I am asked, not infrequently, about the apparent limits of God’s omnipotence. It would seem, on the face of it, that I am freely able to say “no” to God, to overrule Him, to thwart his will for me or others. If this is so, then how can we say God is omnipotent? Further, if God is so powerful, why does evil seem to go unchecked? In many ways, God does not seem powerful at all. From this perspective evil and Satan seem more powerful, more influential and able to rule than God. Is God really omnipotent (all powerful)?

As you likely know, greater minds than I have pondered these questions and I will not likely break new ground here. But in struggling with this question, that I frequently get asked, I would like to approach it from different angles. They are listed below in no particular order. No one point is meant to be a complete answer in itself, just an aspect of the problem and an appreciation of the mystery with which we are dealing.

1.  The Aspect of Balance and Mystery. It is a common requirement in both theology and life that we must hold seemingly contradictory truths at the same time and in some balance.  For example God is both immanent (profoundly an intimately present here) and yet transcendent (beyond the here and now). God is one, and three. Or, Man is fundamentally good, gifted and powerful, and yet sinful, foolish, weak and dependant. We are free, yet also limited and so forth.

These truths are in fact all true, and must simply be held at the same time and in proper balance. While it may be true that we can resolve some of the conflicting truths about man by simply saying that our excellences are only limited, this sort of solution is not possible with God. God is absolutely powerful, transcendent, immanent, one, three, and all powerful. There is no way of saying that God is “sort of” powerful, one, three, and so forth.

Thus, given the limits of our knowledge and language, we are often called to hold two competing truths in tension. How they are fully resolved and worked out is mysterious. This may at times frustrate us, but ultimately, mysteries are more to be respected and appreciated than solved and overcome. That we are free, and God is omnipotent are two truths in tension. We must hold them both, in tension, with appreciation for the deep mystery of them both.

2. The Aspect of our Limited Vision – We usually like to think we either have things figured out,  or that eventually we will figure them out. But the fact is, we are of limited vision and intellect. We see only a small part of the picture. The world in which we live is mysterious.

To the modern mind, the word “mystery” refers to something which must be solved, which we must get to the bottom of. Hence, we tend to reduce everything, including creation, God and ourselves to a “who-dunit” novel.

But from the Christian perspective, “mystery” refers to something which we see,  partially, but much more of which lies hidden.  For example, our five senses can perceive the physical attributes of other people, and we might even come to know some of the “inner workings” of people we know. But in the end, there is much more of the human person that lies hidden. We do not even know ourselves fully (cf 1 Cor 13:12).

This is mystery. Our lives, the world around us, all of creation, and God are shot through with deep mystery. We see some aspects, but more lies hid that we often imagine.

Admit it – In striving to “solve” the mysterious interplay between God’s omnipotence and our freedom, or the existence of evil, we ought to admit that there is much we do not know, and cannot expect to know. Thus, the contradiction is only apparent. Our limited minds cannot see the whole picture. So, it is wrong for us to simply declare that God’s omnipotence cannot be reconciled with our freedom or the existence of evil. The fact is we do not know that. The most we can say this that there SEEMS to be a contradiction here, and the best we can do is to admit our limitations in seeing the whole picture.

3.  The Aspect of the Mystery of Time – The deep mystery of time seems to be an important factor here as well. Part of understanding God’s omnipotence is to recall that he dwells in eternity. God does not live in serial time like we do. For God, past, present and future are all the same. God is not watching creation and human history unfold like a movie that ticks steadily by. He is not up in heaven watching things happen, then pondering what to do in response. God knows us before he makes us (Jer 1:4), he knows everything we will ever do (e.g. Psalm 139:16). Nothing is a surprise to God. God does not react to events, and reformulate his plans, based on unexpected human choices. He is pure act and everything is already accomplished, done. The future is not distant or foggy to God. It is present to him and known by him from all eternity.

Clearly for us, eternity is a mystery. The comprehensive “now” of God, his sweeping knowledge of time as comprehensively present to Him, can be described by us, but not really understood. But the fact is, our “no” to God does not thwart His plans. He has always known who would shake their fist at Him and who would obey. His plans have already incorporated our free choices. He doesn’t have to “go back to the drawing board” based on a stupid or sinful choice by me. He knows the way I go, and will shepherd me rightly.

Why exactly God allows so much static in the system, so much sin and rebellion, is another mysterious thing. But it does not follow that, because he has allowed it,  that his power is somehow diminished. He has always known of the static, of the sin, some of it awful, and has already resolved and overcome its apparent power. Jesus said on the Cross (in our serial time), “It is finished.”  God’s work is done, it has always been done. The working out of the details in our slices of time is not always easy to see. But the victory has always been won.

So, the mysterious interplay between God’s omnipotence, our freedom and the problem of evil is caught up in the mystery of time.

4.  The Aspect of a Correct Understanding of Freedom  – The proper understanding of freedom is also a factor in understanding the relationship between God’s omnipotence and our freedom. From our perspective, especially that of our flesh, freedom is the capacity to do whatever I please. But this is not a biblical understanding of freedom. From a biblical perspective, freedom is the capacity, the power, to obey God. Jesus says that “Whoever sins is a slave of sin” (John  8:34). Scripture also says, Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey–whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:16). And again, They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity–for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. (2 Peter 2:19).

Hence from this point of view, our sinful choices are not an exercise of our power so as to somehow diminish God’s power. When we sin we do not demonstrate our power, so much as our slavery. True freedom is the capacity to obey God. The catechism teaches: The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.” (CCC 1733)

So, ultimately Man’s freedom, from this perspective, cannot be pitted against God’s omnipotence. For true freedom is only to obey God and hence respect his power. The sinful use of freedom is ultimately an exercise of a power, but a manifestation of slavery.

5.  The Aspect of the Paradox of Power – In this case I am simply going to let the Catechism speak for itself: 

Faith in God the Father Almighty can be put to the test by the experience of evil and suffering. God can sometimes seem to be absent and incapable of stopping evil. But in the most mysterious way God the Father has revealed his almighty power in the voluntary humiliation and Resurrection of his Son, by which he conquered evil. Christ crucified is thus “the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor 1:24-25)  It is in Christ’s Resurrection and exaltation that the Father has shown forth “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe”. (Eph 1:19-22) Only faith can embrace the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. This faith glories in its weaknesses in order to draw to itself Christ’s power. (cf. 2 Cor 12:9; Phil 4:13)  (CCC 272- 273)

Here then are just some of the aspects, both of the problem and of insight into the mystery of the interplay between God’s Omnipotence, our freedom and the problem of evil.

As usual, the list is incomplete and I invite you to add to it. Further, I know some of you may wish to either dispute or distinguish some of what I have offered. I encourage all this since this is a discussion of what is ultimately a very great mystery and no one post can capture the whole of the issue or exhaust its aspects.

Photo Credit above right (Facebook – Right click for URL)

Here is Fr. Barron’s take on part of the issue in response to a recent movie:

19 Responses

  1. John says:

    Msgr.,

    Excellent discussion! Thanks for being willing to open it up a bit. I have always struggled with the seeming illogic of an “omnipotent” God, juxtaposed with our “free will”. Your explanations makes some real sense. But, I suppose it still bothers me to think that God created men and women He knew were destined for an eternity in hell at the instant He even created them. Why create the hard cases? Couldn’t He have simply have created those he knew who would choose Him? As bad a Hell is, God must believe that eternal damnation is a better outcome than never to have been created at all. Hard to swallow! But what do I know? :) I still can’t believe He created me. Mind-blowing!

    John

    • Yes, a mysterious problem to be sure. But even the way you (we) state the problem puts God in serial time as if to say God at point A in time thought to create a person at time B, knowing that, at time C they would choose hell. There really is no other way for us to speak for our language has no capacity to speak in eternal terms. At any rate part of the mystery of the question you ask is still wrapped up in the mystery of time.

      Another aspect of the problem is how God sees Hell and the value of existence. We have this strange sort of thinking, especially today, that says non-existence or never to have existed, is really better than being in Hell. But is that something we really know? We just sort of take it as proven premise that it is better never to have existed than to go to Hell, but in fact it is not proved and we cannot really know if there is such a thing as a life not worth existing for.

      • Mark G. says:

        It seems that even a very bad “real” thing is infinitely more perfect than the best imaginable thing that does not really exist. Some schools of metaphysics call actual existence “the perfection of perfections.” To exist is very good. The fact that some beings thwart the ends for which they were created is another matter.

        • K. Louise says:

          The reason I think it’s better to exist in pain than not to exist at all is because of the Church’s teaching on artificial contraceptive. Artificial contraceptive potentially deprives a soul of existence and is a mortal sin. This soul has the right to exist regardless of whether it ends in Heaven or Hell and whether it has a happy life or not. Even the aborted baby has the right to existence for all eternity though it is deprived of the great privilege of Baptism. It’s better than just being an empty spot at the dining room table, to quote a priest. I hope I’m thinking straight on this.

  2. Jane says:

    Didn’t Jesus say it would have been better for Judas to have never been born?

    • Yes. And his statement is deeply mysterious in that God could surely have arranged that Judas did not exist. I suppose we could be picky and say that Jesus says, it would be FOR THAT MAN, had he never been born. He does not merely say it would better that he not been born, but only better for him. And thus we may possibly conclude that Jesus is merely adopting our way of talking rather than affirming that to God it is better Judas had not been born or that it true in an absolute sense that Judas’ life has no value to God even in its depraved condition. At any rate this is only a possible answer to a mysterious text. Perhaps it would be an interesting blog post for the future when I can review how the Church Fathers et al. condisered this text.

  3. Dave says:

    Great post. For people who are looking for further exploration of the topic I would recommend C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. He does a wonderful job of framing the problem and then examining different viewpoints concerning it.

  4. Dismas says:

    Such a disturbing topic. Many thoughts come to mind on the subject of free will and predestination:

    Why was I born and raised Catholic and not others?
    There but for the grace of God go I.
    Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.
    Baptism of Blood; Baptism of Desire.
    The narrow gate between presumption and despair.

    Presently, I have to submit my understanding of these mysteries are not that they are unintelligible but that they are more intelligible than my mind has power to grasp.

  5. Peter Atkinson says:

    Just an interesting notation, since you mention our five senses. Did you know we have more than twenty two senses? Two are the ability to balance (which is sensed in the inner ear), and the ability to know where our limbs are when our eyes are shut.

    Thought people might be interested.
    Loved the article!

    P.S. And for a theology question, Fr. Barron says in another video that the ‘Catholic’ way to read the bible is to view some of the Old Testament stories of battles as just allegorical. Is this true? I find it hard to believe that they would’ve written fictional and allegorical battles in such detail and using real life areas.

    Thanks!

    • I think Fr. Barron’s point is not that the battles weren’t historical, but rather we now see them as an allegory for spiritual battle. Otherwise we might think to justify a Christian version of Jihad. So, bottom line, the DID happen historically, but we interpret them and apply them symbolically for our present lives and times

    • By the way, is there a link to an article on the 22 senses you mention? Seems like an interesting reflection

  6. Jon says:

    I kind of like the perspective given by the Matrix when it comes to freedom. We’re not here to make the choice, we’re here to understand the choice. Granted, that’s probably a touch of an oversimplification. Yet, if we are to believe that we will one day dwell with God in eternity, it stands to reason that we’re always been with God in eternity. Our time-based components are, as Jesus is to God, simply a projection of who we are over time.

    For the mathematically inclined, each of us is an intricate function, interrelated with all other existing functions, with respect to spacetime. From an eternal standpoint, all of our temporal decisions have already been made once we’ve decided **what function we are** (who we are) on an eternal level. And simultaneously, who we are on an eternal level is defined by our actions over spacetime. And I say spacetime rather than just time, because our state is not dependent solely on time, but also the state of things (space) around us … forwards and backwards, etc.. Again, perhaps an oversimplification … and an overcomplication.

    … is this line of thinking mutually exclusive with Catholic teaching? Or in line with it .. ?

  7. Jamie Reynolds says:

    We see a lot of people today – in real life on in the movies/TV – trying to ascribe “meaning” to events, particularly bad ones such as the premature death of a loved one. Perhaps this is an understandable human response; but I wish more people would accept the mystery of God’s design, and accept that only He really can speak to “meaning”.

    We should not try to find meaning from the death of a toddler or the devestation of a tsunami. We should accept that God’s wisdom is infinite and thus utterly beyond our full comprehension. And if we believe that our God is love, then surely we believe that even terrible events from a human perspective must somehow be good in His plan. How counter-cultural an attitude is that?!

  8. Nick O'dEmmus says:

    I would also be interested in the concept of “evil” in nature. As I understand it (please correct me if I am wrong) the whole of creation was affected by Adam’s original sin to some extent. The idea of the lion sitting down next to the lamb in Isaiah’s restored world is in direct opposition to the present reality of dog-eat-dog; even though animals (and plants) cannot be deemed morally “evil” in the same way as humans and fallen angels, there is nonetheless a sinister element to the natural world which parallels the moral evil of humankind and angelkind. Biologists are constantly trying to subvert my Catholic beliefs e.g. by pointing to the way various animals also masturbate, thus – in their opinion – rendering the Church’s teaching on sexual immorality implausible (though I do not share their view). They also point to the cruelty of a cat dealing with a mouse etc. I’m sure you’ve heard these arguments before. My point is: at what point did the natural world “fall” – historically it would appear to be before the existence of Man on earth. Was nature’s fall therefore also partly a consequence of the fall of the evil angels? This is something which has disturbed me from some time.

  9. kgurries says:

    Dear Msgr. Pope, this is another great post. Perhaps one way to help explain the mystery of the damned, existence of evil, etc. is to consider that God somehow (mysteriously) brings a “greater good” even out of these things. Human freedom itself is a good — even if it can be abused. Of course, we can’t see the full picture as God does.

  10. TeaPot562 says:

    An interesting meditation. Thank you, Msgr. Pope for the discussion.
    TeaPot562

  11. Guerline says:

    What we have to keep in mind is that continuation of discussion of suffering and Imputation ( which has to do with the doctrine of redemption) without a clear biblical theology foundation of the doctrine of God keeps those who are not strong in this distinctive biblical theology confuse! The goal here is removing sins of ignorance and infirmity because it leads to division . We will begin with documentary sources of Genesis ( J document, E document , P document and the residue) and tradition behind the documents , please read ( Anchor bible on Genesis page 17-43 introduction section and Saint Jerome biblical commentary , the introduction to the Pentateuch , the four traditions section outline on page 1-9, yawist traditions ( j document), Elohist traditions (E document) , Priestly tradition ( P document) .
    Biblical theology is the knowledge of God’s great operation in introducing his kingdom among man, presented to our view exactly at it lies presented in the bible,in the old testament it is the study of religion of the relation of the spirit to God , and that it might exists with no eternal tokens of God’s favor. The old testament religion of the doctrine of God :
    1 the doctrine of God – names and general representations of God
    a. Jehovah ( exodus 6:3) , I am ( exodus 3:13-15), Lord and God ( acts 6:32) Lord and God of Hosts ( Isaiah 47:4), Ishi ( Hosea 2:16) , represented by fire ( 2 Sam 22:13) , represented by light ( psalm18:28), accompanied by darkness or clouds ( exodus 19:9), compared to animals ( job10: 15) , compared to a fir tree ( Hosea 14:8)), visible glory ( exodus 16:10), God is local ( genesis 4:16) , has a dwelling – place among men ( exodus 25:8),moves about ( genesis 17:22), uses vehicles ( 2 Samuel 22:11)
    2 the doctrine of God – the divine nature / anthropomorphic and antropopathoc representations of God/ and the difficult of knowing God
    a. God appears in human form( genesis 18:1),has human features and members face ( genesis 32:30),eyes ( 2 chronicle 16:9),nostrils ( 2 Samuel 22:9) ,organs of speech ; breath ( I swish 30:27-28), shoulders ( Deuteronomy 33:12), hand ( psalm 21:8), fingers ( exodus 8:19) , back ( exodus 33:21-23) , uses a human voice ( exodus 3:4) ,laughs and sleeps ( exodus 15:3) , uses weapons ( Deuteronomy 32:23) ,uncertain of the future ( Deuteronomy 5:29), grieved ( genesis 6:6) , jealous ( Zephaniah 3:8) , angry ( number 12:9) , hating ( psalm 5:5-6), taking vengeance ( Deuteronomy 32:34-35,41-43), seeks his own glory ( exodus 14:18), solicitous for the holiness of his name ( Ezekiel 20:22), makes oaths to his purposes ( number 14:21,28) repents and changes his
    purpose ( genesis 6:7) deterred from his purpose ( Exodus 13:17)
    Difficulty of knowing God : God invisible ( Deuteronomy 4:15), unsearchable ( Job 11:7-9) But may be known ( Matthew 11:27) ,
    3 the doctrine of God – The Holy Spirit
    a. Personality ( John 14:16-17), Divinity ( Acts 5:3-4) , promised ( Luke 1:15), prayed for (Acts 8:15-16), Given ( John 20:22) , offices ( Genesis 1:2) , Effects ( Acts 13:52) , U tterances ( Zecheriah 4:6), Resisted ( Genesis 6:3) Blasphemy against ( Matthew 12:31-32), Simony ( Acts 8:18-20)
    4 doctrine of God – the divine attributes ( attributes of G od as BEING! attributes of God as PERSON)
    a. Attributes of God as BEING : unity of God ( Deuteronmy 4:35), self – existence ( Acts 17:24-25), Eternity ( Genesis 21:33) , omnipresence ( 1Kings 8:27), immutability ( Numbers 23:19),
    B attributes of God as PERSON : omniscience ( job 12:22) , knowledge of actions ( 1 Samuel 2:3) knowledge of thoughts ( Job 42:2) foreknowledge ( exodus 3:19) wisdom ( job 9:4) omnipotence ( psalm 115:3) irresistible ( number 23:20) , compared with other Gods ( exodus 15:11), compared with man ( job 32:13) , incomparable ( Deuteronomy 33:26), general ascriptions of greatness to God ( Deuteronomy 32:3) general acsriptions of power to God ( job 9:19), holiness of God ( Leviticus 9:45) , justice ( Deuteronomy 32:4) , Impartiality ( Deuteronomy 10:17) ,veracity ( Deuteronomy 7:9) God is love ( 1John 4:8,16) God’s goodness ( Matk 10:18) mercy and compassion ( Deuteronomy 4:31) God unrevengeful and placebos ( psalm 103:8-9) long-suffering ( exodus 34:6-7)
    5 doctrine of God- CHRIST as God ( CHRIST’S DIVINITY)
    a. He is called God ( Matthew 1:22-23) Is called the son of God ( Mark 1:1) Is made equal with God (John 3:35) Is called Lord ( Matthew 12:8) Petforms the works of God : in creating ( John 1:3), in preserving all things ( collosisns 1:17), in forgiving sons ( Mark 3:5) , in bestowing spiritual blessing ( Matk 10:35) , in raising the dead ( John 5:21)in judging the world ( Matthew 7:22) ,
    b. Christs posesses the attributes of God: is eternal ( John 1:2) ,is omnipresent (Matthew 18:20), is omniscient ( Matthew 9:4) is omnipotent ( Matthew 18:18) ,is unchangeable ( Hebrew 1:11-12) is sinless (John 7:18) is an object of worship ( Matthew 2:2) , is superior to man and angels ( Matthew 12:41-42)
    The TRINITY
    a. Foreshadowed ( genesis 1:26,3:22,11:7),
    b. hinted at ( Ephesians 2:18)
    c. Implied ( baptismal formulae in Matthew 28:19),( 2 chronicle 13:14) ( 1peter 1:2) (1 John 5:7-8)
    The new testament : influence of the Greek mind on Christianity becomes theology
    The teaching of Jesus according to the synoptic gospels
    a. The fatherhood of God – catechism # 199-421
    b the teaching of Jesus according to the fourth Gopel ( John )
    1. The idea of God
    2. The Holy Spirit
    C. Theology of Paul
    1. The Holy Spirit catechism # 683-741
    CHRIST as God catechism # 436-440
    Systematic theology – s rupture supplies the knowledge and logical or philosophical is made the mould into which the knowledgecis run , so that it comes out bearing the form of this mould. Saint Thomas Aquinas summa theology on the doctrine of God : the one God question # 2-26, the blessed Trinity question # 27-43
    doctrinal documents of the church Triune God
    1 the first Vatican general council ( dogmatic constitution DeibFilius on the catholic faith 1870
    2 John Paul II ,letter to commerotare the councils of Constantinople I and of Ephesus. 1981 , encyclical letter Dominum et Vivificantem 1986 translates ( Holy Spirit)
    Tradition : Doctor of the church : Saint Hilary of Poitiers : on the Trinity ( 12 books)
    Lastly , study the Doctrine of God (biblical theology foundation) be firm in this distinctive study than the mind will be able to grasp the systematic theology.
    Remember theology it is a science concerned with things in themselves , and it’s task is to define and interrelate basic concepts with one another systematically !!!
    God bless, peace to all

    2 John Paul II , letter to commemorate the councils of Constantinople

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