Critically assess the belief that God is omnipotent. (40)

Omnipotence is a central attribute of the Christian God; as the Nicene Creed affirms

“we believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty…”

Nevertheless, Christians struggle to agree on precisely what it means.  Broadly, there are two approaches to understanding God’s omnipotence.  Classical Theists, including many Roman Catholic scholars, argue that God exists eternally in the sense of being outside time and space and so wholly simple.  By this definition, God’s omnipotence means that he caused everything, even time and space, to exist but it does not necessarily mean that God can act directly in time, such as by performing a miracle in response to prayer.  By contrast, Theistic Personalists reject the timeless-eternal model of God because it makes God too remote for most Christian doctrines and practices to make sense.  If God is wholly simple, how can he also exist in three persons?  If God is beyond time and space, how can he know when He is being worshipped or understand the contents of peoples’ hearts, let alone speak to or appear to people through mystical experiences?  As Nelson Pike observed, the actions of the God of the Bible are “unavoidably tensed”. For Theistic Personalists, including many Protestant Christians, God must be everlasting but within time.  This means that God has the power to act responsively and directly to change aspects of creation, but this comes at the price of making God’s understanding of the world and his actions depend on time and space and events within them, seemingly making him less than supremely powerful.  It is clear, therefore, that both approaches to understanding God’s omnipotence entail God’s power being limited in some way.  Either God’s power to act responsively in time is limited by God’s timeless nature, or God’s power is not supreme because his actions are bounded by time and dependent on events outside of God.  In this way the belief that God is omnipotent is incoherent.

Controversially, Rene Descartes argued that God’s supreme perfection entails omnipotence to the point whereby God could make 2+2=5 if He so wished, suggesting that God can do the logically impossible, such as by creating a stone too heavy for him to lift… and then lifting it anyway.  Descartes wrote, “God could have brought it about … that it was not true that twice four make eight” (Descartes 1984-1991: 2:294).  Nevertheless, even Descartes had to accept that God’s power is limited in the respect that God cannot lie or will his own non-existence.  Tacitly accepting St Anselm’s argument, He wrote to a correspondent “God does not have the faculty of taking away from himself his own existence.”  Later proponents of the Ontological Argument Leibniz and Ross both developed this point, arguing that God exists necessarily in any possible world.  Further, as well as not supporting God’s omnipotence entailing unlimited power, Descartes position suggests that the laws of logic and nature are arbitrary, raising questions about God’s goodness.  As Plato pointed out in Euthyphro and as Bertrand Russell later argued, a God who decides what is good and bad arbitrarily, going on to reward and punish people eternally for jumping or failing to jump through a meaningless moral hoop, is no better than a tyrant and certainly not worthy of worship.  In this way, believing that God’s omnipotence means that he can do the logically impossible is both incompatible with the Christian belief that God is all-good and incompatible with God’s supreme perfection.  This demonstrates that the belief that God is omnipotence is incoherent when defined in this timeless-eternal sense.

St Thomas Aquinas argued that God is eternal in the sense of being wholly simple and outside time.  In this way, God’s creative action must be single, limiting God’s power to what is actually possible, logically possible and compatible with God’s timeless nature.   Much as Descartes later did, Aquinas argued that God could not act in a way that conflicts with his God-like nature, such as by doing what is evil.  For Aquinas, God’s actions are also limited by what is possible in this world, so it is not possible for God to create a square circle or make 2+2=5 within this world. Because his creative act is timeless and so single and simple, God cannot do x and not x in the same timeless act of creation.  Nevertheless, Of course, Thomist scholars like Gerry Hughes SJ have reasoned that God’s omnipotence means that He could have created another world in which different logical rules apply, but only if such a world was consistent with what Richard Swinburne has called the Best Possible World Type. It would not be actually possible (consistent with God’s nature) to create a substandard world, so God’s power to create a world with different logical laws in which 2+2 could =5 depends on that world being equivalent to this in terms of fulfilling God’s purpose for it.  Aquinas’ argument is problematic in this respect.  How could God create more than one world if He is indeed timeless and spaceless?  Multiple acts of creation imply a separation in time and space that is inconsistent with God’s timeless nature, making it not actually possible for God to have created any other world.  In the end, Aquinas’ argument is no better than Descartes when it comes to defending God’s unlimited power.  For both Descartes and Aquinas then, God’s power is significantly constrained by His own nature, making the belief in omnipotence, when understood to mean having timeless-eternally unlimited power, uncoherent. 

Theistic Personalists such as Richard Swinburne, Brian Leftow and William Lane Craig have sought to make sense of the belief that God is omnipotent by arguing that God is everlasting in time.  They reject the Classical Theist argument that God can be timelessly eternal on the basis that such a God is inconsistent with the Bible and tenets of Christian doctrine like God existing in three persons or becoming incarnate and because, as Sir Anthony Kenny argued, the idea of God existing or acting in a timeless way is “radically incoherent” given that the matrix which makes existence and action possible is time.  The idea that God is everlasting in time is supported by the Bible, in verses such as

“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary” Isaiah 40:28

In this case, God’s omnipotence entails being able to do everything that it is logically possible to do from a point in time.  As Swinburne wrote in 1973

“[God] is omnipotent at time t = if  [God] is able at t to bring about any state of affairs p such that it is consistent with the facts about what happened before t that, after t, [God] should bring about p…”

By this analysis, given the facts the go before the present moment t, in this moment God could not create a square circle or create a rock too heavy for him to lift and nor could God do something evil or act so as to bring about a worse result.  Also, God cannot change the past or, arguably, know the future outcome of free actions. Despite this, both Swinburne and Leftow argue that God is omnipotent.  They reject the claim that not being able to do something logically impossible or inconsistent with one’s nature is a real limitation on power.  Nobody thinks Donald Trump is not powerful because he cannot fly, give birth or make square circles!  By this definition, God being omnipotent entails him having power in much the same way as human beings have power, only to a much greater degree.  Nevertheless, surely this univocal interpretation of God’s omnipotence is unsatisfactory.  Not only does it seem to anthropomorphise God and sell short the belief that he is supremely powerful, but it is also inconsistent with the Bible, as in Isaiah 55:8

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.

In this way as well, believing in an everlastingly omnipotent God is incoherent. 

Further, when it comes to an everlasting God in time, what evidence is there to support belief in the existence of a God who exists and acts like an invisible superman?  The arguments for God’s existence do nothing to support the existence of such a God and, if William James’ analysis of genuine mystical experience is to believed, neither do Religious Experiences.  It is true that the everlasting God of the Theistic Personalists makes far more sense of God’s actions as recorded in the Bible (if not all of God’s words) than does the eternal God of the Classical Theist tradition, but what is the rational basis for accepting the Bible as the primary, in fact almost the only, authority for the existence of such a God?   Given the insights of Biblical Criticism, it seems that having faith that God exists – and is omnipotent – on the basis of scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) cannot be rational.  Further, even if faith is “assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1, the Bible is inconsistent in what it suggests about God’s omnipotence.  In Genesis 2 God searches for a helper for Adam, trying out each animal before settling on making woman out of Adam’s rib… not even very competent!  Yet, in Matthew 19:26 Jesus affirms that “with God all things are possible.”  It seems that believing that God exists and is omnipotent in a way that is everlasting in time on the strength of the Bible is incoherent. 

In conclusion, believing that God is omnipotent remains a central part of Christian doctrine and yet is it an incoherent belief.  This demonstrates the extent to which faith is not a rational position to hold.  Of course, this makes little difference to those believers who understand faith to be non-propositional, constituting…

“confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1

Yet, for those looking for propositional faith, faith that is well supported by evidence and argument, the incoherence of omnipotence as a key attribute of God and its lack of compatibility with either God’s goodness or the Bible will make it difficult to remain a Christian. 

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