Who Let That Happen?

Are you one of those people who always has to know who is to blame for everything that goes wrong? Or maybe you know someone like that. Some folks just can’t rest until they who wo is responsible. But lots of things–virtually all of them, in fact–are just too complicated to be reduced sufficiently to be placed on one person’, or even one groups’ shoulders. Ultimately, God ends up getting more than His share of the blame for just about every lousy thing that happens in the world, especially when we can’t pin that blame on entirely on someone else.

This is the second post offered in response to Tripp Fuller’s contention that “Jesus Wants You to Take Back the Compliment”–the compliment being omnipotence, not just as applied to Christ himself, but to God in any way, shape, or person. Today we’ll look at the first of four reasons given as evidence supporting the idea that divine omnipotence is really a bad idea.

1. An omnipotent deity is responsible for the evil in the world. When God can do whatever God wants to do, whenever God wants to do it, everything that happens is either the direct will of God or permitted by God. Of course Calvin, in his obsession with making God uber-powerful, rejects the idea of God’s permissive will and keeps God as the prime actor in all actions. That means God has willed genocide, murder, rape, cancer, abuse, and the torture of children. When God is omnipotent, one can read history as the will of God, and history is way too full of evil, suffering, and violence to imagine it as revelatory of God’s will. If God ever willed the violent death of an innocent child, then that God is not Jesus’ Abba or worthy of a Christian’s worship.

First of all, I agree with Fuller in rejecting meticulous providence–the view that everything that happens in this world is directly willed by God to happen just as it actually does happen. Among other problems, it would be very difficult to appeal to this sort of deity as the source of the moral order if he himself acted in these awful or ordained that we do so. I realize that some of my Calvinist friends would respond by saying that in spite of the incidences of horrendous evil, this is still the best of all possible worlds, and that any other world God could have created would have had even more of those sorts of events. But that argument ends up cutting off the very omnipotence that is at issue–what is it that would have prevented a better world, since we ourselves can imagine one in which less evil occurs?

But is that the real problem here? I don’t think so. The problem, as indicated in the previous post, stems from what is offered as a working definition of omnipotence–the ability on the part of God to do whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it. Perhaps in one way this is true, but it is also grossly distorted. The distortion stems from a theological error which may at first seem like something for academics to argue about in their sequestered lounges; but it is critical to the way any of us understand both God’s ways of working in this world and our expectations of God in “doing something” about the many instances of evil and suffering we encounter. The concept? Divine simplicity.

What this doctrine says is that the divine nature is not a composite, but a unity, a simple whole. Within this whole are what we describe as power, will, intention, and, as Christians have learned from biblical revelation, holiness, love, justice, and other attributes. But these attributes, or characteristics of God do not “compete” with one another or vie for supremacy in a given decision or decree. When viewed from different human perspectives, God is manifested in terms we recognize as one or another character trait; but we should not think of this as isolated from any other attribute. What this tells us is that while it may be true that God can do whatever he wants to do, it is also true that what he wants to do is also going to be in concert with his nature. And, as Fuller does want us to understand, that nature is also manifested to us as one of love.

The nature of divine action is not going to be fully comprehended by our best minds or by our minds at their best. But to deny God’s omnipotence on the basis of a fear of capriciousness is not an answer Christians or seekers of Christ should entertain seriously. This theme will be returned to as we consider the additional three arguments in upcoming posts.