In Christian theology, God is presented as the omnipotent creator, able to bring about literally any world it is possible to imagine. His power has no limits, he never suffers from weakness or fatigue, and he possesses the omniscient knowledge necessary to shape the world according to his overarching plan.
Or so Christian apologists say, anyway. Yet when we atheists challenge them with the problem of evil, asking why a benevolent creator would bring about a world where disease and disaster wreak havoc on the innocent, these same apologists often fall back on a very strange defense. They insist that this is the best world God could possibly have created, that natural evil is a regrettable necessity, and that not even infinite power could have made a world where conscious beings like us could exist without also including these undesirable elements.
In the past few weeks, I’ve had two Christian correspondents make the same argument to me in e-mail. First, one visitor said this:
Take earthquakes, for example. Earthquakes are almost exclusively caused as a result of plate tectonics. Plates move, grind, slip – and the earth shakes as a result. The only alternative is to have a fixed, unmoving crust – plates that cannot move. But scientists have proven that plate tectonics are, in essence, a “necessary evil.” Without the movement of the plates, life on earth as we know it could not exist. Therefore, in order to have life, one must accept plate tectonics – and the earthquakes that come with it.
In another example, I asked a Christian correspondent if he believes God could have avoided the need to create Hell by creating human beings who desired above all else to worship God as he requires. My correspondent’s response: “There are 5 billion or so examples on this planet that show that what you propose is not possible.”
Though neither of my correspondents seemed to notice, their argument effectively demotes God from omnipotence. What they’re effectively saying is that God is not powerful enough, or wise enough, to create the world as other than it is. Not even an infinitely powerful, infinitely intelligent deity could have engineered a universe with different natural laws or conditions than ours, so as to permit self-aware living beings but exclude earthquakes caused by plate tectonics. This amounts to a claim that it is logically necessary that earthquakes accompany life, in the same way it is logically necessary that triangles have 180 degrees.
Similarly, the second argument amounts to a claim that it is logically impossible for human beings to be any different than we are. Not even God could have created us with different dispositions, different characters, different natures. Human beings as we are, with all our faults and contingent pecularities – our xenophobia, our emotional turmoil, our impulses to lust and violence, our often faulty grasp of cause and effect – are the only sentient creatures that exist anywhere in all the limitless space of possibility. Truly, the infinity of possible worlds must be an impoverished infinity indeed in the theist mind.
Even famous Christian apologists are willing to put sweeping limitations on God’s power when theologically convenient. C.S. Lewis did the same thing in The Problem of Pain, claiming that this world is the only one God had the power to create, that he could not have made it any different, and that even God could not think of a way to allow life and free will without also allowing random disaster and catastrophe:
Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself…
…With every advance in our thought the unity of the creative act, and the impossibility of tinkering with the creation as though this or that element of it could have been removed, will become more apparent.
For people who believe in God, these theists don’t give him much credit. They presume that God has no more imagination or knowledge than they, and that since they can’t think of any world better than our own, then he couldn’t either. Like Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s famous satire Candide, they blithely assume that this must be the best of all possible worlds, not subject to improvement in any way.
Admittedly this conclusion, absurd though it is, is a rational conclusion from their own strained premises. Since Christians start with the assumption that God is all-powerful and good, they logically infer that he would not have created anything less than the best world possible. But this conclusion runs smack into the manifest imperfection of the actual world.
By contrast, atheists who are not bound by theological preconceptions can readily imagine ways in which an omnipotent being could have crafted better worlds than our own. (I listed just a few possibilities last March in “Improving on God’s Handiwork“). This may relate to the common theme of fundamentalists fearing sci-fi and fantasy writing – it may well be that the exercise of imagining worlds different from ours is a dangerous path for these believers’ tightly circumscribed imaginations to start down.