Thursday 21 February 2013

Omnipotence bleg - and the problem of pain


Reading McMurrin's comparative historical analysis of Christian theology (see reference below) was fascinating in many ways - one of which was relating to the Omnipotence attributed to God.

It is clear that having a God who can do anything instantly and directly and without any restrictions leads to serious theological problems: the most serious of which is 'the problem of pain' - in particular the problem of the extremity of human suffering.

The original act of creation can be believed to be good and charitable; it is credible that the Almighty God should deign to create beings to share His Joy. It is credible that He should deign to increase their Joy by creating them with the power of free will so that their joy should be voluntary. It is certain that if they have the power of choosing Joy in Him they must have the power of choosing the opposite of Joy in Him. But it is not credible that a finite choice ought to result in an infinite distress...

From What the Cross Means to Me, by Charles Williams. 


In this essay, I think that William's is pointing out that while it seems reasonable and right that Men should suffer, there seems no reason - if God is both omnipotent and Good - why some Men should suffer so much.


Many people feel that if God can do anything, yet allows extreme suffering, that such a God is not Good.

And if God is not Good, then He is not God - therefore they do not believe in God. 


But if God is wholly Good but not omnipotent, if God's power to effect Good is great but not complete - then this problem loses its force. Such a God is doing His best, but constrained by the reality of the situation.

This is, to a common sense reading, precisely the depiction of the Old Testament God. What seems to be described is a person who is always striving for Good but is constrained by the situation - in particular by the free choice of his people which can be influenced but not compelled; but also by time, and having to work in the material world.

While a few specific verses can be interpreted as, perhaps, implying omnipotence - this is certainly not the impression given overall - is it? The Old Testament God is a personality who does not make things happen except via the things of the world - and it is a reasonable inference that this God cannot make things happen except via the things of the world.


So, the bleg is this: what is the truly compelling evidence that God is specifically omnipotent - rather than ('merely') extremely powerful.


My suspicion is that the evidence is metaphysical, rather than scriptural - something we say God 'must be', something we assume a priori, rather than something we have been told by revelation.

My guess (from reading McMurrin) is that omnipotence is an attribute, a metaphysical assumption, derived from Classical Philosophy and read back into Christianity (and Judaism).

I don't imagine that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would have assumed that God was omnipotent in the abstract later sense of instantly and directly being able to do anything at all; but rather that their God was extremely powerful, indeed by far the most powerful of all entities in reality (i.e. the most powerful of the 'gods' - i.e. of supernatural beings).


(I suppose A,I & J would not want to discuss the limits of God's power - just as one would avoid discussing the limits of his power with an absolute monarch. But neither did they seem to assume anything along the lines that everything could be set perfectly right in the world by God's instantaneously-active will re-arranging the nature of reality. That God worked through the world, constrained by the world, seems integral to the relationship between God and the Prophets and seems to be embedded in the very nature of the Old Testament.) 


So, could it be that the apparently insoluble 'problem of pain' is a consequence of the abstract extremism of the concept of omnipotence: a concept which is both alien to common sense, and also fundamentally incomprehensible - something that can be described, but not felt from the inside.

The problem of pain is therefore perhaps insoluble only because omnipotence is humanly-meaningless - an unnecessary, and later-added philosophical abstraction through which we later Christians are insisting upon trying to interpret Christianity.

Yet maybe real, living Christianity never has regarded God in this way - because for us to Love God and have a relationship with him in time and mortality, excludes the deadly abstraction of omnipotence. 



Note added: Omnipotence is an aspect of the monistic world view - but not necessary in a pluralistic world view (as comes through in William James philosophy). If we assume that ultimate reality contains more than one thing, it contains God and 'stuff'-that-is-not-God. Nothing is more powerful than God, but there is (and always was) other stuff. Neither God nor stuff can be destroyed - both are everlasting. In a pluralistic metaphysic, God did not create from nothing (ex nihilo) but using the stuff which was coexistent with God. Therefore, God must sometimes achieve his goals via using the stuff - that is, God is constrained by the stuff. Such a metaphysic fits comfortably with the Old Testament, seems indeed naturally to follow from it; and the OT reveals to us the nature of God the Father and the history of his relationship with his People. Therefore, since the Bible is a unity, the pluralistic metaphysic is compatible with the New Testament. "With God all things are possible" thus can be taken to refer to aims, not mechanisms: to God all ends are possible, but the means by which they are attained are under constraint. Hence the linear, narrative structure of the Old Testament - uncontroversially, God works via stuff, and without violation of the free will of Men and Angels - but to the pluraristic metaphysic this indirect and time-bound method is by necessity, not by God's restraint from deploying instantaneous and direct action to attain his goals. Hence God's miracles are done via stuff and on a timescale; not by instant transformation of stuff. 


Anonymous said...

God is omnipotent but chooses not to behave this way so as not to infantilize us. Suffering may be extreme, but all will be redeemed at some point.

If God isn't omnipotent, then what power or whatever else we have may be truly ours, not a gift. The Pharisees were impressed with themselves because they were children of Abraham. But Jesus told them God could make children of Abraham out of the stones if he wanted to, and I think he meant that literally.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Thanks for this. I give the text you refer to:

Matthew 3

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,

2 And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand...

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

8 Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:

9 And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.


But I don't personally believe this was a divine revelation of omnipotence via John - it seems like a figurative hyperbole to me.

Unless there is an instance of this kind of thing happening - God miraculously transforming a real stone (or other inanimate thing) into a real man?


That aside "Suffering may be extreme, but all will be redeemed at some point." is precisely the problem of pain - we are being told that no extremity of torture counts for anything in the context of eternity.

Yet Jesus spent much of his time healing the sick, and none of it tormenting children because it didn't matter in the big scheme of things...

I know there are answers - especially the reality of Satan and his demons - which I regard as essential to Christianity. But Satan was made and is tolerated by God... so you must admit that here is a PROBLEM with the dogma of omnipotence, and a BIG problem (as attested by many of much greater holiness, insight and knowledge than ourselves).

JP said...

it is not credible that a finite choice ought to result in an infinite distress

But no choice results in infinite distress. All pain is finite, if only because ultimately, all life is finite.

what is the truly compelling evidence that God is specifically omnipotent - rather than ('merely') extremely powerful.

The universe!

To create the universe goes beyond being "extremely powerful" -- or at least, the difference between this level of power and omnipotence is hardly meaningful from our perspective.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP -

"All pain is finite, if only because ultimately, all life is finite."

But not the pain of Hell - that is infinite.


The universe!

To create the universe goes beyond being "extremely powerful"

You are begging the question I pose. If the universe was created then what you say follows.

But if the universe was just 'there' (which most people in history have assumed, including most of the great Ancient philosophers) - as it were alongside God - then the problem of pain need not be a limitation or failure of God's goodness but merely an intrinsic constraint on God's methods to effect his will: God can only effect his will by some means and not others.

(And this is not a self-limitation, therefore he is not making a moral decision to allow all types of pain.)


"the difference between this level of power and omnipotence is hardly meaningful from our perspective."

But I am saying this difference may be meaningful - there is in fact an *infinite* difference between omnipotence and even the most immense level of power than can be imagined which is NOT omnipotence!

(It is precisely the size of difference between the infinite and the finite.)

josh said...

God cannot act against His own nature, which from our perspective is the nature of all things. Hence God can only do what is logically possible; logic being derived from the nature of God.

It is logically impossible to created beings with free will who can not sin. Sin, whatever it means, means something that creatures with free will can do which goes against the order of creation. If the world was created good, sin must create evil (the lack or destruction of good) pretty much by definition. So God could not create a universe with free creatures that would not have the potential for evil.

And of course, there is a savior from man's sin, Jesus Christ.

Bruce Charlton said...

@josh - agreed.

But why is sin allowed to cause such *extreme* suffering? Why are things 'set-up' that way?

I think that is the problem.

Agellius said...

"Unless there is an instance of this kind of thing happening - God miraculously transforming a real stone (or other inanimate thing) into a real man?"

It seems to me that the virgin birth shows God making something out of nothing, unless you hold that Mary was impregnated physically by a physical God, in the usual way. Also, how about raising Lazarus from the dead? I consider this no less wonderful than raising a son of Abraham from a stone, since a dead body is no more alive than a stone.

As for scriptures showing God's omnipotence:

Matthew 19:26: "But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Luke 1:37: "For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Jeremiah 32:27: “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?"

Job 42:2: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted."

Mark 10:27: "Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

Isaiah 44:24: "Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself,"

Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."

Romans 4:17: "As it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist."

Romans 11:33-36: "For from him and through him and to him are all things."

Revelation 19:6: "Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.'"

Revelation 1:8: "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty."

Isaiah 40:14: "Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding?"

Jeremiah 10:12: "But God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding."

Amos 4:13: "He who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to man, he who turns dawn to darkness, and treads the high places of the earth--the LORD God Almighty is his name."

Chent said...

You read my mind. I have been wondering this thing for years (and feeling heretic for doing so).

I realized long ago that all the contradictions about the concept of God derived of the assumption of God being omnipotent. Rejecting this assumption solved not only the problem of pain but other problems as well.

I guess our tiny brain cannot understand God's limitations so it appears to us as if he could do any thing. So the extreme power can be perceived as omnipotence by us.

The Continental Op said...

In Islam, Allah is a force of pure unconstrained will. If he tells a lie, it's good, if he tells the truth, it's good, it's all good because Allah willed it.

The Christian God is not like that.

God is constrained by his nature. He is truth, and in him is found no lie, so it's impossible for him to lie.

God has also willingly constrained himself. For example, when he swore an oath to Abraham, he constrained himself to keep a promise.

He must have made a promise to honor the free will he gave us, and to let the cause-effect, and natural forces, he built into the earth play out.

The origin of evil is quite the puzzle. God, who cannot sin, was able to design and build creatures who could and would sin. That's quite a feat. Yes, we can do things that God cannot...

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

This assertion seems wrong to me: "But it is not credible that a finite choice ought to result in an infinite distress..." (Charles Williams)

If the "finite" choice is about our eternal destiny, and offences against, or atonement to, an eternal and infinite Being, thus the consequences are logically infinite; or so I learned from when I was a little girl.

I knew nothing about philosophy until my mid-thirties, but at ten I knew God is Almighty and I never had any problem with the "problem" of pain. I was content with the clear explanations from the Old and New Testaments conveyed by those who taught me religion. Christ chose to suffer himself the worst in our stead and pronounced the pain suffered by the innocent to merit beatitude. I saw numerous examples of that in the saints' lives. I have always found this teaching clear and simple, and very logical from what God told us and showed us about himself through Christ and through his saints.

I believe that the Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is never separated from the Devotion to the Eucharist, is a preferred door to this particular mystery of love and suffering. I found this helpful and short article from Father Hardon, s.j.:

Bruce Charlton said...

From an e-mail commenter:

"In his Naive Set Theory, Paul Halmos shows how, given any set whatever, you can construct something that does not belong to your given set.

"In other words, he says, nothing contains everything, or (to be dramatic): There Is No Universe. Talk about pluralism!

"Halmos seems quite cheerful about his construction, perhaps because he does not first postulate a universal set and then discover that it leads to paradox.

"In the series of proof-texts for divine omnipotence that your commenter furnished on your blog post, (leaving aside the assertions that God is Creator) I hear the speakers affirming that God can do something quite unexpected or amazing in some given context, but not making the sweeping philosophic assertion that God can do every arbitrary thing.

"So, as Euclid proved that there was no largest prime, and as Cantor showed how, given any enumerable set of real numbers, to construct another real number that does not belong to the given set, perhaps we ought to interpret omnipotence as meaning "any list of Divine possibilities that we can formulate is sure to be incomplete"."

Bruce Charlton said...


Thank you for that list of texts.

Certainly, once one has already decided that God is omnipotent, the Bible is consistent with this assumption. That is obvious from the history of Christianity. Omnipotence is not-obviously-wrong.

But my point is twofold.

The first is that strict omnipotence is not entailed by scripture. On the one hand it is not explicitly given as a revelation, on the other hand it is not possible to infer an infinite abstract quality from any number of specific instances of finite magnitude.

The second is that omnipotence is a concept infinite and abstract - and the human mind cannot deal with such concepts - except symbolically, for example by mathematics, and that kind of processing is actually outwith the human mind.

I feel that building a concept like omnipotence into Christianity was therefore a serious problem. The more seriously people take omnipotence, the bigger a problem it becomes.

Of course, most people most of the time don't think about it. When people say they believe God is omnipotent they are actually saying something like - I do not want to disagree with church teachings, or I do not want to discuss the precise limits of God's power.

But omnipotence is a paralyzing concept, if taken seriously. I am one of those people who takes ideas seriously! And the closer I get to conceptualizing God as omnipotent, the more I feel faith draining away as my own engagement drains away.

A finite human cannot (and I mean CANNOT) have a *relationship* with an abstract omnipotent God - indeed one cannot have a relationship with a God who is characterized in terms of abstract absolutes such as being eternally unchanging. A relationship implies person-hood, implies bounds (not infinites) and change on both sides (not one changing and the other unchanging).

To conceptualize God as omnipotent is one of several abstractions that push Christianity towards a Zen-like, Jain-like or 'Eastern' mysticism of annihilation-seeking meditative inertia. In such a world there is nothing for humans to DO, choices are illusory - the only task is acceptance, and the only reward of acceptance is to be annihilated into reality.

Luckily, most people in practice ignore the implications of omnipotence, for example by focusing on the personality of Jesus. It seems that most of the modern thriving denominations do exactly this.

But a Christianity which is based on Jesus and is vague/ wrong/ vacuous about God the Father has serious limitations.

Wm Jas said...

The Mormon approach to omnipotence, as expressed by Robert L. Millett, is that "There is no knowledge of which the Father is ignorant and no power he does not possess." He is all-powerful in the sense that he has all the power that there is; if God can't do a given thing, no one can. This is obviously very different from having all conceivable power.

Anonymous said...

It might be worthwhile questioning whether the "problem of evil" or the "problem of pain" is even a well-formed dilemma.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ZC - I agree that the problem is NOT well formed, because shoving infinities into a formulation is a recipe for disaster (except in mathematics - which is probably where the infinities came from in the first place).

But I think the anthropic explanation is just another was of saying that whatever is, is good; which means there is no evil - which removes all point and purpose from mortal life and makes everything into a dream or a delusion. A kind of Hindu doctrine.

Anonymous said...

But I think the anthropic explanation is just another was of saying that whatever is, is good; which means there is no evil - which removes all point and purpose from mortal life and makes everything into a dream or a delusion. A kind of Hindu doctrine.

If it is taken as a kind of positive answer to the problem of evil, yes. But it can't be that, because its conclusion is that question asked by the so-called problem of evil is really a nonsensical question. If it is a nonsensical question then it makes no sense to expect sensible answers.

George Goerlich said...

I find this line of thought very intriguing, though I innately prefer the idea of omnipotence - yet you raise very good points. An omnipotent God can't be limited to goodness - unless all pain and suffering is called "good" - it is a mystery that boggles the mind.

So "our Father" might necessarily raise the question: who is our Mother? Pluralism would solve that issue as well, with our Father being the divine masculine principle and whatever co-exists being the feminine matter from which he crafts (e.g. exactly the role of Mary!). This also makes Christianity a continued and very sensical elaboration of innate primitive beliefs that would worship both divine masculine and feminine principles. I don't mean this as a sort of universalism, but from the assumption that traditional Christianity is the closest approximation to the truth mankind has.