The Problem of Omnipotence February 19, 2011Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was the first to ask why God allows suffering, commenting,
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then God is not omnipotent.
Is God able to prevent evil, but not willing?
Then God is malevolent.
Is God both able and willing?
Then where does evil come from?
Is God neither able nor willing?
Then what’s so divine about “God”?
Most people who argue about this presume that God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), perfectly good (thus incapable of evil), and omnibenevolent (1 John 4:8: “God is Love”). It seems only logical, then, that if God is defined as both omnipotent and omnibenevolent, either evil is impossible or God does not exist. In fact, this argument is based on a faulty understanding of omnipotence.
No theologian or believer would argue with the idea that to be worthy of worship, God must have more power than any other being, whether created or supernatural, and God must be immune to criticism.
But what exactly is the highest conceivable form of power? For millennia now, believers have proclaimed that the most divine conceivable form of power is the power to determine every detail of what happens in the world. If you sneeze or burp, it’s because God predetermined that at that particular instant, you would sneeze or burp. If you step on a crack and your mother’s back breaks, don’t worry: God did it. In other words, nothing that you do is your responsibility: it is God the tyrant, God the puppet-master, who is doing it all.
And in fact, this is the bedrock theology of the Westboro Baptist Church: God has predetermined that every lifeform in the Universe has been pre-condemned to scream in Hell for all eternity, except for the 40 to 50 people who believe Fred Phelps’s perversion of “Christianity.” The pope? Screwed. The Apostle of the Mormons? Screwed. Mother Teresa? Screwed. Tom Cruise? Screwed. Osama bin Laden, you, me? Screwed, stewed, and tattooed. (The harassment of mourners at funerals by the Westboro believers thus becomes the “Christian” version of taunting, but hey, Fred Phelps says that God hates everyone who doesn’t believe Fred Phelps, so he must be right!)
Theologians who proclaimed that omnipotence requires predetermination half-realized they were now in trouble, since if God has predestined everything, God has predetermined all sin and all evil. St. Thomas Aquinas, the “Blessed Doctor” of the Middle Ages, decreed what most variations of Christianity teach today, in one form or another: God has absolutely predetermined that you will perform action X, and God has predetermined that you shall perform it “freely.”
I’m serious. You could look it up. Presbyterians and other Calvinists are taught this today, only in much more sugar-coated language. You have free will; every day, you freely choose to do what God long ago predestined you to freely choose. Most believers accept this line of reasoning without questioning it. When catastrophe strikes, they cry, “Why did God let this happen to me?” Why did God “let” 9/11 happen? Why did God “let” 9-year-old Christina Green be murdered by a lunatic who had listened too long to far-right-wing lunatics? Why did God “let” the Holocaust happen?
Their answer all comes down to a question of free will. If God is omnipotent in the sense of controlling every tiny detail of everything that happens — if God predetermines everything that happens — there is no free will. Therefore sin, evil, and death are God’s will. Therefore God is not omnibenevolent.
If there were no free will and God were Love, we would all be blissfully happy meat robots. Every human being alive would love God with all her heart and soul and mind and strength, and every human being alive would love her neighbor as much as she loved herself. There would be no arrogance, because arrogance depends on believing you’re a better person than the ones you’re supposed to love as much as you love yourself. For similar reasons, there would be no fear, anger, resentment, greed, overconsumption, concupiscience (satyriasis/nymphomania), envy, or despair. How could I resent you for hogging the best piece of candy, for example, when you already gave it to me out of your love for me, and I gave it right back to you out of my love for you? How could I envy you for making more money than I do when we both work for free, out of love of the work, and we both always have exactly as much money as we need, because anything else would be unjust and would cause someone to suffer because of that injustice? How could anyone ever feel despair, KNOWING that he was loved infinitely both by God and by everyone else on Earth?
If there were no free will, there would be no sickness, since bacteria and viruses would also have no free will. No cancer, since nothing would ever break down and start working improperly. (Rationalists will quibble over the idea that non-sentient lifeforms can have free will; one friend commented that if a virus has free will, then when a physician tests his reflexes by tapping his knee, his foot kicks out of free will. Nevertheless, I think the concept of free will becomes meaningless if it is limited — “I have free will, but you do not.” I know that individual cells have the capability of moving toward food and moving away from negative stimuli, and that sometimes they appear to exert that capability and sometimes they don’t. Is that choice? Well, if you disagree, set this whole paragraph aside, and let’s move on.)
If there were no free will, there would be no accidents, since nothing would ever be unforeseen. No attacks by wild animals. No horrendous storms or natural disasters, like earthquakes, tsunamis, or volcanic eruptions. No mudslides. No global climate change. No littering. No jaywalking. No police, no military, no government, no court system: no disputes or even disagreements between people, ever, for any reason.
In short, if there were no free will, God would be bored bored bored bored bored bored BORED! — quite probably, since God is eternal, insane with boredom.
And of course, a God who is insane would no longer be perfect. But no one would care. Since we are created in God’s image, we would be insane too. Blissfully happy, insane meat robots. . . .
Epicurus, and most theologians of monotheistic religions, are operating on a faulty set of presuppositions. The question cannot be, “If God exists, why is there suffering?”, because this phrasing of the question presupposes that God is omnipotent. The question must be, “If God exists, and evil exists, and sin exists, and suffering exists, and free will exists, why do people still believe that God is BOTH omnipotent AND even slightly benevolent?”