Is God Omnipotent?
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.