our ability to define or understand the nature of God is limited by our present state of existence. I try to keep this in mind when asking or attempting to answer hard questions. So, that’s my personal disclaimer. I’m willing to be wrong about everything. But here’s where I am right now with the question of God and omnipotence. ..

    I agree that God organized or created sentient beings to use their power as they see fit for good or evil. However, from purely personal experience I will say (for myself) that I am convinced God is nevertheless omnipotent. And that She does and has intervened at times, in places and for reasons to which I am not privy. Whether or not She has power to alter or restrain an individual’s actual agency seems counter to my experience. But Her ability to influence use of agency is undeniable for me.

    I liked this: “If the earth has a kind of agency, founded in the physical laws of the universe, then when natural disasters and illnesses plague us, we can’t blame God. It’s the universe acting according to its nature. God is a resource to us in difficulties like these, but not the source of our pain.”

    We could say the same about human beings. The difference is, the earth is completely responsive to God’s will. If God wills a tsunami – for reasons to which we are not privy – then the earth complies. If She wills sunshine and calm in the midst of a storm, then the storm ceases. In my mind, this is because the earth is not sentient, and therefore unable to act against God’s will. I’m not saying that I believe God orchestrates natural disasters or daily weather conditions, only that She has power to do so, if She so chooses, and the earth will freely comply.

    Humans, on the other hand, are sentient beings who can and do choose to ignore the will of God (and have successfully run amok from the start as a result). But the earth will naturally move toward its ultimate self, because it has followed the will of God from the start. The fate of the earth, as we understand it as Mormons, is the natural reward of Celestial glory. We would do well to follow Earth’s example.

    • Nutella on graham crackers is my very favorite breakfast :)

      You are absolutely right that we see through a glass darkly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Nutella on graham crackers is my very favorite breakfast :)

      I agree it’s important to remember we see through a glass darkly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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