What if God Isn’t All-powerful or All-knowing?
What if God isn’t all-powerful or all-knowing? At the risk of committing a blasphemous offense, I asked myself this question as a philosophical exercise recently. The results surprised me.
The God I was taught to believe in as a child had everything under control at all times. Yet life so very often feels like chaos. As I grew older, it became harder to believe rape, starvation and war refugees were part of God’s “merciful” plan.
I think many who are religious run into this problem at some point, particularly when facing a major life crisis. Those who experience the unexpected and untimely death of a loved one may not be able to reconcile the reality of losing someone at the arbitrary whim of a God who is described as being love itself. We all know death is a reality. It’s our job to face and accept it, not to question it. But couldn’t God do something about it? Why is the world made this way?
When my best friend died during my teenage years, all the talk in church about the afterlife suddenly became very real to me. I found that what was easy to believe before it happened to me didn’t quite translate into a grief cure. “He’s in a better place” meant nothing, because although I very much wanted to believe his soul was okay, my soul wasn’t okay at all without him. All the happy theology about heavenly peace couldn’t reach me in my deepest grief. I will never be the same person I was before losing him. That loss will always remain with me.
I know someone who lost a sibling in a car accident and completely wrote off God as a result. “If God really loved me, I wouldn’t have lost my brother.” Those who have dealt with such losses and retained their faith in God may nod quietly and empathetically, but inside think to themselves, “God is loving and there is a reason this happened. I just don’t know what it is.” That’s how I justified things in my own mind, too, and it’s what kept me from cutting God off altogether in the midst of my pain. I’m glad I was able to hold onto God through that period of darkness. In many ways I think I became a stronger believer because of that test of faith. I’ve been mad at God more times than I can count, but I’ve also felt supported and guided throughout my life. For many, a belief in God is the only thing that makes sense. Others aren’t able to resolve the paradoxes so easily, so they adjust their beliefs or cease to believe altogether.
Many individuals who are much smarter than I am have been trying to answer questions about the nature of God since the dawn of time, or at least since the dawn of religion, which might be saying the same thing. I won’t attempt to take on such a monumental task in this article, but I will say it’s best to truly understand for oneself what God is really like rather than accepting a story that’s been handed to you by another person or tradition. My view of God when I was younger was very fixed. As I’ve matured, I’ve decided God is a lot more mysterious than even the believers in God’s mysteriousness have conveyed.
Back to the original question about God perhaps not being the all-knowing, all-powerful deity I once believed in, there were two different implications that occurred to me. One is that it can lead a person to feel very lonely and vulnerable. An all-powerful God can protect. An all-knowing God can foresee and prevent. At the same time, how do we cope when it appears there is no protecting, foreseeing or preventing happening? How can we accept a God who can do anything and chooses, at times, to take from us what we feel we most need to emotionally survive? There is a potential lesson in every loss, but sometimes the lesson translates to “God can’t be trusted.”
Here is a radical re-conception of God that perhaps has the potential to resolve some of the confusion. What if God isn’t omnipotent or omniscient, but just omnipresent and all-loving? What if what Christians call the Holy Spirit is the real essence of God and the great bearded man in the sky is a misconception? What if God is more like a best friend than a judge on a bench? That would mean God is there to comfort, support and guide but not to condemn, cures, sentence or revoke. That would mean that the far off earthquake you just heard about in the news wasn’t caused by God to call the people to repentance or to test them, but that God-as-Holy-Spirit was the first on the scene to comfort and reassure the survivors while they grieved and began to rebuild their shattered lives. I realize this re-conception turns God into a combination of Lassie and a child’s security blanket, and I’m not by any means saying this is the fixed and certain truth about God. But I am saying perhaps we are too quick to assume God either makes or lets bad things happen. Perhaps kindness is the only divine attribute there is.
Religious traditions in general seek to understand and explain God. There are some similarities and many differences among these explanations. Perhaps the varied theologies are more about culture and human viewpoint than God. If you find yourself in a quandary of belief, walking away from your religious tradition or a belief in God isn’t the only option. A little re-framing may be all that’s needed to keep receiving what you need from the mother tree of faith. Perhaps it isn’t God that needs to change, but your view of God.