Is God Omnipotent?

Timothy Ferris concludes his book on cosmology, The Whole Shebang, with a “Contrarian Theological Afterword.”  Here, he writes that if God is omnipotent, then He must have free will.  And if so, He was free to make the universe in any conceivable way.  But 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.  To punctuate his argument, Ferris quotes the philosopher Keith Ward: “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 must be omnipotent.  I’m not a theologian, but a quick search for the “omnis” in scripture (omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent) showed that omnipotent appears only once in the Bible: in Revelations 19:6, “Alleluia, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” (Words made famous by Handel.)  Omniscience, omnibenevolence, and omnipresence don’t present any problems for me (although, being a Mormon, I’d attribute omnipresence to the Holy Ghost, not to God himself).  But if omnipotence means God can make anything happen at any time, then I agree with Kevin Ward that this is troubling, because it can’t easily be reconciled with God’s omnibenevolence.

A general statement of this problem of theodicy can be found in The Oxford Bible Commentary: “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 and remains as intractable” (Barton and Muddiman, 1101).

I think the solution to this paradox is agency.  Not in a God-given agency, but an agency that is sovereign unto itself.  In the Pearl of Great Price, God tells Abraham that human spirits are eternal in nature, meaning that since they have no beginning, God could not 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 human spirits/intelligences have an inherent ability to act for themselves (agency), then agency is not a God-given thing.  And if omnipotence includes an ability to control the action of other beings, then God is not omnipotent.  As far as I know this idea of human intelligences being co-eternal with God is uniquely Mormon, and without taking the above scripture into account, it doesn’t seem possible to resolve the theodicy paradox.  If anyone knows of other religions or Christian faiths that have this doctrine, I’d be interested to learn of them.

I also believe the physical laws of the universe are sovereign unto themselves.  I don’t have any evidence to back this up, it’s 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 pitch-perfect to be in any way 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.

I don’t mean to reduce God’s power to meaninglessness, however.  I think God’s power 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, not the reverse.  And so it is with God and humankind.  We depend on the gifts He gives us to become the vessels we hope to be.

The Oxford Bible Commentary, John Barton and John Muddiman, editors.  Oxford University Press, 2001.

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  • Barbaricino

    It makes sense to a certain degree that physic laws are sovereign for themselves. That though will lead us to another unresolved mystery which fate attends the universe. The big freeze through entropy or the Big Crunch, namely the Universe returning to the stage of the Big Bang . In other words: Can a God that is not omnipotent prevent the end of the Universe? Or maybe there more universes where we could move to when this one is cooked. I think I’ll stop here.

  • http://www.lehislibrary.wordpress.com James

    I think you are forgetting something pretty important: The Book of Mormon states quite unequivocally that God is omnipotent. That throws a wrench in things, but I think we can overcome that if we simply remind ourselves that those writers (and biblical authors, and Joseph Smith) were not philosophers who were making systematic theological bullet points. They were mostly just trying to persuade people to repent and believe.

    There are three rules that I stick to when considering theodicy from a Mormon perspective:

    (1) Matter is eternal, and God has to work with matter in the condition he finds it in. This limits God’s ability to do whatever he wishes with matter.

    (2) Laws of physics are immutable and eternal. God has to work with them in the condition he finds them. A corollary of this is that God can control them as perfectly as possible (but some things are impossible).

    (3) Other sentient beings (such as intelligences) are eternal and God has to work with them in the condition he finds them in. He didn’t create their most basic fundamental elements, and so they are prone to act in ways outside of his control.

    I think that Mormonism is in a unique position to consider the problem of evil, and it is an strong position which is usually not recognized.

  • Adam

    Perhaps God is omnipotent even with these limitations, simply because power itself has limits. For example, God cannot create a circled triangle, simply because such an shape could not exist. So even power seems to have its limits set in logic and in possibility. Thus if free agency is beyond the limit of power God still could be omnipotent. (especially if we define free agency as the ability to use power, rather then a force or commodity that can be owned, or possessed)
    On the other hand because we are co-eternal with God, then the fact that God’s lack of creation on intelligence shows limits in his omnipotent power, or at least in how we view power.

  • http://rainscamedown.blogspot.com SilverRain

    Just because someone WILL not do something, does not mean they do not have the power to do it. That is the major flaw in the “either God’s acts are necessary:not free, or they are free:arbitrary” so-called conundrum. I have the power to smack myself in the face, that doesn’t mean I will do so. God has the power to force us to do His will, but that doesn’t mean He wants to, or that His ultimate goals would be furthered by that action.

    Having all power does not mean a lack of discipline. In fact, I think that God is omnipotent BECAUSE he is disciplined. Matter and Spirit both want to follow His will because they know He will do nothing to violate their eternal natures. I see no problem with omnipotence when combined with agency, omniscience and omnibenevolence.

    And I agree with Adam. It is a silly argument to say that God can not do something that is without meaning or purpose, therefore He doesn’t have all power. True power is about reality, not fantasy. Otherwise, no one would have the motivation to do anything outside of daydreaming.

  • emilyu

    Adam – I agree with what you are saying, that limiting God’s power to the range of logical possibilities doesn’t mean He’s not omnipotent. CS Lewis said this really well in The Problem of Pain:

    “His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to his power. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,’ you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can.’… It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of his creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because his power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”

    But I’m interested in what I see as a key difference between Mormon doctrine and Protestant/Catholic doctrine, which is that (in my understanding) Mormons don’t believe God gave humans free will, but rather that we intrinsically have it. This has big implications for God’s omnipotence, I think. I quite disagree with Silver Rain that God has the power to force us to do His will. I suppose He could take over our bodies and make us follow the Pied Piper, but that isn’t really making US (as defined by our total selves, body, mind, and spirit) do it. Forcing action against someone’s will isn’t a very meaningful definition of omnipotence. I agree with Adam that agency is the ability to use power, and to choose our own actions.

    James, you are right, of course, that the word omnipotent is used a few times in the book of Mosiah. I didn’t mention it here because Mosiah seems to be using it as a title (it’s always capitalized, i.e. “the Lord Omnipotent”) and it’s not really clear how Mosiah would define the word. I’m more interested in how the word is understood in modern times – from a general and from a Mormon point of view. I think your 3 points are very useful, and I agree Mormonism is in a unique point to consider the problem of theodicy.

    And it is quite a problem. If God is capable of forcing human action, then at least one of two things is true: 1) Human evil traces back to God for its origin or 2) God is capricious if not cruel for refraining from intervening in tragic events. Taking the view that God’s power is limited in its ability to force human will (and therefore action), sheds a significant amount of light on the theodicy problem. For me, it makes it much easier to trust God, because it makes His actions understandable and consistent.

    You bring up a very interesting question, Barbaricino. From Ferris’s book I understand there are 3 possibilities for the end of the universe: it expands forever, it reverses at some point and crunches back down to a singularity, or it’s sort of “just right” and will stop expanding at some point and just stay. I prefer the first or the third, because these get God out of the pickle of dealing with the end of the universe. But who knows, maybe God created an infinite number of universes, so if this one dies, we’ll still have a place to be. When you consider the King Follett discourse, multiple universes seem quite possible, if not necessary.

  • http://rainscamedown.blogspot.com SilverRain

    emilyu—if God absolutely cannot force us to do His will, than what was the war in heaven about? Was Satan delusional, and did 1/3 of heaven follow him in an impossibility?

    As I said above: just because God CAN does not mean He WILL. That is why your either/or above is fallacious. The war in heaven was about just what you describe: that God should use His power to intervene to control human action. I believe that He is God because He has the power and chooses not to use it.

  • Emily U

    Yes, I think Satan was delusional (or lying) and 1/3 of the host of heaven followed an impossibility.

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  • MatthewChapman

    The Pearl of Great Price has another definition of omnipotence”

    Abraham 3:17
    “and there is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it.”

    In this case, omnipotence is defined not as what God can or may do, but what he does.

    Mechanically simplifying this statement to a simple tautology, (which I acknowledge may not be possible with revelation) we have:

    If God “takes it into his heart to do” anything, it will be done.

    or in other words:

    If anything is not done, it is because God has not taken “it into his heart to do”.

    If anyone suffers, it is because God does not will it otherwise. If there are meteorological or environmental disasters, it is because God did not take it into his heart to prevent them.

    Yet God is blameless, for if any of his creation suffers, he suffers. If anyone is unwell, he is unwell. If anyone is injured, he is injured. If anyone is cruelly used, tortured, or abused, he Jesus is cruelly used, tortured or abused.

    Matt. 25: 40
    “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

    Isaiah 53: 4
    Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

    We do not yet completely understand how this is accomplished, but we know that we call this the atonement.

    Although sinless, Jesus suffered for sin. Although he never viewed internet pornography himself, although he was not a crack addict, he suffered all the pains of anyone ever struggling to overcome these or any addictions of any kind. And the pains of all, both individually and collectively.

    The Father himself suffers with his creation.

    John 5: 19
    Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.

    Joseph Smith, in the King Follett discourse, instructs us to take this literally. If the Son did anything, the Father did it first. If Jesus suffers with you, the Father suffered with you first.

    Again, we do not yet completely understand how this is accomplished, but we know that we call this the atonement.

    Are you comforted by the knowledge that if God does not relieve your suffering, he experiences that same suffering with you?

    What if, in his omnipotence, he took that suffering away, and bore the burden of it by himself?

    Truthfully, this has only happened to me once in my life. Truthfully, it was the only time I ever felt that anything was more than I could bear. And it was taken away. The Savior took my burden from me.

    I am not sure that I ever want him to have to do that again, but it is a reassurance that that possibility exists.

    And it gives me confidence in the promise:

    Revelation 11: 4-5
    And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
    And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things anew.

  • Mark D.

    I find the idea that God can suspend, say, the conservation of energy troubling, but nothing like the terror inspired by the suggestion that he can make good evil and evil good simply by so declaring. It is not an accident that the classical theory of divine omnipotence flat out rejects the proposition that God changes. Iron pillar, mighty fortress. A God who never changes is never at any risk of changing his mind.

    If you take away that constraint, divine omnipotence becomes problematic in a big hurry. You might say that the predominant theory of divine omnipotence is that God is not omnipotent.

  • http://www.f150forum.com/members/-ford-pro-41729/ f150 owner

    Just cause you got the monkey off your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town.

    Sent from my iPhone 4G

  • http://lassiterlaw.net Aaron deOliveira

    i’ve often found my favorite answer to the omnipotent paradox in quantum states. in what we can observe, we see things that are 2 things simultaneously. light is both a particle & a wave. an electron is in both one position and all positions. god can be both omnipotent, capable of shredding the fabric of what we call reality, and be able to govern all things in an ordered and purposeful fashion.

    to say that god doesn’t and god cannot are not the same thing.


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