Growing up, I was taught that God had three overarching qualities. He was omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. And for centuries theologians have been defending the belief that the Christian God possesses each of those qualities. After all, God is . . . well, almighty God. But I would here argue that history and the general advancement of knowledge, as well as, frankly, the descriptions of God contained in scripture, belie his possession of those three qualities.
In the past I have argued that God could not possess all three of these qualities. This argument is based largely on the problem of theodicy—the existence of pain and suffering in the world that God supposedly created. As a matter of logic one of these supposed theistic qualities must not be true.
In this essay I am taking this two steps further. I am arguing that, based on what we know about the world, the Christian God would have none of those qualities. He would be neither all-powerful nor all-knowing nor all-loving.
Having said that, my goal here is not to establish the truth of the points that I make. I am not arguing that there is, in fact, a god but that he is more limited than Christians generally give him credit for. Instead, my purpose is to ask readers of faith to venture outside of their comfort zones and to consider a point of view based on rational analysis. Specifically, I am asking the question: If the generally accepted fundamental qualities of the Christian God are not rationally defensible, what is the alternative? Perhaps it is the nonexistence of the traditional theistic god.
Omnipotence. Christians like to point to the creation story as proof that God is all-powerful. But a careful look at the universe reveals it to be something of a chaotic mess. If the reason for creation was as a setting for the human experiment, what was the point of all those other galaxies, complete with supernovas, black holes, pulsars, and other astronomical flotsam and jetsam? And why did it take some 13.8 billion years before humans emerged on the scene? And what about humankind? Were we, given all our limitations, the best that God could do? Then there are, up and down the ladder of life, the design flaws, the useless vestigial characteristics, the fact that over 99 percent of all species are now extinct.
Those of faith also point to God’s ability to perform miracles, curing selected individuals of deadly diseases and saving others from tornadoes or other natural disasters. But that ignores the question of why God didn’t plan things better in the first place so that there would be no need for his intervention. Why did God structure the laws of nature in such a way that deadly diseases and natural disasters were an inevitable outcome of the operation of those laws? Moreover, for every supposed miracle cure there are dozens of instances where God apparently didn’t intervene.
Omniscience. When I first began reading natural philosophy, I ran across the idea of an all-knowing demon conjured up by Pierre-Simon Laplace, a 19th century French natural philosopher. This was the idea that if some agent understood all the laws of physics and also knew the position and velocity of every particle, she could theoretically calculate everything that was going to happen in I as the future. I assumed that that was how God could know everything. But Laplace’s demon was a product of 19th century scientific thinking, at a time when it was believed that the laws of physics were strictly deterministic. Now our best thinking is that the laws of nature are fundamentally indeterminate at the quantum level, that there is an intrinsic randomness and uncertainty to nature. Not only is it practically impossible to know the location, velocity, and therefore future of every particle, it is theoretically impossible.
Personally, I like the notion of an indeterminate future. It adds some complexity and excitement to a world that might otherwise be viewed as inexorably evolving into some future state. But if the world is fundamentally indeterminate, then wouldn't God’s ability to know the future be similarly limited? Of course, there is the argument that God’s knowledge is not limited in the same way ours is. After all, he is God. However, there is a question of logic here. Our best understanding is that the future is fundamentally indeterminate. I’m just not sure how God would get around that.
Omnibenevolence. In some ways this is the easiest of the qualities to refute. One only need look to scripture. Let me just mention one example from the account of the Israelites’ exodus story, one that I have referenced before. It is the account of how Pharaoh was willing to let the Israelites go after the ninth plague but God stepped in and insisted on hardening Pharaoh’s heart for the very purpose of giving God the opportunity to demonstrate his superior power by murdering all of the first-borns of Egypt. Is that not the definition of compassionless cruelty?
Then there is the problem of miracles, that is to say selective miracles. If God actually performs miracles to prevent or to end suffering, isn’t that a recognition that suffering should not occur? If so, why doesn’t God stop suffering in all situations?
Mike was a college friend with whom I had frequent arguments regarding the nature of God. I would point out what I thought were God’s limitations, as well as his irrational and unpleasant qualities. Mike’s response was that he agreed with most of my criticisms of God. But, he said, it’s God’s world and he’s entitled to call all the shots.
© 2017 John M. Phillips