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: