Monday, November 8, 2010

The Omni-Charateristics of God (Part 4: Omnipotence)

This will be my fourth post in a five part series discussing the common characteristics of God and how I see them in light of my universalism. The five parts are:
  1. Omnibenevolence (God is all-loving)
  2. Omnipresence (God is present everywhere in space and time)
  3. Omniscience (God is all-knowing, past, present, and future)
  4. Omnipotence (God is all-powerful)
  5. The Problem of Evil (The question of why, if God has the above 4 characteristics, evil exists in the universe)
For my fourth post in this series, I examine God's omnipotence. The word omnipotence comes from the Latin words "omnis" (all) and "potens" (powerful, mighty). To say that God is omnipotent is to say that He is all-powerful. Similar to omniscience, saying God is omnipotent is controversial.

The first problem with omnipotence is giving it a detailed definition. What exactly do we mean when we say "God is all-powerful". Do we mean to God can do absolutely anything? Or are their "limitations" to God's power? If so, are these limitations intrinsic or are the self-imposed?

Slight warning: This post gets a bit philosophically deep. I hope I am expressing these concepts in the clearest way possible, but I realize I might not be, so if you find something confusing, it is most likely my fault. Please feel free to ask for any clarification in the comments.

The Paradox of Omnipotence:

The most obvious limitation to God's ability to do absolutely anything is formulated in the Paradox of Omnipotence. This paradox can take many forms, but most commonly appears as the question "Can God create a rock so heavy He cannot lift it?". If God cannot create such a rock, then He is not omnipotent. If He can create such a rock, then He cannot lift it. Again, He is shown not to be omnipotent. The obvious solution usually given to this issue is to formulate that God can only do things which are logically possible. God cannot create a rock He cannot lift, draw a circle whose ratio of circumference to diameter is anything but π, or any other logical impossibility. 

The limitation of God's power to logical possibilities is an intrinsic limitation. It is not that God chooses to lack the ability to do the logically impossible, but that the logically impossible is meaningless when describing what God (or anything for that matter) is able to do. Assuming God does exists, He himself would be logically consistent (since, if He wasn't, He wouldn't exist) and a logically consistent being acts only in logically consistent ways, not because of a lack of power to act otherwise, but because there is no otherwise way to act.

Overall, this solution is fairly uncontroversial and widely accepted in the most Christian denominations.While this paradox deserves genuine thought and consideration, most religious thinkers and believers do not feel it threatens God's omnipotence.

God's Nature:

Another difficulty with God's omnipotence deals with God's nature. Most belief systems assign specific characteristics to God, such as God being all-loving or God never lying. This situation presents us with three options:

1. God can, and does, violate these characteristics when He wants to. God could hate someone or God could lie if He choose to, even if He generally does not.
2. God can violate His nature if He wants to, but chooses not to. God could hate someone or God could lie, but He does not ever do something which goes against His essential nature. This would be a self-imposed limitation.
3. God cannot violate His nature even if He wanted to. It is not possible for God to hate someone or for God to lie. This would be an intrinsic limitation.

First, I will state that my personal beliefs rule out the first option. I am sure there are people who disagree with me on this, but the whole point of this series is to analyze the characteristics of God from my universalist perspective. My belief in God's infinite love for every living being means God cannot hate someone or lie to them.

This problem presents more of a challenge than the last one. While it is obvious that God cannot do anything logically impossible, the exact definition of "logically impossible" is fuzzy here. Is it logically impossible for God to go against His own nature? If so, option 3 is the solution. If not, option 2.

Personally my answer is easy: I don't know. I say this because there is no practical difference between option 2 and option 3. I believe that God does not violate His own nature. Whether this is because doing to is a logical impossibility or whether it is God's own choice is irrelevant, because the outcome is the same for both options.

God's Omnipotence vs. Human Free-Will:

To begin this section, I will state that I do believe in free-will, and my following argument is based on the assumption that free-will is true. Sometime in the future I will post on why I believe this to be so, but I do not want to make this post excessively long.

The last question I will address is the interaction between God's omnipotence and our own free-will. Does God's omnipotence violate our free-will? Before we can answer that, we must ask another question: Does violating our free-will go against God's nature?

These questions depend greatly on the definition of free-will. Obviously, humans do not have absolute free-will. For example, we do not choose the circumstance of our birth (the timing, location, our gender, our genetics, our family, etc). Many circumstances of our lives are not in our control, but in God's. In this case, God's omnipotence could be said to violate our free-will. Or we could say He does not because we have no control over those choices and, therefore, they do not fall under the category of free-will. This problem lies mostly within the realm of semantics.

However, there are many aspects of our life we do have control over. We control who we are friends with, the kind of job we have, and our personal belief system. We choose whether or not we believe in God and, if we do, what kind of God we believe in. Personally, I believe that God could violate our free-will in these circumstances, if He chose. But, I also believe that, because God is all-loving, God respects our free-will to make our own choices and therefore would not violate those choices. Our purpose in life is to learn to be good people. While there are many paths to this goal, we must choose our own path or we are nothing more than God's robots. It is our free-will which defines us as human beings. If God desires a true relationship with us, He cannot violate our free-will.

These are by no means the only arguments against omnipotence. It is a complicated topic, philosophically and religiously. I do not believe in a God who is absolutely all-powerful, for such a God defies logic. Yet I cannot actually define the limits of God's power. I do not  feel God would violate His own nature or our own free-will with His omnipotence, even if He could. I have no way to prove these propositions, they are just what I believe.

Basically, I am not comfortable giving God the label omnipotent. There are limits, both intrinsic and self-imposed, on God's power. However, His power to love us, forgive us, and heal us are infinite, and these are the powers of God I consider absolutely vital. Many religious believers make this claim, yet their theology does not support it. They point to these amazing characteristics of God with one hand, and everlasting torment for a majority of humanity with the other. It is absolutely ludicrous. God's power is not demonstrated in fear, abandonment, and torture, but patience, mercy, and above all else, love.

1 comment:

  1. It would appear that humanity now has access to a demonstration of God's omnipotence by a new teaching and interpretation of the moral teachings of Christ spreading on the web. Quoting a review:

    "Using a synthesis of scriptural material drawn from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha , The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Nag Hammadi Library, and some of the world's great poetry, as in the beginning, it describes and teaches a single moral Law, a single moral principle, a single test of faith, and delivers on the Promise of its own proof; one in which the reality and will of God responds directly to an act of perfect faith with a demonstration of his omnipotence, an individual intervention into the natural world, 'raising' up the man, correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries. Intended to be understood metaphorically, where 'death' and darkness are ignorance and 'Life' and light are knowledge,  this personal experience of omnipotent transcendent power and moral purpose is our 'Resurrection', and justification for faith. From here, on a perfectly objective foundation of moral principle, conduct and virtue, true morality and 'Life' begins."

    Revolutionary stuff for those who can get their heads around it? More info at