Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Achilles:
I just read in one of your articles that before Jesus – God had sent many priests and prophets in an ATTEMPT to… And right there is where you lost me – a perfect and infallible being doesn’t ATTEMPT to do anything – if God is timeless and all knowing – why ATTEMPT to do something he knows will fail? Why would God wait to come down as Christ and not do that from the outset? It’s as if God woke up one day and said – you know – this isn’t working – I better go down there myself – if you want something done right – do it yourself – which is ludicrous… An attempt intrinsically implies a failure – how does an omnipotent being fail – the answer? It doesn’t – ergo – literal Christianity is hogwash
Thanks for the great questions, Achilles!
The reference is to the article, “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?” In the section titled “The Long and Winding Fall,” I wrote:
God had sent many priests and prophets in an attempt to turn us around. Each time, it helped temporarily. But more and more, we just ignored God’s messengers.
When human history hit its all-time low, God saw that there was only one way to reverse the spiritual decline and save the human race from spiritual destruction and death. God had to come to earth in person, conquer the forces of evil that were engulfing the world, bring the spiritual world back into order, and reopen the channels for love and truth to reach people on earth.
This is precisely what Jesus was doing during his thirty-three years on earth.
First, about the idea that “literal Christianity is hogwash,” I wouldn’t put it quite that way. However, I agree that attempting to take everything in the Bible literally leads to many problems and contradictions. For more on this, see my article, “From Literal Slavery to Spiritual Freedom.”
And about the idea that God doesn’t attempt to do things, I see your point. It’s true that the reality of God’s action is much greater than that word implies. However, for our limited, human minds to see and grasp anything at all of the infinite, unlimited reality of God, it’s necessary to put things in limited, human words. Otherwise it would go far beyond our comprehension.
The reality is that God is engaged in a continual effort to achieve many prioritized goals—and yet will not violate God’s own goals, God’s own laws, and God’s own nature in order to achieve those goals.
If you’re scratching your head about that one, read on. If you want real answers, it will become clearer as we go along.
So let’s take up the two questions embedded in the conundrum:
- Can God—who is timeless, all-knowing, and omnipotent—fail to accomplish something that God sets out to do? (We’ll cover that question in this post.)
- Why did God wait so many thousands of years to come down to earth as Jesus Christ instead of doing so right from the start? (We’ll cover that question in the next post.)
Can God really fail?
Logically, the idea that God could fail sounds . . . just plain illogical. Doesn’t the very definition of an omnipotent, omniscient being preclude the possibility of failure?
To put it in plain terms, if God is all-powerful, doesn’t this mean God has the power to do anything at all without failing? And if God knows everything, how could God not see that something isn’t going to work?
These are very good questions.
They are also much more complicated questions than it may seem at first. Real answers require some deep thinking. If you’re not willing to engage your brain and expand your mind, but would prefer simple, easy (and probably wrong) answers, I suggest you stop reading right now.
However, if you want real answers, and are willing to put out some mental effort to get them, please read on.
Now let’s take up a few points that will help to clarify the situation:
- God is a complex, multi-layered being.
- The universe is also a complex, multi-layered reality.
- God’s goals involve human free will.
- God prioritizes actions toward eternal results.
1. God is a complex, multi-layered being
Sunday School wisdom says that God is a loving, wise, and powerful father figure who cares for us all. Jesus Christ is presented as “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild”:
For those of simple heart, mind, and faith, there is nothing wrong with this view of God. It is very satisfying, and there is great truth and wisdom in it.
However, for those whose minds run along more complex lines, this simple view of God is not enough.
- What about all the complexities of the universe and our life in it?
- What about all the things God does that aren’t gentle, meek, and mild?
- What about all the violence, pain, and suffering in the world?
- What about all the confusion and conflicting doctrines and opinions about God?
- What about all the philosophical conundrums that pop up as soon as we start examining the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient God who created this universe that is so full of both order and chaos?
We can’t answer all of these questions right now. (But for answers to some of them, see “How can we have Faith when So Many Bad Things happen to So Many Good People?”)
What we can do is say a little more about what God is really like.
I say a little more because we humans will never fully understand the infinite nature of God. God is both simple enough for a small child to understand, and so complex that the greatest philosophers and theologians and the highest IQs we humans have to offer will never do more than scratch the surface of the infinite depths and complexities of the nature of God.
So . . . let’s do just a little bit of surface-scratching with our poor, limited little human brains.
First, God has three general layers:
- Divine love
- Divine wisdom
- Divine action
Divine love is the substance and energy of God. Divine wisdom is the form and structure of God. Divine action is everything God says and does from divine love through divine wisdom.
Second, in everything God does there is a perfect balance of divine love and divine wisdom.
This may sound like a simple statement. But it leads to incredibly complex results. For example, consider this:
- The tendency of love is to bind everything together into one.
- The tendency of wisdom is to distinguish all things from one another.
This means that the very nature of God involves a polarity in which love brings everything together as one at the same time as wisdom is keeping every single thing utterly distinct from every other thing. And all of God’s actions involve both this ultimate oneness and this ultimate distinctness in all things.
If this has any meaning to you at all, your mind should be boggling right about now. If it’s not, it may be because the true nature of God is really beyond the capacity of our finite human minds to grasp.
2. The universe is also a complex, multi-layered reality
So instead, think for a moment of the universe as a reflection of the infinite oneness and complexity of God.
- We think of the entire vast universe as one system, originating in a single Big Bang almost fourteen billion years ago, bound together and organized by the same laws of gravity, electromagnetic forces, and so on.
- Yet the universe consists of hundreds of billions of galaxies, each consisting of hundreds of billions of stars—not to mention countless other objects and structures in the universe.
Our physical universe has many complexities and many layers. There are orders of magnitude from subatomic particles to atoms to molecules to compounds to objects to planets to solar systems to galaxies to galactic clusters to the large scale structures of the universe to the whole vast universe itself.
This universe, which we view as one vast system, consists of billions times trillions times quadrillions of individual parts, each of which has its own unique existence and function in the whole system.
There are also states of matter from solid to liquid to gaseous, with other states such as plasma thrown in for good measure. There are mechanical forces, electromagnetic forces, and gravitational forces, not to mention other strange forces that physicists love to write papers about.
Now consider that on our one planet, there are over seven billion human beings, whose bodies each consist of about 100 trillion cells. That’s just the humans.
There are also all the amazingly intricate complexities of the ecosystem on this planet, with its various life forms from bacteria all the way to elephants and whales. We don’t know how many species of plants and animals there are on our earth, but estimates range anywhere from a few million to over 100 million. Every one of those species is unique, and each one consists of anywhere from thousands to many billions of unique individuals within it.
And yet, we think of our earth as one planet that has one vast ecosphere. And we now know that our planet is only one of perhaps 1024 (or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) planets in the universe. How many of those planets have life on them? We just don’t know.
If God is the creator of this multi-layered universe that is both one and almost infinitely complex, wouldn’t this be even more true of God?
Think of God as having infinite layers and infinite complexity within the one being of God.
Of course, you can’t really do that. Neither can I, or anyone else, because our minds are finite. But this at least gives you some sense that God is not just a simple, Sunday School being for children. God has more layers and complexities than even the smartest and best educated of us can ever grasp or comprehend.
So when we think about whether God can fail, we must at least recognize something of the complexity of who God is and what God is doing.
3. God’s goals involve human free will
Perhaps the most complex thing God is doing is running a universe in which there are other beings (besides God) who are self-aware and have free will.
Of course, I’m talking about us. About human beings.
If God’s goals involved only creating a complex and beautiful universe, that would be relatively easy. God’s been there, done that, and gotten the T-shirt. We really couldn’t ask for a more complex, intricate, and beautiful universe than the one we have. No failure there!
But consider what happens when you spice up that universe with other beings who have a mind of their own, and a will of their own. Now God is not the only one making decisions, and God is not the only one with an agenda.
There are at least seven billion other beings in the universe who have their own ideas about how they want things to be. That’s counting only the human beings on our planet. Who knows how many more intelligent, self-aware beings there are elsewhere in the universe?
If you’re God, how do you juggle that?
How is it even possible for God to be omnipotent and omniscient, and yet coexist with billions of other beings who are able, and often willing, to do things that God doesn’t want them to do? Doesn’t the very existence of beings whose will may be contrary to God’s will put limits on God’s power?
Now can you begin to understand why the question of whether God can fail is so complex and thorny?
This isn’t the place to delve into the question of divine omnipotence and omniscience vs. human free will. Suffice it to say for our purposes now that because God’s goals involve creating beings that have free will, God has to make choices about what God will and won’t do with all that omnipotence and omniscience.
You see, just because God can do everything, that doesn’t necessarily mean God wants to do everything. Presumably there are many things God doesn’t want to do—such as wipe out the entire universe tomorrow—even though God theoretically could do them.
Just so as not to leave you completely hanging on some of the other big questions I’ve raised along the way, here are a few articles that might help:
- How did God Create the Universe? Was the World Really Created in Six Days?
- Containers for God
- How does God Govern Humankind? Is God Actively Involved in our Lives?
Meanwhile, let’s move on to our final point (for now).
4. God prioritizes actions toward eternal results
As discussed in the second and third articles linked just above, according to Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), God’s purpose in creating and governing the universe is to form a heaven from the human race. In other words, God’s goal is to create an eternal human community of people who freely choose to love God above all, and their fellow human being as themselves (see Luke 10:27).
The trick is the “freely chosen” part.
For God to achieve the goal of a loving and wise human community, there must be human beings. And part of being human is having the rationality and free will required to make our own choices about who and what we want to be.
This means we must be capable of choosing not to do what God has in mind for us.
Yep, that would be a bad idea. God is smarter than we are, and more loving than we are. Doing it God’s way is a better idea for everyone involved.
But if we don’t want to, we don’t have to. That’s part of the gift of humanity that God has given us.
Still, God’s goal is to bring us all to heaven, which is our true home. (See “Who Are the Angels and How Do They Live?”)
Another way of saying this is that God’s primary goal is to give us eternal happiness.
God also has secondary goals, such as giving us happiness here on earth.
However, in order to understand God’s actions at all, we must understand that God prioritizes higher, eternal goals over lower, temporary goals. So, for example, if God has to sacrifice giving us a certain amount of (temporary) happiness here on earth in order to give us eternal happiness, God will sacrifice the lesser goal for the greater one.
The general idea is that God doesn’t just indiscriminately do everything in scattershot fashion. Instead, God takes specific, directed actions in order to accomplish specific, eternal results.
God also protects things that are essential to achieve God’s highest, eternal goals. The prime example of this is our freedom of choice in spiritual matters. As I said earlier, if we were not free, we would not be human. And if we were not human, God could not form a heaven from us.
Because we wouldn’t be capable of experiencing it.
Being in heaven involves being in mutual, freely chosen relationships of love and service with our fellow human beings and with God. It’s like a marriage. If two people don’t choose to be with one another and want to be with one another, how real and how good is the relationship? If you’ve ever been stuck in a marriage or other relationship that you don’t want to be in, then you know what I’m talking about.
That’s why God will never violate our freedom of choice in spiritual matters.
If there’s a failure, whose failure is it?
Now we’ve laid enough groundwork to give a reasonable answer to the original question of whether God can fail.
If we think simplistically, it seems obvious that God cannot fail. And any time it looks like things aren’t going God’s way—such as when the world is full of war, crime, poverty, and suffering—we’d naturally think that God is failing. And since that contradicts God’s omnipotence and omniscience, the obvious conclusion would be that there is no God, and that religion and spirituality is just a bunch of hooey.
But that would be a simplistic and superficial way of looking at it. It wouldn’t take into account the infinite layers and infinite complexity of who God is, and of what God is doing in the universe and in human society.
God is continually engaged in an effort to accomplish eternal goals. This involves an infinite number of actions taken on every level of the multi-layered spiritual and natural universe, on every scale from the smallest to the largest, and in every time and every place.
These actions are very effective in accomplishing God’s purpose. There is, indeed, an unimaginably large heaven of angels from our planet and from every other planet in the universe that is capable of supporting an ecosystem complex enough for long enough to develop advanced, intelligent life.
But there’s a fly in God’s ointment.
That fly is that just as rationality and free will are necessary for humans and angels to exist, so they also open up the possibility that we humans may choose to defy God’s will and reject God’s offer of heaven and eternal happiness.
And unfortunately, many of us have chosen to do just that. That’s why there is also an eternal hell—not because God sends us there, or even wants us to be there, but because we insist on being there through our own freely made choices to focus on evil and self-centeredness instead of on God and goodness.
Is that a failure on God’s part?
No. God did everything possible and necessary for us to choose good, and to choose heaven.
Can we really blame God if it is we ourselves who use our God-given freedom and rationality to stubbornly insist that we will not do it God’s way?
If there is a failure, it is not God who failed. It is we humans who failed.
And yet . . . any time we humans here on earth are ready to change our minds, God is ready, willing, and waiting to power us through to something better.
That will be the subject of the next article, in which we’ll take up the second question involved in Achilles’s spiritual conundrum: Why did God Wait So Long to Come Down as Christ?
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
For further reading: