Omnipotence, infinite power: the ability to bring about events of any sort at any time, even if they violate the ►laws of nature or defy all logical explanation (see ►miracles).

Though the gods of so-called nature religions and those of antiquity are considered to be powerful, the power attributed to them generally falls short of omnipotence. It is only with the rise of the monotheistic world religions Judaism, ►Christianity, and ►Islam that God comes to be characterized as omnipotent. According to the moral philosopher Hans Jonas, the notion of omnipotence is self-contradictory since power can arise only where it encounters resistance. By definition, however, omnipotence does not admit of resistance and thus does not even qualify as power in the first place. Somewhat more concrete is the classic problem known as the paradox of omnipotence, raised by the question of whether an omnipotent being could create a rock that it could not lift. Since an omnipotent being would have unlimited causal powers, it seems to follow from its being omnipotent that it could create such a rock. But if that is so, there is something it cannot do -- lift the rock once it has created it -- and thus it is not omnipotent. Thus, it follows from a being's being omnipotent that it is not omnipotent -- which seems to show that there is some deep incoherence in the notion of omnipotence itself.

Another classic problem concerning omnipotence is the question whether an omnipotent being would be able to violate logical laws as well as causal ones. Could God do the logically impossible -- create a round square, for example, or make two contradictory propositions simultaneously true, or add two and two correctly to get five? Some theists will balk at the idea that God is bound by any laws, even logical ones. Others, however, argue that being confined by logical laws is no real limit on one's powers; since there is no such thing as the act of producing a round square, for God to be unable to do such a thing does not mean there are any acts He is incapable of performing. This may seem an arcane question; its importance will emerge below.

Is God Good?

Yet another puzzle arises from the conjunction of omnipotence with another trait ascribed to God by the major theistic religions, that of perfect goodness. Is God capable of doing something morally evil? Confronted with this question, many theists are likely to feel torn in two directions. On the one hand, God would have to see something in favor of doing the evil thing in order to be motivated to do it, but His seeing anything in favor of doing evil seems incompatible with His nature. (Does God, too, have a little devil whispering in one ear?) On the other hand, to say that God is incapable of doing evil seems to be to admit a pretty severe restriction on His powers; it means that He is unable to do some things that even we not only are able to do, but often find all too easy.

Typically, however, believers in an omnipotent ►God think of that God's omnipotence primarily in terms of a capacity to direct human fate at will. This weaker conception of omnipotence (if it is a conception of omnipotence at all) avoids at least some of the conundrums just mentioned. Nonetheless, there is yet another classic problem of God's omnipotence, namely, the problem of evil: How can God's omnipotence, together with His goodness, be reconciled with the presence of evil in the world? (Historically, this has been divided into two distinct problems: How can God's omnipotence be reconciled with the presence of morally evil acts and people; and how can it be reconciled with the presence of "natural evils" such as suffering -- at least that of innocent people, or of innocent beings more generally? This article will focus on the second of these problems.) If God were indeed omnipotent then he could remove such suffering or could have prevented it in the first place -- for example, by creating human beings with more resistant physical bodies (ones not susceptible to illness, injury, or decay) or by creating an overall better world (free of volcanos, earthquakes, droughts, and the like). Theodicy (from Greek theos "god" and diké "justice") is the field of theology that deals with this problem and attempts to find a positive solution.

The church father Lactantius articulated the problem of evil as follows:

Either God wants to eliminate evil but is unable to do so:
then God is powerless;
or He is able but does not want to:
then God is wicked;
or He neither wants nor is able to:
then He is powerless and wicked at the same time;
or He wants and is able to, as alone befits God:
But then whence are the evils?*

Given that the Christian God sometimes not only fails to abolish evil but even, at least if the Bible is to be read as a historical document, actively endorses it -- commanding, for example, genocide** -- the hypothesis of God as wicked has a certain appeal. (As Mark Twain put it, "If there is a God, he is a malign thug.") There are, however, quite distinct and opposing views even within one and the same religious tradition about why an infinitely good God might permit suffering:

  • Retribution: Suffering is God's form of punishment for sins committed either by the suffering person, by a member of that person's tribe or, finally, by one of that person's ancestors (extending all the way back to the Fall).
  • Hostility: Suffering is imposed because God is allied with enemies of the sufferer or of the sufferer's tribe (Bible: tribal wars of the Israelites).
  • Test of faith: Suffering is imposed on a person in order to test his or her reaction to it (Bible: Abraham, Job).
  • Compensation: Suffering occurs randomly, and anyway, it is compensated for in the hereafter and thus is not important.
  • Privation of the good: Suffering is nothing but a lack of perfection; since a perfect world is impossible, God could not create our world without suffering.
  • Experience: God lets human beings suffer because this experience is essential for the existence and exercise of free will.
  • Paradox: God's reasons are inscrutable; thus, the suffering imposed on humankind shall forever remain a paradox that cannot be dissolved.
None of these answers is entirely unproblematic. For example, the "test of faith" answer seems to presuppose that God would not know the person's reaction without the test, which seems incompatible with God's being omniscient. The "hostility" answer seems incompatible with the apparent universality of suffering. None of the answers seems even to address the problem of the suffering of animals. And so on.

Augustine thought that there is in fact no evil in the world; rather, what strikes us as evil is but a privation of goodness (privatio boni), so that apparent evils are not products of God's negligence, incapacity, or malice, but merely of our own perceptions, proceeding from our erroneous expectations and sense of entitlement. Similarly, Leibniz considered ours to be the best of all possible worlds, and thus the world containing the least evil possible. According to Hegel evil is a necessary transitory state in the dialectical progress of history. Hans Küng recommends unconditional trust in God, who allows evil to happen because it is essential for a specifically human life.

Suffering for Freedom

Perhaps the commonest response to the problem of evil is the widespread view that presence of suffering is either a result or a precondition of the (God-given) human capacity to choose between good and evil. Seen as a result of human freedom, even seemingly pointless suffering through illness or natural disasters accordingly possesses some higher significance such as punishment for our original sin, Adam's prohibited desire for knowledge. To be sure, this contradicts our human sense of justice, according to which it would be wicked to have a person suffer for someone else's sins. God's sense of justice, however, must be different anyway, since according to most theologians, God's ways are inscrutable. If, however, suffering is taken to be a necessary condition for human freedom, this seems to require that even God could not create a world in which there were free beings and no suffering -- which seems tantamount to conceding that God is not omnipotent. Here the question mentioned above of whether omnipotence entails the ability to do what is logically impossible may assume considerable importance; the theist may argue that the existence of a world in which there is freedom but no evil is logically impossible, and that even an omnipotent being cannot do what is logically impossible.

For Kant, the problem of evil is not so much a challenge to be met as an error to be diagnosed. He argues that only a being capable of experiential acquaintance with the relations between the world given in experience (which is the source of our awareness of the existence of evils of various kinds) and its underlying "supersensible" ground (God) could even pose the question presented by the religious skeptic who presses the problem of evil. However, we humans are not such beings. It is not a question that needs to be answered because it is not a question that can really be asked (not by us, at any rate; God could ask it, but God, of course, would know the answer). Finally, the theologian Karl Barth dispensed with a solution to the problem of evil altogether. According to him, the sufferings of the world constitute the impossible possibility, a dialectical paradox of evil.***

* L. Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius, Institutiones Divinae, c. 310

** Thus, Moses became infuriated with his generals because during their raid of the Midianites, on the order of God, they had initially slaughtered only the men, sparing the women and children (Numbers 31).

*** Of course, a similar paradox exists not only with respect to God but with respect to all beneficiaries of Western economic standards. For as such they do have the power to eliminate evil to the greatest degree possible for them by transferring most of their income to relief organizations and being content with a margin of subsistence. That almost no one even comes close to exerting his or her available power in this way is in some sense paradoxical. To be sure, human cooperativeness and benevolence are finite, while God is said to possess these qualities to an infinite degree. If nonetheless you'd like to assist God in his battle against evil then the following institutions could use your support:

■ Amnesty International - Combating all kinds of human rights violations
■ Oxfam - Relief in cases of economic hardship, poverty, and social injustice
■ Red Cross / Red Crescent - Assistance during armed conflicts and natural disasters

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